Small sample sizes are only small until they are not. Major League Baseball, for instance, puts a cap on that eventually at 162 games for a single season, a number that compared to the long careers enjoyed by many of the game’s greats could very much still be considered ‘small.’
Brady Anderson’s 1996 season was a pretty small sample of his 15 year career, but boy, did it ever turn out to be a significant sample (however it was fueled). Scooter Gennett, meanwhile, had a pretty incredible short run of form that sure looked like it was an outlier until it stretched over almost two full seasons. So while the 31 games played by the Reds so far in 2023 only amounts to a bit less than a fifth of a full season, we may have seen enough from some folks to begin to wonder if it’s within the realm of the kind of production we can expect to see from them going forward, too.
Let’s take a look at Jonathan India first, the current Cincinnati Red with the most hardware (and performance) already on his resume that looks to be a part of the team’s future, too.
In his breakout 2021 Rookie of the year season, India’s batted ball profile looked thusly, per FanGraphs:
Soft - 15.7%
Medium - 50.3%
Hard - 34.1%
So far in 2023 with his healthy hamstrings back in play, his batted ball profile looks thusly, per FanGraphs:
Soft - 14.6%
Medium - 49.0%
Hard - 36.5%
The lone significant difference we’ve seen with India in those two years (while ignoring completely his injury-ravaged 2022) is the gulf in HR/FB% - it sat at a lofty 15.9% in 2021 when he socked 21 homers in 150 G, while it rests at a lowly 3.0% so far this season. Given that his liner/grounder/fly-ball profile this year sits just as in-line as it did in 2021 as his soft/medium/hard data, I’m beginning to draw a pair of conclusions from this portion of what we’ve seen from India.
First, I believe the go-go dinger-ball we saw used in 2021 is no longer in the rotation in the big leagues. This was the same year that Joey Votto turned back the clock and became a homer behemoth, and league-wide ISO has dropped from .173 in 2020 to .167 in 2021 and is down to .159 overall this year. HR/FB%, meanwhile, has also seen a drop - in 2020 it sat at an absurd 14.8% league-wide, that dipped to a still-high 13.6% in 2021, and it’s down to a 12.4% to date in 2023. While I do expect it to rise a bit as the weather warms and pitcher arms get a bit more tired, I do think the power India (and the rest of the league) displayed overall might be slightly out of reach for him this year if things don’t drastically change.
The second belief, though, is a good one - I think we’ll see some normalization from his pop for those same reasons the rest of this year, and he’ll again be a 20/20 threat at season’s end if he gets 150+ games under his belt.
Over at Statcast, there’s a similar story being told in the numbers. Their tracking shows a hard-hit rate that has spiked over 5% higher than in 2021, even, and that’s up a full 15% from his 2022 woes. It does show that his barrel rate is down to a career low, though he’s still posted a career-best average exit velocity and a sweet-spot rate that’s better than his 2021 one. If ever there was some ‘small sample noise’ to be seen in India’s numbers, it’s in the incongruency we see with these - though again, I think any ‘normalization’ with these overall trends will be in his favor, not against him.
His walk rate is back over 11% again, his strikeout rate is way, way down, and he continues to show he can be an on-base machine with dynamic speed atop the order. A 3-4 WAR player that was, that is, and will continue to be, even if the defensive numbers in a post-shift world fall back to earth (they’re better than previous years, though a) still just average and b) very hard to trust with so few chances just yet). In other words, I’m very much buying Jonathan India for the rest of the season given what we’ve seen so far, especially at the plate and with the rule changes that make swiping bags easier for runners.