By Marc Normandin
Michael Cuddyer's career looked like it was heading in the wrong direction shortly after signing a three-year, $31.5 million contract with the Colorado Rockies. His line still looked decent enough, at .260/.317/.489, but it was a Coors' mirage: away from altitude, Cuddyer was a shadow of the player that interested the Rockies in the first place, batting all of .250/.287/.457. He was 33 years old, had dealt with oblique injuries that put him on the disabled list twice in one season, and took up a large chunk of the payroll for a team that didn't spend all that much relative to the competition -- all of this after leaving a team and fan base that had adored him for over a decade.
While things didn't look great for all of the above reasons heading into 2013, he's turned things around as quickly as they initially faltered. While he's missed some time with a herniated disc in his neck, and has played in just 62 games because of it, he's been basically flawless when on the diamond. Cuddyer is hitting .344/.393/.590, a line that, even with the adjustment for the hitters' paradise he plays in, gives him a 151 OPS+, good for sixth in the National League according to Baseball Reference.
That's burying the lede a bit, though: Cuddyer has gotten to that lofty ranking by producing a 27-game hit streak. While that gets all the credit -- who doesn't love a hit streak? -- what's more impressive is that he's reached base in 46 consecutive contests, dating back to April 23, when he went a combined 3-for-7 with a walk in a doubleheader against the Braves. He strung together at least one time on base from then through May 9, when he first missed time with the neck injury, and resumed getting on base once he returned to action on May 24, as if he had never missed any time whatsoever.
Hit streaks are kind of ridiculous. Assorted proof: Cuddyer's 27-game effort is the lengthiest of 2013 and one of only two to reach at least 20 games; it is the fourth-longest of the last five years, with Dan Uggla's 33-game streak from 2011 atop that list; it is the longest streak by a Rockies player ever, and has been since Cuddyer passed Dante Bichette's 23-game streak, set back in 1995; it is the 22nd-longest since the Rockies came into the league in 1993. Even with all of those impressive accolades, 27 isn't even halfway to Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game streak. Cuddyer has some work to do if we want to get historic.
That's something to worry about a month from now, if ever. For now, we'll leave the dreams of the streak to Cuddyer, and focus instead on what's different between last year, when Cuddyer looked to be slipping, and now, when he's in possession of the lengthiest on-base streak in 2013, and the fourth-longest in the last 10 years.
The simplest explanation -- though far from the only one -- is that Cuddyer just had an awful season in terms of luck: Coors Field's batting average on balls in play was .345 in 2012, but Cuddyer's overall BABIP was just .287. This wasn't just due to road games dragging things down, either, as Cuddyer posted a fairly normal .281 BABIP on the road in 2012, but just .293 at home, or roughly 50 points below what your average player produced at Coors. That's an enormous drop, and in fact is lower than what Cuddyer accomplished both in 2011 and in his career leading up to the shift to hitter-friendly Coors. In short, it's exactly what we should not have expected from Cuddyer in the first year of his deal.
That doesn't mean this -- meaning his 2013 explosion -- is exactly what Cuddyer is supposed to be, though. His BABIP is now .383, whereas Coors as a whole is at .308. That park figure is more in line with Colorado's recent history, as Coors' BABIP from 2009 through 2011 were .317, .326, and .312: 2012 was an anomaly in the opposite direction of Cuddyer's own, so he's likely in line to regress far harder than he would have in 2012's environment.
Even if you guesstimate some regression and shave 40-50 points off of his BABIP, though -- Cuddyer has always been better than average in this regard, so we'll give him some credit -- you're still talking about a guy hitting about .300/.350/.550, which is impressive even with Coors involved. That's more the Cuddyer that was expected in Colorado when the Rockies signed him: one who could superficially boost his slash line in an impressive-looking way, but still be useful even when you see through that facade. It's believable he can do that, too, as his 2012 issues seem to be the temporary kind.
Cuddyer has always been better against lefties than righties, but still solid against his weakness. Last year, though, he scuffled in a big way against his fellow right-handers. Cuddyer hit just .261/.304/.456 against them, and did so in over 70 percent of his total plate appearances -- remember, the Coors effect makes that look better than it is. His performance against righties would have dragged things down anyway, but about all he did against southpaws was hit for power, as his .224 BABIP attests. Now, he hit for a whole lot of power, slugging .577 against lefties. But if he had his career BABIP against them to back that up, a figure that's nearly 100 points higher than what he managed in 2012, then no one notices Cuddyer failing thanks to the ridiculous .350/.450/.670 or what have you performance against left-handed pitching, an achievement that would have been born of his innate ability to mash lefties with Coors' tendencies to enhance anything a hitter can already do well.
So he didn't lose his power whatsoever, not against righties or lefties, but dealt with some BABIP issues that turned what should have been an eye-popping line against southpaws into one that was merely impressive. Pitch value data from PITCHf/x suggests Cuddyer just didn't have it against fastballs in 2012, as he notched below-average run values against both four- and two-seam heaters, and also swung outside of the zone with more regularity than in his past. He didn't struggle in any particular count, though, he was a bit below average after a 1-2 count according to Baseball Reference. It really just seems as if Cuddyer put the ball in play less effectively than in his past or his present a year ago, possibly due to the increased swings at pitches out of the zone, potentially because he didn't get to play a full season due to injury, and also likely because he saw more first-pitch strikes than he ever has in his career, giving the pitcher a leg up in plate appearances 64 percent of the time.
These sorts of things happen. Cuddyer was in a new league, and his opponents tested him. Cuddyer passed, in the sense he remained an above-average hitter, but he was a disappointment relative to expectations. Now a year later, mostly healthy and with a year in Rockies purple behind him, Cuddyer has produced a season that looks roughly like what he was supposed to do after heading to a higher altitude. There will be regression, of course, but it won't keep him from being productive. After the initial disappointment, the Rockies -- and Cuddyer -- should be plenty happy with that, whether the excitement of the hit streak continues or not.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.