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Spring Question: Can Jimmy Rollins Be Better?

As Spring Training opens in Clearwater, there will clearly be questions raised — these questions will really be raised by the media, the fans, those who follow the team — that in time, for which we’ll find answers. When camp opens, the mix of 40-0dd players tossing baseballs and jogging briskly across Robin Roberts field seems more like a half-filled swimming pool on a foggy morning. You know in time the fog will lift, and at some point soon, someone will add the remaining water for the hot weather. Right now, though, we can only sift through that fog and point our needles in argument.

Convoluted similes aside, one good question to prod focuses on shortstop Jimmy Rollins. After his whirlwind MVP season last year, Rollins wants 100 wins as an encore. He also described some of his personal goals to Scott Lauber of the Wilmington News Journal:

“I’d like to score more runs, steal third more, hit for a better average, and make about three or four fewer errors. Other than that, I don’t know if there’s anything more I can do. But scoring those six to eight more runs will take me stealing probably 10 or 15 more bags. So, yeah, I think I can do better.”

First, let’s look at Rollins’ 2007 numbers:
716 AB / 139 R / 212 H / 38 2B / 20 3B / 30 HR / 94 RBI / 41 SB /.296 AVG / .344 OBP / .531 SLG

Here’s probably what Rollins has in mind:
703 AB / 146 R / 213 H / 36 2B / 10 3B / 28 HR / 89 RBI / 52 SB / .303 AVG / .370 OBP / .503 SLG

Here’s what Bill James has in mind in his 2008 projections:
684 AB / 120 R / 194 H / 41 2B / 10 3B / 21 HR / 76 RBI / 35 SB / .284 AVG / .339 OBP / .465 SLG

The other two major projectors — PECOTA and Marcel — also have Rollins dropping off a bit from 2007, with power numbers going south about a third while the average dips slightly. Obviously, most prognosticators expect Rollins not to repeat his MVP season, but return to something close to his 2006 numbers.

This is fair, since Rollins banged out career highs in almost everything last year (AB, R, H, 3B, HR, RBI, SLG, TB) and even broke a Major League record for plate appearances. But I wanted to look at other middle infielders one year after a career season in their late 20s or early 30s, just to see if Rollins surpassing his 2007 totals is really that impossible.

Joe Morgan
At age 31, Morgan won the NL MVP by hitting .327 with 17 HR, 94 RBI and 107 R. The next season, he went further, hitting .320 with 27 HR, 111 RBI and 113 R. He won another MVP. Of course, Morgan was a much more patient hitter than Rollins, drawing twice as many walks and getting fewer base hits.

Ryne Sandberg
Sandberg won his MVP at age 24, but had another big year at age 29. He hit 30 HR, knocked in 76, hit .290 and scored 104 runs. The next season he upped the ante, hitting 40 HR while driving in 100, hitting .306 and scoring 116 runs. Sandberg, of course, had to do all the work on a dreary Cub offense in 1989 and ’90, but Rollins’ best comparable, according to Baseball Reference? That’s right — Ryno.

Barry Larkin
In the strike-shortened season of 1995, Larkin hit 15 HR, drove in 66, scored 98 runs and hit .319. Since the Reds only played 144 games, he could’ve done a little bit more damage. The next season, at age 32, he hit 33 HR, drove in 89, scored 117 runs and hit .298. Larkin is a bit more like Morgan in that he walked a lot more, and in that career-best 1996, he set a personal best with 96 free passes.

Alan Trammel
The Tigers shortstop hit .343 with 28 HR, 105 RBI and 109 R in 1987 (age 29). His age 30 year was a drop, as he hit .311 with 15 HR, 69 RBI and 73 R. Of course, this season was cut short with injury; Trammel’s career would actually dovetail from his best year — after playing everyday since age 20 at the Major League level, Alan couldn’t sustain much more and would play close to a full season once more before retiring. This is the example we hope Rollins doesn’t follow.

Roberto Alomar
Alomar had a few pretty good seasons early in his career, but came up big in 1999 with the Indians (age 31). He hit .323 with 24 HR and 120 RBI and 138 runs. The next season, at age 32, he hit .310 with 19 HR and 89 RBI and 111 runs scored. That kind of drop seems to be the predicted norm. Alomar, of course, was part of a hellish Cleveland offense with Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Travis Fryman and Kenny Lofton. His manager: Charlie Manuel.

Looking at these examples, I know Rollins can have better numbers in 2008. The players listed either pumped up their power or became more patient hitters the season after a career-best campaign. There are countless other examples.

One other point I ‘d like to illustrate is the majority of the players listed (and many more) reached their “peak” at about 31. Jimmy is 29 this year, meaning we could see two more very strong seasons before what could be his natural best season. That puts him head and shoulders above his peers — both modern and classic — in the annals of baseball.

For me, the key to Rollins’ 2008 is getting on base more. If Jimmy can draw 50 percent more walks than in 2007, we’d see even greater benefits. Maybe his power would drop (or maybe not), but much more selectivity could put him among the most dangerous hitters in baseball.

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