What to make of Hart’s slow start

 When the Seattle Mariners signed Robinson Cano this winter, one of the questions that came to mind was who would hit behind him in the batting order. Whether you buy into the concept of lineup protection or not, it was pretty clear the Seattle was indeed lacking the big bat that most teams employ in the No. 4 spot in the lineup. With Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, and Mike Morse out of the picture, Justin Smoak was the lone in-house option remaining at the time of Cano’s signing..

There was no doubt that Seattle needed to acquire at least a pair of bats to replace the departed Morales and Ibanez, so the M’s took a chance and signed Corey Hart who was coming off of double knee surgery to a one-year deal as a potential source of protection for the newly signed Cano. It’s still far too early to draw any conclusions on Hart’s season, but there’s no doubt that his production hasn’t been anything special. At least not yet.

So far this season Hart has 26 hits in 134 plate appearances and holds a .218/.306/.378 line — good for a 92 wRC+ in 31 games prior to Monday’s tilt with the Tampa Bay Rays. All three categories are well below the Kentucky native’s career line of .274/.333/.487 and 116 wRC+. He has nine walks against 24 strikeouts this year, but does have five home runs and 15 runs batted in under his belt. The 32-year old’s .160 ISO is well below his career mark of .213, and it also needs to be noted that so far this year his BABIP sits at a paltry .233 compared to his .310 career mark.
 A glance at Hart’s career would tell you that the right-hander isn’t necessarily a slow starter — he holds a .272 career batting average for March and April. So far in 2014 however, he’s hit just .240 in that same time period. Now, considering the fact that Hart missed the entire 2013 season, it’d be fair to suggest that the rust hadn’t worn off yet and he was still trying to get his timing down — which is common for the average player in the early parts of a season let alone one coming off of major surgeries. That could provide an explanation, but Hart finished the period with five home runs and 9 runs batted in which are fairly consistent with his career numbers for March and April — though his RBI total for this year’s period is a tad low.

Also, at the start of the 2011 season, Hart missed the first 22 games with an oblique muscle strain and faired poorly in the few games he ended up playing in April. There isn’t a big enough sample size to make any inferences from — and he also hit just fine in May that year — so it could be more coincidence than anything else. The conclusion that we can draw from this however, is that it’s very likely Hart is dealing with getting into a groove.

Going back to 2011 for another moment, Hart missed 22 games and after his first month of the season, was back to his usual self. Heading into 2014, he had missed 162 games and conceivably could use at least a month’s time to start feeling comfortable again. It’s unfair to suggest that there’s any correlation between the two seasons without further research being done, but it’s reasonable to believe that a player coming off of an injury will need an adjustment period, especially in a case where the player is coming off of major surgery on both knees.

I’m no expert on hitting mechanics, but any major lower body injury is bound to have an effect on a player’s ability to feel comfortable in the batter’s box. Take Albert Pujols last year for example — he was dealing with plantar fasciitis and posted the worst statistical season of his career before being shut down in August to undergo surgery. There was little doubt that Pujols was in plenty of discomfort while trying to hit last year and that it played a huge role in his lack of production. Perhaps there’s a possibility that as Hart took part in Spring Training games he wasn’t entirely comfortable hitting yet and that adjustment period stretched into the regular season. Keep in mind that there isn’t any active evidence of this being reality, it’s simply my own hypothesizing of several assumptions.

So, if we are to attribute some of Hart’s struggles to missing an entire year of games and having to adjust and get back in the game, it’s possible that other factors could be in play such as adjusting to life with a new team, a new manager, and becoming a full-time designated hitter could be other factors to consider. I’m not trying to make excuses for a professional, but there’s always an adjustment to be made when changing positions and teams — although that generally takes place in the spring. I’m of the mindset that if any of these factors are in play, their effects are very minimal. By now Hart’s likely made the necessary adjustments needed for full-time designated hitter duty and is passed being the new guy.

It’s also possible that playing at Safeco Field has hindered his production to some extent, but the sample size is still far too small given the number of road games compared to road games Seattle has played so far in this young season.

While it’s tough to pinpoint any specific reasoning for Corey Hart’s slow start to the year, it appears as though the most likely scenario is that he’s fallen victim to bad luck — his BABIP entering Monday night’s game is .233 compared to his career .310 mark. The right-hander hasn’t been striking out at an abnormal rate and there haven’t been any reports of a particular injury hindering him either. Keep in mind that a player’s batting average on balls in play has a lot to do with luck and opposition defence. If you watched the entirety of the Sunday afternoon game between the Mariners and the Kansas City Royals, you saw Cano hit the ball hard four times but finish the day with just one hit because three of the drives were right at infielders. If the defenders were positioned differently, it’s plausible that Cano could’ve had multiple hits that game.

The third factor factoring into a player’s BABIP is a change in talent level, but given the fact that it looks like Hart’s been seeing the ball well and hitting it hard, it’s tough to say that he’s seen any noticeable regression in his overall talent level. Now, if he was striking out in 40 percent of his plate appearances or unable to drive the ball out of the infield, then there is enough reason to be concerned about whether he’s become a fraction of the hitter he was previously. Hart does have just four doubles so far on the season and only nine extra base hits — that would explain the very low slugging percentage — so there may be room for modest concern, but given the low BABIP, it’s likely only a matter of time until a few more start falling in for hits for the slugger.

So, what can one make about Hart’s slow start? Honestly, still nothing. It’s early enough in the season that Hart could go on a 20 for 40 run over the next ten games and see his batting average jump from .218 to .264; a number more in line with what you’d expect from Hart based on his career thus far. All in all, the right-hander is still on pace for a 25 home run and 75 runs batted in season, which is reasonable production given the fact that Hart lost the entire 2013 season and his career highs in home runs and runs batted in, 31 and 102 respectively, came in 2010. He’s guaranteed just $6 million for the 2014 season and has $7 million available in incentives which could bring the total value of the contract to $13 million.

For comparison’s sake, if Hart were to keep up his current rate of production he’d likely finish the year with similar value to what Raul Ibanez provided Seattle with last year. The former Mariner signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels worth $2.5 million in the offseason.

Like we’ve said all along, it’s still far too early to make heads or tails out of Hart’s season, or any player for that matter. It only takes a solid week at the plate for a player’s stat line to see a drastic improvement at this time of the year, and something tells me that we haven’t seen everything that Hart will have to offer the Mariners this year just yet.

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Tyler Carmont

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