Following Derrek Lee‘s tremendous offensive explosion in 2005, the Chicago Cubs rewarded him with a five-year, $65 million contract, a deal which looks even better in the context of this offseason’s inflated market. The problem for Lee came when he fractured his radius and ulna after colliding with the DodgersRafael Furcal on April 19. The wrist gave him problems for much of the rest of the year, as he missed two months and then came back a bit too early. The question going forward for Lee is whether or not he is capable of replicating his 2005 production, since 2006 never really gave us a chance to see whether Lee was capable of, at the least, fulfilling his loftier PECOTA forecast.

Derrek Leon Lee, the nephew of former major leaguer Leron Lee, was drafted fourteenth overall by the San Diego Padres all the way back in 1993 at the age of 17. (On the random side of things, Derrek’s father is Leon Lee, the scout who actually discovered Hee-Seop Choi. Choi and Lee were traded for each other prior to the 2004 season.) Lee had received a full scholarship to the University of North Carolina to play basketball, but instead chose to head straight to the minor leagues and try his luck at baseball, signing with the Padres and heading to the Arizona Padres for his professional debut:

           AB   AVG/OBP/SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
Arz.(Rk)   52 .327/.397/.500 .365  24%  .173    2   10.3%  12.1%
Ran.(A+)   73 .274/.369/.411 .274  35%  .137    6   12.0%  24.1%
Ran.(A+)  442 .267/.336/.373 .242  25%  .106   21    8.7%  19.6%
Ran.(A+)  502 .301/.366/.496 .321  33%  .195   27    8.9%  23.6%

Lee moved up to Rancho Cucamonga after just a few at-bats in Rookie League, and stayed there for the next two seasons before earning a 2 game promotion to Double-A Memphis in 1995. Besides his initial Rookie League stint, Lee didn’t showcase himself to be much like the slugger he is today, although to be fair, these were his age 17-19 seasons. His walk rates were solid, and he didn’t strike out too much for a power hitter. His 1996 campaign in Double-A would help his prospect status greatly, as he tore up the Southern League, finishing as the leader in home runs, extra-base hits and total bases. Lee was named MVP, and Baseball America selected him as the second-best prospect in the Southern League for his performance:

           AB   AVG/OBP/SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
Mem.(AA)  500 .280/.360/.570 .434  54%  .290   41   11.5%  30.1%
Las.(AAA) 472 .324/.399/.477 .309  29%  .153   31   11.3%  21.8%
San.(MLB)  54 .259/.365/.370 .278  29%  .111    3   14.3%  38.1%

Lee’s Isolated Power fell significantly after his promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas for the 1997 season, which would be more alarming if Lee had not been only 21 years old at the time. His walk rate remained a bit over 11 percent, and he managed to cut his strikeout rate down by a third before his promotion to the majors, where he was clearly overmatched by major league pitching, at least in the power department. His walk rates were excellent, but his BABIP for the year was over .400; this can occasionally happen once or twice for players in their career, but for the most part it is an unattainable number, or at least one that is incredibly difficult to repeat. Let’s also not forget that Las Vegas is quite the hitter’s paradise. Lee was named the ninth-best prospect in the Pacific Coast League by Baseball America following the season.

Lee, along with Rafael Medina and Steve Hoff, was dealt to the Florida Marlins following the 1997 season in exchange for Kevin Brown. This was one of the Marlins fire sales, where they dealt away most of the World Series team from the previous year. Brown went on to have the second most productive season of his career, helping to lead the Padres to the World Series, while Derrek Lee hit .233/.318/.414 in 454 at-bats for the Marlins. Lee’s BABIP was down to .281, which was well below the numbers he had put up in the minor leagues and below the league average of roughly .300, but his struggles had more to do with his not being ready for the major leagues than anything else.

