Looking into all the reasons why a successful hitter goes into a prolonged slump can be tricky. For one, age must be considered. Plenty of analysis has been conducted and presented for debate regarding the aging curve in baseball. To be brief: Hitters usually peak before pitchers, and fast players tend to age the best, while slow players have a shorter shelf life.
But what if age isn’t a factor? What if a successfully established player fails to perform to his expected levels at the age of 27 or 28? What if a player praised for his athleticism fails to effectively perform at the age of 29 or if a consistent middle-of-the-order thumper suddenly self-destructs at the age of 31? Of course, injury could be a culprit; perhaps a broken finger or strained shoulder has sapped his power?
The purpose of this exercise is to look at some offensive players who were surprisingly terrible in 2011. In the attempt to avoid an extensive list, some rules have been put in place.
First, all offensive players must have a minimum of 400 pate appearances by Sept. 14. Second, no players battling major injuries for a large portion of this season will be considered. This leaves players like Hanley Ramirez, Joe Mauer and Shin-Soo Choo free from analysis as well as Justin Morneau and Jason Bay. (Although Bay has insisted that last season’s concussion is behind him, I still have my doubts).
Third, these struggles had to be surprising. I know the Angels thought it was a good idea to pick up the remaining tab on Vernon Wells, but his struggles this season should surprise no one except for Angels owner Arte Moreno and, maybe, four or five people in his front office. That doesn’t count.
Finally, and most importantly, these players had to perform truly badly while expected to be a major part of their team’s offense. Players like Orlando Cabrera, Gordon Beckham, Alex Rios and Aaron Hill have been offensive drains, but none was expected to be an offensive centerpiece.
(Although Rios’ and Beckham’s importance could be argued, I will make the stand that Rios’ struggles weren’t that surprising and Beckham’s return to his 2009 levels was a hopeful possibility—albeit an overall luxury—for the White Sox).
Age 31 (11 seasons)
Current 2011 line: .162/.292/.285 448 PA; .269 wOBA, 61 wRC+, -2.6 fWAR
We all knew Dunn eventually would decline, but we never knew the worst possible scenario would nestle together this rapidly.
Looking at early-season projections, Dunn was expected to reach 28-35 home runs, fueled by a consistent Isolated Power Score (ISO) somewhere in the mid to high 200s. Dunn is your classic young player with old-player skills—entering the major leagues at the age of 21 with a heightened awareness of on-base ability—who took big hacks with a boom-or-bust approach.
Dunn seemed to peak at the age of 24 and was successful for the next six seasons. Before the 2011 season, Dunn was signed to a four-year deal with the intention to be the cleanup hitter for the Chicago White Sox. So far, that’s not happening.
The overall loss of power is the most troubling. Going from a career ISO of .271 to a below-MLB-average of .122 is not something most healthy 31-year-old sluggers do. Looking at park factors, U.S. Cellular may be a bit more friendly to right-handed hitters (LF/123, LCF/120), but this isn’t CitiField, as the Cell is notorious for its close fences, and successful shots to right (RF/98, RCF 113) are fairly reasonable.
Looking at the data from HitTracker, one can see and expect a troubling decline in both speed off the bat and batted ball distance.
|Avg. True Distance||Avg. Speed||Avg. Standard Distance|
Without a true measurement of bat speed available, it’s tough to truly make sense of the above data in comparison to previous seasons. This season Dunn is fouling off more pitches (30 percent compared to his 27 percent average) while also seeing a sharp rise in his infield fly ball percentage (IFFB) to 14.4 percent.
Another troubling trend is the amount of four-seam fastballs missing his bat based on PITCHf/x data provided by Joe Lefkowitz.
Four-seam fastballs from RHP
|Selection %||Swing %||Whiff %||avg. velocity|
Four-seam fastballs from LHP
|Selection %||Swing %||Whiff %||avg. velocity|
(note that average velocity is a combination of both RHP and LHP)
Understanding that there are flaws and classification issues with prior seasons using MLBAM, I decided to avoid listing the 2008 data, since I wasn’t sure how four-seamers were being calculated. Obviously, the information above could be flawed, but it does present some compelling questions to be further explored.
