At first glance, the answer seems rather simple. Through May 8th, Posada’s posted a rather tragic .152/.257/.354 (.269 wOBA/65 wRC+) triple slash line. While he’s shown he can still hammer a pitch out of the park with relative ease, he’s shown little ability to do much else with the ball. To make matters worse, his ability to control the strike zone has started to falter (career low BB/K mark of 0.46); his line drive rate has fallen to a paltry 11.3%; and his move from catcher to designated hitter has robbed him of much of his value. When you factor his in age (39 years old), the idea his performance will rebound seems pretty bleak, right?
Ehhhh…not so fast. Like a lot of cases I’ve written about over the past few months, his outcome stat line makes his overall performance look a lot worse than he’s actually performing. Matt Imbrogno’s latest article over at Yankee Analysts, puts Posada’s performance into perspective.
“But aside from homers and walks, not much has gone right for Posada this year. His triple slash sits at .146/.248/.354 with a meager .264 wOBA and a weak 62 wRC+. Jorge’s bound to rebound. I mean, he has to, right? It’s hard to imagine that he hits this poorly the rest of the way. Let’s see if there’s anything that can signal a rebound is coming.
Posada’s career BABIP is .315. Right now, it’s at an unbelievably low .127. If that doesn’t rebound, I’d be surprised. However, this horrific BABIP isn’t necessarily the fault of the Luck Dragons. All the homers and walks certainly haven’t helped Jorge’s BABIP, and neither have his batted balls. Posada’s line drive percentage is currently at 11.6%. Yikes. Unless he starts making more solid contact soon, he’s going to be stuck with a low BABIP and poor results.”
As I’m writing this, Posada’s BABIP is .138, so it’s only marginally better than the .127 Matt quoted for his article. Either way, it’s an uncharacteristically low for someone with Posada’s talent. Actually, to be fair, it’s low even for someone with Brandon Wood’s swing-and-miss tendencies. Still, as Matt points out, Posada’s abysmal BABIP is not completely caused by random chance. His inability to square up the ball and hit line drives has had a major impact on his ability to get hits on balls put into play. As I’ve mentioned in previous pieces, the expected BABIP (xBABIP) for line drives is .720.* When hitters, in this case Posada, fail to rack up line drives, their batting average (and by association, their OBP and SLG) will suffer unless the luck gods toss a ton of luck in their direction. While the luck gods may shine on a hitter over the short-term, it rarely lasts over the long-term. Clearly, they haven’t been shining on the long-time Yankee catcher so far this season.
* As a reminder, here are the xBABIPs for the following plate appearance outcomes: line drives – .720; ground balls – .240; fly balls – .150; strikeouts – .000.
Luckily, there’s some good news. For starters, despite Posada’s BB/K ratio being slightly askew, his swing and contact rates are well within in his career norms. Unlike a lot of hitters at similar stages in their career, he’s neither swinging wildly at pitches thrown outside the zone, nor swinging-and-missing pitches at an abnormally elevated rate. This is a great sign that he’s not only retained his plate discipline, but also avoided the pitfalls associated with slowed bat speed. Of even greater comfort is the fact that, according to Pizza Cutter of Fangraphs, swing and contact rates tend to become reliable somewhere around the 50-100 plate appearance mark. Barring any unforeseen injury or unexpected significant decline, we can reasonably expect him to continue to show a similar level of plate discipline over the rest of the season.
Furthermore, Posada’s only accumulated 113 plate appearances (PA) so far this season. With the exception of the swing and contact rates I just mentioned, none of the other stats we could float out there as potential reasons for Posada’s decline are reliable. K% and LD% don’t become reliable until approximately 150 PAs; BB%, GB%, and GB/FB ratio don’t become reliable until around 200 PAs; and FB% doesn’t become reliable until 250 PAs. Therefore, the small sample size argument fits. While Posada’s results have been subpar this year, it’s still too early to make an accurate judgment on whether or not he’s still a viable major league caliber hitter.
Montero, on the other hand, has been spraying the baseball all over the field of play with relative ease. For the Yankees AAA affiliate in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, he’s mashed to the tune of .370/.385/.457 (.371 wOBA/131 wRC+). At first glance, it looks pretty impressive. In fact, you may come to a similar conclusion as Brien, and think that Montero’s learned all he can learn at AAA; therefore, earning him a promotion to the major league club. While this is both a reasonable and viable conclusion from which to land, I see it a little bit differently.
