Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nice Story of the Year...So Far

Here is a quick quiz: What Austin is currently leading all Austins in OPS? If you would have said Austin Jackson, the buzzer would have bleated against you as surely it did Lebron James. One of the nicest surprises of the year so far has been Austin Kearns for the Cleveland Indians. The erstwhile, former first round pick of the Reds seemed like road kill in Washington. But the Indians felt a pulse and nursed him back to life.

Looking at Austin Kearns' major league record on, it seems kind of surprising that he hasn't been as bad a player as the perception of him has been. He was drafted #1 by the Reds in the 1998 draft (number 7 over all in that draft). He made his debut in 2002 and came in third in Rookie of the Year voting. He had a 134 OPS+ that year and was outstanding. The next two years seem to be where the perception headed south. He was hurt a lot and missed at least half the season the next two. After batting .315 his rookie campaign, he hit .260 and .234 the next two seasons. But they weren't as bad as that sounds. If you combine those two lost years, the stats make up nearly a season's worth of stats and combined, he hit 25 homers and drove in 90 and walked 69 times. That's not bad and still left him better than league average in OPS+.

Kearns then played nearly a full season with the Reds in 2005 and only hit .240. But he still had a 105 OPS+ which is still above league average. In 2006, he played part of the year for the Reds and then they shipped him to Washington. It was his first full season since his rookie campaign and over all, he ended up with a 114 OPS+ and hit 24 homers and added 76 walks. That's not bad at all.

He played a full season (injury free) for the Nationals in 2007 and his power went down some. He only hit 16 homers and batted .266. But his OBP was still .355 with his 71 walks and he still finished slightly above league average in OPS+. But then in 2008 and 2009, the bottom fell out on his career. He had injuries. When he did play, he didn't produce. He hit .217 and .195 and he was the epitome of why the Nationals were such a bad team. It didn't help the perception that he made $13 million combined those two seasons.

But after two lost years with OPS+ totals of 67 and 72, Kearns was left on the trash heap. He was done. He was the phenom who never developed. He was a bust. He was road kill. Nobody wanted him, so it was a complete surprise when the Indians invited him to camp this spring. What? Are they nuts? The guy stinks. But you know what? Some times, second chances do pay off. Some times there are happy endings. Kearns has responded and is having a great season for a team that isn't much better than those Nationals teams.

His current line in 25 games of play is: .333/.408/.533. His current OPS+ is a massive 164. He's driven in 20 runs in those 25 games and he's scored 16. He has even stolen two bases without being thrown out. It's just a nice, nice story so far.

Another aspect of his rejuvenation has been his fielding. Kearns' fielding has mirrored his batting career. He was always a good fielder. His stats were always well into the positive numbers until the last two years...those two lost years where not only couldn't he hit, but his fielding went into the tank and suddenly, his numbers in the field all went into the negative column. But this year, he is solidly in the black again playing left field regularly and all of that seems to show that he has his health and he has his confidence back.

Who knows if this will last for Kearns. Who knows if he will stay healthy. But for now, you can't help but root for the guy and for the Indians who put his career on life support and are getting maximum benefits of giving him that chance. The Fan will certainly be rooting for him because this is a fun story that begs for a happy ending.

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