Lee would split the 1999 season between Triple-A Calgary and the Marlins, with mixed results:

           AB   AVG/OBP/SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
Cal.(AAA) 339 .283/.345/.516 .319  42%  .233   21    8.1%  24.4%
Fla.(MLB) 218 .206/.263/.326 .202  33%  .120   10    7.2%  29.7%

His stint at Calgary went well–better than his last BABIP inflated stop at Triple-A–but he continued to struggle in the major leagues. His walk rates were lower, and his strikeout rates were in some iffy territory, especially considering his production was somewhere south of nothing. This was his age-23 season, though. It was early to be giving up on him, especially when he still showed promise in the high minors. The 2000 season would help to dispel any negative thoughts about Lee’s major league future, as would the follow-up campaigns:

         AB   AVG/OBP/SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
2000    477 .281/.368/.507 .352  37%  .226   21   11.5%  22.5%
2001    561 .282/.346/.474 .285  39%  .192   41    8.0%  20.2%
2002    581 .270/.378/.494 .410  44%  .224   42   14.2%  23.8%

Player Health Report

Green light Derrek Lee is coming off a virtually lost season after fracturing his wrist. Now presumably healed, the fracture should pose no problems. His initial comeback was far too quick and it showed in his numbers, as he lacked both bat control and speed. When he came back a second time, the speed had returned, but his OBP plummeted due to a problem with timing and control. Lee’s fracture was actually very simple–he did not have a compounded fracture like his new teammate Cliff Floyd and avoiding the ligament problems that plagued Gary Sheffield. It is in fact Floyd that PECOTA notes as his best statistical comparison, but Lee has more in common physically with Dave Winfield, one of his later comps. Winfield and Lee are both outstanding athletes with surprising speed for their size. Assuming his off-field problems can be dealt with – and we certainly wish him and his family the best – Lee figures to be able to return to his previous form, given both the nature of the injury and the return of his bat speed.

– Will Carroll

Lee was able to line his strikeout and walk rates up with some of his more successful minor league campaigns, and although his slugging was around or below the .500 mark for three straight seasons, you have to remember he was playing in Florida, one of the toughest parks for power hitters around. He was also a fine defensive first basemen, collecting 19 FRAA between 2000-2002 for the Fish. Lee’s BABIP was fairly consistent during these three years, at .325, .331 and .333, respectively. Baseball Prospectus 2002 explains some of the reasoning behind Lee’s progress…

Credit John Boles for not giving up on Derrek Lee after a disastrous 1999 campaign. The son of Japanese baseball legend Leon Lee spent the winter working with Greg Vaughn to reestablish the plate discipline that had vanished since he joined the Marlins’ organization. As you can see, the results of his improved strike-zone recognition were dramatic. Lee is a future Gold Glover at first base, and his continued climb into the upper echelon of sluggers is crucial to the future success of the franchise.

…while Baseball Prospectus 2003 was all over the Marlins’ need to deal Lee, and soon:

The Marlins are entering a delicate stretch in their relationship with Lee. He’s one of their better players, but the team has first basemen coming out their ears in the minors. The kids aren’t ready yet, but unless Lee’s willing to re-sign to a short-term deal, the Fish need to sell high on Lee and sign one
of the several available temps-David Ortiz would work-to handle first base
in 2003.

The most productive season of Lee’s career to date would come in 2003, when he would also bring home a World Series with the Marlins before the trade to the Cubs. His first season with Chicago was somewhat disappointing, as everyone assumed he’d explode offensively moving from a severe pitcher’s park to what is sometimes a great park for hitters, but his stat lines looked roughly the same, with a lower OBP–maybe the rest of the Cubbies offense rubbed off on him. 2005 was an entirely different story, though, with Lee tearing up the league and finishing second in the MVP voting:

     AB    AVG/OBP/SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
2003 539 .271/.379/.508 .425  44%  .237   33   13.7%  20.4%
2004 605 .278/.356/.504 .350  43%  .226   40    9.9%  18.6%
2005 594 .335/.418/.662 .490  50%  .327   53   12.3%  15.8%

Where 2004 looked to be disappointing due to the slight drop in walk rate and the lack of a power surge, 2005 turned out to be more than anyone could have imagined for Lee in Wrigley. What I find most interesting in the shift from his previous seasons is the lack of strikeouts; whereas Lee would normally strike out somewhere in the low-to-mid 20 percent range, he only struck out in 15.8 percent of his plate appearances in 2005. He put many more balls in play his first two years with Chicago than in his Florida years-418 per year average for 2002-03 against a 487 per year average for 2004-2005-and cut down on strikeouts both seasons.

