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Brignac Flailing in Tampa

In the second inning of the Rays’ Thursday afternoon’s game against the Indians, Reid Brignac stepped to the plate at Progressive Field to face Justin Masterson with the bases loaded. Brignac took an inside sinker from Masterson for ball one. On the next pitch, Masterson left a sinker over the fat part of the plate, and Brignac sliced it down the left field line. Tampa’s shortstop froze for a moment, and then darted out of the box, eventually pulling into second base with an opposite-field double that scored two.

He stood there for a moment,” said Rays broadcaster Dewayne Staats, “as if number one, he couldn’t believe it would be fair, and number two, that he was actually looking at a potential extra base hit!”

Brignac looked into the Rays’ dugout and pointed toward his eyes, as if indicating that he momentarily lost track of the ball. But you’d have to forgive him if he just didn’t believe his eyes — it was Brignac’s first extra-base hits in 104 at-bats dating back to last year, the longest stretch of punchless hitting in team history.

The lefty batter was once considered an elite offensive prospect, with Baseball America saying before the 2007 season that “He should be good for 25-plus homers on an annual basis.” But Brignac gradually became known as a rangy shortstop who’d hit enough to be a decent starter, if not a star. His performance with the Rays from 2008 to 2010 — a .254/.300/.389 line and a .297 wOBA while in his early twenties — seemed to confirm that sentiment. Brignac’s plate discipline left much to be desired, but there was hope that he’d develop better habits in 2011 as he took over Jason Bartlett‘s spot as the starting shortstop.

Suffice it to say, that hasn’t happened. Through 91 plate appearances, Brignac has a .186/.222/.198 triple-slash and a .195 wOBA. That’s worst in the majors among hitters with at least 90 PA. That second inning AB against Masterson, in which Brignac got ahead in the count and then recognized a pitch he could pummel, has been all too rare a sight in 2011.

Brignac has chased 40.5 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone this year. While that’s slightly less than his O-Swing last year, it’s still far above the 28.6 percent MLB average this season. His first-pitch strike rate — the percentage that he has either gotten behind 0-and-1 or put the ball in play on the first pitch — is 67, compared to the 58.9 percent big-league average.

It’s not surprising, then, that Brignac’s sporting a 3.3 percent walk rate. Plus, swinging at junk pitches and just generally being on the defensive in pitcher’s counts at the plate has led to weakly hit grounders and fly balls flicked to the opposite field (credit Texas Leaguers for the spray chart):

The 25-year-old’s ghastly start to the 2011 season needs to be put in context. We’re talking about fewer than 100 trips to the plate. And, while his plate discipline has been abysmal, it’s not likely that he’s going to keep sporting a sub-.240 BABIP. Neither Elliot Johnson, who has gotten starts at short against lefties, nor Sean Rodriguez, who has mostly taken on left-handers at second base on days when Ben Zobrist shifts to right field and Matt Joyce sits, have Brignac’s defensive skills. Hak-Ju Lee may well be the shortstop of the future, but that future is a few years away considering that he has slightly more than 100 PA above Low-A ball. While they certainly have the young talent to do it, it’s uncertain if the Rays would consider adding a pending free agent with an eight-figure salary like Jose Reyes (and that’s assuming he’s available in the first place).

Still, if Brignac (who has a .290 rest-of-season ZiPS wOBA) continues to flail, the Rays could increasingly turn to Johnson (.306) or Rodriguez (.320). Tampa Bay isn’t known as an organization that overreacts to small sample sizes or quickly pulls the plug on young talent, so I’d guess that Brignac will continue to gets starts most days unless they make a big splash by snagging a certain switch-hitting shortstop from Queens. But if Brignac wants to avoid one day becoming part of a study like this, he better start working the count and get re-acquainted with rounding first base.