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Anatomy Of A Corpse

No, not like that. That's disgusting.

Back in April, when Richie was batting .148, I posted the following explanation of what I thought he had in store for the rest of the year:

There's nothing wrong with his peripherals; his strikeouts are right at his career average and his walks are up despite struggling so much at the plate. Digging a little deeper, his 66% contact rate (frequency with which he makes contact when he swings) is virtually identical to 2005's 67%, and his ball in play data is essentially what you'd expect - GB/FB of 1.00, just where it's been for as long as he's been a Mariner. The big problem? Bad luck. Sexson's 14.3% line drive rate is absurdly low and his .154 BABIP is absurdly lower. Sexson's career BABIP has generally been about 100-110 points higher than his LD%, and there's no reason to think that something's suddenly changed. And on top of that, hitters have far less control over whether or not they hit line drives than you'd think, so Sexson's LD% should sway closer to the ~20% league average as the season wears on. That's how these things work. Sexson's still overpaid and overrated, but he's not the godawful hitter he's looked like.

Since that point, Richie's hit .208 with a sub-.700 OPS. Whoops.

So what's going on? You have to be pretty unlucky to hit for such a low average for that many months, right? Is Richie just still not getting the breaks?

I wish that were the case, but after going through the numbers, I'm not so sure. Based on the difference between his BABIP and line drive rate, Sexson was one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball for the first month of the season, but since then...

April: 15.4% LD%, .143 BABIP, 11.5% BB%, 21.8% K%
May: 17.7% LD%, .253 BABIP, 10.5% BB%, 17.5% K%
June: 10.5% LD%, .221 BABIP, 8.3% BB%, 20.4% K%
July/August: 14.7% LD%, .205 BABIP, 12.4% BB%, 20.4% K%

Since I wrote that piece, Sexson's posted a 14.0% line drive rate and .221 BABIP. A little below what you'd expect - the BABIP should be about 20 points higher - but still, regression to the mean has basically taken place, and he still looks awful, to the point where he's being booed mercilessly in what's ordinarily one of the most fan-friendly environments in the league.

So is that it? Is Richie just finished? I have no way of knowing with absolute certainty either way, but based on the evidence I have at hand, I'm a lot more inclined to think he's done than I am to think he's on the way back.

Richie Sexson just is not hitting the ball as hard as we've come to expect. A lot of people have done a lot of work studying line drive rate and come to the conclusion that hitters have far less control over how many line drives they hit than you'd expect, but even with that in mind, we have the following:

Sexson, 2002: 21.5% LD%
Sexson, 2003: 19.8%
Sexson, 2005: 20.1%
Sexson, 2006: 17.9%
Sexson, 2007: 14.4%

I don't know if a reduced line drive rate is a legitimate bit of evidence for a career on the decline, but it certainly makes intuitive sense, and you can see the same kind of thing this year with old players like Ray Durham, Jeff Kent, Sammy Sosa, and Craig Biggio. While I don't have any research in front of me, there seems to be a general trend for declining players to hit fewer line drives.

Line drives aren't the only way to figure out whether or not a player's hitting the ball hard. We can also use HR/FB% - a measure of what percentage of a hitter's fly balls leave the park - as another decent indicator. One would imagine that hitting the ball harder would lead to a greater proportion of home runs.

Sexson, 2005: 25.0% HR/FB% (park-adjusted)
Sexson, 2006: 20.0%
Sexson, 2007: 17.5%

(I'm only going back to 2005 because Fangraphs' numbers aren't adjusted for environment like THT's, and I don't know how to translate his numbers in Milwaukee in 2002/2003).

Since 2005, Richie's lost almost a third of his home run power. It's still good, but instead of hanging out with Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds in terms of raw strength, he's down around Torii Hunter and (this year's) Lance Berkman instead. This is probably a much more reliable indicator of decline than LD%, as there's far less fluctuation, and you can trace clear and similar trends with pretty much any other declining player, from Bonds to Edmonds to Sosa to Drew to Green to anyone else.