As for 2006, Lee once again struck out in over 20 percent of his plate appearances, although you could chalk that up to poor timing during his initial comeback: during the first 14 games and the last 16 games, his K% was only 12.7 percent, while it was 30.2 percent during his poor midseason return from injury. The sample sizes are small, but considering the batting lines from those two different sets of data–.350/.415/.610 for the 30 game beginning- and end-of-year sample, and .227/.326/.320 for the other 20 games-it makes sense to credit his K% for some of his success during 2005. That campaign is often discredited, since his BABIP was a relatively high .349, but if you take a look at his batted-ball data…

Year P/PA  FB%   LINEDR%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP Dif.
2002 4.3   40.9%  24.0%  35.2%  11.6%  15.7%  .333   .360  +.027
2003 4.1   35.0%  23.4%  41.5%  10.3%  21.4%  .305   .354  +.049
2004 3.9   40.5%  18.9%  40.5%   7.2%  16.4%  .306   .309  +.003
2005 4.0   39.4%  22.0%  38.6%   8.2%  23.7%  .349   .340  -.009
2006 4.5   38.4%  20.3%  41.3%   3.8%  15.1%  .333   .323  -.010

…you see that Lee’s BABIP and expected BABIP are essentially in line with each other, without having a ridiculous line drive rate either. In his Florida seasons that we have batted-ball data available for, Lee was well below his expected BABIP, given his line drive rates. If you figure that his 18.9 percent line drive rate from 2004 is somewhat of a fluke, given that his LINEDR% average from 2002-2006 is 21.8 percent, and then add in the difference (the last column in the table is the difference between BABIP and eBABIP) to his 2002-2003 lines, there is more of a natural progression towards his 2005 explosion than originally. His rate stats would look somewhat like this, assuming all of the hits were singles:

  Actual AVG/OBP/SLG   Adjusted AVG/OBP/SLG  Adjusted OPS
2002  .270/.378/.494        .297/.405/.521          .926
2003  .271/.379/.508        .320/.428/.557          .985
2004  .278/.356/.504        .310/.388/.536          .924
2005  .335/.418/.662        .326/.409/.653         1.062
2006  .286/.368/.474        .276/.358/.464          .822

For 2004 I added in the difference between his actual line drive rate and his career rate, plus the .003 points of difference for an estimation of his production that year. Instead of a player who jumped from mid-.800 OPS to over 1.000, this tells the story of someone in the mid-to-high .900 OPS range jumping over 1.000, a much more believable scenario if you are in the camp who feels Lee’s 2005 was progress rather than fluke. This is especially plausible when you consider that not all of the lost hits were most likely singles, which is all I’ve added in to the rate stats. During those 30 healthy games previously mentioned from 2006, Lee’s OPS was 1.025, fairly close to 2005. My best guess is that the difference in BABIP and eBABIP was caused in part by Pro Player Stadium, which was a moderate-to-severe pitcher’s park during Lee’s time there, with .966 and .955 park factors in 2002 and 2003, respectively, whereas Wrigley was moderately neutral in 2004 (1.003) and 2005 (1.009).

Given this information, what can we expect from Derrek Lee in 2007? As Will Carroll suggests, the injury that held Lee back in 2006 shouldn’t be a problem in 2007, and he’s still just 31 years old. PECOTA forecasts a .288/.369/.527 weighted mean line, but don’t be surprised if a healthy Lee reaches his 75th percentile of .302/.385/.561. With the Cubs’ rampant spending this offseason, they clearly expect to compete in 2007, and Lee’s production is central to achieving that goal–especially with the question marks in the rotation. Considering his past history with the bat and the green light, it’s safe to say Lee will be capable of doing his part for the Wrigley faithful.

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc’s other articles.

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