On-Base Perception

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Inside John Buck's hot start for the Mets

John Buck hits a second-inning solo home run

John Buck hits a second-inning solo home run during a game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field. (April 21, 2013) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

The Mets knew they were getting a potential star catcher back when they traded R.A. Dickey to Toronto in December. They just didn't expect it to be John Buck.

Buck, a 32-year-old career .236 hitter who'd already been traded once last offseason, was more of a throw-in on the deal that brought catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud to the Mets.

Yet one month into the season, Buck is flourishing in Flushing.

Entering last night's games, he led the National League with 23 RBIs. He hit his eighth home run -- which was tied for third-best in the majors -- Saturday.

Is this some kind of small-sample-size fluke? Maybe, but Buck's production may be sustainable.

His stats aren't showing significant tells in platoon splits or ballpark preference. Four homers have come against lefties, four against righties; four at Citi Field, four on the road; four have been pulled, three hit to the opposite field, one to centerfield. No matter who's pitching to him, no matter what ballpark they're pitching in and no matter what section of the strike zone they're attacking, Buck has shown an equal chance of doing damage.

He's also producing regardless of pressure. Before Saturday, he was homering once every eight at-bats in high leverage situations, once every 7.6 at-bats in medium leverage spots and once every 15.5 at-bats in low leverage conditions. He's homered four times with men on base and slammed three solo shots.

Though his four percent walk rate is characteristically low this season, Buck appears to have improved his pitch selection, and therein may lie the secret to his success.

He's swinging at just 24.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone and 70.3 percent of pitches in the strike zone -- both numbers are the second lowest of his career. Meanwhile, Buck's making contact with pitches outside the strike zone 64.7 percent of the time (second best in his career) and hitting pitches inside the zone 84.7 percent of the time (highest since 2005-06). Buck's strikeout rate has plummeted to 15.2 percent from a career rate of 23.7.

There are warning signs, however. Despite a career home run per fly ball rate of 12.8 percent, Buck is at a whopping 25 percent this season. Since that stat began being kept in 2002, a HR/FB rate of 25 percent or greater has only been posted over the course of a full season 42 times, or just 2.4 percent of the time.

But what if Buck does keep this up?

Since 1913, only 415 players have hit at least seven home runs by the end of April, and 65.7 percent went on to club at least 20 homers and 43.8 percent hit at least 30.

Buck is already part of an elite club. Only 13 other catchers have homered at least seven times by the end of April. And the Mets have the market cornered: Gary Carter hit seven in 1988 (though he only finished the season with 11); Todd Hundley had eight in 1996 and ended up with 41 homers; Mike Piazza hit at least seven April homers three times (1998, 2001, 2002).

Buck may only be keeping the starting catcher's job warm for d'Arnaud, but he's been hot while doing it.

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