MLB Outlook: The Ten Worst Hitters for Average This Season so Far
The ten worst hitters in baseball also happen to be the only ten players who, as of today, are hitting below the Mendoza line. Here, we take a look at these players and attempt to gauge whether the problem is real (as in the guy just isn’t a good hitter) or situation-based (whether he’s a victim of the small sample size).
Jorge Posada (New York Yankees)
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After removing himself from the Yankees’ lineup a couple of days ago, it would be easy to assume Posada is done, both physically and mentally. It’s hard to disagree, especially since he’s 39 and has been catching for over a decade.
Posada’s wretchedly low batting average on balls in play (.164) is partly to blame for his .165 average, but so is his 11.4 percent line drive rate. Posada has hit line drives in at least 17 percent of his at-bats since 2002 (when they started keeping track) and has topped 20 percent in all but three of those years.
His six home runs give the illusion of production but, while Posada could hit 25 home runs over the course of the season, he is largely without value unless he brings his average up by 80 to 90 points. Fans should take comfort in the fact that his walk rate (12.7 percent) is not far off from his career mark and his strikeout rate (a rather high 27.5 percent) is where it should be.
Ultimately, I think Jorge Posada is basically done. He has power and can take walks, but will strike out a ton and isn’t getting on base much. The Yankees cannot afford this sort of production out of their DH slot, especially since they have other aging veterans who need to DH now and then.
Michael Saunders (Seattle Mariners)
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Saunders was essentially rewarded for his abysmal start to the season when the Mariners designated Ryan Langerhans for assignment, giving Saunders more playing time in the outfield. Saunders has put up a .167/.220/.263 slash line, going along with his two home runs, 13 RBI, seven runs scored and two stolen bases.
Saunders is going to strike out close to 30 percent of the time. This means he is going to have to draw walks and hit for power, but he never really showed exceptional power and, despite last year’s impressive walk rate (over 10 percent in 327 plate appearances), swings at a lot of pitches out of the zone.
His range in the outfield is the only thing going for him. If anything, Franklin Gutierrez should be thankful that Saunders is providing absolutely no challenge for his job. Saunders will probably shift over to left field when Gutierrez returns in about a week.
Adam LaRoche (Washington Nationals)
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LaRoche is probably going to bounce back from his ugly start. He is hitting .182 but getting on base at a rate over 100 points higher (.298) which means he’s taking his walks. He is seeing virtually nothing in the strike zone and hitting more grounders than usual, but he still drives the ball at an acceptable rate.
LaRoche has hit exactly 25 home runs in each of the previous three seasons, and the fact that he has three at the quarter mark spells doom for that streak. He always strikes out a lot, but a walk rate as high as 14.3 percent is probably unsustainable.
Pitchers are going to start throwing to LaRoche and he’s going to have more opportunities to get hits and strikeouts. I think his batting average and K rate will rise and the walks will fall to somewhere around his career average (nine to ten percent).
Vernon Wells (Los Angeles Angels)
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Wells was traded for by the Angels in perhaps the most desperate move of the 2010 offseason.
Few players are less predictable than Wells. His batting averages, home run rates and steals, fluctuate with the wind. Is Wells going to hit 31 home runs like he did last year, or 15, like in 2009? Is he the .273 hitter we saw in 2010 or the .300 hitter from 2008?
What we do know is this: Vernon Wells is, generally, little more than an average major league hitter who sometimes pulls great seasons out of a hat. The nicest thing about Wells is that he puts the ball in play, having never struck out in more than 16 percent of at-bats until this year.
Also, he tends to walk a little bit less than most, which is fine if you’re going to hit .290 to .300, but if you’ve regressed to somewhere around .260 (or in Wells’ case, .183), you need to walk more to get your OBP up to major league average.
In sum, Wells seems equally capable of a great season as a pedestrian one, and he has chosen the latter this year.
