Will Izturis be a bust or a myth buster?

I posted this as a regular post a month ago.  Another VEB blogger suggested I make this a FanPost.  Here goes:

It seems that Cesar's talent and skills are being significantly underestimated by sportswriters and by great majority of VEB bloggers.  What seems to be overlooked in his case is the projections that should be made from looking at his developmental curve and at the effect of injuries and other disruptions on Izturis' performance.  To ignore patterns and trends in a player's performance history can lead to  gross mistakes in projections of future performance.  This seems to be the case with Izturis.

Let's examine the pattern of his career:


Because of his excellent defense, the Dodgers rushed Izturis to the NL too young, when he was only 21 years old, before he had developed as a hitter, and he was an awful hitter his first two full seasons, when he was 22 and 23 years old:

2002 AVG .232, OBP .253!!!
2003 AVG .251, OBP .282!!!

In his third full season, at age 24, Izturis moved up the learning curve enough to become a respectable hitter:

2004 AVG .288, OBP .330

That year he had 193 hits, including 4 HR, struck out only 70 times in 670 AB, and stole 25 bases in 34 attempts.  He also won a gold glove.  

The upward trend in his hitting continued in the beginning of his fourth full season, at age 25:

April 2005 AVG .333, OBP .370 in 102 AB
May   2005 AVG .350, OBP .402 in 117 AB

Izturis was voted to the All-Star team that season.

But in June 2005 he began having a series of physical ailments and as a result his hitting abruptly plummeted:

June  2005 AVG .105, OBP .154, in only 86 AB

His hitting continued to suffer and his playing time continued to diminish significantly the rest of that year.  After the All-Star break he had only 22 more AB than he had had in May alone:

2005 Post-ASB AVG .216, OBP .257, in 139 AB

Izturis was playing hurt.  At the end of that 2005 season Izturis had Tommy John surgery.  During the offseason, the Dodgers  signed Furcal to play SS. After Izturis returned to the diamond, on June 20, 2006, the Dodgers played him part-time at third base.  A month later, on July 31, 2006, Izturis was traded to the Cubs for Greg Maddux and $2 million cash.  

Only three weeks later, on August 22, 2006, the Cubs put Izturis on the DL with a bad hamstring.  He had only 60 AB that month and his hitting continued to suffer (.233 AVG, .292 OBP).  When he came off the DL in September he had only 13 AB.  

It seems that these severe disruptions of Izturis' regular play, through a combination of physical ailments and being shifted from SS to 3B, as well as being traded in the middle of the season and soon after going on the DL, seriously interfered with Izturis' timing or his confidence as a hitter, or both.

By the beginning of last year Izturis had lost his job as the regular SS for the Cubs.  He had only 50 AB in April and his hitting continued to suffer under those conditions:

.200 AVG, . 273 OBP

But in May, Izturis got more playing time, he seemed to get back on track again finally:

.297 AVG, .350 OBP in 74 AB

Izturis outhit Ryan Theriot that month.  But in the next month, the Cubs gave Theriot increasing playing time as the regular SS and the Cubs reduced playing time for Izturis, once again relegated to the role of utility player (56 AB in June) and his hitting plummeted again:

June 2007 AVG .232, OBP .259.

Finally, on July 19, 2007, the Cubs sent Izturis to the Pirates.  He had only 28 AB that month and 106 AB for the rest of the season.  

How will Izturis respond to being given regular AB's every day again and playing at his natural position full time at short?  How will he respond to the encouragement of his fellow Latin Americans who are the team leaders on the Cardinal infield, Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Jose Oquendo, and to playing before a full house of encouraging, gracious fans rooting for him every home game in St. Louis' "Baseball Heaven"?  Will these conditions allow him to regain his confidence and find his batting groove again, so he can play at the level he did in 2004 and the first third of 2005, before his physical ailments derailed his career?  Will Cesar get back on track on his development curve as a hitter, from his premature entry to the NL, into his third season when his hitting came together respectably?

