Chris Iannetta fascinates many at the Row, myself included - and I'm not easily impressed ("Wow! A blue car!"). Few Rockies players have inspired as much disappointment, frustration or unabashed fandom as CDI, and his start to 2011 probably hasn't changed minds all that much. The question seems to be, albeit through only 52 plate appearances (prior to Tuesday's game), what is more real: the .211 BA, or the .423 OBP?
It seems highly probable that neither is real, and it goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that 52 plate appearances is nothing. Yet, I can't help be impressed with the .6 fWAR thus far on the season. Still further, I'm perplexed 34% K rate. Is our protagonist (antagonist?) doomed to be forever an enigma? 1. Let's hope not. 2. Let's talk about it ...
Despite the poor BA, CDI is off to a much better start than 2010. Last season, he didn't accumulate 52 PAs until June 13, at which point he was osting a triple slash of .192/.288/.327 and coming off a demotion to AAA. Historically, April has been his worst month hitting for average (.199 in 191 ABs), but his best month for drawing walks (16.5%). It's also his worst month for strikeouts (36.1%).
Turning to 2011, the number that jumps out is CDI's 36% overall swing rate. For some perspective, that's 8% lower than Iannetta's full-season low (2008-44%), and 9.5% lower than the current league average (45.5%). His swinging strike rate, 7.9%, is also well below his career rate (10.8%). He's undoubtedly looking to take walks, which somewhat validates the 23.1% BB rate (as I write this, he just walked on 6 or 7 pitches from Sanchez, then ducked slightly in front of Posey as he threw to a vacant second base attempting to get Wigginton).
"Only somewhat" because the highest walk rate for 2010 was 16% (Fielder and Barton). It would be fun to make-believe that he'll continue to walk in 23.1% of his at bats, but even I'm not that much of an Iannetta enthusiast.
More sobering, but still exciting, is the ZiPS RoS projections, which has Iannetta putting up a .241/.363/.459 line the rest of the way. That should satisfy most Rockies fans, and would make for a very productive 8th hitter (although lots of those walks would go to waste in front of the pitcher). The ZiPS projection includes a more than acceptable 13.9% BB rate, and reduced 27.8% K rate. Those numbers are remarkably similar to CDI's 2008 BB and K rates, and if ZiPS projected him for a few more PAs, his counting stats would also look similar to 2008.
ZiPS sees a .282 BABIP going forward, which might be a bit optimistic. All of the pre-season projection systems on Fangraphs foresaw a more robust BABIP (between .268 and .288) than Iannetta has posted since his banner year in 2008 (.311). While it's difficult to imagine CDI replicating the .212 BABIP of 2010, it's not easy to imagine him posting a number above his current career average of .271.
This is not to say that he can't be as productive as 2008, but maybe a .261 BA is not part of CDI's portfolio. The likelihood of a ball in play becoming a hit goes LD > GB > FB. CDI hit a fair amount of fly balls in 2009 and 2010, and his LD rate decreased dramatically from 2008 to 2010 (from 21.4% to 13.5%). It makes sense that he doesn't post pretty BAs. It's more likely that his LD% recovers to the 2008 mark than his BABIP, but they won't necessarily move in step.
One thing working in CDI's favor going forward (or to his current disadvantage), is that, much as his BB% won't be otherworldly all year, he probably won't continue posting a 15.4% infield FB rate. As that normalizes in the coming weeks, more of those poorly hit balls will be distributed into LD, GB, or FB. That may result in a higher BA (and better counting stats), or into some combination of walks, power, and outs, but hopefully not many outs. One of the few, consistently encouraging things about CDI (other than his ability to get on base) is that he hits for power when he makes contact (career 14% HR/FB, between 14-18% in the last three years). If more of the IFFB become FB than anything else, CDI may not see an increase in BA but he has a good chance to boost his power numbers.
If that is what happens - more power and outs mixed in with the walks - it's not a bad outcome. From a traditionalist perspective, it's hard to see CDI moving up past 7th in the lineup if that profile comes to fruition over the rest of the season. But, unless you're looking for a higher BA and better counting power numbers, there's a lot of reason to be excited about that possibility and CDI's performance thus far.
The patience reflects a good approach at the plate, despite the high K rate. As seen above, that is a typical CDI April. More doubles would be nice, but he seems more likely to earn a walk than smack a double. His 2010 numbers show that a change in his approach (away from patience, and toward attempting to smash the ball) would not necessarily result in the player seen in 2008.
As CDI's 2011 batted ball profile changes, and his swing rates normalize, he could become a number of different things. If the ZiPS projects hold true, but are played out over more PAs, fans should be happy and there'll be much less angst over the catcher position than there was heading into 2010 and 2011.