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April 14, 2008
Missing Bat Speed
It may be too early in the season to draw any conclusions about whether a player has either turned a corner or lost an edge, but we can still implement some of the strategies for identifying those players. The thought process is more important than the players involved, since these tools can be applied to any player in a similar situation. For this article, we'll be looking at some veterans who may have lost some bat speed, as well as some young players who may not have figured it out yet.
After posting one of the more disappointing lines of 2007 at just .222/.311/.413, Andruw Jones has picked up where he left off with a .105/.209/.132 start to 2008. There are tons of players hitting badly at this point in the season, but Jones sticks out for a few reasons. For one thing, he has only hit 11.5 percent of his batted balls for liners; the league average is closer to 20 percent, and his career rate is 18.1. Even last year he was at 17.2 percent. This can easily even out, since 11.5 percent is just three liners out of 26 batted balls, but it's something to watch.
There are two things that worry me more than his liner rate. Jones' grounder rate is 69.2 percent; he's hitting 3.6 times more grounders than flyballs at the moment, an odd thing for a player who has crossed the 40 percent mark for flyball rate the past three years. He's also striking out in 31.6 percent of his plate appearances, the highest mark he's had since he first came into the league as a 19-year-old rookie. He's never hit for much of an average, so if his bat is slowing to the point where he can't hit for much power, he's not going to be any help at the plate.
The evidence for his bat slowing is sort of muddled with the few numbers we have to look at this early in the year. He's pulling 27 percent of the balls he makes contact with to the left side of the infield, and then another 26 percent of them to left field. Only 16 percent of his batted balls have gone to the right side of the field. Last year, Jones hit 33.4 percent of his batted balls to the left side of the infield for a batting average of .171, so that pull rate is nothing new.
Jones is hitting .304 on fastballs so far this year, but the only place he's killing the ball is right down the middle of the plate and outside; he hasn't been able to do anything effective with inside pitches yet. This makes me think that so far, he's only been hitting mistakes off of pitchers who aren't challenging his bat speed. If that's the case, Jones' line may not jump to the point where he's going to be any help for you at a very deep position. Keep an eye on him and watch for improvement or stasis in his batted-ball data, strikeout rate and pitches hit before doing anything rash.
Gary Sheffield is another player who has struggled in the early going, and there's a good chance that his bat speed has dipped significantly from what we are used to. He's hitting .167/.412/.167 at the moment; that's a walk in 27.4 percent of his plate appearances. Spikes in walk rate like this can be an indicator that a player's bat has slowed, as they let pitches go by that they would have normally swung at, since they can't catch up with them. Another indicator is that they start to go the other way with pitches they can wait on, as they don't have the bat speed to pull the ball like they used to. So far, we've seen the former from Sheffield, but the latter still hasn't happened, as the right-hander is still pulling the ball to the left side of the field often.
Sheffield hasn't been able to make square contact on most pitches yet, with a liner rate of just 9.1 percent. Those missing liners have become groundballs, which make up half of his batted balls thus far. He's still hitting flyballs at the rate he normally does, but the difference is that he's popping up rather than going deep.
Again, we're only working with a handful of balls in play, so there's no reason to panic solely because of those. Like Jones, we're just identifying items you want to watch for, in order to see if a trend is developing. This will help you make an informed decision about a player's current ability level, for better or worse. Sheffield has some indicators that his bat speed has slowed-he also has a wrist injury in his recent past and a finger injury at present, both things that can hinder a swing-and if this is the case, you're going to have to find a better option for your team than a 39-year-old who swings a bat like it's a telephone pole. We'll know if it's the finger or aging soon enough.
What we've seen of Richie Sexson this year looks like a vast improvement over the 2007 model that hit just .205/.295/.399, as he's currently hitting .244/.392/.463 for the Mariners. That's a .220 Isolated Power, which is fine as long as you hit around .250 or up, but is not very useful when you hit .205. The .392 OBP is where I want to focus, though, because that's the product of a walk rate almost twice that of last year's 10.5 percent mark. Sexson is walking in 19.6 percent of his plate appearances, a spike that has me worried when coupled with his strikeout rate of 34.1 percent. Sexson is making contact in under half of his plate appearances, and he's popped up as often as he's hit a liner so far this year.
Sexson is also having trouble with everything that isn't straight or thrown near the middle of the plate, which makes me think that the 33-year-old is having bat speed issues. The spike in walk and strikeout rates coupled with this makes a convincing case to watch for this potential trend. In addition, his batting average is guaranteed to fall if he doesn't stop striking out at this rate, as his .320 BABIP is a product of small-sample luck, since he's only hit liners at a 15 percent clip, continuing last year's dip from the average and Sexson's career rates.
It's a little early to clear room on your roster for the return of Richie Sexson. Based on the numbers, don't be shocked if we see Sexson's average fall due to BABIP regression, his OBP dip due to pitchers challenging his bat speed, and his slugging suffer from the drop in mistake offerings down the heart of the plate. Chances are good Sexson isn't going to be worth the effort, but keep an eye on the strikeout and walk rates to see if they even out.
These numbers take on a different meaning when you are looking at a younger player who is obviously not going through the same aging and bat speed issues these veterans are. In the case of Edwin Encarnacion, we have a 25-year-old hitting .171/.356/.343. The OBP is obviously solid, though the chances of a .180 point difference between average and on-base are not realistic over the course of the season. His Isolated Power of .171 is decent for third base, but he will need to boost his batting average before you see that power manifested in his line.
So far, Encarnacion has ten walks versus six hits. Two of those hits were homers, and the rest have been singles. His BABIP is just .160, well off his career rate of .307. Based on his batted-ball data, it looks as if the right-hander is having trouble squaring up on the ball; his liner rate is just 7.4 percent, and he's hitting grounders on almost 56 percent of his batted balls. With his strikeout and walk numbers as high as they are, he's certainly seeing enough pitches; now he just needs to pull the trigger on the right ones. He did hit .289/.356/.438 last year, which was pretty close to his expected numbers. His .323 BABIP was 16 points higher than it should have been according to his 18.7 liner rate, but that's not a huge deal, especially for a young player who is supposed to improve as he hits his peak years.
It's early to panic about Encarnacion on a talent level; he's just 25 years old, and all he needs to do is hit a few more singles and cut his strikeouts down to previous rates. Encarnacion looks like a player who is just going through a rough stretch with base hits to start the season, rather than a guy who can't handle major league pitching.