In December, I wrote this about Raul Ibanez. For those who don’t enjoy reading six month old blog entries, I will give a brief summary: Raul Ibanez is old and he will not be good. I go on and on for about six paragraphs examining that premise citing things such as his fluky HR/FB%, his inability to hit left handed pitching, his inability to hit for average yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah. I get very wordy and continue to pile on Ibanez as if I’m prosecuting him for double murder. I might have gone a bit overboard when I accused him of being so old that he wakes up “every morning to watch Regis.”
Unfortunately, so far, nearly every criticism I had of the signing has rang true. He’s been almost half a win below replacement level, which is incredible with only 154 plate appearances to his name. His HR/FB% has regressed back to league average, he’s 1 for 25 versus lefties, his .152/.266/.280 has shown he can’t hit for average and yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah. He’s been bad, he’s been old, and he’s now lost his job to a CJ Cron, Grant Green, and (insert living body here) revolving door at designated hitter. And he lost his job for good reason.
He started his Angels career by striking out 10 times in his first 20 times to bat, coupled with only one walk. Ending April, he had struck out 26 times in 91 trips to the dish for an offensive-value-crippling 28.6% K rate, and didn’t walk enough (8.8%) to offset the whiffing. For perspective, only 7 hitters in 2013 struck out as often as Ibanez was through April, and only 3 of those 7 were able to manage more than a half win above replacement level. The ever-increasing whiffing propensity was sharply monitored considering Ibanez struck out 25.8% of plate appearances in 2013, and ended his stint with the Mariners striking out 5 times in his last 11 plate appearances. The Angels took a chance on his last days with Seattle being an anomaly, and it looked early on as if they had wasted a couple of million bucks. His strikeout problems had continued, and his walk rate had stagnated.
Then the calendar flipped to May and something peculiar happened with Raul Ibanez. Something happened in May that has the potential to save his last season in his impressive career. Ibanez discovered some elite plate discipline. Could it actually be that his April showers had brought May flowers? Yikes, that was corny.
This new skill of Ibanez would be astounding, as you can’t really teach an old dog new tricks--especially a dog with over 8000 plate appearances. As I addressed in the earlier article, I will not be using entire career samples from Ibanez, but rather only data from the last three years. This is because his nearly 1500 plate appearance sample size from 2011-2013 is large enough to draw conclusions from and more accurately describes his current ability level. Ibanez swung at over 47% of pitches thrown his way through April 30th which would place him as the 94th most free swinging hitter out of 175 qualified hitters in 2014. However, in May, Ibanez completely overhauled his over eager approach and dropped his swing rate down to 41.2%, which would place him in the Top 30 least anxious of qualified hitters.
This drop in swing rate can largely be attributed to his sudden recognition of bad pitches and his apparent reluctance to swing at them. In April, Ibanez swung at nearly 37 percent of pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%), which was significantly higher than his three year split of around 30%. His 37% would have rated the 21st worst swinging rate in 2013. Yet, in May, he swung at only 27%, which is right in line with his three previous years (2008-2010) aggregate total. A 27% O-Swing% would have rated as the 41st best in 2013. Basically, the difference in Ibanez’ patience between April and May was the difference in plate discipline between Will Venable (37% O-Swing) and David Ortiz (27.2% O-Swing) last year. And that difference makes a difference. Furthermore, according to brooksbaseball.net, most of this increased patience can be found in his six percent decrease of swings on breaking balls.
Putting these puzzle pieces together resulted in Ibanez walking over 20% of the time in May. He turned his 26:8 strikeout to walk ratio in April into a 15:13 mark in May. While still striking out at a relatively high clip (23.8%), Ibanez demonstrated a stark improvement in his approach. He was able to contribute a .317 on base percentage even though his hits weren’t falling (.143 average).
In addition, when Ibanez did put the ball in play, he was back to his old, successful ways. He had both his fly ball and line drive percentages creep back up to their career norms in May. Moreover, Ibanez experienced an unsustainable 20% HR/FB rate in April overcorrect itself in May (0.0%). Compounding his advanced age with the fact that Anaheim is the 22nd hardest stadium for a left hander to hit a homerun in, he probably won’t approach his 16.4% HR/FB rate he’s achieved over his last three years; yet bouncing between his current 10.3% and his career 13.4% doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.
Ultimately, when we’re judging between only months of production (in both cases under 100 plate appearances), one runs the risk of succumbing to the small sample size selection bias. Still, a change this dramatic, seemingly overnight, deserves to be explored further. Scioscia did a good job protecting Ibanez from left handed pitching in May, and if he continues to be platooned, it will be interesting to see which Ibanez shows up in June. With eleven games in non-left-handed-power-suppressing ballparks in June, I assume the homeruns will follow with regularity (maybe 1 per series in Chicago, Cleveland, and Houston). By no means will Ibanez carry our offense at any point this season—and due to him being shifted every time, I doubt his average will ever get above .230--but I don’t believe that, going forward, he’ll be the burden he has been thus far. Hooray for optimism!