What's Wrong with Derrek Lee? A Look at the Chicago Cubs Star's Batting Woes
Like most Cubs fans, I’ve learned to embrace irrationality with all my heart.
I embrace it regularly and relentlessly, never hesitating to use it as my inner sanctuary when things in Cubs world become unreasonably depressing, which frankly, is an occurrence as common as a Mark Reynolds strikeout.
It’s helped me to not only accept Steve Bartman as a truly fictional character, but also to believe that, one day, Albert Pujols will terrorize the Cardinals in a Cubs jersey.
And for a while, it became the driving force behind my fading support for star Cubs first baseman, Derrek Lee.
That’s unreasonable, you might cry.
Groundless, foolish, and perhaps even downright stupid.
After all, who could ever criticize a stellar defensive first baseman batting .291 with 20 home runs and 90 RBI?
Well, namely desperate and irrational Cubs fans, like myself, who were spoiled by Lee’s MVP-caliber 2005 performance, where he batted .335 with 46 home runs and 107 RBI. Some of us even adamantly campaigned for a trade after the drop-off in Lee’s production.
We want our lovable losers to be World Champions so very badly, that we’ll often find whatever scapegoat is most convenient.
Yet, the more I thought about the situation, the more I realized that the complaints and trade suggestions do us no good—especially when we haven’t taken the time to analyze the problem and look for constructive solutions.
In Lee’s case, the problems are there, but so are the answers—however subtle they may be. Let’s take a look.
Perhaps the biggest knock against Lee right now is his inability to hit for power.
As the main No. 3 hitter in the Cubs’ lineup last year, Lee hit only 20 home runs—15 of which were only solo shots—and had an AB/HR ratio of 31.2, which is a substantial increase from his 12.9 ratio in 2005. In fact, his AB/HR ratio has steadily increased since 2005 from 12.9 to 21.9 (2006) to 25.8 (2007) to his last year’s ratio of 31.2.
In addition, Lee’s slugging percentage of .462 last year was not only 35 points below his career average, but it also was his lowest output since 1999.
Lee, however, is still a RBI machine, as exemplified by his 6.9 AB/RBI ratio (surprisingly higher than his 5.6 ratio in 2005), but even now, it still seems like he’s not maximizing his RBI potential.
After all, if Lee simply substituted some of his doubles with homers, he would almost guarantee himself an increase in his number of RBI.
The other main concern surrounding Lee’s game is the ridiculously high number of double plays he grounded into last season. Lee finished second in the league with 27 GDPs, which was 15 more than the number he had in 2005.
Frankly, watching the athletically gifted Lee consistently ground into inning-ending double plays is almost as painful as say, seeing MJ miss a game-winning jumper. The only difference is that the former happens much more frequently than the latter, and that, in of itself, is a big problem for the Cubs.
So how do the Cubs and Lee go about fixing this situation?
The most obvious solution is to somehow get Lee to hit more fly balls. This certainly makes sense, since the more fly balls a player hits, the better the chances that one of those fly balls will land in the stands.
Based on FanGraphs’ analysis, Lee hit nearly 45 percent of the balls he put into play on the ground, while only 33.7 percent were fly balls (distinct from line drives). Compare that to his successful 2005 season when only 38.6 percent of the balls he put into play were grounders, and 39.4 percent were fly balls.
With more grounders, Lee also increases his chances of grounding into double plays, so by lifting the ball into the air more, Lee would seemingly cut down on those killer double plays—thereby fixing both of his nagging issues.
Problem solved, right?
Unfortunately, not quite.
While hitting more fly balls and fewer ground balls might be appealing in theory, it doesn’t pan out quite so successfully in practice.
Due to his open stance and tall figure (6’5”), Lee often has a tough time getting his bat under the ball. He still possesses terrific bat speed, and will hit the ball hard, but he’s somehow developed a swing that tends to hit the top half of the baseball, thereby driving it hard into the ground.
Changing an established player’s batting mechanics is a dangerous thing to attempt, and more often than not, it fails miserably. So in that respect, waving a magic wand and expecting Lee to suddenly hit many more fly balls just isn’t realistic.
Moreover, even if Lee somehow did hit more fly balls, the chances of it becoming a home run won’t be very high. Lee’s HR-per-fly-ball ratio has steadily dropped the past four seasons, starting at 23.7 percent in 2005 and ending at a measly 11.7 percent in 2008.
This begs the question: is Lee bound to become another depressing story among the Cubs’ already overflowing potpourri of failed stories?
Some seem to think so, as they claim Lee’s 2005 season to be nothing more than an anomaly. Even if it wasn’t, many critics believe that Lee’s severe wrist injury in 2006 has rendered him only a shadow of the star he once was.
Fortunately for Cubs fans, they’re wrong.
Lee’s struggles are by no means irreversible, as long as he puts in quality time and effort into becoming a more patient hitter.
Since 2005, Lee’s percent of swings outside the strike zone has consistently increased—from 16.9 percent in 2005 to 20.8 percent in 2008. What’s more troubling is the fact that among those swings at bad pitches, Lee’s ability to put the ball into play has actually jumped tremendously.
In 2005, Lee connected on 43.6 percent of his “bad” swings, while last year, he put into play a whooping 57.4 percent of those same “bad” swings.
Why are these numbers important?
Well, not only is Lee swinging at pitches outside the zone more frequently—which puts him in pitcher-friendly counts and gives the pitcher less incentive to actually throw a strike—but he’s actually hitting those balls into play.
Based on just what I learned in little league baseball, hitting pitches near your head or at your ankles rarely results in a positive result. More often than not, the outcome of the swing will be a pop-up or an easily fielded grounder, which, if there are men on base, can then lead to a double play.
Derrek Lee is no Vladimir Guerrero, so when Lee connects at a low and away fastball (which is Lee’s “sucker” pitch), it’ll usually result in a slow dribbler and possibly develop into a double play.
Consequently, his power numbers go down, his average suffers, and his frustrating GDP tendencies naturally rise. Hitting the ball doesn’t seem to be Lee’s problem; it’s determining whether a ball should be hit that’s bothering him.
If Lee develops more patience and waits for better pitches to hit, Cubs fans can expect fewer double plays, more hard hit balls that actually land for hits, and even possibly more home runs from Lee.
Fortunately for us, the circumstances of the upcoming season seem to provide just the right atmosphere for Lee to get back on track.
With Micah Hoffpauir, who’s adept with the bat, as the backup first baseman, Lee will get more time off to rest physically and mentally—something that hitting coach Gerald Perry is really emphasizing for him—and it’ll give him the time and energy to rediscover some plate discipline.
The arrival of Milton Bradley should also take some of the offensive pressure off of Lee, and if Lou wises up and bats Bradley third, Lee will finally have the opportunity to shine in the second or sixth spot of the lineup, where his solid doubles and singles production and his surprising base-running abilities will allow him to flourish.
And with the bats of Ramirez, Soriano, and Soto also strolling the lineup, Lee will probably see more homer-friendly fastballs—fastballs that’ll go a long ways in curing the nostalgia I’m sure he has for his 2005 season.
So Cubs fans, don’t fret; a change for the better for Derrek Lee is likely to come soon.
And most importantly, don’t let that tempting irrationality take control of your life this season—that is, unless Mark Prior wins the Cy Young, Milton Bradley beats up Lou, and everyone gets back spasms from a contagious sneeze that starts with Rich Harden.
In that case, it might just be best to add the Cubs to your list of things that don’t exist.
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