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Slumpbot .200: Mark Teixeira’s bat hasn’t matched his inflated contract

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Using the best technology available to us today, SlumpBot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having a bit of trouble and then offers solutions for performance recovery.

Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees

Data: .247/.338/.489, 37 HR, 104 RBIs, 4 SB, 1 CS, 71 BB/107 K

Malfunction: The New York Yankees owe Mark Teixeira $112.5 million over the next five years, but the 31-year-old hasn't even been particularly good this year. In fact, he's barely been better than the league average first baseman. This year, all first basemen in baseball have combined for a .271/.346/.453 line, with a lower slugging but a higher OBP than Teixeira and his $22.5 million salary. He's also having a horrible September, with just three extra-base hits and three walks in 15 games, providing a .649 OPS from the third spot in the lineup. So what messed with Tex and can he fix it in time for an October run?{YSP:MORE}

Diagnosis: The thing is, this isn't just a one-year problem. It's a two-year problem. Last year was the second-worst year of his career, after only his rookie year. Now, 2011 is the second-worst year of his career and last year becomes the third-worst.

Part of the problem is perception, as Tex is a good but not elite first baseman. Take plate discipline, for example: His .372 career OBP is very good, but it's not particularly distinguished among major league first baseman.

Career on-base percentage for selected first basemen
Ryan Howard: .368
Mark Teixeira: .372
Adrian Gonzalez: .374
Prince Fielder: .388
Miguel Cabrera: .394
Joey Votto: .407
Lance Berkman: .409
Albert Pujols: .421

His swing is a bit different this year, though. Tex is posting the third-lowest walk rate and third-lowest strikeout rate of his career. So he's making more contact than usual, and posting by far the lowest Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) of his career, just .239, 57 points lower than his career average. (Last year he posted the second-lowest BABIP of his career.)

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Fangraphs' Mike Axisa noticed that Tex has been hitting more fly balls and pop-ups than usual, and hypothesizes that the change in his swing was intentional: "It's not unrealistic to think that Teixeira has altered his swing in recent years, adding an uppercut to take advantage of Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch."

The Yankee Analysts blog noticed something else: He's a switch-hitter, but he has been pretty bad from the left side of the plate. He's hitting just .222/.321/.454 against right-handers, compared to a very healthy .304/.382/.569 from the right side against lefties. For his career, Tex has historically been slightly better from the right (.935 OPS) than from the left (.890 OPS), but the difference is relatively minor, nothing like the 176-point gap this year, or the 141-point gap he had last year. The Yankee Analysts also noted that he has been much less effective against fastballs over the past two years, compared to his prior performance, which would suggest that a swing alteration and/or declining bat speed has affected him.

Reboot Directions: If Tex really changed his swing for Yankee Stadium, then he should stop it: It isn't working. Though his first Bronx season in 2009 was quite good, in 2010 and 2011, he's posted his two worst seasons since his rookie year. He and the Yankee coaching staff need to figure out why he can't hit left right-handers or fastballs nearly as well as he used to, and figure out whether the problem is chiefly mechanical or chiefly structural. If it's mechanical, and they can iron out the kinks, then he could have a productive five years ahead of him. But if he's just getting old now that he's on the wrong side of 30 ... well, that $112.5 million investment could start looking a whole lot more expensive.

Which other players are struggling?

Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals .289/.351/.455, 12 HR, 48 RBIs, 3 SB, 1 CS, 36 BB/67 K
It's been a rough year for the Nats. After earning 18 vote points in the MVP voting last year, Ryan Zimmerman was poised to join Jayson Werth in the middle of a revamped Nats lineup that wanted to show the team was serious about making a move in the NL East. But Werth has been awful, which has obscured the fact that Zimmerman himself has been mediocre. After hitting a combined 58 homers in 2009-10, he has hit just 12 in an injury-plagued season this year; he missed most of the first two months of the season after surgery for an abdominal tear. And he hasn't fully been himself since returning. Over the last month since Aug. 19, he's hitting just .265/.307/.436 in 29 games, with 25 strikeouts and just eight walks. Overall, his walk rate is 8.9 percent, slightly below league average and well below the 10.9 percent walk rate he averaged in 2009-10. He certainly hasn't been getting unlucky on balls in play, as his BABIP is .323, four points higher than his career average. But his homer per flyball rate has declined like the walks. This year it's 9.0 percent, well below the 11.6 percent rate he averaged in 2009-10. We'll chalk this season up to health, because all of his numbers just look a little feebler than usual. But it would be a lot easier to swallow the slump if his plate discipline was back to normal.

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Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers 13-10, 4.45 ERA, 188 IP, 4.64 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, 2.96 K/BB
In his return to the major leagues after two years in Japan, Colby Lewis was terrific last year. But this year the magic has eluded him, and the biggest problem has been the gopherball. He's leading the American League with 34 homers allowed through 30 starts. He's gone homerless in just eight starts this year, and in his last five starts, he's allowed 25 earned runs in just 28 1/3 innings, yielding six homers. Just two were solo; four of them were two-run shots. That's really it in a nutshell for what's gone wrong all year long: He lets a runner get on base, then grooves one. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is terrific, and nearly identical to last year's 3.02 mark. Though his strikeouts have declined, he's also cut his walk rate. (Another measure of improved control: He has thrown just four wild pitches this year, after uncorking nine last year.) His BABIP is actually six points lower than it was last year.

According to his xFIP, an advanced stat that analyzes a pitcher's performance while neutralizing home run totals, he really hasn't been much worse this year than last year. His xFIP last year was 3.74, while it's 4.13. That 0.39 difference is about half as big as the ERA difference between the two years, which currently stands at .73 — home runs aren't the only thing that have gone wrong this year, but they're by far the biggest piece. (Another reason that the xFIP is higher this year is that his strand rate is higher, which means he's getting lucky by leaving more runners on base.) If Lewis can stop grooving the ball next year, he'll be in a good spot to repeat his success from 2010.

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Derek Lowe, Atlanta Braves 9-15, 4.94 ERA, 176 2/3 IP, 3.61 FIP, 1.52 WHIP, 1.94 K/BB
I wrote about Derek Lowe's struggles this year all the way back in June, and I noted that his failures in Atlanta were exactly correlated with much higher walk rates than he'd posted in Boston or Los Angeles. His control has not improved since then, and he's mired in the worst season of his career. In fact, of all pitchers in baseball who have pitched at least 170 innings, Lowe has the second-worst ERA in the National League, behind only Bronson Arroyo. Lowe hasn't missed a start this year, and is tied for the league lead with 32 starts overall, but those starts have been increasingly pathetic. He has an ERA of 6.00 since the beginning of July. This month, it's 10.13, as he has pitched 13 1/3 innings in three starts, allowing 17 runs (15 ER) on an amazing 33 baserunners, 26 hits and seven walks. On the year, batters are teeing off him to the tune of a .748 OPS; this month they're hitting .419/.478/.581. (Just for comparison, Ty Cobb's lifetime triple slash was .366/.433/.512.) Lowe is still owed $15 million in 2012. This offseason, the question will not be whether the Braves have to offer to eat some of his salary in order to move him. It will be: Just how much will they have to eat?

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