Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

Mid-Season Review, Part Deux

Posted by dannmckeegan on July 2, 2010

Part Deux, as one might guess, implies that this entry will focus on the Cubs middle infield.  With the May promotion of Starlin Castro to the majors from Double A Tennessee, everyone else’s role changed.  Ryan Theriot moved from short to second.  Fontenot became a backup at second.  And Jeff Baker found himself on the bench, for the most part, pinch hitting until Aramis Ramirez went to the DL in June.  As a group, the best descriptor is probably “frustrating,” but each man merits that adjective for different reasons.  So without further ado, let’s begin.

Middle Infield – C

Ryan Theriot – D+

Starlin Castro – C+

Mike Fontenot -B+

Jeff Baker – C-

You may have noticed yesterday that I tend to grade based on what the player is supposed to be.  You can’t expect Koyie Hill to be Pudge Rodriguez in his prime, and you can’t expect a whole lot of polish on a 20-year-old shortstop.  However, it is fair to expect that 20-year-old to have some basic fundamentals down.  He has shown quite good range so far, and his ability to make odd-angle double plays is a rare quality.  But at the same time, he makes myriad physical and mental errors that cost the Cubs outs and runs.  Misplays, bad throws, poor catch and tag techniques on steals, and misjudging available time are all problems with Castro’s game.

Offensively speaking, his impressive debut against an unimpressive pitcher (Homer Bailey of Cincinnati) was an anomaly.  His .274 average (.312 on balls in play) is acceptable for a rookie shortstop, but his low OBP and slugging percentage (.337, .372) leave something to be desired.  His contact breakdown (20% LD/50% GB/30% FB) is decent, but there still is the predicted issue of being “too good” of a contact hitter.  He didn’t develop much of an eye in the minors because he could make contact with anything.  That’s stayed the same in the majors.  He only swings 44% of the time (under 29% out-of-zone pitches, 61% in-zone pitches), but makes contact with seven of every eight swings (over 91% of all swings in the zone, and a high 79.8% of swings out of the zone).  Playing primarily as the Cubs #8 hitter, Castro has received 6 IBB already, leaving him with a 27:11 K-to-UBB ratio.

According to the advanced stats, Castro’s defense has been better than the average shortstop.  That either says something about the quality of the shortstops in MLB, or about the quality of the statisticians and economists who make this up.  They also generally put Castro below replacement value as an offensive player, but this likely is a reflection of his low percentage of extra-base hits more than anything else.  He’s 20 and, without much need for an eye to make contact, he’s turning bad swings (i.e., bad decisions) into singles rather than good swings (good decisions) into doubles.

Ryan Theriot took his reassignment without any complaint.  With about 250 innings at shortstop and 350 innings at second so far this year, the Riot has been able to transition from an average to below average defensive player to an average to above average defensive player.  Really, he’s the only solid defensive player on the infield other than Lee at first.  At age 30, Theriot’s best days are pretty clearly behind him.

Offensively, he came out strong in April, but has tailed off considerably since.  Since peaking at .357 on May 4th, Theriot is 41 for 180 and sports a .228/.272/.239 in that span with a .255 average on balls in play.  His .278/.318/.305 line on the season is still flat-out bad for an everyday player.  Theriot has one triple and six doubles on the year to go along with 75 singles, and 16 walks (3 intentional) in 3 months is unacceptable for a putative leadoff hitter.  He also managed to go close to the entire month of May having drawn only one walk.  On the positive side, he is 15 for 18 stealing bases, making him the Cubs’ sole threat on the base paths.  But again I stress, he consistently fails to get on base to begin with.  Part of the issue is his 56% ground ball rate and that his (danger-free) flyball rate is at 25%.  He does well when he hits line drives, but that only is happening 19% of the time.

Fangraphs, earlier this week, noted another issue with Theriot: he’s not swinging.  According to Dave Golebiewski, Theriot’s taking tons of called strikes this year, thus creating disadvantageous counts.  Those of us who’ve followed game to game know that not only is this true, but so is the converse: when he knows he’s been waiting too much, he gets trigger happy and goes after anything close on the first pitch.  These combine to create a first pitch strike rate of over two-thirds.  Only Theriot’s baserunning, mediocre defense and health have kept his grade inflated.

Mike Fontenot’s .290/.333/.413 is a nice enough stat line for a third middle infielder.  He doesn’t quite field enough (average range at second, below average double play turning) or hit lefties well enough (.237/.288/.351 career) to be an everyday player.  But he has done a few unheralded things this year when he’s been in the Cubs lineup.  He has more or less maintained his career OBP, SLG and BABIP while cutting his career walk rate in half (8.9% career to 4.7%).  He’s done this by also cutting his strikeout rate in half (19.4% career/22% 2009 to 11% 2010) and turning those strikeouts into hits, with a 2010 batting average 20 points above his career average.

Fontenot’s hitting has also seen a shift in composition.  His power is down, with only 1 HR so far in 2010 compared to 9 in each of the last two seasons.  Part of the change is in his contact.  His 42% ground ball rate corresponds to his career average, but his line drive percentage of 27% is a full 10 points higher than last year.  Meanwhile, this has brought his fly ball rate down to 31%.  He’s swinging at more strikes this year, up from 69%  of pitches in the zone in 2009 to 74%, while also swinging at a career high number of balls out of the zone.  In short, Fontenot is being very aggressive and turning lots of swings into line drives earlier in the count.  Fontenot makes his game by going the opposite way, hitting .425 (17-40) to left field compared to .242 (8-33) to right.  While he had a poor June (4-29 with no extra base hits), this is largely explainable as a product of a loss in playing time.  He had half as many plate appearances in June as he had in either April or May.

Jeff Baker is the last part of this group, but he has also spent a considerable amount of time at third base in Aramis Ramirez’ absence.  As the short side of a second base platoon, Baker provides average defense and average to below average slugging against lefty pitchers.  However, he is completely worthless against righties (1 for 34 with 3 BB and 16 K in 2010).  Overall, his 16% LD rate is a career low by a wide margin, while his ground ball rate is about at his career rate.  He has more fly balls this year, implying that he’s getting under pitches, a hypothesis corroborated by a 9% IFFB rate, his highest since 2006.  Baker swings at a lot of balls out of the zone, doesn’t make contact with them, and resultantly has a swinging strike percentage almost twice that of any of the other three players analyzed here.  He also sees a first pitch strike in 69% of his plate appearances.  He will be discussed in more detail in an analysis of the corner infield, where he might actually grade out well in comparison.  Baker’s versatility, more than anything else, is his saving grace.  With a slash line suffering in 2010 (.241/.288/.397), Baker relies on his positional appeal to keep a big league job with IF Darwin Barney and UT Bobby Scales active down in Triple A.


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