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2013 Indians Player Preview: Ryan Raburn

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we continue our look at the bench with an under-the-radar offseason signing who made his way onto the roster: Ryan Raburn.

Background: The Detroit Tigers took Raburn out of South Florida Community College in the fifth round of the 2001 MLB amateur draft—the same round in which Ryan Howard, C.J. Wilson, Jim Johnson, and former Tribe pitcher Chris Seddon were taken. He made his MLB debut in 2004 but didn’t see any significant playing time until 2007. He remained in the Tigers organization through the end of last season, when he was non-tendered. The Indians signed him to a minor-league deal this winter.

Last year: There’s no two ways about it—Raburn was awful in 2012. The right-handed utility man hit just .171 with one home run, 14 runs scored, 12 RBI, and one stolen base in 66 games for Detroit. He showed neither power nor the ability to get on base, leading to a putrid OPS of .480 (28 wRC+). Despite his playing less than half a season, FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus all estimated that he cost Detroit a full two wins below replacement.

Key factor: Making solid contact. Raburn’s struggles can be entirely explained by his .224 batting average on balls in play—more than 100 points below his previous career average. Usually we might chalk a single-season fluctuation that large up to random variation, but in Raburn’s case it wasn’t just luck: his batted-ball profile suggested that he wasn’t making as good contact as he usually does, as did the sharp drop in his power numbers. As someone who strikes out a lot and doesn’t walk much, Raburn’s ability to hit the ball hard will be the make-or-break factor in his season.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

These projections are pretty optimistic for a player who just hit below the Mendoza line.

Best-case scenario: Last year was a fluke and Raburn picks up right where he left off a couple years ago. He hits the ball hard, he doesn’t strike out too much and Terry Francona uses him so as to get the most out of his bat and versatile glove. He sticks around on the roster all year and proves incredibly valuable for Francona’s strategic purposes.

Worst-case scenario: Last year wasn’t a fluke and Raburn’s anemic bat is his new norm. He’ll improve somewhat just based on regression to the mean, but it doesn’t take long for the team to realize that he’s no longer a legitimate MLB player. He’s gone for good by the end of May and goes down in Indians history as an Aaron Cunningham, not a Jack Hannahan.

What to expect: Raburn wasn’t as bad as he looked in 2012 and Francona will better tailor his opportunities to his skills in 2013, but there’s a reason the Tribe got him on a minor-league deal. Anything better than the ZiPS projection would be a welcome surprise.

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