Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Travis "Project Donkey" Hafner: Stud or Dud for 2008?

Following 3 straight epic seasons, fantasy owners payed a hefty price to get Indians DH/occasional 1st baseman Travis Hafner in 2007 drafts. Owners could reasonably expect the big lefty to hit .300, hit 35+ homers, drive in 120+, and score around 100 times fueled his excellent walk rate. Needless to say, a quick look at his 2007 stats leads to the conclusion that Pronk was doing a lot of this during the season...

So what went wrong? Hafner is only 30, and coming off a season that saw him hit 42 homers in only 454 at-bats. The past 3 seasons had seen him slug .583, .595, and .659, to go along with an outstanding walk rate and batting averages between .305 and .311. In short, he performed at a level that was very close to fantasy's former lone superpower, Albert Pujols. How quickly things went wrong...

I was incredibly happy to get Hafner on a few of my fantasy squads, as I started to project out what Pronkey could do if he ever got 550 at-bats. How would an upside of .310, 45-50 homers, 130-140 RBIs, and 110 runs sound for a second rounder? That's what I was secretly hoping for this season, and he got off to a filthy start. April saw him produce to the tune of .338, 5 HR, 16 RBIs, .471 OBP, and a .550 slugging percentage. At that point, my second round pick was looking like he was in line for another big season, and I stopped checking up on him and focused on other points of weakness (ironically, at that time my headaches were Garrett Atkins, Pat Burrell, Chris B. Young, all of whom finished the year magnificently to post nice seasons).

From April on, Hafner went on to hit anywhere between .218 and .253 from May to August. He added very little in the way of power, as evidenced by his slugging percentages, which ranged from .356 to .455. His walk rate went down a bit compared to 2006 (15.5% from 17.8%) and his strikeout rate was actually improved from 2006.

He showed signs of life in September, hitting .316 with 5 HR, driving in 23 runs, slugging .551, and getting on base at a .414 clip. Added all up, Hafner's numbers ended up looking like this: .266 24 HR 100 RBI 80 R, .451 slugging, .385 OBP.

Quite a disappointing season, but luckily for me his poor season didn't hurt my teams too badly. For some people though, getting 13th round production (for a 1st baseman) from a second rounder was probably a crushing blow. Using on-base percentage + slugging as a metric to emcompass offensive value, Hafner was outproduced by the likes of Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Garko, Dmitri young, and slap hitters Chone Figgins and Placido Polanco.

With everything out in the open now, what can we attribute Hafner's poor season to? Looking at things that are under his control, his strikeout rate was improved, so that's a positive. His walk rate was down, but it's still at a very high level, so that's still a positive. Besides walks and strikeouts, the only other thing a batter can control are his home runs, as everything that he hits into play is subject to defense, positioning, and luck.

His home run rate was a cause for serious concern, as it went from an outstanding 10.8 AB/HR in 2006 to 22.7 AB/HR, a rather pedestrian rate for a power hitter. His 2006 total may have been a bit of an anomaly, as he ranged from 14-17 AB/HR in the previous 2 seasons. Regardless, his 2007 figure was not good and it is worth exploring why Hafner experienced such a drop.

A quick study of Hafner's 2007 will show that he had 97 more plate appearances than he did in 2006. He managed to hit only one more flyball, even though he had a significant increase in playing time. He hit 210 groundballs, leading to a career worst GB/FB ratio of 1.58, not good at all and a significant decrease from his 0.88-1.10 ratios of 2004-2006.

Simply, Hafner hit a lot more groundballs in 2007 than ever before, and as we all know, balls hit in play are subject to a lot more random variance than balls that land over the fence. One would say it would be infinitely more random variance.

Anyone that has seen an Indians' game on TV will know that Hafner routinely has to deal with a an exaggerated shift by the opposing infielders, so it is very hard for him to hit many singles. The picture is looking more clear, and I can reasonably attribute at least part of Hafner's down season to his decrease in flyballs and increase in groundballs.

A look at Hafner’s 2007 batted balls chart (available at will reveal some very important data on the subject: Hafner hit a whopping 33% of his batted balls on the ground to the right side, i.e., right at the exaggerated shift that is set up for him. That kind of set up, no matter how hard Hafner can hit the ball on the ground, will yield some poor results. That is exactly what happened to Hafner, and I will go ahead and attribute most of his struggles to this fact. He’s never had this problem before, and I am secure in calling it a statistical anomaly, barring any unknown injury which would sap his power.

Another interest fact on the batted balls chart is that Hafner hit 28% of balls in play to center on the fly. Center field is obviously the most difficult part of the ballpark to hit home runs to, and this could definitely be another anamoly that could easily balance out in the long run. Next season should see some more balanced hitting distribution, and that will only help Pronkey get back on track for 2008.

It's hard if not impossible to pinpoint why Hafner started to hit more groundballs than ever before in 2007. The important thing is that given his age, impressive body of work, and still solid strikeout and walk rates, it is not difficult to picture Hafner returning to 2005 levels, if not 2006. He is still very gifted at the plate, his skills are still there, he just needs to start hitting the ball in the air like he used to. It could be mechanical, or perhaps Hafner just wasn't completely healthy this past season.

He is known for his work ethic, and I have no doubt that Hafner will correct whatever problem caused him to endure this embarrassing year during the off-season. He is still country strong, brimming with talent, and he still possesses one of the most impressive 3-year stretches in recent memory. He will be back, and it should be next season.

My own projection for 2008 has Hafner hitting .295 with 38 HR, 116 RBI, 101 runs, .585 slugging, .406 on-base. Draft him with confidence in the late 5th-6th round next season and reap the benefits.

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