What does this mean for Dunn going forward?
Players in his age classification curve do see an even further drop in their age-32 season but a slight bounceback around the age of 33 before falling completely off the table. (For more info on the age charts I’m referring to, see Jeff Zimmerman’s graphs and explanations here).
Since Dunn peaked earlier than the average player in his class, maybe the scale can be moved up a bit, but I’m afraid this may only buy him some time in the mediocre scale, and his days as a dependable slugger may be over.
Age 21 (2 seasons)
Current 2011 line: .223/.317/.386 419 PA; .312 wOBA, 96 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR
This could be tricky for two reasons. First, he was slowed by a shoulder injury that he first received in spring training, only to re-aggravate it in May, costing him a good portion of that month and some weeks in June. Second, his age makes this difficult since we aren’t sure what to expect from his probable peak seasons despite already recording over 1,000 plate appearances.
The decision to let Heyward languish on the bench has upset a lot of analysts excited about his future development. Shoulder injuries have been known to sap a player’s power, but the .253 ISO he recorded during his first 113 plate appearances through April doesn’t occur when a player’s shoulder is hurt. The following months were cut short due to the injury. Upon his return, teammates questioned his durability as Jose Constanza and Matt Diaz threatened to push this future franchise player into the role of a fourth outfielder.
Looking at his struggles, it’s safe to assume that he may be pressing. His walk rate has decreased from 14.6 percent last season to 11.3 percent. His BABIP has also taken a tumble from .335 a year ago to .253 this season. A sharp reduction in his line drive rate to a low 13.4 percent and having the third-highest infield flyball percentage in baseball (min. 400 PA) at 22 percent can do that to the ol’ BABIP.
Another trend that could point to the “pressing” department is his reduction in pitches per plate appearance that went from a healthy 4.13 last season to 3.89 in 2011. Heyward has also been much more aggressive in terms of swinging at the first pitch. In 2010, this stat came in at 20 percent but has risen to 26 percent as he has also found the time in his day to swing at more pitches outside the strike zone, going from 24.2 percent last season to 28.5 percent so far this season.
If these issues can be corrected, Heyward still has the chance to develop into a special player, as his ability to work the count hasn’t diminished.
2011 Batter ahead: .302/.503/.526 163 PA; .309 BABIP Even count: .238/.242/.369 124 PA; .274 BABIP Pitcher ahead: .138/.156/.276 128 PA; .156 BABIP
Compared to the previous season:
2010 Batter ahead: .366/.573/.613 279 PA; .399 BABIP Even count: .227/.243/.390 177 PA; .252 BABIP Pitcher ahead: .228/.251/.346 167 PA; .355 BABIP
As we can see, further developing this aspect of his game will be important to his success.
Age 32 (7 seasons)
Current 2011 line: .234/.336/.397 602 PA; .328 wOBA, 105 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR
More was expected from Werth this season despite many analysts questioning the logic of the Nationals signing a 32-year-old player to a seven-year contract. Defense is the only thing keeping his WAR value at a respectable level. Unfortunately, he wasn’t paid to occasionally amaze his fans with the glove.
After four solid seasons of OPS+ growth (2007: 120, 2008: 121, 2009: 129, 2010: 143) as well as positive ISO trends, it’s easy to blame his troubles on the less friendly confines of National Park.
Of course, his previous home in Philadelphia was more conducive to a hitter of his skill set. Never one to merely pull the ball, Werth took advantage of the shorter power alleys as a member of the Phillies (Citizens Bank Park: LCF 121, RCF 124) and the numbers show this isn’t too easy in DC (National Park: LCF 88, RCF 108). Looking over Werth’s numbers, his ISO has taken a hit at .162, and his OPS+ is a pedestrian 101, but this may not tell us the whole story.
