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Willy Aybar & Pinch Hitting

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ST. PETERSBURG - MAY 16:  Designated hitter Willy Aybar #16 of the Tampa Bay Rays fouls off a pitch against the Seattle Mariners during the game at Tropicana Field on May 16, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
ST. PETERSBURG - MAY 16: Designated hitter Willy Aybar #16 of the Tampa Bay Rays fouls off a pitch against the Seattle Mariners during the game at Tropicana Field on May 16, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
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This was written before FreeZo's take on Aybar a week and a half ago. Don't mean to cover the same tread, but at the same time it does tackle one aspect otherwise untapped.

Maybe Willy Aybar's 2008 set the bar too high.

The Rays acquired Aybar the previous winter for Jeff Ridgeway - a minor leaguer pitcher with the upside of becoming a left-handed relief specialist - along with the (now) forgotten Chase Fontaine. That deal looks poor now but keep in mind the Atlanta Braves' front office is generally amongst the game's best. Their mission was simply to get something useful for virtually nothing. Although you would never know it now, Aybar was a bit of a risk. He missed the entire 2007 campaign while undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse. Hell, he would be arrested after the Rays acquired him for reportedly striking his wife; charges stemming from that arrest would never be pressed.

This was a peculiar maneuver for a franchise that had executed a similar swapping - that being Elijah Dukes for Glenn Gibson - no more than six weeks earlier; if not teetering on the line of being a disaster. Nevertheless, Aybar managed to work through his substance abuse issues and would head to spring training in competition for a roster spot. As it would eventually play out, Aybar's main competition would be Joel Guzman and not Evan Longoria, as the Rays appeared to circumvent the service time rules. Aybar would win out and take third base as his own on opening day.

Through the first seven games of the season, Aybar would record seven hits, two walks, and a home run, good for a line of .292/.370/.500. Then he would get hurt. Evan Longoria would be promoted and extended, and when Aybar next made an appearance for the Rays, it would come in the waning days of May. As luck would have it, just as Aybar returned, Carlos Pena exited with an injury of his own. Aybar would man first base for most of June; he would hit .256/.363/.385 with a pair of homers and more bases on balls than strikeouts.

Once Pena returned, Aybar was again restricted to the bench. He would occasionally be designated to hit, or sub in as a pinch hitter, but most of his days were confined to chatting up the other bench players - those whom he shared a lingual link to - and waiting for his chance to swing the bat ... maybe. Evan Longoria would suffer a wrist injury in August and once more Aybar would step into the hole while producing solidly. He would hit five homers and post an OPS just two points shy of .900 through 30 games, helping the Rays hold onto their first place positioning while Longoria recovered.

The post-season would roll around and Aybar would play vital one final time as he would play a key cog in the Rays' ALCS victory. He'd appear in six of the seven games, starting three, and would pop a pair of homers and bat in six runs; the most important of which came in game seven against the seemingly unconquerable Jon Lester. During the off-season Aybar inked an extension that pays him more than three million over this and next season.

Aybar was a popular man in Tampa Bay. And why wouldn't he be? He was Ben Zobrist before Ben Zobrist.  Aybar could play third - no, he could really play third, sometimes making stunning displays with the leather that were only outshined by Longoria - along with second, first, and he'd even make an appearance at shortstop. His ability to switch hit meant he was able to come into the game at any time and theoretically would hold no disadvantages if the opposing manager tried playing matchups with his bullpen. Perhaps most importantly to his recognition, Aybar used a catchy song as his ditty in Flo Rida's "Low". The lyrics began to read like a summoning poem at some ritualistic ceremony; the monster of choice? Aybar's heroics, as laid out alongside the anthem of his conquests:

Shawty had them Apple Bottom jeans

Aybar would come up in the eighth of a mid-August game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Said game featured a pitching duel between Ervin Santana and James Shields in which the two combined two allowed three earned runs in 15 innings while walking three and striking out 16. With the bases loaded and two outs, Aybar would single to left off Darren Oliver, raising the score to 4-2 and adding more than 30% to the Rays win probability.

Boots with the fur

With two out and Joaquin Benoit pitching to a bases loaded audience in a tied game, Aybar would double to right field, plating two and contributing just another nail in the coffin to an American League West team.

