Head Case? Thoughts on Junior Lake’s Sudden Drop-Off and Potential Rebound

Analyzing bias in one’s thinking is a difficult but necessary task. A core belief of mine when it comes to baseball analysis is that hitter performance is far more stable than pitcher performance. The general idea is that hitters are largely what they will be by the time they enter their mid-to-late twenties, and that huge leaps forward like Jose Bautista are the extreme rarity.

Compare that to pitchers, who can experience breakthroughs like Jake Arrieta or Ryan Dempster in their late twenties While not common, this type of marked improvement is certainly less infrequent than seeing the same leap in hitters. Those statements are accurate. Empirical and anecdotal evidence backs up that belief.

As a result of this belief, I tend to form opinions much quicker on position players than I do pitchers and the case of Junior Lake is a perfect example of this. His lack of plate discipline and less-than-great bat-to-ball contact skills seemed to doom him to a AAAA future in my mind.

The early success of 2013 was an aberration easily explained by an unsustainable .377 BABIP, and the results of 2014 confirmed what I had always believed about the incredibly toolsy Lake. Yet another failed attempt by the Hendry regime to take an extreme athlete and convert him into a baseball player.

Then I read this exchange on twitter between Cespedes Family BBQ and former Cubs legend John Baker on Sunday.

Prior to that aforementioned game, Junior Lake was putting up a line of .239/.269/.420. Those aren’t numbers you want in a starting lineup, but in this era you could certainly do worse on a major league roster. His BABIP was in line with his minor league career numbers of .321. After that game, however, Lake hit .134/.184/.159.

Two things jump out, the first of which is the complete loss of power as his ISO drops from .181 to .024 and his BABIP drops to .216. We also see that his LD% dropped from 16.1% to 12.8% and his IFFB% increased from 8.3% to 15.0%. Lingering effects from this collision could help explain the drop in hard contact that Lake experienced reflected in those numbers.

Now Lake has gone through an overhaul in his approach in winter ball and through spring training. He has drawn walks at a significantly higher rate than the 4.3% he managed last year, but the power still has not returned. I am left wondering if this change is somehow related to the drop in solid contact he experienced following the collision. It seems unlikely that Lake would be permanently affected, but substantial increases in patience are not a common occurrence, e.g. Javier Baez.

I do not have any answers about whether or not Junior Lake is a major leaguer; if he could be the player we saw in his first 493 big league plate appearances, he has value on a roster. The transformation of his approach might make him into something completely different. It will be interesting to watch him play daily in Iowa (I add Matt Szczur, who has also made significant changes and will see Iowa at some point, here as well).

All I know is that, while the odds remain long in my mind, I am more open now than I was even a week ago to the possibility that Lake could actually be something.


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