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Sitting Cheese: Is Colby Rasmus for Real?

Mike analyzes the outfielder's hot start to the season and suggests that one factor in particular could signal a new-and-improved version of Colby Rasmus.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This past offseason the Astros appeared to have lost their minds when they extended a $15.8 million qualifying offer to free-agent outfielder Colby Rasmus, a career platoon player. Knowing he was unlikely to receive a better deal on the open market, Rasmus signed the one-year agreement, which nearly doubled his salary. Three-and-a-half weeks into the regular season, we must wonder if the Astros knew something no one else did.

Rasmus now serves as Houston's regular leftfielder and cleanup hitter. He has appeared in all 16 games and is batting a robust .311 with 5 HR and 11 RBI. With nine-tenths of the season still ahead, he has a chance to obliterate his career-high number in all major categories.

Is this kind of performance sustainable? The answer appears to be both yes and no. Last season Rasmus hit a career-high 25 HR in a platoon role, so there's no reason to think he can't reach 30-plus HR and drive in 90 or more runs while hitting behind the likes of Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa. If you drafted Rasmus or added him as a free agent, you did so with high hopes for his power and run production. The .311 batting average, on the other hand, has been a pleasant surprise considering Rasmus's career average of .245. Even if he manages to finish around .280, which would beat his previous high mark of .276, he still must endure a few weeks of .150-.200 average in order to get there--something his fantasy owners should keep in mind.

One statistic in particular suggests that the 2016 version of Rasmus could be new and improved in every respect. His walk-to-strikeout ratio of 14:15 is by far the best of his career. In light of his past ratios--47:154 last season, 29:124 in 2014, and 37:135 in 2013--Rasmus's 2016 BB:K rate is also the most eye-popping of his early statistics. His strikeouts have not decreased. For his career, he has struck out 936 times in 946 games, and in 2016 he has 15 strikeouts in 16 games. His walks, however, have increased at an exponential rate. He already has walked nearly half as many times as he did in all of 2014 (104 games)!

No single factor can account for Rasmus's improved plate discipline, but one number seems most relevant. Thus far in April 2016 Rasmus has seen fastballs on only 49% of the pitches thrown to him, which would be the lowest percentage of his career. By contrast, he has seen breaking pitches 35% of the time, which would be the highest percentage of his career. If he is now able to recognize and lay off the breaking pitches--perhaps because he is seeing more of them--then there is reason to hope that the improvement in his BB:K ratio will be permanent.

It might be asking too much of a player who gets on base at a career .316-clip to maintain his current on-base percentage of .467. On the other hand, does it follow of necessity that a player who now is recognizing more breaking pitches and batting in one of baseball's premium lineup spots must regress all the way to his career mean, or even close to it? I think not.