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June 16, 2009
Performance Analysis: While it was no surprise that Raul Ibanez would see a boost in production due to his move from the American League to the weaker National League, his first two-plus months have been far better than anyone could imagine. Ibanez' line stands at .322/.380/.678 with 22 home runs, just one fewer than he hit all of last year, and 11 off of his career high from 2006. Despite just turning 37 earlier this month, he is in the midst of the best season of his career, and would more than likely finish the year that way even if he reverted to his career norms from here on out. That last point is the central question regarding Ibanez though: What exactly is it that we should be expecting out of him at the plate for the remainder of the season?
Taking a look at his batted-ball data reveals little. He's not hitting as many line drives as he normally does (just 15.3 percent so far), but he is sustaining a high rate of success on the ones he does get (.806/.784/1.222). He's hitting a few more grounders and fly balls instead, but neither figure has seen that substantial an increase. The lone number that looks out of place here is his HR/FB rate of jacks landing in the seats on 25.6 percent of his flies, a figure that's over nine percentage points higher than his career-high rate. This is the key to Ibanez' season, as a fluctuating HR/FB rate over a small sample can make a player look better or worse than he actually is.
Let's take a deeper look at his home runs to see if we can learn anything from them. First of all, Ibanez seems to have benefited from the move to the NL as much if not more than from the move to Citizens Bank Park, which isn't all that surprising given how well Safeco treated left-handed pull hitters like Ibanez despite its overall pitcher-friendly leanings. He's hitting .333/.421/.696 at home and .314/.347/.664 on the road, with a homer every 11.3 at-bats at Citizens, and one every 10.8 elsewhere. Most of his homers have landed between right and center field, with just a handful going the opposite way.
Using information from Hit Tracker shows us what Ibanez' homers look like. He's leading the league in three home-run types that are tracked there, with nine "No Doubts," seven "Just Enoughs," and three "Lucky" homers. Two of those "Lucky" shots are overlaps with the "Just Enoughs"-"Lucky" homers are those that would not have left the park on a day that's 70 degrees with calm weather. There is little to complain about when it comes to the "No Doubt" shots, as those left the bat and never looked back. The seven "Just Enough" homers (and the one extra lucky shot) have influenced Ibanez' line significantly, though; hypothetically, if we were to count all eight of those homers as fly-ball outs, Ibanez' line would be .289/.351/.545. That's still very impressive, but it's not the same as the ridiculous pace he's set for himself, and in fact looks a lot like his 2002 season with the Royals.
We can't just take those homers away from him though, for two reasons. First, they have already been hit, and the Phillies' record is the better for it, and second, even the best sluggers pick up a few so-called "Just Enough" shots each year. Those are homers that clear the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, or by less than one fence-height. Though they barely made it over the fence, they accounted for nearly one-third of all homers hit in the majors last season; in short, they happen. You can adjust for those homers going forward-maybe you don't think Ibanez will have the same luck with them in the second half as he had in the first-and that's probably the best course of action.
How do we explain the "No Doubt" shots though? In this category Ibanez shares the lead with Albert Pujols. Looking at Ibanez' distance for his homers tells us a little more about his luck. The average True Distance of his homers is 409 feet-the True Distance is how far a ball actually traveled, without any adjustments for conditions such as wind or temperature. His average Standard Distance-the measurement that does account for those things-is 401.2 feet. That's close to last year's 400 feet of True Distance (and 398.3 standard), which was roughly five feet more than his 2007 numbers. Consider how many of those "Just Enough" homers may not have cleared the fence were the weather not kind to him; it's also possible that a few of his "No Doubt" shots got an extra boost that pushed them out of standard or lucky homer territory.
It looks like a wonderful chain of events unfolded for Ibanez, all at once. Between the league switch and favorable weather conditions for hitters in his games, Ibanez has been able to make the Phillies' front office look smart for signing him. Assuming he does not have the same meteorological blessings in the second half that he has had in the first, we should see his performance return to a much more Ibanez-like level. That's still really good for the Phillies though, especially with the previous two-plus months already in the bank.-Marc Normandin
Scouting Report: Those who know Ibanez will tell you that his work ethic and willingness to adjust and adapt are second to none. That helps explain why he is defying the laws of aging by getting off to the best start of his career this season despite turning 37 earlier this month. Ibanez is also making Phillies first-year general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. look smart for signing him last winter to a three-year, $31.5 million contract in a free-agent market where money was tight; at the time Amaro was heavily criticized for overpaying.
Obviously, Ibanez is a late bloomer, but this isn't the first of it, as he did not get a chance to play every day until his seventh big-league season, in 2002 with the Royals. He'd spent his first five seasons with the Mariners stuck behind such outfielders as Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner, and Mike Cameron.
Ibanez has become better as he has gotten older because of that aforementioned willingness to change. He came to the majors with an all-or-nothing swing, but has learned the value of hitting to all fields rather than trying to pull every pitch. Pitchers also used to be able to expand his strike zone by exploiting Ibanez's tendency to chase breaking balls in the dirt, but he has learned to lay off those offerings.
"He's reached that point in his career where he has figured things out," said a scout who has watched Ibanez since he broke into the majors in 1996. "He has a plan every time he steps into the box, and he's smart, so he adjusts quickly to whatever the pitcher is trying to do to him. Going to the weaker league (the NL) and playing in that bandbox (Citizens Bank Park) in Philadelphia has helped jack his numbers up a little bit, there's no doubt, but he is now one of the smartest hitters in the game. And don't discount what great shape the guy is in. He's in better shape now than when he a kid breaking into the league. He's not a big bulky guy, but he's strong, real strong."-John Perrotto
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .