How concerned should we be about Lee, Ramirez, Teixeira, Drew?
Carlos Lee is swinging at a high percentage of pitches out of the strike zone
Aramis Ramirez has struck out in 29% of his at-bats, nearly twice his career rate
Mark Teixeira has a .137 average on balls in play, second-lowest in the game
If you go to your friendly neighborhood baseball Web site and sort all major-league hitters by OPS, you'll see some startlingly big numbers at the bottom of the lists.
Those aren't player values converted to a money scale -- those are the 2010 salaries of some of the worst hitters in baseball this far into the season. Now, the first thing to keep in mind is that we're a bit more than three weeks into the season, and even the very best hitters can look this bad for that period of time. Baseball's funny that way; even great players can look lost for a month or more at a time, while players picked off the scrap heap can hit like Babe Ruth's big brother for that same period of time -- I'm looking at you, Kelly Johnson.
So the trick is to learn what you can by looking backwards, while keeping in mind that these things can change on a dime. Sometimes it's bad luck, sometimes it's a change in approach, and sometimes what we're seeing is the beginning of the end. We don't know yet -- we won't know in another 800 words, either -- but it's interesting to use the tools at our disposal in 2010, tools that our baseball-mad forefathers would have killed for, to look at the issue. Thanks to Fangraphs for providing much of the data you'll see below, analyzing the slow starts for four reputable sluggers.
2010 BA/OBP/SLG: .181/.203/.236
The six-year, $100 million contract that Lee signed after the 2007 season was always going to come to an ugly end. Is this it? Lee, who turns 34 in June, showed some decline last season, losing power -- especially away from the Crawford Boxes, with a .437 road SLG -- and range in left field. This season, he's off to an even worse start defensively and seemingly pressing at the plate. He's swinging at a high percentage of pitches out of the strike zone, leading to the lowest contact rate of his career. When he makes contact he's hitting weak fly balls rather than line drives. Some of this is correctable; Lee, though never a patient hitter, can be more selective than he has been, forcing pitchers to throw more strikes (he's seeing a career-low rate of pitches in the strike zone). Once he does that, we'll face the real issue: whether he can still square up those pitches. The collapse in line-drive rate (to just 8.6% of balls in play) and his poor performance against fastballs (below-average production after a career spent killing them) are danger signs. This may be more than just a bad three weeks; this may be the cliff.
2010 BA/OBP/SLG: .150/.216/.300
Unlike Lee, Ramirez's problems are occurring inside the strike zone. Pitchers are getting ahead of him, throwing first-pitch strikes in nearly two-thirds of his trips to the plate. Once ahead of him, they're putting him away: Ramirez, 31, has struck out in 29% of his at-bats, nearly twice his career rate and his highest since his rookie season. He is swinging and missing a third more often than he did last year, on 12.5% of the pitches he sees. While it's possible that this is some undiagnosed vision or other physical problem, the most likely explanation is a timing issue. This is, not to be too simple about it, a slump; once Ramirez's contact rate goes back to normal he'll return to being one of the better third basemen in the game.
2010 BA/OBP/SLG: .129/.299/.257
Teixeira is, in some ways, lucky. Whether it's the afterglow of a championship, a bigger target in Javier Vazquez or the team's 12-7 mark, his brutal April has escaped the tabloids' spotlight. Perhaps this is progress, because in every measurable way, Teixeira, 30, is the same hitter he was a year ago. There are some fluctuations in his contact numbers -- not quite as many line drives, a few more ground balls -- but nothing that indicates a change in talent level given the limited number of plate appearances. No, Teixeira is mostly hitting in bad luck; he has an absurd .137 batting average on balls in play, the second-lowest mark in the game to Toronto's Travis Snider. Also, just 9.5% of his fly balls have left the yard, about half of his career rate. Teixeira is doing what he does, just not getting the same results; his slow start in 2009 featured similar, if less extreme characteristics. There's nothing to worry about here.
2010 BA/OBP/SLG: .191/.296/.324
It's a strange year when J.D. Drew is "the durable one." With Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron sidelined by injuries, Drew, 34, has been ahead of the game just by staying on the field for the Red Sox (although he recently said he's had to battle vertigo for the second time in his career). While he's contributing good defense in right field, he's struggling at the plate, striking out at a career-high rate. It may be that Drew's patience is getting the better of him; he has seen first-pitch strikes in two of every three trips to the plate, and after falling behind, he's chasing, swinging at a career-high 22% of pitches outside the strike zone and making contact on all pitches at a career-low 75.4%. This is seen in the pitch mix that he has faced as well: Drew is seeing more sliders than he ever has before -- one in six pitches -- and he's performing poorly against them. The solution may be for Drew to be more aggressive on first pitches, both to take advantage of the strikes that he's seeing and to force pitchers to move away from the strategy of attacking him early in the count in the hopes of starting more at-bats 1-0 and getting better pitches after that.
One of the key principles of performance analysis is that in the short term, player performance can fluctuate wildly. For all the criticism of "stat heads," often accused of thinking of players as "stat-generating robots," it's the analysts who have always had a better grip on this issue than the insiders. No analyst would make a decision on a player based on a limited number of at-bats or innings pitched, because analysts understand the vagaries of performance better, it seems, than industry insiders do.
Throughout this month, we've seen personnel decisions made based on as little as two appearances -- witness Ron Washington's handling of the Rangers' closer situation -- and conclusions reached on vanishingly little evidence. What happens over three weeks isn't nearly as informative as what has happened in the years prior, and the eagerness with which teams react -- no, overreact -- to 60-at-bat and three-start samples is perhaps the most frustrating thing about being an outsider. Patience, in short supply in baseball these days, is perhaps the most important trait of all in running a team.
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