Past events do not predict future outcomes, just as correlation is not causation, a rectangle is not always a square, and the Chinaman is not the issue here. However, the White Sox have a new third baseman (the past may not predict the future, but in this case it repeats itself), so does history tell us anything about what to expect from Jeff Keppinger?
First, let’s talk about what not to expect – specifically, a three win player. Even in his excellent 2012 season, Keppinger has never been worth more than 2.8 WAR (FanGraphs)/2.6 WARP (Baseball Prospectus). That’s a pretty low ceiling, but it’s safe to say that even 2.5 wins from third base would make us all ecstatic (the last time that happened was Joe Crede in 2006).
Unfortunately, Keppinger has been near or below replacement level three times in his career – 2008, 2009 and 2011. That’s pretty sobering, considering he only has six seasons of significant major league time under his belt. If you’re looking for reasons to think he’ll be better than that in 2013, here are two good ones: health and luck. In Keppinger’s two worst seasons, 2008 and 2011, he battled through pretty significant injuries (a fractured knee courtesy of a foul ball in 2008, and a stress fracture in his foot in 2011). He also happened to post two of his lowest BABIPs those two seasons, and it’s fair to speculate (hope?) that tweaking his swing or losing a little foot speed because of the injuries contributed to flukishly low results on balls in play.*
It doesn't help that fluctuations in BABIP affect Keppinger’s value more than most hitters, since his greatest (read: only) strength at the plate is his ability to make contact. In fact, his first season with Cincinatti was somewhat historic in that respect:
Since 1956, no middle infielder with a minimum of 40 games at second or short had ever batted .330 in a season with a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 2-to-1. Until Keppinger:
Year Player AB Avg BB K BB/K
2007 Jeff Keppinger 241 .332 24 12 2.00
1956 Harvey Kuenn 591 .332 55 34 1.62
1975 Rod Carew 535 .359 64 40 1.60
1974 Rod Carew 599 .364 74 49 1.51
1996 Chuck Knoblauch 578 .341 98 74 1.32
If we lower the batting threshold to .320, Keppinger's walk-to-strikeout ratio drops to third, behind another Reds middle infielder of some repute-Joe Morgan, in his twin MVP years of 1975 and 1976.
He followed that up with more walks than strikeouts in two of the next three seasons, including his otherwise wretched 2008. The one thing White Sox fans can count on is that Keppinger will make contact. That will be nice to see at the top of an order that otherwise includes three of the Sox’s four leading whiffers from 2012 – Adam Dunn, Alejandro De Aza, and Alex Rios. Unfortunately, that’s about all Keppinger’s going to add at the plate, since his career ISO (.109), BB rate (6.6%) and baserunning numbers (-3.5 UBR) are all below average.
In the field, Keppinger figures to bring some additional value, as third base is by far his strongest position. He’s saved 4.5 runs there over 1101 innings – almost a full season – according to UZR. One of the biggest reasons for Keppinger’s lack of value in his Cincinnati/Houston years were Betancourtian fielding numbers at second base and shortstop. Moving down the defensive spectrum will do a lot to boost his WARP, and it’s possible that he’s still got a little room for improvement as he grows more comfortable with the position.
DL: Having played mostly in the middle of the infield, has it been especially hard to adjust to third base because of the different reads off the bat?
JK: Yeah, it has; you could say that. I feel that I'm more comfortable at shortstop right now. Third base is a little closer, with a quicker reaction time, so shortstop is a little easier for me. It's just a matter of getting used to taking balls over there.
PECOTA, ZIPS and Bill James are strikingly consistent in predicting Keppinger’s 2013, coming in around .290/.340/.400, give or take a few points. That’s seems like a fair estimate – the drop from his impressive 2012/improvement from the aforementioned bad years is basically just regression of his BABIP towards his .294 career mark. Adding in a slightly above average UZR at third gets him to around two wins, presuming health.
Of course, Keppinger’s health going forward is no guarantee. He's been on the DL six times since 2005, including for a remarkable five different fractures in his lower body. Luckily, Herm Schneider and his staff can only help him stay on the field, and bone injuries are less likely to recur than the nagging muscle/tendon type. That said, there's evidence that Keppinger is prone to fractures, and it might be that his avian bone syndrome is something that even the best trainers in the game can’t thwart.
In the end, if you’re looking for a breakout star, third base is probably the last place on the team you should turn – Paul Konerko is more likely to put up eight wins than Jeff Keppinger is to put up five. However, two wins is easily within reach, and it might actually be one of the safer bets on the team. For a position that’s persistently been a deeper vortex than the Springfield Mystery Spot, that’s reason for optimism.
*I should note that I couldn't find any excuse for his down 2009, besides playing semi-regularly for a crappy Houston squad and a little bad luck. So if you're looking for a reason to be pessimistic, there's that.