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The Precipitous Decline Of Raul Ibanez

A few weeks ago, when I was making player evaluations based on early-season statistical trends, I had this to say about our everyday left fielder and Mariner For Life:

On the one hand, we've been saying that he's due to decline for a while, now. On the other, I don't think any of us expected this to happen after the most productive season of Raul's career. While my initial impression was that Raul's bat has gotten slow, the data doesn't bear that out - he's actually making contact more often than he did in 2006. With someone whose bat has noticeably slowed (think Edgar towards the end), the numbers trend the other way. No, instead of a slow bat, I think Raul's problem is that he's getting fed more strikes than he ever has as an everyday player. Pitchers are getting ahead of him more often, forcing him to go to a defensive swing that yields substantially worse results. I don't think this is repeatable. Ibanez will get into better counts as the season wears on, and he'll start making pitchers pay more often as a results. He won't post his 2006 line again, but he'll produce.

Verdict: Unsustainable

At that writing, Ibanez was putting up a .224/.260/.328 batting line in 67 AB's. Since then, he's had 72 at bats and hit .306/.359/.389. While he's technically improved, it's all singles, thanks to a line drive rate that's regressing to the mean after an early season slump. The major problem is still there: our "left-handed sock" doesn't have any pop in his bat. Raul only has one home run and nine extra-base hits after 36 games, while a year ago at the same point he had three and 16. Where a better lineup might be able to hide his inadequacy, this one badly needs him to hit for power, and he just isn't doing it. So what's up?

When I wrote the quote above, I thought this was all just a sample size fluke. Even though his bat looked slow to the eye, the numbers didn't appear to bear it out; rather, it seemed like Raul was just getting into too many bad hitter's counts. As it turns out, though, that isn't really the case at all. Check out the following distribution of PA's by count, 2007 vs. career:

If you look at the standard bad hitter's counts - 0-1, 0-2, 1-2, maybe 2-2 - Raul is either at or below his career frequency in each. He's only gotten into a two-strike count 40% of the time so far this year, as opposed to 47% for his career. He's actually getting into more hitter-friendly counts than usual; 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-1 - these are all up across the board. In theory, he should be having a terrific season.

Here's the problem: Raul isn't taking advantage of those hitter's counts once he gets into them. Observe:

When ending an at bat with a 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, or 3-1 count, Raul's hitting .300/.400/.417, which isn't real good when you consider that he can't strike out. In those same situations over his career, he's hit .365/.449/.646. You see the difference? The problem isn't that Raul isn't getting into enough favorable counts - it's that, once he gets into them, he still can't do anything.

Here's another way of looking at things:

After first-pitch ball, career: .302/.395/.512
After first-pitch ball, 2007: .283/.356/.340

Even when he knows he's going to get a hittable pitch, the worst Raul can do right now is slap a single (not unlike our starting DH) (or our starting CF). This is a substantial change from prior seasons, when he was a power-hitting run producer in the middle of the lineup capable of taking advantage of the short porch in right field. These days, it's like he's barely hitting his fly balls 300 feet.

So what happened to him? Obviously, I have no way of being sure, but my hypothesis is that his bat has slowed way down, and that he's just treating it differently than you'd expect him to. When guys like Frank Thomas and Mark McGwire saw their bat speeds dip (I'm thinking of injured Thomas in 2005), they started loading up and swinging from the heels, sacrificing contact for power. They knew they couldn't get around on everything like they used to, so they waited for a hittable pitch and tried to beat the crap out of it.

Raul, I think, is taking the opposite approach - to me, it seems like he's compensating by beginning his swing earlier, and then adjusting it in the middle if he has to in order to make contact. I think he knows that his slow bat makes him a strikeout threat, so he tries to put the ball in play before he gets too deep in the count. That'd explain why his contact rate is up while his walks, strikeouts, and pitches/PA are way down. In an organization that loathes strikeouts, and spending most of his time batting in front of Richie Sexson, I don't think Ibanez really wants to take the all-or-nothing approach of some of his predecessors. Given a choice, he's instead trying to stave off old age by turning himself into a contact hitter. It'll help keep his batting average respectable, but save for rare occasions, it means he's deliberately sacrificing most of his power.

So where do we go from here? Nowhere good, I'm afraid, unless I'm totally wrong and this is still just an early-season fluke. If Raul's bat really has lost its speed (that 2.1% HR/FB is dismal), then there's no getting it back, and there's no way he's going to try to become an all-or-nothing hitter as long as Sexson's in the same lineup. So if that's the case, then this is what we get to deal with through the end of his contract next October. As long as he's hitting singles, he's not a total waste of space, but he's awful close, and not having a left-handed power threat is just killing this lineup.

I don't think I am, but for the sake of the Mariners, I hope I'm dead wrong about Ibanez here. It wouldn't be the first time.