July 11, 2007

Compared to Last Season … (Part 2: Hitters)

Last week I devoted a pair of entries to examining how the Twins fared through exactly one half of the schedule, looking at the pitching staff on Tuesday and the lineup on Thursday. The entries focused on the team as a whole, but with the All-Star break leaving us without games to watch I'd like to take this opportunity to delve a little deeper into the performances of individual players. Specifically, comparing how each player's first-half performance this year compares to their season totals from last year.

On Monday I covered the pitchers and today I'll tackle the hitters. Rather than focus on stuff like batting averages and RBIs, which often leave a lot to be desired, what you'll see quoted instead are more advanced metrics that attempt to break down a player's performance in a more detailed and complete manner. In other words, rather than simply saying that a hitter is batting .275 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs, these numbers will help show how they got there. Here's a quick list of the metrics I'll be using:

GPA - Gross Production Average
SO% - Percentage of plate appearances ending in a strikeout
BB% - Percentage of plate appearances ending in a walk
IsoP - Isolated Power
BIP - Batting average on balls in play
LD% - Percentage of balls in play that are line drives
GB% - Percentage of balls in play that are ground balls

If you're interested in learning more about any of those numbers, check out The Hardball Times' stats glossary or Dave Cameron's excellent primer on "evaluating pitching talent" over at U.S.S. Mariner. With that too-long introduction out of the way, let's dive right in ...

JUSTIN MORNEAU: .295 AVG, .364 OBP, .581 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .309     14.1     6.7     .238     .344     23.5     35.9
2007     .309     13.2     7.7     .286     .289     16.5     46.0

Justin Morneau's overall production has essentially been identical to his MVP-winning 2006 season, but the way he's gotten there has been quite a bit different. Morneau's line-drive percentage has dropped 30 percent and he's hit the ball on the ground 28 percent more often, which helps explain why his batting average on balls in play has fallen from .344 to .289. It's difficult to overcome that while remaining similarly valuable, but Morneau has done it by striking out less and walking more.

Oh, and his fly balls are going further. In 2006, 16.7 percent of Morneau's fly balls went for homers, but this year 23.4 percent of them have traveled over the fence. Not only is that more than double the league-average rate of 11 percent, it puts Morneau third in the league after he ranked 15th last season. He also ranks third among AL hitters in Isolated Power after ranking 14th in 2006. Morneau needed 34 homers and 130 RBIs to win the AL MVP, but he's on pace for 45 homers and 140 RBIs this year.

JOE MAUER: .309 AVG, .401 OBP, .456 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .320      8.9     9.5     .160     .376     24.9     49.4
2007     .295     12.2    11.0     .147     .348     20.5     49.2

Joe Mauer was among baseball's most patient hitters last season, but he's worked even deeper into counts this year, seeing a team-high 4.1 pitches per plate appearance. The result is a 16 percent hike in walks, but Mauer has also upped his strikeouts by 37 percent while hitting 18 percent fewer line drives. Putting the ball in play less often and not hitting the ball as hard when you do is a large part of why his batting average has dipped from .347 to .309.

With that said, Mauer's .295 GPA ranks third among AL catchers, behind only Victor Martinez and Jorge Posada, and both his line-drive percentage and batting average on balls in play are among the league's top 20. He continues to rank among the league's most extreme ground-ball hitters, which explains why his power hasn't developed further. As a look at the ground-ball percentage leaderboard shows, it's simply difficult to hit for power when half of your balls in play are on the ground.

TORII HUNTER: .301 AVG, .342 OBP, .558 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .274     17.7     7.0     .212     .300     18.0     44.6
2007     .294     16.5     3.4     .257     .321     15.6     45.4

Torii Hunter is on pace for career-highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers, and RBIs, but it's tough to see where the improvement has come from statistically. Never a patient hitter, Hunter has sliced his walk rate in half, drawing a grand total of just 12 non-intentional walks in 351 plate appearances while seeing seven percent fewer pitches per trip to the plate. He's hitting more ground balls and fewer line drives, and his homer-to-fly ball ratio is unchanged.

