The facts are grim. In 313 AB, Kearns posted a .217 BA / .311 OBP / .316 SLG line that would be unacceptable if he was a slick-fielding shortstop. As of the time of this post, his .627 OPS is the fourth worst of any OF with 300 or more AB in baseball, with only a trio of speedy CFs worse: Michael Bourn (.576), Corey Patterson (.583), and Willy Taveras (.610). In fact, if he was a shortstop, he'd be third from the bottom among those with 300 ABs (nosing out Cesar Izturis and Khalil Greene).
Looking just at corner OFs, where defense is easier to play and offense is much more important, only Jeff Francouer comes close at .646. The next lowest OPS among pure corner OFs with 300 or more ABs is Emil Brown at .683. The average RF hit .789 OPS, .162 better than Austin.
But the thing that really pops out at you is that .316 slugging percentage. That's less power than Juan Pierre (.318 SLG). That's just 17 extra-base hits out of 68 hits total. Kearns just had no power whatsoever.
All these fancy stats are just a really complicated way of saying that Kearns was one of the very worst everyday players in all of baseball. And he did this at age 28, which should be the peak season of his career.
So with 2008 in the books, what do we make of Kearns? There are a lot of people in the chatrooms and at Nationals Park ready to just eat the $8 million and send Austin the way of Felipe Lopez and Paul Lo Duca. I'm not there yet. He'll never be the "100-RBI, 25-30 HR middle of the order bat" Bowden pronounced him to be, but what can we reasonably expect? Should he be in our plans at all?
First, we know Kearns has been playing hurt basically all year. The nagging elbow problem, reported as "loose bodies," that got operated on in May never seemed to clear up and seemed to really sap his power (not to mention his throwing arm). A stress fracture in his foot last month finally did him in. The elbow certainly played a role, but still, Kearns and the team felt he was healthy enough to send out him out there 86 times. And it's not like he played mediocre hurt--he played horribly hurt.
That said, one of the things people seem to have forgotten is that over his career one of Kearns's biggest problems has been durability. People laugh when Bowden says, "who could have guessed that Nick Johnson, Dmitri Young, and Shawn Hill would get hurt?" You should laugh when he says that about Kearns too.
Setting that aside, if Kearns is healthy, what can we expect? To get a handle on a hitter's actual repeatable skill and separate out luck and things outside their control, I like to look at the stats that best isolate the core skills that go into hitting. There are much more sophisticated ways to do this, but for these purposes, I'm going to look at walk rate (to measure hitting eye), strikeouts (to measure bat control / ability to make contact), and ISO power (to measure power, of course). These three skills make up the lion's share of good hitting ability, and these numbers tend to have little variation from year to year, suggesting that there's less luck affecting the outcomes than less consistent stats like batting average.
Kearns has always had a strong walk rate, however, troublingly, it's gotten worse almost every year. His best-ever walk rate came in his rookie season, 2002, at 12.7%. By last year, it had slipped to 10.8% and this year all the way to 10.1%. That decline has been a steady slope, with the exception of a slight uptick back to 12.4% in 2006. That might not sound like a big change, but it is. League average is around 8.5%, so Kearns is still good, but he's gone from outstanding to merely good, and again the fact that he's gotten worse, not better, from his age 22 to 28 seasons doesn't bode well.
Kearns strikes out a decent amount--not a ton, but he's not a particularly good contact hitter. For his career, his K rate is 23.3% (NL average this year is 18%), which is bad unless you're slugging a ton, which he isn't. The point is that if you are swinging for the fences you'd expect to strikeout more. But if you aren't slugging and you're still striking out a lot, then your bat control / contact ability just isn't very good. Unlike his walks, however, he has shown improvement here. Again, his rookie year was one of his best, at 21.8%, but his Ks shot up to 32.7% in '04 and 27.6% in '05. By last year, he'd gotten that strikeout rate down to 18.1%, and this year it drifted back to 20.1%, a bit up but nothing really out of line from past years.
This stat is simply SLG - BA. It basically shows you how many bases a hitter got to on batted balls past first base. This year's NL average for batting title-qualified hitters is .177. The very best power hitters like Albert Pujols and Adam Dunn hit ISO power around .270-.285. Kearns this year posted a horrifyingly low .99 ISO. Again, though, let's set that aside as an injury-caused fluke. It's a complete outlier from the rest of his career. His career ISO power (including this year) is .175. He peaked in 2005 at .212, then dipped to .203 in '06 and fell to a then-career low of .145 in '07 (which certainly was in part the move from GABP to RFK). So bottom line he's a bit better than average, but the trend-line isn't that encouraging. Even factoring in the park factor, he's not getting better from ages 25-27.
So all together he has a good, not great eye, below average contact ability, and barely above-average power. But he's not particularly impressive in any category. And the trendline is down or flat for all three.
So what do we have? I think it's reasonable to expect that for the next 3-4 years he will be pretty similar to the guy we saw in '06-'07, a .265 / .355 .435 type guy. I don't see the great potential for a breakout beyond that, but I also don't see a repeat of what we saw this season. And to repeat, that's assuming he's healthy, and it would be unwise to think he won't miss at least one full season over the next 3.
But there's no reason we can't live with him for another year. He won't kill us again the way he did this year, and even if we go out and sign CC and Tex, the 2009 Nationals aren't going anywhere. But there's also no justification for thinking he's ever going to be a middle-of-the-order bat to build around or a difference-maker. He's a #7 hitter on a winning team, and we'd need a MI like the Phillies or Marlins have. We need to upgrade, and if you hear the team talking about re-signing Kearns or counting on him to hit clean-up in the future, you should worry.
And if we can deal him straight up for Billy Bray, do it in a heartbeat.
- Oops one other stat I meant to include here is that his 2008 BABIP is .251. This is a number that tends to be heavily influenced by luck and defense--things outside the hitter's control--and a typical number is more like .290-.300. If Kearns's BABIP this year had matched his career average of .305, his BA would have been -- .259, not .213. FWIW, just another data point to support the conclusion that although he's not good enough, he's nowhere near the worst player in baseball.