Slumps & Regressions; Why The Tampa Bay Rays Hitters Aren't This Bad

Yesterday, R.J. made it pretty clear that the Rays are not this bad. This team is too talented and built too well to win at a .385 clip. The problem with the Rays right now is there isn't one area you can point your finger at and say here is the problem. While there have been flashes of brilliance in the rotation, each starter has had "that game" already where they just looked awful. In the bullpen, it's been hit or miss each time out. Joe Nelson, Lance Cormier and Brian Shouse have been steady; however you have to be a little concerned about the amount of innings the pen has already thrown (37). Offensively, the Rays have a few guys who are flat out hitting and a bunch who aren't.

Keeping with the regression theme, I decided to look at the BABIP of some of the hitters who are struggling. Now, BABIP isn't the end all be all when it comes to slumps, but if a player is maintaining his line drive, ground ball and fly ball percentages, and his strikeout and walk ratios are within normal, then a low BABIP could explain some of their struggles. Again, this is not a magic BABIP formula; this is just to show who may be due for some regression toward the positive mean in the new few weeks. Also keep in mind we are still dealing with a limited sample size of data.

Here are the guys who have been hit the hardest in the BABIP category:

Player

AVG

OBP

SLG

BABIP

C.BABIP

DIF.

Aybar

0.111

0.200

0.167

0.133

0.294

0.161

Burrell

0.225

0.319

0.350

0.258

0.303

0.045

Navarro

0.200

0.220

0.350

0.259

0.292

0.033

Kapler

0.174

0.240

0.304

0.235

0.301

0.066

Gross

0.136

0.321

0.136

0.176

0.285

0.109

*C.BABIP represents the players Career BABIP.

As you can see, quite a chunk of the Rays everyday lineup has been "unlucky" so to speak. Unlike pitchers BABIP, hitters have a say in their BABIP.  While Willy Aybar isn't an everyday player, he has been hit the hardest with a BABIP of .133 compared to a career BABIP of .294. All of Aybar's other percentages are within career range so it seems that he should turn the corner soon. However, the problem with Aybar is getting consistent at-bats to turn that around. Without an injury it's going to be hard for that to happen, meaning his early season woes could last a bit longer than your normal everyday player.

Next on the list with the biggest differential is Gabe Gross. Again, Gross, like Aybar, has been pretty steady amongst his other percentages; it's just the BABIP that seems off. In a positive, Gross has improved his plate discipline and has a BB% of 21.4. However, like Aybar, the problem for Gross will be getting enough at-bats. With the emergence of Ben "ZoRilla, BenZo, Late Inning Lightning" Zobrist, Gross's ABs could take a hit.

The last three on the list have all seen a drop in BABIP, but not as dramatic as Aybar or Gross. Gabe Kapler, the other half of the Gabe of the Day platoon, has had an awful start to the season. He's not hitting and even when he does, he usually screws that up once he gets on base. Defensively, despite having above average UZR marks, he still looks like he's guessing on a lot of balls and making up for it with his decent closing speed. Unlike Aybar or Gross, there is a peripheral percentage out there that sticks out like a sore thumb on Kapler.

As R.J. mentioned, the Rays are hitting a ton of fly balls this year and nobody has a higher fly ball percentage than Kapler. For his career, he has an average FB% of 34.7. This year that total has doubled to 70%. Now, there is no way he can sustain a 70% FB rate, so I expect his BABIP to normalize once his fly balls drop and his line drives and ground balls pick up. It seems to me that he is pressing right now and it's probably more of a mental approach than anything else.  

Dioner Navarro and Pat Burrell are everyday players. On most nights you can pencil them into the Rays lineup, so technically we should be most concerned with them. In Navarro's case, while it seems he's been a bit unlucky, and he has, I just think we're seeing an overall regression from 2008. I definitely expect Navi's slash to be better than .200/.220/.350, but I'm not so sure it will be as good as last seasons. One thing that Navarro needs to fix is strikeouts. Navi is striking out 30% of the time, which is double his career average of 15%. With the increase in K's has come a decrease in walks as in just one walk in 41 plate appearances so far. More plate discipline could go a long way in correcting Navarro's struggles.

