Last week in this space I profiled the most disappointing Yankee in April, Ben Francisco, but with the team persevering through April with a number of surprising contributors, taking a look at the Yankees with the most surprising start only seems fair. Vernon Wells, Hiroki Kuroda, Francisco Cervelli (before he got hurt), and even Phil Hughes have all contributed to the Yankees' positive record, but Travis Hafner's start has been the most surprising of all.
Hafner's April numbers:
wOBA(per fangraphs): .460
It is difficult to tell if Ben Francisco is the anti-Hafner or Hafner is the anti-Francisco, but Hafner's production has been fantastic. To determine just how good his production has been, I used baseball-reference.com and its invaluable play-index.
While OPS is not always the best statistic to use (it combines two statistics with different denominators), it is a decent shorthand for offensive production. Since the advent of the designated hitter, only eight players in their age 36 year or later have put up an OPS over 1.000 for the month of April while getting 75% of their at bats as the DH (minimum 75 plate appearances). While the designated hitter has been viewed as a refuge for aging sluggers, starts like Hafner's have been rare. Hafner ranks fourth overall.
Brian Downing (1987)-1.234
Jim Thome (2007) -1.233
David Ortiz (2012)-1.184
Travis Hafner (2013)-1.104
Chili Davis (1999)-1.091
Frank Thomas (2004)-1.065
Edgar Martinez (2003)-1.054
Carl Yastrzemski (1982)-1.033
If Hafner keeps this up he will be in other rare company. Hafner currently sits at 0.9 WAR. Although using WAR this early in the season can be troublesome due to the heavy influence of defense without enough time for the statistics to be worthwhile, there is no danger for Hafner as he does not play defense. Since 1973, there have been just 22 seasons in which a designated hitter has had at least a WAR of 3 (baseball-reference) while getting 75% of his at bats as a designated hitter. With three seasons from Paul Molitor, four from Edgar Martinez, two from Frank Robinson, and one each from Frank Thomas and Dave Winfield, these seasons have come from elite hitters. The other seasons came from Hal McRae (1), Brian Downing (2), Ellis Burks (2), Rico Carty (2), David Ortiz (1), and Gary Sheffield (1).
What makes Hafner's start this year all the more amazing is his recent performance. Hafner has posted six consecutive seasons with a WAR under 3. Not since 2006, when he had a WAR of 5.9, has Hafner had an All-Star type season. He has not had a single month with 75 plate appearances and an OPS above 1.000 since April 2007. Of the twenty-two seasons mentioned above, thirteen were preceded by a season of at least 3 WAR, and nineteen had a 3 WAR season within two years. Only Frank Thomas, who had three mediocre injury-riddled seasons before hitting well in 2006 as a 38-year old for the Oakland Athletics, and Hal McRae, who had a four-year period of mediocrity before his solid 1982 season had droughts even close to Hafner's. Who knows if he can keep this up, but if you are near a desk or some other piece of oak, I'd recommend rapping on it a few times.