From 2006 to 2007 Matt Antonelli appeared to be on the fast track to the major leagues. Antonelli, a former first round pick out of Wake Forest, was dubbed the Padres second baseman of the future and the top second base prospect in all of baseball by several publications. His outstanding athleticism (he was Massachusetts Player of the Year in Football and Hockey in high school) combined with his plate discipline and advanced hitting approach made him one of the fastest rising stars in the minor leagues.
In 2007 he hit .301/.402/.477 between High-A and Double-A. Having had such success in the lower rungs of the minors San Diego moved him up to Triple-A in 2008.
But during that season Antonelli hit a wall. He saw his average plummet to .215. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) fell from .335 in 2007 to .251. He saw his home run output dwindle from 21 in 2007 to seven in 2008. Nevertheless, the Padres promoted him, perhaps in hopes of jump starting his season, for a brief cameo in the big leagues. Antonelli struggled in his 65 plate appearances hitting .193. This season has been much of the same. Back in Triple-A after missing the six weeks with a leg injury, Antonelli is batting .188/.295/.339. His BABIP has dipped to .197.
Interestingly, Antonelli’s plate discipline remains consistent. His solid walk rate this year, 12.2 percent, and strikeout rate, 14.5 percent, are right in line with his minor league career averages. He has maintained a strikeout to walk ratio near one his entire career.
So what could possibly explain this sudden drop in performance? Well for one his ground balls and line drives are down and his fly balls and pop ups have risen. In 2007 his ground ball rate was 43.2 percent, his line drive rate was 16.7 percent, his fly ball rate was 40.0 percent and his infield fly ball rate was 14.3 percent. Fast forward to 2008 and his percentages are 37.8, 15.1, 47.0, and 23.9 percent. These percentages are virtually identical to his 2009 campaign as well. More fly balls and pop ups mean more easy outs and a lower BABIP. Below is a simple chart I made of Antonelli’s batted ball data throughout his minor league career.
Could it also be possible that Antonelli’s home park in the Pacific League deflates offensive production that much? Not likely, but using the tools on http://www.minorleaguesplits.com/ I was able to figure out his batting line with the park factors neutralized. Even with this he would only be batting .205/.309/.355 this season. Neutralizing luck still only yields .253/.351/.434, a far cry from his earlier performances. So it appears neither of these two factors are playing a major role in his poor performances of late.
Whatever the case may be its obvious that something is wrong with Matt Antonelli as he is nowhere near the player he once was. Perhaps it is a mechanical issue that can be corrected with time. Although he is just 24 years old, Antonelli’s career seems to be in a free fall. If he cannot get back to what made him such a successful player he could be out of a job in a few years. For his sake, and for Padres fans everywhere, I hope he can revert to his former self.