If you're having difficulty seeing how a low line drive rate is compatible with a decent HR/FB ratio, I don't blame you - I thought the same thing, so I decided to go into the numbers and do a little linear regression. Using league-wide statistics from 2006, the correlation coefficient (r-squared) between LD% and HR/FB% is 0.055. For the sake of comparison, the r-squared between LD% and BABIP is 0.254. There is a loose but significant relationship there. However, the trend is actually the opposite of what you'd expect - as the average player hits more line drives, he's more likely to hit fewer home runs on his fly balls. It's a weak trend, though, so we're probably just better off saying that there isn't much of a relationship between line drives and HR/FB. And for Richie, the two are dropping at the same time anyway, so maybe it wasn't even worth typing this paragraph.

There's one last bit of evidence that Richie isn't hitting the ball as hard as before, and this one comes from the totally awesome Hit Tracker Online, which documents how far home runs were hit, and how quickly they left the bat. They only have full year data for 2006 and 2007, but that should good enough for our purposes.

League Average: 390 standardized feet, 107.3 mph
Sexson, 2006: 399 standardized feet, 109.3 mph
Sexson, 2007: 392 standardized feet, 106.9 mph

Not only is Richie hitting fewer home runs this year, but the home runs he is hitting aren't hit as hard. A difference of seven feet and 2.4 mph may not seem that significant, but the total spread of data isn't very wide across the league, so it really is meaningful. By this measure, Richie's home run power is approximately average in 2007 after being considerably better than that a year ago.

With all this data in mind, I'm pretty comfortable saying that Richie Sexson has lost a not insignificant amount of bat speed this season. His line drives are down, fewer of his fly balls are leaving the yard, and the home runs he does hit have been hit worse than they were in 2006. I do think he's changed his swing a little bit over the course of the summer to try and improve his average - his contact rate is up, as is his percentage of strikes put in play - but I don't blame that for the power decrease, since his numbers (LD%, HR/FB%, home run length) were also low in April. And it's not like this swing is incapable of hitting the ball over the fence, since his HR/FB% in June was 25%. He just isn't putting the same charge in the ball as before.

The drop in power is coming from somewhere else, and lacking any better explanation, I have to call it age. Richie's only 32 years old, but he's always had old player skills that hinted at an early decline, which is one of the things we feared back when he first signed with Seattle. It seems dramatic, but I don't know how else to explain what's going on.

For the record, if you even out Sexson's April numbers and give him the batting line he "deserves" based on his balls in play, he'd be batting approximately .230/.330/.420. So the decline isn't quite as horrible and sudden as it seems on the surface. But it's hard to take any consolation in an unlucky April when you have a guy hitting .173/.289/.276 since the first of July. His GB/FB since then is also 1.9, far higher than usual and suggesting further change to his swing, be it slower speed or a deliberate adjustment.

Richie Sexson isn't this bad, but based on the data, I'm all but forced to believe that his days as an intimidating middle-of-the-lineup slugger are a thing of the past. If he spends the offseason working as hard as he ever has before in his life, and he gets a little LD% boost, I could see him landing in the .760-.800 OPS range next year, but I could also see him tanking again, and even the .760-.800 OPS possibility makes him an awful value first baseman, given his contract and defense.

I just don't see any reason to believe that Richie's on the verge of breaking out, or that he'll ever do it again for more than a few games at a time. Where a big part of his early-season slump last year was fueled by awful contact (31.3% K% last May), that hasn't been the case at all in 2007. This slump exists for a different reason, and I'm afraid it's much more permanent.

I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think I am. Richie Sexson's career as a productive and fearsome middle-of-the-order hitter appears to have taken its last breaths, leaving us with a dead heap at first base that occasionally twitches its way into a 390-foot home run or a double off the wall. There's enough power still there to make him moderately useful from time to time, but I doubt he ever becomes anything better than a problem.

But if you take out all the bad, he's been terrific. Eh, Mac?