Many Detroit Tigers fans had high hopes for Jose Iglesias heading into the 2015 season, but I don't know if anyone expected what we have seen so far. Through 29 games, Iglesias is hitting a robust .351/.408/.468 with seven extra base hits and eight runs scored. Between this offensive outburst and his usual stellar defense, Iglesias has already been worth 1.4 WAR.
This isn't about WAR, though. We knew Iglesias would help transform the Tigers' defense, and he has. The double play he and second baseman Ian Kinsler turned in the first inning of yesterday's 13-1 win over the Minnesota Twins was just the most recent highlight in a season chock full of them already. Iglesias said it best in his post-game interview. "We can still do better."
This isn't about Iglesias' defense either. After he hit .303 with a .349 on-base percentage in his rookie season in 2013, many thought that he would never come close to repeating those numbers again. All of the signs for regression were there. Iglesias had never hit above .300 on American soil in the minor leagues, and his batting average had continued to decline as he rose through the minor leagues. His .356 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and 10.8 percent infield hit rate were sure to decline with a full season's worth of plate appearances. Unfortunately, Iglesias and the Tigers did not get a chance to put that hypothesis to the test in 2014, as the young shortstop missed the entire season with bilateral stress fractures in his legs.
Fast forward to 2015, and Iglesias is at it again. His .351 batting average leads the American League and is third in all of baseball (minimum 100 plate appearances). His .389 BABIP is third in the AL, and his infield hit rate has risen to 14 percent. All of the things that were supposed to regress have gone in the opposite direction.
This isn't to say that there won't be any regression -- it is still only May 16, after all -- but there is a potential reason for Iglesias' early breakout. In 105 plate appearances, Iglesias has only struck out nine times. His 8.6 percent strikeout rate is the third-lowest in the American League, and lowest in the Tigers' lineup. Iglesias fanned 15.7 percent of the time in 2013, almost double his current strikeout rate. His .117 isolated power (ISO) is well above his .083 ISO from 2013 as well.
With most statistics, the larger sample would be the more reliable data point to draw conclusions from. However, numerous studies have shown that strikeout rate and contact rate are two of the fastest statistics in all of baseball to stabilize. Research done by Russell Carleton and others concluded that it takes roughly 50 to 100 plate appearances for strikeout and contact rates to stabilize.
This is good news for Iglesias. The 25-year-old shortstop has improved his contact rate from 86.3 percent in 2013 to 90.9 percent in 2015, the eighth-highest rate in baseball among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. Iglesias has done this in two main ways. First, he has improved his plate discipline. He is now swinging at a much better selection of pitches compared to 2013, offering at fewer pitches outside the strike zone. Second, he is making contact with everything thrown in the strike zone. Literally, everything. According to Brooks Baseball, Iglesias has not whiffed on a pitch thrown inside the strike zone yet this season. Fangraphs has Iglesias contact rate on pitches within the zone at 99 percent.
It's difficult to predict what this will mean going forward. Even as his contact rate holds steady, Iglesias' .389 BABIP is almost sure to decline. He is making "soft" contact 27.7 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the major leagues. He is fast out of the box, but very few hitters are able to maintain a 14 percent infield hit rate for an entire season. Iglesias hasn't morphed into a .350 hitter overnight, but he appears to be much better than we originally thought.