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David Freese, Yu Darvish, Rafael Furcal, and not-quite-arbitrary endpoints

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Apr 9, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese (23) rounds third base during the eighth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark. The cardinals defeated the Reds 7-1.
Apr 9, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese (23) rounds third base during the eighth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark. The cardinals defeated the Reds 7-1.

Rafael Furcal was hitting .192/.222/.269 in the spring; now, after going 0-4 on Monday, he's hitting .435/.480/.565 in the regular season. I've been blogging since it was novel to say "arbitrary endpoints!" after Ty Cobb was nice to two or three wisecracking newsies one especially thrilling June, so it's a little boring by now. But what Rafael Furcal has done lately is kind of neat. He's run down the baseline between arbitrary-endpoint—a calendar month, day games, that luddite broadcaster favorite "On Tuesdays something something with his fingers crossed"—and real endpoints that just so happen to surround small sample sizes.

Here are some not-quite-arbitrary-endpoints worth thinking about from Opening Week, or whatever we're calling this part of the season now:

Rafael Furcal and Spring Training

Combine his 2012 stats extremely irresponsibly and you get something that looks like Cardinals Furcal, arbitrarily separated from Dodgers Furcal himself: A .266 average, with the beginnings of the power he showed in St. Louis. His spring numbers are bad enough, and weighty enough—a tenth of the at-bats he could be reasonably expected to accrue in the regular season—that they're going to drag any regular season resurgence down for a while.

That's not really important. But his results so far, smashed together so that I'm not so focused on his collective badness or goodness, have allowed me (or just forced me) to remember the Terrible Secret of Rafael Furcal: That he's not on base especially frequently. The most charitable slice you can take out of his career, the four years between 2003 and 2006, saw him produce an OBP of .354 out of a .289 batting average, walking 253 times in 2791 plate appearances.

The questions about whether he'd still be a great leadoff hitter after his rough spring were overstated, because spring statistics still have the capacity to confound us; there's too high a variance in quality from inning to inning and too many reasons, beyond getting hits and winning games, to be there. But the way the debate was framed, and the way it appears to have been settled now, also obscured just how unconventional a leadoff hitter he was at his best; it's not Derek Jeter we're hoping for so much as Skip Schumaker with power and defense.

Yu Darvish, the NPB and AAA

This particular not-quite-arbitrary distinction interests me because Yu Darvish—who allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings yesterday, starting off all over the place and rounding into shape—has pitched at a level above AAA since he was 18 years old, but somehow still feels like a riskier bet for success than the average top pitching prospect.

What would we even do with a prospect who, over his last three years (spent entirely in the AAA International League), struck out more than a batter an inning, and five batters for every walk he allowed, gave up about a home run a month, and had verified his sub-2 ERA dominance over 600 innings?

They just don't exist—the nearest handy example, for me, is Anthony Reyes, who made 36 starts in AAA between 2005 and 2006 in which he confounded his fans and detractors with a K:BB ratio around five. That's another virtue of the not-quite-arbitrary dividing line: it keeps our frames of reference from being shattered by outliers. So we ring-fence that year Barry Bonds was walked 232 times inside its own era; we look at playoff stats when they fit a narrative and ignore them otherwise. And with so few Japanese pitchers to go on, and such a spotty and confusing track record, we don't think about Yu Darvish as he relates to Shelby Miller or Stephen Strasburg.

Baseball's supposed to have the most coherent record book of any major sport, but it's taken a lot of implicit hand-waving and mutually understood timelining to arrive at this place where we can glance down one perfect-looking list at 762, 755, 714, and 138. It'll be a long time before we've managed that trick with Japanese baseball; I'm already looking forward to the Ichiro Hall of Fame discussions.

David Freese and the Breakout Season

Voodoo disclaimer: I am not suggesting, after five games and 10 hits, that David Freese will have a breakout season. It's just that if he does have a breakout season it's going to look, potentially, much more broken-out than it really ought to, because on Baseball-Reference his 97 games of .297/.350/.441 and his 18 games of .397/.465/.794 are permanently and justifiably segregated.

His glass ankles and the Cardinals' long run conspired to give his huge postseason numbers major sway over his 2011 seasonal line. Lines one and two here are his 2011 season, without and then with playoff numbers; line three is his median Davenport projection, while line four is his 90th percentile projection, the most optimistic—

2011 333 99 16 1 10 55 24 75 .297 .350 .444
2011p 396 124 24 2 15 76 31 89 .313 .369 .497
2012 422 118 19 1 13 64 34 97 .280 .339 .422
2012+ 462 144 24 1 18 82 39 104 .312 .370 .485

The difference between Breakout Freese and regular, regressing Freese is 71 plate appearances he actually took.

We've done a great job, even since I began blogging, of contextualizing numbers before we talk about them; for several years after I started—and I'd like to think I wasn't alone here—all it took for me to accept a platoon split as real and permanent was for it to look plausible and seem about right. But sometimes I'm convinced that baseball as an entity is determined to create new ways for us to get things slightly out of joint.