Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Pronk Revival

It's been a long time since Travis Hafner was one of the most feared hitters in the game. Shoulder ailments sapped much of what once made him a perennial 1.000 OPS threat in the middle of the Indians lineup. In the meantime, his contract has become one of the games most maligned, frequently cited as one of the games most unmovable.

In the years since posting an incredible 1.097 in 2006, Hafner has had a combined .803 mark. People have written him off as an ok hitter making far more than he's worth as a designated hitter - he'll be due 13m for each of the next two seasons, and the team will likely have to pay 2.75m to buy out of the 13m they owe him in 2013 as well.

But starting late last year, something weird started happening. Pronk started hitting again. Not like he used to of course when he posted a 1.040 combined OPS from 2004 through 2006 - a three season run of dominance that few of the greatest hitters of this generation will ever duplicate. But he definitely wasn't hitting like the low-800 OPS player he had been either.

He closed 2010 by posting a .935 OPS over the final 42 games of the Indians season (168PA). That was largely a BABIP fueled fluke (.400) that the career .317 BABIP Hafner could never come close to sustaining. But thrown in were signs of the old power too, like 20 extra base hits over those 149 at-bats and the old eye at the plate (16.1% BB rate).

I wrote most of that off last year as a fluke. As well I should've. But he's now off to a scorching start to his 2011 season as well, posting a .992 OPS during the seasons opening weeks, with two more home runs and our more walks in just 31PAs.

Even when taken in combination, the sample size we're talking about is very small - just over 200PAs - but when searching for miracles, you sometimes have to look harder than you ought to. In Hafner's case, I'm looking hard. Few players have ever had the kind of success he's experienced with a bat in his hands, and he's the sort of hitter who could, if he ever regained his old form, carry a team's offensive load almost by himself.

Indians writers who see more of him than I do say he just looks more comfortable than before, he's regained strength, and his mechanics look better than they have in years. It's hardly impossible that, like Alex Gordon of the Royals who's hot start I wrote about a few days ago, Hafner might simply be healthy for the first time in a long time. Amazing what not hurting all the time can do for a guys game.

Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.

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