It should be fascinating seeing that question answered when the season begins.  But let's not join the madding crowd's bleating about how awful Izturis will be until we've seen how he actually performs under the conditions he will face in St. Louis.

The most recent set of data we have for Izturis under normal conditions, that is, as a healthy player with a full time role at one position, is in 2004 and the first third of 2005.

Based on that set of data, Izturis has demonstrated that he can reasonably be expected to be a respectable hitter, at least, for a shortstop. The data cover 889 consecutive AB's over one and a third seasons in 2004 and 2005, before his physical problems began (elbow, hamstring, etc.). Izturis' AB's in this period amount to 33% of his career total of 2751 AB's, a very good sample size. In that large sample of AB's, Izturis has an AVG of .301 and an OBP of .344.  It is highly improbable that performing at that level over that long a period was a fluke.  And given that Izturis is still only 28 years old, it is reasonable to expect that he will still be near the top of his career curve.

Taking into account the performance curve and injury history for Izturis, it would seem to be a good bet that Izturis will be a solid contributor this year.

Yet otherwise knowledgeable baseball aficionados seem to discount the pattern of Izturis' career and what it indicates about his actual level of talent and skill.  In fact, most sportswriters and VEB bloggers seem to make a habit of discounting the projective power of statistical trends and patterns.  Few sportswriters or fans raised strong concerns about the pattern in Mark Mulder's performance in his last year with Oakland, before the Cardinals acquired him.  Likewise, few expressed strong concern about the trends for Tino Martinez before his acquisition.  But quite a few criticized the Cardinals for taking Chris Carpenter out of the "trash bin" while he was still recovering from serious arm problems, after a career that was only league average.  The future performance of these players and others is best predicted by combining an assessment of their statistical patterns and trends along with direct observation and analysis of the players' performance skills.

Izturis is 28 years old, an age when most players are still in their highest  performance range on the age-performance curve.   It is not unusual for a player in his late 20's to perform much better than he did in his earlier years.

Consider the pattern for Ozzie Smith, for example.  Based on Ozzie's performacne in his first several years in the NL, almost no one publicly predicted when the Cardinals acquired him that such an awful offensive player would become a solid contributor offensively.  

Here is Ozzie's OPS+ in the four years before he became a Cardinal:


Compare that with Cesar's OPS+ in the four years before he became a Cardinal:


Smith was young enough to be on the upward side of his learning curve, and he went on to become a much better hitter than he had been before he became a Cardinal.  

Ozzie joined the Cardinals at age 27.  Cesar is 28.

The primary difference between the offensive success of Smith and Izturis before joining the Cardinals, aside from the fact that Smith's OPS+ of 48 was 9 points lower than Izturis' lowest OPS+ and Izturis' OPS+ of 88 was 6 points higher than Smith's highest OPS+, is that Smith had stolen more bases.  Of course, Smith had the advantage of no having had his performance hindered by a lingering hamstring injury and Tommy John surgery and by being jerked around from SS to 3B, 2B, utility player, etc., while he was recovering from injury.

Before you blast me for comparing Izturis with Smith, keep in mind that I am only referring to their offensive success before joining the Cardinals.  I am not comparing their careers overall, nor their fielding.  The point is that it seems very likely that most sportswriters and VEB bloggers would have been just as pessimistic of Smith's prospects offensively, when he became a Cardinal, as they are now of the prospects for Izturis.  

Again, Cesar could turn out to be a bust.  Or he could turn out to be an undervalued player who was a very smart acquisition.  Nothing in the empirical data makes either of those predictions more likely than the other.  We just won't know until the season unfolds.

What we do know is that it is foolish to make predictions based on past performance while ignoring conditions that might have had a major impact on the player's performance.  To achieve the highest success in predicting peformance, we must take into account the well established pattern in the learning curves of baseball players in their 20's, and we must take into account  how much a player's history of performance can be skewed by the impact of injuries and lack of regular playing time.  The best predictor of future performance is past performance, but under the same or similar conditions.  That proviso is disregarded at the risk of the analyst.  

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