So how has he managed a seven-percent increase in both batting average on balls in play and overall production? Believe it or not, it's because he's stopped popping up. Last year, 15 percent of his balls in play were infield pop ups, which are essentially automatic outs, but this year that rate has dropped to five percent. Along with seven percent fewer strikeouts, that gives Hunter the equivalent of 17 percent "extra" balls in play to work with and many of them have turned into extra-base hits.

YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .289     20.5     9.0     .220     .338     20.6     44.0
2007     .271     16.8    11.4     .159     .317     18.3     45.8

Michael Cuddyer has followed up his breakout 2006 season by cutting his strikeouts by 18 percent and upping his walks by 27 percent, but the rest of his game has declined. Cuddyer's line-drive rate has dropped 12 percent and he's hitting twice as many infield flies, a combination that's dropped his batting average on balls in play from .338 to .317. More importantly, his Isolated Power has dipped 28 percent, going from 21st in the league to barely above average.

Last year 15.9 percent of Cuddyer's fly balls went for homers, but this year just 10.8 percent have gone over the fence. The difference in those two rates has already cost him five homers, which goes a long way towards explaining the decreased production and figures to correct itself somewhat in the second half. In what is likely a sample-size fluke, Cuddyer has slugged just .432 against left-handed pitching after knocking them around to the tune of a .518 slugging percentage last year.

LUIS CASTILLO: .305 AVG, .352 OBP, .339 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .254      8.9     8.6     .074     .326     17.7     61.5
2007     .243      7.5     6.8     .034     .333     14.0     70.5

Luis Castillo is on pace for his lowest on-base percentage and OPS since he was a 25-year-old. For a player whose game is based on speed, that might suggest he's slowing down and losing hits in the process. However, the numbers disagree. Castillo is bunting for hits more than ever and sports a .333 batting average on balls in play that's in line with his career norms. For a player who leads the league in ground-ball percentage, that's an indication that he can still get down the first-base line pretty quickly.

Castillo's decreased production is actually due to a loss of walks and power, although the latter could involve not legging out as many doubles. Castillo's Isolated Power has been cut in half, but that's not overly concerning for a leadoff man who's always been among the least-powerful hitters in baseball. Castillo's job is clearly to get on base, which is why a 21 percent drop in walks is a much bigger concern. His .305 batting average looks nice, but it's incredibly empty and masks a drop in value.

JASON BARTLETT: .254 AVG, .334 OBP, .321 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .264     12.3     5.6     .084     .361     22.2     43.8
2007     .231     13.2     8.3     .067     .293     24.7     42.6

Jason Bartlett has made big strides in two key areas offensively this season, upping his walk rate by 48 percent and producing 11 percent more line drives. Surprisingly, it hasn't led to an overall increase in production, in large part because Bartlett's batting average on balls in play has dropped from .361 to .293. While .361 was likely unsustainable to begin with, it's odd to see a speedy player up his already solid line-drive percentage while seeing his average on balls in play drop by 19 percent.

Because of that, I'd expect Bartlett to improve his numbers in the second half as a few more bloopers and choppers begin falling in for hits. It's interesting to note that Bartlett has hit .270/.350/.343 since beginning the season in a 1-for-20 slump, which is essentially the same production that Castillo has provided, except in a different package. Also of note is that Bartlett has gone 17-for-18 (94 percent) stealing bases and is now 33-for-39 (85 percent) during his big-league career.

JASON KUBEL: .250 AVG, .302 OBP, .404 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .222     19.1     5.1     .145     .271     20.6     48.6
2007     .237     17.5     6.5     .154     .288     23.4     43.7

Jason Kubel's overall production remains sub par, but various components of his performance have actually been good and much better than last season. He's striking out seven percent less, walking 27 percent more, hitting for slightly more power, and keeping the ball off the ground. Kubel's line-drive percentage ranks fifth in the entire league and is up 14 percent from last year. So far at least his batting average on balls in play doesn't match, but expect that to correct itself in the second half.

It's been a tale of two seasons for Kubel, who began the year with a measly .310 slugging percentage and zero homers through his first 108 plate appearances. Since then, he's slugging .471 with seven homers in 155 plate appearances. Even with the slow start, Kubel's .154 Isolated Power is virtually tied with Cuddyer for third-best on the team. Kubel is hitting .300/.364/.425 against left-handed pitching, but Ron Gardenhire continues to regularly bench him against lefties to "protect" him.

