How concerned should we be about Lee, Ramirez, Teixeira, Drew?
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
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
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.
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.
Teixeira is, in some ways, lucky. Whether it's the afterglow of a championship, a bigger target in
It's a strange year when J.D. Drew is "the durable one." With
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