Defining Teixeira’s issues at the plateBy
Yesterday Mike examined a sad development for the Yankees. Mark Teixeira, whose offensive prowess led the Yankees to the AL East crown in 2009, has slipped considerably in the last two seasons. After a slow start, even for him, he picked up the pace, only to be slowed by injuries. Yet this year, when he’s been ostensibly healthy, he’s producing similar numbers. Of particular concern is his pitiful batting average, which affects his OBP, which in turn hurts his overall value. It’s not a stretch to say that the Yankees expected more when they signed him.
We all have our theories on why Teixeira is performing so poorly. In the comments of Mike’s post we saw a huge array of them, ranging from poor mechanics to his pull tendencies, and even to downright bad luck. It’s hard to say which of these has the most merit, since many of the theories are based on anecdotal evidence or sloppy statistical assumptions (i.e., low BABIPs will always due to bad luck and will always rise). But we can dig a bit deeper to see what has changed since Teixeira’s mammoth 2009 season.
A quick glance at Teixeira’s FanGraphs page can lead to some answers, but it’s important to put those numbers into context. What stood out to me, and what probably stands out to you, is that he’s swinging at way more balls out of the zone. In 2009 that was 21.8 percent, which is right around the level he had been at previously. In 2010 that jumped to 26.5 percent, and this year it’s 25.6 percent. OK, you might say, that explains a lot. Yet it doesn’t. If you click Show Averages, you’ll see that the average rate of swinging outside the zone jumped in 2010. Look to your right, and you’ll see that the league-wide percentage of pitches thrown in the zone has fallen, implying that the zone has become a bit smaller. In order to gauge how Teixeira has reacted we have to compare his rates to the league average.
In 2009 Tex’s rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone was 15 percent below the league average (21.8 percent to 25.1 percent). In 2010 his rate climbed, but so did the league average. He finished swinging at 26.5 percent of pitches, which was 11 percent below league average. This year he’s swinging at 25.6 percent of pitches, which is 17 percent below league average. So while he did swing at relatively more pitches out of the zone last year, he’s at a better pace this year when compared to the league. In fact, his 25.6 percent rate is 34th lowest in the majors, out of 152 qualified hitters. While it might be frustrating to watch him swing over changeups, it doesn’t seem to be an issue.
One thing that has changed is that he’s making contact with fewer of these out of zone pitches. Again, we need to adjust for league average when looking at his numbers — and I’ll spare you the specific calculations — but in 2009 he had a contact rate on pitches out of the zone that was well above league average. Last year he was closer to league average, and this year he’s almost right at it. In other words, he’s swinging and missing more, which is reflected in his 7.2 percent swinging strike rate. That’s about a half point worse than his rates from 2008 through 2010. Predictably, his contact rate, especially his contact rate on pitches inside the zone, has dropped considerably.
This has all added up to an all-or-nothing season for Tex. He’s still hitting for plenty of power, as 47 percent of his hits have gone for extra bases (7th highest rate in the AL). His ISO this year is actually better this year, compared to the league average, than it was in 2009, and it is fifth highest in the AL. It’s the singles, and to an extent the doubles, that haven’t come along at an adequate pace. His .221 BABIP ranks 77th out of 78 in the AL, besting only Alex Rios, who is just plain bad. If he had a league-average BABIP, which he had in 2009, he would be hitting far closer to .280, and his OBP would be up near .400. Yet the hits, for whatever reason, haven’t dunked in, and what’s left is a low-average, high power player.
The shift does have something to do with Teixeira’s woes. This year he has 108 at-bats in which he batted lefty and hit the ball to right. In such instances he has hit .324, which might at first seem to negate the idea of the switch causing a problem. Alas, his average does count his home runs, and he has hit 17 of his 25 home runs from the left side to right field. His BABIP as a lefty going to right is .198; in 2009 it was .311. He’s also seen his BABIP as a righty going to left drop from .343 in 2009 to .293 this year, and has seen an even bigger drop in his BABIP as a righty going up the middle, from .315 to .233. While there could be other explanations at play, defensive positioning could certainly play a large role in his overall BABIP drop.
What complicates this analysis is Teixeira’s current slump. After his two-homer game against Texas in mid-June he was hitting .257, which, while not great, is at least do-able. Since then he’s hit .198/.274/.349 in 117 PA, with just four homers and four doubles, and a walk rate that is below his season average. It’s a slump of the first order, and it’s wreaking havoc on his season numbers. It’s gotten even worse lately, as he is just 12 for 55 with two doubles and no homers in July, and 4 for 23 with one walk and no extra base hits since the break. He’s surely not this bad, but when the hits aren’t dropping in anyway, slumps like this hurt that much more.
While the slump does loom large, it does appear that opponents have figured out where to play Teixeira for maximum effectiveness. He’s become predictable, that is, and it shows in his batting average — and, therefore, his OBP. He’s still crushing baseballs as he has in the past, perhaps even hitting some homers where he previously hit doubles. But the singles are not dropping in, and they probably won’t start dropping in until he changes something at the plate. The question is of what he can do to solve the problem. For Teixeira, a nine-year veteran, there doesn’t appear to be an easy answer.