Rewriting The Elvis Andrus 2013 Season

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“What is learned first is learned best” is a common phrase generally held to be true. As it applies to our interaction with the game of baseball, this shapes our recollection of events and players. It can stretch as far back as the first players we watched play the game growing up; the ones we thought were gods on the field. In retrospect, their careers may not shine quite as brightly as they did in the eyes of a fledgling fan, but because their performances inspired such awe and wonder then, that player will forever hold that image in our minds.
The same can be said for the smaller scale of a single season, as well. What takes place in April and May does more to shape our thoughts and feelings about players or teams than what happens in June, July, and August. This may be especially true for Elvis Andrus this year.

Andrus signed an eight-year, $120 million extension with the Rangers in the offseason. Having always been a glove-first shortstop with elite baserunning skills, and never producing the kind of power statistics that typically warrant such a large contract, there was plenty of skepticism surround Andrus entering 2013. This would be a highly scrutinized year for the young shortstop, regardless of his performance.

Fast forward for a moment to after this year’s All-Star break, and imagine that the season has begun there. In 43 games, Andrus has hit .325/.384/.426, with 18 stolen bases, supplemented by strong defense and continued performance as one of the best baserunners in baseball. All of this adds up to about 2.0 fWAR, which is good enough to be best on the Rangers, top 15 in all of baseball, and in the ranks of players like Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera.

If Elvis had started the 2013 season with that kind of a bang, the contract he inked in the offseason would be lauded as a shrewd cost-controlling move by the Rangers front office, and fans and media would begin the process of outlining the plans for when Andrus would take advantage of the player opt-out clause after the fourth year of the extension.

Instead, Andrus started the 2013 season by hitting .242/.300/.280 in 92 games, tallying just 0.4 fWAR. His struggles at the plate began with some hard luck outs, progressed to trying to do too much, and resulted in what could most easily be described as a lack of confidence and approach at the plate. On the 1st of July, Iwrote that Elvis needed to be dropped to 9th in the batting order.

As the final games before the All-Star break were being played out, Andrus had a conversation with the Rangers newest Special Assistant to the General Manager, Pudge Rodriguez. According to this ESPN Dallas story, Pudge delivered words of wisdom and encouragement to Andrus. Said Andrus:

“He helped me out a lot, basically telling me, ‘Don’t try to do too much, don’t try to be someone else.’ He was basically telling me, ‘You got that money for the person that you are, so don’t ever change that. Just enjoy and relax,’ and it was true.”

From that point on, Andrus has been a different player; back to the player the Rangers committed to as the shortstop of the future, despite the rise of baseball’s #1 prospect, shortstop Jurickson Profar.

A statistical explanation can be provided for Andrus’s turnaround as well, beyond the intangible (though real) improvements Andrus made in his mental approach.

During the first half of the year, Andrus had a .285 BABIP, below his career average of .316. His 21% line drive rate was down a tick from his usual, which would explain some of the drop in BABIP, but not entirely. Even using the eye test, it was clear that Andrus was simply having a hard time finding holes with the line drives and ground balls he was hitting. In the second half, Andrus’s BABIP has rebounded all the way up to .364, supported by a change in luck and a 24% line drive rate.

Andrus has also swung with more authority in the second half of the season. He has knocked two dingers, for his first home runs since September 2012. His 12 extra-base hits in the second half are more than the 11 he tallied in the first half, in less than half the games played.

Sometimes being statistically inclined means that we discount stories of single conversations shaping the course of a player’s season or career as narrative. For Elvis, regression to the mean was bound to happen, and it has. Whether or not it was the conversation with Pudge that did it is a chicken and egg debate. But I doubt you could convince Elvis that he would have turned his season around with or without it.

The more I learn about baseball, the more examples I see of the impact that the mental aspects of the game have on the physical performance of the athletes on the field. Players like Elvis Andrus, Derek Holland, and Yu Darvish are prime examples of that. As fans of the Rangers, we get to see them go through that developmental process, which sometimes leads to growing pains.

Elvis went through some serious growing pains at the start of this season. But now, he’s back to being Elvis. He has even managed to salvage most of the season in total. By baseball-reference’s rWAR, he is already a three-win player again, after finishing 2010 and 2011 with four WAR. According to Fangraphs, in terms of dollar value Elvis has been worth $11 million and counting.

Now, the hope is that Andrus continues to finish this season strong and help lead the Rangers deep into the postseason. Including winter ball, no one has played more games in the last calendar year than Andrus, so there could be cause for concern that he’ll run out of gas. If he doesn’t, we’ll get to see more of what we’ve seen the last 43 games, which has been a refresher course in the kind of impact player Elvis Andrus is. 

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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