When I look beyond his eye popping triple slash line, I see a player’s whose performance is largely batting average driven.* While this isn’t necessarily a problem for some hitters (especially slap hitters with a great deal of foot speed), it is typically an issue for a hitter of Montero’s breed; one who relies on power to create runs. As power hitter, many of his hits will come on balls leaving the yard. Since home runs don’t fall within the field of play, they’re not calculated within BABIP; therefore, as he incorporates more power into his game, his BABIP will have no choice but to drop from its current .440 level. As a result, he’s an excellent candidate to experience BABIP and batting average regression in the coming months. Luckily, his improved slugging numbers will cover up many of the losses he sees on the batting average/OBP side of the line.
* Through May 8th, Montero’s only walked four times (once intentionally), and hit only six extra base hits in 96 PAs.
Still, though, what do we make of his paltry 3.1% BB% and 18.5% K%? Can we expect those numbers to improve over time? Are they meaningful, given the relatively small sample size? Furthermore, how will his AAA numbers translate to the major leagues? These questions all have to be answered before anyone makes a decision on promoting Montero. With only 50-100 PAs to go before his walk and strikeout numbers become reliable, he doesn’t have a lot of time to turn those baselines around. As a result, they’re probably fairly close to what we should expect going forward.
Dave Gershman of Beyond the Boxscore had an interesting take on promoting prospects through the ranks.
“Basically, a manager sees similar talents in his employees when it comes to their potential to progress in the organization. Promoting someone simply because they’re succeeding in their current role could be premature. Hec (sic), they’re supposed to succeed wherever they’re at which ties back to the point I made previously regarding teams measuring when a player is ready for the next step. Minor Leaguers are purposely given six years of team control after they sign following the draft because they’re supposed to experience and endure the Rocky Road of Professional Baseball. When doing your job whether it’s writing for a Baseball site, filing documents in a law practice firm, or what ever (sic) it may be, you shouldn’t be rushed until your (sic) at “mastering” status. Keep in mind as well that usually promoting someone (in baseball) means that you need to make a corresponding move and there’s no need to do so without a significant reason.”
Interested in a second opinion, Gershman asked Sky Kalkman, fellow blogger and baseball statistician, to add his opinion to the larger conversation
“A hitter’s ceiling might be an 8 on a scale from 1 to 10. Right now he’s a 4. If you challenge him with pitchers with skill level 5 or 6, he’ll struggle, but at least understand why he’s struggling, make adjustments and pull himself up to that 5 or 6. But if you rush him to the majors to face pitchers that are 8 to 10’s, he’ll struggle and have no clue why. Or there are five reasons why. And so he can’t meet the challenge because the challenge is so huge. He stays at 4. But he also might try new things that aren’t productive long-term, such as swinging earlier to catch up with the faster fastballs, which leaves him more susceptible to off-speed pitches. Or maybe he guesses more because that’s the only way he can have a positive outcome. He can hit .240 instead of .200 that way, but approach-wise, he’s further away from getting to .280.”
Kalkman’s opinion is pretty similar to how I feel about Montero’s on-base abilities. For whatever reason, Montero’s ability to draw walks as regressed significantly. While his low walk rate might be the result of a small sample size fluke, it could also be systemic of a conscious change in his approach at the plate to be more aggressive. I’d like to believe it’s the former (and I’m still keeping that option open), but I tend to think it’s the latter, considering he hasn’t seen a similar, proportional decrease in his strikeout rate. If the Yankees promoted Montero to the big club with his current approach at the plate (assuming his BB/K ratio is a true measure of his talents), there’s a pretty good chance we’ll seem him struggle to not only get on base, but also avoid frequent strike outs—at least for the time being. He’d be stuck in exactly the kind of battle Kalkman described above: a hitter with the plate discipline at a 4 or 5 level going up against pitching at an 8 to 10 level. Rather than improving as a hitter, he could develop bad habits; thus leading to stasis.
Brien might explain Montero’s plate discipline issues a little differently. Instead of arguing against promotion, he would argue for it on the account that he’s “not being challenged” and could potentially “develop bad habits” as a result. In all honesty, he could be correct. It is entirely possible Montero’s issues in this area have been caused by boredom. Really, I’m not sure if there’s a right or wrong answer at this point. I just see it differently. While his concern is rational (and I believe this scenario is something that can come to fruition), I see Montero’s situation as being more of a performance based issue than a motivational issue. As such, his ship can be righted through work at the minor league level.
In conclusion, given Posada’s solid chances of seeing his performance improve in the coming weeks, along with Montero’s need for a little more development time in AAA, I think it’s in both parties’ best interest to keep things status quo. If the Yankees are still in the same place on June 15th (the Super 2 deadline), then we’ll need to re-examine our situation. Until then, let’s be patient with both Posada and Montero, and see how it plays out.