As the second half of the 2012 season begins, there is only one qualified hitter in all of baseball hitting below the Mendoza line. That man is Rickie Weeks, who is batting.199. The Mendoza line is a rather arbitrary cutoff point, but Weeks is struggling by any measurement.
One obvious problem for Weeks is that he is striking out on 28.6 percent of his plate appearances, up from 20.8 percent in 2011 (23.2 percent career). Weeks, however, has actually been more selective on the pitches he has swing at. He is swinging less and is chasing fewer pitches out of the zone. This is usually a sign of a maturing hitter, but for Weeks, this change has been a detriment.
Looking at his contact rate on pitches outside the zone may give us a hint to what is wrong. Despite improving his selectivity, which would suggest he is seeing the ball better, Weeks’ contact rate on pitches outside the zone has plummeted from 50.9 percent in 2011 (49.5 percent career) to just 37.1 percent this season. His contact rate on strikes, however, has shown no such erosion. Perhaps he is having difficulties recognizing pitches and is guessing fastball most of the time. This would explain why he is making contact with pitches in the zone, and whiffing when pitches that he thought were fastballs suddenly broke out of the zone.
Using Joe Lefkowitz’ PITCHf/x data, we can see that Weeks is swinging and missing at more sliders (50.5 percent; 38.6 percent in 2011) and change-ups (46.2 percent; 34.3 percent in 2011)—two of the easiest pitches to mistake for a fastball—and making more contact per swing on both four-seam and two-seam fastballs.
It seems strange for a 29-year-old player to be losing the ability to recognize pitches, so it is possible that Weeks’ ability to recognize pitches is fine, but his ability to get the barrel of the bat to these pitches is diminished. In other words, it might be time to question whether he is losing bat speed.
Over his career, Weeks has done a lot of damage when pulling the ball, hitting for a .401 average, with a .475 wOBA. His wOBA drops to .371 to center and .290 to the opposite field. It is safe to say he thrives when hitting the ball to the pull third, something he has done on 39.7 percent of his balls in play over his career. In 2012, he is using the whole field a bit more, pulling the ball 33.1 percent of the time, to the tune of a .295 wOBA on pulls (league average is .399). Weeks has turned a major strength into a major weakness and has failed to compensate in other areas.
At the genesis of his struggles in pulling the ball are a spike in groundball rate (69.7 percent; 62.4 percent career) and pop-up rate (30.0 percent; 10.2 percent career). It is tough to produce value when the ball rarely leaves the infield. His production to the other two fields has been fine, so this might be the product of a small sample size, but considering his shift in plate discipline, a loss of ability to turn on the baseball is a real possibility.
The news isn’t all bad for Weeks, though. Since he is swinging less, he is working the count more, allowing him to draw walks at a 12.9 percent clip. This, obviously, isn’t enough to mitigate much of the damage caused by a drowning batting average, but it will help him stay in the lineup and try to get back on track.
Weeks has been about as good as a replacement level player this year, hitting for no average and little power. He is striking out much more and is having trouble dealing with off-speed pitches. Whether he is having difficulties visually recognizing pitches, or if a loss of bat speed is forcing him to guess on pitches and start his swing earlier, or if some sort of mechanical issue is the culprit, or if he is just playing through some sort of injury, there is far more than luck or variance here. Whatever it is, it has turned his biggest strength, pulling the ball, into a major Achilles heel, and has transformed an All-Star caliber player into one who looks overmatched at the plate.
The Brewers have gotten next to nothing from second base, a position they may have optimistically hoped would produce 6.0 wins above replacement over the season. As it sits now, they are six games out of a playoff spot and all the talk is what type of package trading Zack Greinke will earn them. But the Brewers might still make a run at a playoff berth if Weeks can return to some semblance of his former self—and Michael Fiers continues to pitch well, and Norichika Aoki continues to provide unexpected value, and Randy Wolf stops pitching like a poor man’s Randy Wolf, and the issues in the bullpen sort themselves out, and they aren’t deadline sellers….
If Weeks is to do his part, it will be contingent on him fixing something in his game. Let’s hope his struggles are the result of something that is fixable.