6/7 Top 8th, 2 outs, bases loaded, down 2-4, Aybar doubled; two runners scored. .305 WPA.

The whole club was lookin' at her

With one home run already under his belt on the night, Aybar came up in a tied game with Tyler Yates on the mound. On the final Sunday of June, Aybar would single to right, but an error on Xavier NAdy would lead to the runner on first scoring and Aybar advancing to third. Just like that, Aybar contributed .279 WPA in one plate appearance.

She hit the flo'

A David Oritz first inning home run would put the Rays in an immediate two run deficit against Boston. Aybar would come up in the bottom of the first facing knuckleballer Tim Wakefield with a runner on second and two outs. He'd do the reasonable thing and hit a go-ahead homer as the Rays would eventually route their rivals.

9/17 Bottom 1st, 2 outs, runner on second, up 3-2, Aybar homered; two runs scored. .187 WPA.

Next thing you know

A week before that hit against the Angels, Aybar would hit a three-run homer in the second inning against another knuckleballer, R.A. Dickey, planting the Rays ahead and allowing them to coast to victory. WPA: .179.

Shawty got low low low low

In his 14 pinch hit plate appearances, Aybar would reach base five times. Pinch hitting is such a niche and difficult aspect of baseball that Aybar's .361 wOBA looked amazing. And it was. After all, his non-pinch hitting appearances were good too, but only wielded a .327 wOBA. Under normal circumstances, the expectation is for a hitter to perform roughly 10% worse in pinch hitting duties than he would normally be expected to. Even Lenny Harris - the game's all-time leader in pinch hits - had a lower batting average and OPS in pinch hitting situations than the rest of his career. But not Aybar. Not in 2008.

2009 would hold less playing time for Aybar and he would even change his tune. Even when second baseman Akinori Iwamura went down with injury, Aybar would witness the 2009 version of himself - at least in the versatile, hot hitting bat off the bench sense - replace Iwamura. On the occasions Aybar was allowed to play the field, he would find himself making the most ridiculous of errors. Pop psychologists and couch trainers alike pointed to various reasons for Aybar's struggles. The most notable of theories being: (a) residual self-doubt following his error in the World Baseball Classic (which came at first base and cost his Dominican Republic squad against the Netherlands) weighed heavily; and (b) that fear weighed almost as heavily as his newfound thighs. The glorious pinch hitting deity had fallen out of favor despite his improved hitting. In non-pinch hitting appearances Aybar boasted a .338 wOBA, well above league average, but he struggled in 26 pinch hit appearances, with a wOBA of .254.

Thus far, 2010 has been the same. Aybar has still gotten a few chances to play second base, and he's looked fine while doing so, but at the dish it's clear that Aybar is no longer an exception to the 10% rule. His wOBA is more than 30 points higher when Aybar enters or starts the game as a non-pinch hitter. For his Rays career, Aybar's wOBA is around .326 - this without taking stolen bases or caught stealing into account - through more than 800 plate appearances. But he's appeared as a pinch hitter more than 50 times, a little over 6% of his total, and struggled to the tune of a .288 wOBA. That compared to his .329 wOBA when presented from a more regular position.

He's become somewhat of an afterthought in the scheme of things. Overshadowed by sexier - interchangeable with ‘newer' - names like Hank Blalock for the part-time designated hitter role this season; and the same disease is striking Aybar when it comes to the 2011 first base job, just the names change to Jose Julio Ruiz, Leslie Anderson, and Matthew Sweeney. Whether Aybar ever becomes a starter for a full season in Tampa Bay is anyone's guess.

Aybar would start on a good number of teams in the league at various positions. Here, he's restricted to being the tenth or eleventh guy. Maybe it's the ‘good enough to start' aspect that pushes some to include him in rosterbatory efforts; and true, allowing such talent to rust away borders on criminal, especially with that contract. Yet each of those are the reasons are why the Rays have held onto and (presumably) will continue to hold onto Aybar. Really, that is the tragedy of Willy Aybar and the Rays' roster:  too many good players and not ample enough playing time for them all.

Here, like In art, tragic displays offer pleasure with their various destructions. Even if we never experience Willy Aybar the starter, we will take comfort in experiencing Willy Aybar the utility man.