Werth has shown significant improvement since the month of August, posting a line of .274/.361/.463 in 108 PA as well as a .368 wOBA and 132 wRC+. Looking at the data provided by HitTracker, no regression or red flags can be found in terms of his batted ball distance, as we can see below:
|Avg. True Distance||Avg. Speed||Avg. Standard Distance|
One of the major trouble areas for Werth this season has been his production against left-handed pitching. As a right-handed batter, Werth has been successful against LHP with a career line of .278/.383/.524 1011 PA; .387 wOBA, 136 wRC+.
Now match that to this season’s line against lefties: .173/.307/.337 127 PA; .286 wOBA, 76 wRC+, .211 BABIP. I’m willing to bet this is an outlier that should fix itself next season.
Age 29 (10 seasons)
Current 2011 line: .253/.289/.402 487 PA, .304 wOBA, 85 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR
Crawford has always been a free swinger; however, he has shown some positive trends in his walk rate and developing power. These trends have been conservative, going from a low 3.9 percent walk rate in 2005 to a 6.9 percent rate last season. Over his career, Crawford has averaged about 3.54 pitches per plate appearance, which is short of the MLB average of 3.77.
This approach has made opposing pitchers avoid the strike zone a bit more than usual, since he has a higher frequency of chasing pitches. So far this season, Crawford has swung at pitches outside the zone at a rate of 37.9 percent, which is well above the MLB average of 30.5 percent. In previous seasons, he has maintained a high rate in this department, with a rate of five to six percent higher than the average.
Last season saw a rise in Crawford’s strikeout rate, going from 12.4 percent in 2008 and 14.7 percent in 2009 to 15.7 percent in 2010. This can be alarming, but his usual high BABIP (.331 career rate in Tampa Bay) and increasing ISO rate, going from .126 to .147 to .188 in that same span, was enough to put a heavy shine on his numbers. This season the K rate has continued to rise to an all-time high of 19.7 percent, but his BABIP and ISO scores have reversed.
In a nutshell, what seems to be ailing Crawford this season?
He did get off to a horrible start, posting a .196 wOBA, 11 wRC+ during the first month of the 2011 season. Crawford did miss some time due to a thigh strain that put him on the shelf during the middle of June until early July. During the first half of the season, Crawford’s walk rate was incredibly small at 3.2 percent.
Throughout his career, Crawford’s distribution of facing opposing pitchers during various counts has slightly leaned toward the pitcher being ahead:
Batter ahead: 1,624 career plate appearances (.363/.488/.578; .370 BABIP) Even count: 2,244 career plate appearances (.305/.306/..472; .320 BABIP) Pitcher ahead: 2,001 career plate appearances (.233/.238/.315; .306 BABIP)
Most elite hitters are able to work the count into their favor and see more situations where they are ahead in the count. This season, Crawford has more plate appearances where the pitcher is ahead, and the 2011 results can be seen below:
Batter ahead: .282/.405/.495 127 PA; .329 BABIP Even count: .287/.286/.489 175 PA; .282 BABIP Pitcher ahead: .195/.202/.253 179 PA; .283 BABIP
Crawford never had a season where he recorded more plate appearances that ended with him ahead in the count. At this stage, it shouldn’t be expected for him to suddenly develop. It’s a shame since one could only imagine how much better he would be if he was able to work the count to his advantage.
Age 37 (11 seasons)
Current 2011 line: .274/.311/.337 660 PA; .291 wOBA, 84 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR
I resisted putting Ichiro in this class since his age is such an obvious red flag. How much longer were we expecting a player entering his late-30s to still effectively leg out infield hits? The answer is, we were expecting some discernible regression from Ichiro, but we never expected it to emerge this dramatically.
BABIP seems to be an important element to his offensive game. His walk and strikeout rates have remained relatively consistent, with a slight bump or drop here and there. His ISO has always been small, but it comes in waves, topping off around the 110s one season and then settling into the low 75s next season.
But Ichiro’s BABIP could always be counted on being high around the .350 mark. This season it has fallen to .296, and his rapid decline and fears about how he will finish his final season in Seattle next year are open to speculation.
Ichiro did start off the season well and has been threatening to get his BABIP back up to his usual levels. His contact rates have been similar to previous seasons, but without any way to measure the nature or the “strength” of this contact, we’ll just have to ponder his lower batting average and wonder what went wrong.