(note: This is a guest post offered up by longtime reader Chris Hannum. Chris has been gracious enough to offer up his work in breaking down the Black Hole that is the Tigers starting catcher. This is his second guest post for MCB.)
By Chris Hannum
Many teams have been suffering from a lack of production from behind the plate, even some teams for whom the position was thought of as a potential strength. That said, no team has gotten less from its catchers this year than the Tigers – even the Indians, which is saying something. And as bad as A.J. Pierzynski has been for the White Sox this spring, Gerald Laird has been worse. (I’ll leave Avila aside for the moment, we knew he was a risky proposition to begin with.)
In general, Laird is not a strong hitter. He is an above average fielder, but he has to be to deserve anything more than a backup role given that it takes a career year to make him an average batter. For the year thus far Laird is sitting at .165/.242/.239 for a shameful .480 OPS and a -9.4 Value Over Replacement Player. Since adding 10 runs equates to roughly 1 extra win, which is what the Tigers would have gotten from replacing Laird with one of the theoretically abundant AAAA catchers out there.
(more after the jump)
While Laird’s track record isn’t great – he hasn’t historically been this bad. So what exactly is going wrong for Laird this year?
One thing is certain, the problem is not that Laird is swinging and missing. His career strikeout rate is 18.7%, his 2010 strikeout rate is 18.8%. So what else could it be?
Statistically speaking, line drives drop for hits more than 70% of the time and typically that has gone for Laird as well. Over his whole career, Laird is a bit below the MLB average in his line drive rate, and in past years when Laird was productive, such as 2006 and 2008; his line drive rate was unusually high.
However, this year Gerald Laird does not have an unusually low line drive rate he actually has an unusually high one – at 22.7% compared to his career average of 17.6%. What is different is that his line drives are falling for hits only 45% of the time. The same is true of his ground balls and fly balls, Lairds ground balls are going for hits only 15.8% of the time compared to his career average of 23.4% and his fly balls are going for hits only 4% of the time, compared to his career average of 10.4% of the time.
Laird doesn’t have a great deal of power, so at the best of times his fly balls (that stay in the park) are less likely than average to drop for hits, so a high fly ball rate would help explain his low batting average, but that hasn’t been the case either.
So what is it that Gerald Laird isn’t doing?
For one thing, the percentage pop ups in his (in play) fly balls is somewhat high, 27% compared to a league average of 21%. Pop ups are almost guaranteed outs, so that has an impact. But, that ‘somewhat high’ pop up rate comes from a grand total of 7 pop ups. Knocking Laird’s pop up rate down to average would only mean 1 fewer automatic out, which can’t come close to explaining why his batting average is so far below the Mendoza line.
Laird has always been somewhat of a pull hitter, and over his whole career he has been much more successful – as measured with BABIP – when he successfully pulls the ball, with a BABIP of .418 compared to about .250 up the middle or going the other way. Over the past 8 years, Laird has managed to pull the ball on almost exactly 30% of his balls in play, this year that is up to 37.5%. However, his BABIP on pulled balls is down to .242.
Maybe he’s pulling the ball too much? It doesn’t seem likely that his low BABIP is due to defensive shifts against him, since his BABIP on balls up the middle and to the opposite field are down from his career averages as well.
From a purely statistical perspective, there doesn’t seem to be anything to blame Laird’s woes on. Looking only at his peripherals and not the results, I would have assumed Laird was having a career year.
In the end all I can say is that Laird has been stinging the ball, by his standards, but he just hasn’t been hitting ‘em where they ain’t. If we look at the distribution of Lairds balls in play, and imagine they fall for hits at the same rate as they have over his career Laird would have a BABIP of .332 and an average overall of .269.