Kelly Johnson (Arizona Diamondbacks)
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It doesn’t look as though last season’s power is going to return, as Johnson has only four home runs thus far. His .184 average is partly due to a low line drive rate, which pushes his BABIP down. His walk rate is just over seven percent, while his career mark is 10.7 percent.
Johnson is on pace for a career-high in steals, which is interesting because he hasn’t been getting on base much.
Johnson tends to have reasonable protection in the D-backs’ lineup, so the walks might not return, but the hits have to start falling in or the team must consider other options at second base.
Mark Ellis (Oakland Athletics)
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Ellis is coming off a year in which he put up a .291/.358/.381 slash line. Not bad for an aging contact hitter, but Mark Ellis has a career batting average of .265 despite running reasonably well and striking out in only 15.1 percent of his plate appearances.
Few players have seen their BABIPs fluctuate as Ellis has and the reason is probably due to having been a fly ball hitter playing in McAfee Colliseum during his prime years. He probably isn’t worth 10 home runs or 60 RBI anymore, so he’s a singles hitter who needs OBP and steals to have value. His OBP is .214 this year, not far off from his batting average which is .187.
He is walking only 2.7 percent of the time, which absolutely needs to change. Ellis is capable of walking at least eight percent of the time, but his average is unpredictable and he’s off to a bad start.
Jonny Gomes (Cincinnati Reds)
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Gomes has a career strikeout rate of 30.3 percent, which is why he was never a regular player until last year. The Rays gave up on him after 2008 and the Reds have recently decided to scale back Gomes’ playing time. He’s like a right-handed Eric Hinske: Plus power, average plate discipline, horrible defense and a lot of strikeouts.
Unlike past seasons, Gomes is drawing walks at a 15.3 percent clip, good for 15th in baseball. In a career-best 571 plate appearances in 2010, Gomes hit only 18 home runs, a mark he had bested in three previous part-time seasons. He was on pace for something like 28 this year, but a .188 average is hard to live with, especially since Gomes’ defense cost the Reds about 17 runs last year.
Mark Reynolds (Baltimore Orioles)
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No one strikes out as much as Reynolds. The strikeouts wouldn’t be a problem if the power and walks were there, and they are.
I think we’re going to have to learn to accept batting averages down around .200 from him. His better seasons average-wise have been inflated by a high BABIP. In 2009 he hit .260 with a .338 BABIP. In 2008 he hit .239 with a .323 BABIP. Last year his average fell to .198 but his BABIP was .257.
This year, it’s a similar story. He does have five home runs, putting him on pace for something like 25 (most projections still have him reaching 30). I doubt he’ll steal 24 bases again, though.
Danny Espinosa (Washington Nationals)
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Espinosa started the season well, hitting .292 three weeks into the season. After getting only seven hits in his last 50 at bats, his average now sits at .196. He draws walks at an average rate, but the strikeouts are killing him.
With five home runs thus far, Espinosa could make a run at 20. He won’t be a significant source of stolen bases and is going to have to start driving the ball if he wants to get that BABIP up.
Middle infielders with subpar contact rates and modest power don’t typically have long careers. We’ll see how Espinosa’s season shapes up.
Alex Rios (Chicago White Sox)
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I think Rios is just suffering from bad luck. He is a good contact hitter, with power, who is driving the ball this year. His grounder rate is up only slightly from previous seasons and his strikeout rate is actually lower than it has ever been.
Rios is fast, evidenced by his 90 steals over the last three seasons. His career BABIP is .313, as footspeed and ballpark effects can boost that statistic. This season, it sits at .209, pushing his batting average down to .197. This is a fluke and should correct itself.
It is worth noting that Rios has dug himself into a bit of a hole as he will have to hit at least .300 the rest of the way to get his average up around .270. His average on the season will approach his career average, barring any injury-related issues.
The home runs and steals haven’t been there this year, though he could make a run at 20/20 if he goes on a hot streak.