NICK PUNTO: .212 AVG, .313 OBP, .272 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .252     13.0     9.0     .083     .345     23.6     46.3
2007     .209     14.9    12.4     .060     .252     16.0     50.2

When Nick Punto was hitting well last season, I wrote that he "found success because he stopped focusing on drawing walks and pretending he's a power hitter." Looking to put the ball in play rather than working deep counts was a good approach for a hitter who has no power and struggles to make contact. Unfortunately, he's back to old habits, with a 15 percent increase in strikeouts and a 38 percent jump in walks. That tradeoff works for some, but for Punto it means letting hittable pitches go by.

The result is a 32 percent drop in line-drive percentage, which coincides with Punto's batting average on balls in play plummeting from .345 to .252. When you have the power to make pitchers pay for mistakes or possess the skills to make solid contact in unfavorable counts, then taking tons of pitches makes sense. When you're Punto, it just means that you've been reduced to coaxing walks in between making easy outs. It was fun while it lasted, but this third baseman has turned back into a pumpkin.

MIKE REDMOND: .287 AVG, .332 OBP, .351 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .268      9.5     2.1     .072     .384     27.0     46.0
2007     .237      8.9     4.5     .064     .316     22.2     40.9

Last season Mike Redmond swung at just about everything and seemingly always found a hole, hitting .341 thanks to a .384 batting average on balls in play that would have ranked second in the league (one spot ahead of Mauer and behind only Derek Jeter) if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. That average on balls in play, which included a ridiculous .443 mark against left-handed pitching, was clearly unsustainable and the drop to .316 this year is due in part to his luck evening out.

Redmond has also seen his line-drive percentage and ground-ball percentage fall significantly, which means that he's hitting far more easily catchable fly balls. His production is down across the board save for a huge increase in walk rate, but even now only Hunter draws free passes less often among the team's regulars. Redmond remains an outstanding backup catcher, but he's clearly misused as a designated hitter and last season looks like an obvious fluke when viewed in the context of his career.

JEFF CIRILLO: .273 AVG, .338 OBP, .391 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .269     11.4     7.2     .095     .360     20.4     45.7
2007     .250      6.9     9.0     .118     .287     19.3     47.9

Much like Redmond, Jeff Cirillo's solid 2006 season in Milwaukee was based upon an unsustainably good batting average on balls in play. That number has dipped from .360 to .287 this season, taking Cirillo's overall production down along with it. Interestingly, aside from losing some of his luck, many elements of Cirillo's performance have improved. He's cut his strikeouts by 39 percent while upping both his walk rate and Isolated Power, and his line-drive percentage remains relatively close.

The big difference simply comes down to a bunch of balls that went for hits last season finding gloves this time around. While it might seem difficult to believe about someone who was 36 years old last season, Cirillo has been hurt by a lack infield hits. Last year 12 percent (10-of-84) of his hits never left the infield, whereas this season that number has fallen to six percent (2-of-35). Odd as it sounds, bad wheels might be hurting Cirillo's offense a lot more than Castillo's.

JASON TYNER: .268 AVG, .318 OBP, .317 SLG
YEAR      GPA      SO%     BB%     IsoP      BIP      LD%      GB%
2006     .244      7.8     3.9     .041     .343     27.0     51.9
2007     .223      8.4     5.2     .049     .297     14.3     59.5

After riding a high line-drive percentage and good work on balls in play to an empty .312 batting average last year, Jason Tyner has essentially done nothing well this year. His walk rate is 40 percent worse than league average, his line-drive rate is 21 percent below league average, and Castillo and Erick Aybar are the only hitters in the league who've shown less power while batting at least 150 times. All that and he's started 14 times at designated hitter and another 15 times in an outfield corner.

The amazing thing is that even when Tyner is benefiting from an usually high batting average on balls in play, like he did in 2006, his entire offensive value boils down to hitting a single three times out of every 10 at-bats. He doesn't draw walks or hit for any kind of power, so when the singles dry up he has zero worth offensively. For all his speed and supposed small-ball ability, Tyner has just six infield hits and only two AL hitters have grounded into a higher percentage of their double-play opportunities.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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