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Comparing Jeremy Hazelbaker with other hot Cardinals starts

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Is the 28 year-old rookie the next Albert Pujols, the next Bo Hart, or just the first Jeremy Hazelbaker?

Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

According to Wikipedia, the definitive source for scientific answers, Earth was formed 4.54 billion years ago. The current life expectancy in the United States is 79 years. Consider how statistically insignificant seventy-nine years is in the context of the length of time the Earth has existed. With that in mind, consider how incredibly fortunate you are that you managed to find yourself on Earth during the Jeremy Hazelbaker era.

Certainly, other eras had their advantages. And future generations will experience technology and cultural flourishes which would fascinate those of us living in 2016. But we are witnesses to the rise of Jeremy Hazelbaker and they aren't.

We are in the nascent stages of Hazelbaker's career, but what he has shown through the first nine games of the first season of his Major League Baseball career has been nothing short of incredible. Although it was initially considered a surprise for Hazelbaker to even make the MLB club out of Spring Training, and he arguably only made the team because of an injury to Ruben Tejada, his performance has been superb.

Here is a look at Jeremy Hazelbaker's statistics through his first nine MLB games, compared to the five other Cardinals in the 21st century with an OPS of over 1.000 during the first nine games of their careers.

PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K BA OBP SLG OPS
Jeremy Hazelbaker, 2016 32 6 13 3 1 3 7 2 7 .481 .484 1.000 1.484
Bo Hart, 2003 46 11 22 2 2 1 5 1 6 .489 .500 .689 1.189
Albert Pujols, 2001 35 6 11 3 0 3 11 3 5 .344 .400 .719 1.119
Matt Adams, 2012 36 4 13 5 0 1 5 2 7 .382 .417 .618 1.034
Brian Barton, 2008 19 2 7 2 1 0 2 1 1 .389 .421 .611 1.032
John Rodriguez, 2005 29 4 9 2 0 2 3 2 6 .333 .379 .630 1.009

The obligatory disclaimer here is that these are small sample sizes being used. We cannot draw any major conclusions from the above table simply because weird things can happen over 19 to 46 plate appearances. A full season's worth of plate appearances is not enough on which to draw conclusions on players with any real level of certainty, much less a week and a half or so's worth.

But they don't say nothing, per se. It's not a sheer coincidence that the third-best nine-game stretch to start a career for the Cardinals this century came from the greatest player in the franchise of the last few decades. Of course, that Bo Hart, a few months away from his 27th birthday and never considered a major prospect, outperformed Albert Pujols also reflects the inherent flaws of being wooed by small samples of data.

Now, to be clear, fans have every right to be excited by what Jeremy Hazelbaker has done to this point. Fans are not the ones filling out the lineup cards and they should root for all of their favorite teams' players, regardless of the underlying wisdom of a lineup's construction, to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

But simply looking at a player's batting average on balls in play can help determine the difference between a wildly unsustainable hot start (Hart) and a sign of things to come (Pujols). Hart put 38 balls in play during his initial nine-game run and got hits on 21 of them, for an astonishing .553 BABIP. Pujols put 24 balls in play with eight hits, giving him an above-average .333 BABIP, but one which does not point nearly as obviously to good fortune.

Unfortunately, in sabermetric years, 2003 might as well be during the FDR administration--it seems weird to imagine, but history has established that our grandchildren will view 50 Cent like we view Glenn Miller or The Andrews Sisters. And from this quainter, simpler time, we lack sophisticated batted ball data that we have in droves today. If memory serves me correctly, though, while Bo Hart may well have hit the ball genuinely better in the early part of his MLB career than he did at any other point in pro baseball, he did not hit it ".553 batting average on balls in play" well.

Hazelbaker has been somewhere between Hart, who looked immediately like a great story but not a great player, and Pujols, who set the tone for his Hall of Fame career very early. While his three home runs cannot be chalked up exclusively to mere BABIP luck, he has gotten a hit on exactly half of his balls put in play.

But even Hart, whose name has been peppered into somewhat derisive commentary about Jeremy Hazelbaker's future, deserves his share of credit. No amount of batted ball luck will save a player unable to put balls in play in the first place, and Hart struck out in 13% of his plate appearances, solidly below what became his career strikeout rate and below the league's typical strikeout rate. Additionally, his isolated slugging of .200 would have trailed only Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, and J.D. Drew among Cardinals with 100 plate appearances on the season, and he would have topped such players as Edgar Renteria and Tino Martinez.

And again, this is based on a microscopic set of data. But it does seem that Hart, even if his numbers were heavily aided by luck, may have been genuinely very good in that time as well, even if briefly. And it is entirely possible that this is what Jeremy Hazelbaker is currently in the midst of experiencing: a perfect confluence of good fortune, playing the best baseball of his life, and having it come as he gets his first crack at the Majors.

But this may be an oversimplification as well. Here are Hazelbaker's recent minor league stats, with each season represented by the level at which he spent most of the year.

Level PA HR AVG OBP SLG BB K SB CS WARP
2012 AA 488 19 .273 .338 .479 35 114 33 11 2.8
2013 AAA 480 11 .257 .313 .374 36 131 37 7 1.1
2014 AA 307 4 .251 .326 .387 30 70 15 7 0.4
2015 AAA 233 10 .333 .403 .594 23 60 8 2 2.4

2012 Jeremy Hazelbaker, who was 24 throughout most of the year, looked like a somehwat intriguing, if not otherwordly, prospect. And in 2013 and 2014, his performance slipped. His star fell so far that the Los Angeles Dodgers outright released him on May 1, 2015. But Hazelbaker had considerable success in the Cardinals' minor leagues: in addition to the stats listed above, he had an .897 OPS in 168 plate appearances in AA Springfield.

So while concerns about Hazelbaker's minor league track record are not without merit, it is also entirely possible that Jeremy Hazelbaker turned a corner and is a materially improved player from what he was two years ago. The laziest form of baseball analysis is the type that points out how the guy with a 1.484 OPS is not going to sustain that; while Hazelbaker will regress, and there's no point in denying this, it is entirely possible he will not regress nearly as much as those focusing on his 2013-2014 downturn believe they will.

He may just be lucky rather than good, but he also may just be a late bloomer. Jeremy Hazelbaker's hot start should be taken with many grains of salt, but this does not mean that he should be dismissed entirely.