As for Pat the Bat, out of all the hitters who are struggling, Burrell seems to be the one that is due for an instant turn. Almost all of Burrell's percentages are within line with career averages and his batting eye has improved with a 14% O-Swing. Burrell has hit more ground balls than normal and it could just be a matter of getting used to a new league. Once his line drives pick up, I think we will all see the hitter we envisioned when he signed, and it looks like that could happen soon.

On the flip side, there are two other every day players who are struggling, but have maintained a normal BABIP. Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton have "struggled" early on, but in their cases BABIP doesn't seem to be an issue.

Player

AVG

OBP

SLG

BABIP

C. BABIP

DIF.

Crawford

0.241

0.263

0.333

0.325

0.33

0.005

Upton

0.217

0.379

0.261

0.357

0.359

0.002

In Crawford case it's simple; TAKE A PITCH. That argument is almost a lost cause with CC because it's been the same for seven seasons now. Crawford is seeing the second least pitches per plate appearance (3.93) of the Rays regulars. The lowest is Jason Bartlett, but he's hitting and if you're hot, then you're hot and there's no reason to change your approach. However, Crawford isn't hitting and if you're not seeing many pitches, then you are not giving yourself a chance to get on base via the walk. CC has just one walk in 57 plate appearances this year and has a higher strikeout percentage (25.9%) than we've ever seen. I know Carl loves hitting second in the order, but he seems to be some what of a rally killer of late. Maybe a temporary drop down to six or seven would help, but that's unlikely to happen.

Quite the opposite of Crawford, B.J. Upton is walking and doing a fantastic job of it. Despite missing the team's first six games and most of yesterday, Upton is tied for the team lead in bases on balls with six. This is why Upton's OBP is still a stellar .379 even though he's barely hitting over .200. Upton is striking out quite a bit (39.1%), but is really just getting comfortable at the plate. Even though he was an active participant in minor league spring training games, it is a far cry from seeing major league pitching, and Upton is really at the tail end of his spring training right now. Hopefully the quad injury remains minor and Upton doesn't miss any time. Like most Rays hitters, he is hitting too many fly balls. Once he turns some of those fly balls into grounders and liners, everything should fall into place.

Another metric to look at when trying to figure out slumps and regressions is line drive percentages. Here are the LD% for 2009 compared to the career averages for the players mentioned above:

Player

LD%

LD% Career

DIF.

Aybar

13.3

17.9

4.6

Burrell

12.1

21

8.9

Navarro

10.7

21.3

10.6

Kapler

11.8

19.2

7.4

Gross

17.6

19.4

1.8

As you can see it, line drive and BABIP do have some correlation. However, Aybar and Gross have the lowest LD% difference despite having abnormally low BABIPs. Again, Burrell and Navarro are due for some bumps back to the norm.

Now for the Crawford and Upton line drive comparisons

Player

LD%

LD% Career

DIF.

Crawford

20

20.1

0.1

Upton

25

18.6

-6.4

 

Like BABIP, CC is right there within his career totals. If you were going to be concerned about a Rays' hitter slow start, Crawford would be the one, but CC is a notoriously slow starter. As for Upton, he is hitting a fair about of line drives, but just hitting them at fielders. With more power will come deeper liners, more gap hits and better results.

Small samples sizes, sure, but it seems that for a few of the Rays hitters the struggles are self inflicted. For the others, it seems that the law of averages should even out soon and regression to the mean is in order. Does this mean that because today's of BABIP and line drive rates that the Rays lineup will turn over on it's head soon? No, but it shows that some of these slumps are correctable and others just not sustainable. Hopefully, the day off and a fresh start on a different coast jump starts some of the Rays bats and we can go back to doing what we did 97 times during 2008 regular season; Winning.

 

Data from FanGraphs

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