Who's Actually Hitting Poorly?

In a conversation in the Recap thread for Sunday's loss to the White Sox, a discussion happened/is happening about whether or not Chris Young's defense is enough to justify continued playing time given his woeful offensive performance thus far. After I took a look at his UZR over the course of 2010-2013 to explain why I feel he's the team's second-best defensive asset, I decided to also look at his offense to see how much of it was just bad luck. Turns out, by my reading of the metrics, quite a bit of it. And then I decided to take a look at some of the other underperforming hitters on the team to see if they, too, were victims of the baseball gods. I basically just looked at hitters' 2013 BABIPs compared to their career BABIPs, as well as their batted ball profiles and plate discipline. After all, a drop in BABIP doesn't necessarily mean a hitter is unlucky; if his batted ball profile and/or plate discipline have changed for the worse, it's still probably his fault that he's not hitting. Here's what I found.

Chris Young: Young will be first, since he's the impetus for the entire exercise. He's hitting .177/.256/.347, good for a .264 wOBA, a 65 WRC+, and a .603 OPS. His ISO is .170. Yeah. It's a pretty bad situation. His career line is .236/.316/.433, good for a .326 wOBA, a 93 WRC+, and a .749 OPS, with an ISO of .197. So he's not hitting like he was supposed to.

His BB-rate and K-rate are pretty much exactly in line with his career numbers, so we probably shouldn't blame much of his performance on a change in plate discipline. He is swinging at more pitches out of the zone, but that's partly because he's seeing more pitches out of the zone. He's also not swinging and missing significantly more often than he has throughout his career. He's making contact at about the same rate as he has in the past. All told, he is swinging a little more often, and the majority of that increase comes from swings at pitches out of the zone, but given that he's not striking out or walking any more or less often than he did before, and given that the only one of this plate discipline metrics that's changed dramatically is O-swing% (granted, an important metric), I don't think it's fair to say this is where the problem lies. At least not the bulk of the problem.

Now over to batted ball profiles. Again, nothing really looks out of place. His rates of hitting line drives, ground balls, and fly balls are virtually the same as his career line. Not as many of his fly balls are leaving the yard for home runs, which is probably because he's playing in the Coliseum and facing better pitchers now. He's not getting quite as fortunate with infield hits as he has in the past either. But he's only a couple percentage points below his career norms in both categories, so it's not that notable. The one thing he is doing worse than ever before is hitting popups. He hasn't popped up this often since 2009. Still, while 2009 was not a great year for him at the plate, he certainly wasn't wOBAing below .300 that year. 2009 was an off-year for Young at the plate; 2013 is a disaster.

So basically, Chris Young is swinging at a few more bad pitches than usual, which is something that happens when a guy's not having success. And he's popping up a little more often, but not enough--based on his own history--to so completely wreck his offensive numbers. So what's the real difference-maker? BABIP. His 2013 BABIP is a full 80 points below his career line. Given all this information, I'm willing to say Young has largely been the victim of misfortune, and his hitting will regress to something more palatable by the end of July.

Josh Reddick: Reddick almost doesn't even need to be discussed, since he appears to be hitting better after the DL stint. So instead of going quite as deep on Reddick, I'll just do a quick scan. His BABIP is 50 points lower than his career norm. His ground ball rate has spiked while his line drives and fly balls have dropped. Significantly fewer of his fly balls have left the yard. His plate discipline is actually better than it was last year and better than it had been throughout his career, which is encouraging. This also confirms something I felt I'd begun to notice anecdotally. For what it's worth, I don't think he would have drawn the walk-off walk last year. Anyway, given the drop in his quality of contact, I'm going to say that Reddick's early-season struggles were largely his own fault. But he's hitting markedly better in May and June than he did in March and April, so I'm also going to say that he's returned to form.

Derek Norris: Dino is...hitting about the same as he hit last year. Last year his line was .201/.276/.349, good for a .625 OPS, a .275 wOBA, and a 73 WRC+. This year he's hitting .197/.317/.307, good for a .624 OPS, a .284 wOBA, and a 78 WRC+. So while his power hasn't quite been there as much, the advanced metrics actually like his 2013 better than his 2012. His 2013 BABIP, interestingly, is identical to his 2012 BABIP. His plate discipline has dramatically improved, however. He's not swinging at nearly as many bad pitches and as a result, he's had far fewer first-pitch strikes. This has led to more walks and fewer strikeouts. So far, mostly so good. The only issue any of us can take with this information is the dropoff in SLG, which is entirely attributable to the dropoff in his home run hitting. He's actually already hit more doubles this season than he did all of last season.

Over to batted ball profile. The big change here is fewer ground balls and more fly balls, fewer of which are leaving the yard. The second biggest change here is that he's not popping up as much. He's almost as far below his career line on infield fly balls as Chris Young is above his. All in all, I'd say we can take solace in the fact that Derek Norris is actually a pretty significantly better hitter than he was in 2012. If the fly balls start going over the fence--and I think I'd still count on him ending the season with 7-9 HRs--we're ultimately going to end up with a pretty solid offensive catcher.

Eric Sogard: Sogard is the first instance, in this length essay, of a player performing significantly above his career line, yet still being a crappy hitter. His average and OBP are 40-50 points higher than his career norms, and his slugging is also a little higher. Unfortunately, it all still adds up to a sub-.290 wOBA and a sub-85 WRC+. And we can't blame it on BABIP. This year is BABIP is at .299, compared to .249 for his career. Let's check the nerdy stats. Across the board, his plate discipline figures are virtually identical in 2013 to what they are for his career. So are his batted ball figures. Conclusion? Eric Sogard is a crappy hitter who is actually significantly worse than what his surface-level numbers are currently showing.

Adam Rosales: Here's something that happened while I wasn't paying attention: Adam Rosales became a roughly league-average hitter. His slash line is better than it's been since 2010, his wOBA is over 300, and his WRC+ is just a couple points shy of 100, which is league-average. And he's doing all this with a BABIP slightly below his career figure. His plate discipline figures have deviated a bit from his norms, but not to any great degree. He's actually hitting fewer line drives and more ground balls. Really, the major difference appears to be that more of his fly balls are leaving the ballpark than ever before. The drop in BABIP is probably due to the decrease in line drives and the increase in ground balls, so I wouldn't expect his average to change. I guess the bottom line here is that Rosales is an okay hitter. He's not a gaping, suppurating hole in our lineup like another middle infielder I could mention.

And that's my story.

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