Some players are insanely consistent, but they're the exceptions. There are reasons Albert Pujols is making the money he's making, but one of them is that he's absolutely, rock-solid predictable. There's great value in that.
For many others, though, we still don't know entirely what we're looking at even after years of performance. A one-time career year can be tough to discern from a breakout, consolidation season without the benefit of years of hindsight. Likewise, sometimes a down year is just a down year, and sometimes it's the beginning of a player's decline phase.
MLB.com took a look at five players about whom we're asking those very questions. The following five players will either bash or crash in 2012, and if you know for sure which way they're going to go, you might want to buy a lottery ticket.
Curtis Granderson, Yankees: Granderson is probably the safest bet on this list. After all, in two-thirds of his at-bats in 2011, he was the same player he's always been. Granderson hit right-handers just about the same in 2011 (.258 average, .372 on-base percentage, .531 slugging percentage) as he has for the bulk of his career (.282/.364/.528). The difference was in 200 or so at-bats against left-handers, when Granderson transformed from a liability to a monster.
A lifetime .226/.289/.396 hitter against lefties, Granderson has abused them since late in the summer of 2010. That's when he and Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long famously made an adjustment to his swing mechanics that allowed him to have more of a chance against same-side hurlers. In 2011, he was actually better against lefties than right-handers, posting a .347 OBP and slugging .597.
Prognosis: Granderson is likely to give back some of his gains against lefties, since he wasn't just improved, he was brilliant. But he's just as likely to avoid falling back to his old hapless ways. The mechanical adjustment is real, and Long's wizardry has been noted before. Plus, Granderson's performance wasn't in just a few dozen at-bats. This looks like a real skill change. So he may take a small step back, but not a big one. In short, bash.
FIVE TO WATCH
MLB.com identifies and examines five players to watch in various categories this season:
Drew Stubbs, Reds: Through two seasons, it appeared Stubbs might be one of those players with obvious strengths and obvious flaws -- a high-strikeout player offering power, speed and defense to make up for his low contact rates and low on-base percentage. Then 2011 happened. Stubbs maintained his speed and defense and he kept striking out and not getting on base. But the power vanished.
In 98 more plate appearances than he had in 2010, he hit seven fewer homers and had seven fewer extra-base hits. His slugging percentage dropped to an anemic .364. And while talk in Cincinnati centered on Stubbs' 205 strikeouts and batting average, that misses the point to some extent. If Stubbs had hit for his usual power, he'd have been a valuable, contributing player. He didn't.
Fortunately, he has the right manager for his situation. Dusty Baker handles situations like this with great aplomb. Baker sounds like he's going to tell Stubbs just what he needs to hear: Don't worry about the Ks, be yourself and be the player you can be.
"They act like Stubbs is the first cat [to strike out]," Baker told reporters recently. "He had to break somebody's record to get there. Look at Bobby Bonds. There have been a bunch of strikeout guys. Drew Stubbs is not the first one."
It may not be what fans want to hear, but it's exactly what Stubbs should be hearing. The strikeouts aren't the problem, and if they come with a return of his power, all will be fine.
Prognosis: Mixed, with some real chance of crash. Stubbs has to hit for power to be a plus offensive player. He just doesn't make enough contact, even with some added bunt attempts, to thrive as a table-setter type. And without a mechanical or health-related explanation for his power fade in 2011, it's difficult to be confident that the big hits will come back.
Mike Morse, Nationals: As with Stubbs, it's about the power with Morse, too. The difference is that Stubbs did more or less the same thing in 2011 that he did in 2010, just in more big league at-bats. Morse has always been a big guy who looked like he should hit for power. He's always hit for a decent average and done a nice job of getting on base.
What's changed in the past two years is the power. The results have begun to match the tool. The key here may well be that it wasn't a one-season or half-season thing. Morse consolidated his 2010 gains during 2011, and that's reason for optimism, to be sure.
The Nationals are counting on another year like 2011 from Morse.
"We expect him to do it," manager Davey Johnson said. "You guys [reporters] like to look at age or history. I look at what I see. I trust my eyes. I like what I see. He's my cleanup hitter. I didn't draw him out of a hat -- he's my cleanup hitter. His numbers spoke."
Prognosis: More bash than crash. Morse has done it for more than a full year now, he's shown the skills to be more than just a guy who hits homers, and the power tool is clearly there. He may regress some, but he's unlikely to fade into oblivion.
Alex Gordon, Royals: If Gordon hadn't been one of the most heralded prospects of the past decade, his 2011 season would likely be viewed much more skeptically. Sometimes when a player puts it all together at age 27, it's just a career year, not a step forward. But when that player was drafted No. 2 overall, and utterly obliterated the Minor Leagues on his way to the show, the conversation is different.
What Gordon did last year was what he was supposed to do all along. It just took him a while to get there. Gordon played more than 400 big league games before his breakout. One concept worth knowing, though, is that of the young veteran. It's not at all unheard of for players with great talent who reach the Majors at a young age to put it together after a few years.
Given what we know about Gordon's past, and what we saw from him in 2011, it's not hard at all to see him fitting that profile.
Prognosis: More bash than crash. Gordon's a hitter, and hitters hit. Sometimes it just takes them a while.
Yoenis Cespedes, Athletics: This is the great unknown. The long-term outlook for Cespedes is extremely favorable; just look at the contract to know that. But in the short term, who knows?
He's 26 and a physical freak. He's starred in Cuba, hailing from a pipeline that has produced some excellent players. Even so, he's never seen pitching on a regular basis like he's going to see in the American League -- and especially in the AL West, home to guys like Jered Weaver, Felix Hernandez, Dan Haren and of course fellow international phenom Yu Darvish.
Any read on Cespedes at this point is based largely on scouting reports rather than performance evaluation. The scouting report says the power is real. Cespedes may not hit for average, especially at first, and it remains to be seen how he'll control the strike zone. But he's strong and he has a swing that should generate power.
"How we think he'll handle the Major Leagues and whether or not he'll be able to handle the first game of the year or the 10th game of the year, we just don't know," A's general manager Billy Beane told reporters recently. "And I don't want to set any timetables or statistical goals for him to reach. We'll just have a feel. If he can handle it up here, we'll make that decision."
Prognosis: Medium to long term, bash. Short term, there could be some crash. Sure, the hype is stifling, but there's a reason for it. Cespedes is a rare talent. But the big leagues are hard. The best players in Cuba can play anywhere in the world, as we've seen repeatedly over the years. But the depth there is nowhere near what the Majors have to offer. Cespedes could even spend some time at Triple-A Sacramento before making his impact. He's coming, but he may not be there just yet.