Derrek Lee’s Down Year

If I told you coming into this season that Derrek Lee was going to have the worst season of his career offensively aside from one half season stint as a twenty-three year old, you probably wouldn’t be shocked to hear that the Cubs were in the lower percentile of runs scored in Major League Baseball. But the Cubs have gotten steady production from a bunch of regular players this year. Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, and Tyler Colvin all have wOBA’s of over .350, with Kosuke Fukudome and Starlin Castro not too far behind. Unfortunately for those who bleed Cub blue, this hasn’t been enough to keep them competitive, and the down years of Lee and Aramis Ramirez are large contributors.

Lee, in 2009, was coming off of his second-best offensive season in the majors when he put up a .412 wOBA (153 wRC+), and his impending free agency led many to believe this would be another huge season for the thirty-four year old slugger. Let’s dig deeper into some of the peripherals behind Lee’s struggles with last year’s corresponding number in parentheses:

BB%: 11.2% (12.4%)
K%: 23.8% (20.5%)
GB%: 39.0% (35.1%)
FB%: 38.3% (45.7%)
IIFB%: 1.7% (4.6%)
LD%: 22.7% (19.2%)
HR/FB%: 10.0% (17.9%)

Some interesting stuff. While it may be obvious to notice a lack of fly balls by Lee this year, which seems to be dangerous for a first baseman playing at Wrigley, the loss has been mitigated by an increase in line drives and a decrease in infield flies. Take those into account and Lee is actually doing better than he was last year in that regard. His HR/FB rate has been a huge problem, which is a career low for Lee. If we use the wisdom behind xFIP on Lee and adjust his HR/FB rate to his career average (16.4%), then he’d be at ~19.7 homers this year rather than just the twelve at which he currently sits. But we know that for hitters, unlike (generally) pitchers, HR/FB is not just a matter of luck but is deeply rooted in skill.

Also, Lee’s BABIP is currently at .292, almost forty points below his career average and with an even wider margin than that for any year he has had since 2005. The disparity is particularly odd considering his LD rate is higher while his infield-fly rate is lower. Here are the breakdown’s of Lee’s BABIPs on batted ball types this season with last year and career averages following:

Grounders: .246, .267, .252
Fly balls: .120, .163, .134
Line Drives: .634, .756, .759

So Lee is “underperforming” on his BABIP on each batted ball type with the worst offender being line drives. Sure, it’s nice that Lee is hitting more of them, but if they’re not going for hits, and especially extra bases, then it’s not as important. I wish we had some Hitf/x to see if Lee is just hitting the ball less hard as of late, but he’s still probably been unlucky to a certain extent. How much of that decrease in batted ball performance is due to bad luck, and how much is due to skill, is a question that well have to wait for more data to roll in to answer.

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Pat Andriola is an Analyst at Bloomberg Sports who formerly worked in Major League Baseball's Labor Relations Department. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter @tuftspat

15 Responses to “Derrek Lee’s Down Year”

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  1. Dustin says:

    It’s obviously a terribly small sample, but his 12 homers this season have gone an average of 409 feet, with a speed off bat of 104.5.

    In 2009, those numbers were 404.5 and 104.2.

    Certainly, he could just be killing mistakes this season and has truly lost enough bat speed to account for the drops in BABIP across all hit type, but I’m inclined to believe that he’s been unlucky and isn’t quite done.

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  2. slash12 says:

    It’ll be interesting to see if the cubs can do something smart, like re-sign lee for a good bargain price. Nah, they will probably let Lee walk, and overpay some other 1B free agent coming off a big year.

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    • slash12 says:

      Glancing at the free agent market, my bet is on the cubs overpaying Konerko.

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      • Noah says:

        Odds are not Konerko. The Cubs are looking for a left handed guy at that position. If the Cubs are going to try to make a big splash (I hope they don’t) they’ll enter the bidding for Dunn. I think it’s more likely they go for Pena, or potentially for someone even cheaper that they can get on a one year deal like Adam LaRoche.

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      • dickey simpkins says:

        Adam Dunn. Cubs will swing and miss with Cliff Lee, re-sign Ted Lily, and attempt some unholy experiment of Dunn, Soriano, and Ramirez sharing time at first.

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  3. Yeti says:

    Dunn will hit 50 HRs in Chicago.

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  4. Jamie says:

    Adam Dunn will hit exactly 40 HRs wherever he is playing. That is what he is programmed to do.

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    • Dann M says:

      Jim Thome nods, proudly acknowledging his illegitimate baseball son.

      Having watched a lot of Cubs baseball this year, Derrek Lee is simply a 34-year-old baseball player.

      His ground ball batting average is lower because he’s lost a ton of foot speed. He simply can’t beat out deep grounders like he used to. This is corroborated by his career-low 3.3 IFH%, compared to 5.6% career and 6.7% in 2009.

      His ball percentage (balls/total pitches) is at 39.5%, the first time it’s been under 40% since the stat has been available. Compare this to his swing rates. His O-Swing% has consistently risen each year since 2004, now reaching an unacceptably high 24.3%, a full 2.8% higher than last year. Meanwhile, he’s swinging at strikes 2% less often than in 2009 and 2.5% below his career rate [using career here as shorthand for 2002-present available stats]. His Z-Contact% is higher than in years past (86.7% in 2010, 85.2% in 2009), but his O-Contact% has shot up to 66.3% from 2009’s 60.5% and a 2002-present total of 51.1%.

      That could mean a few things. But having seen enough of his 464 plate appearances this year, I can tell you that the major meaning is that he’s expanding his zone and hitting pitcher’s pitches into easy outs. Weak grounders, soft line drives, lazy fly balls. He’s been getting himself out.

      He seems unable to catch up to quality fastballs. I’d be interested in seeing how many pitches 94+ mph he’s even tipped this year. Maybe there’s a fountain of youth for him on the West Coast. But he looks old in a way that neither the Soriano of 2009 did nor the 2010 Ramirez does.

      Re-signing Lee at a lower price doesn’t help them get younger, unless you want to make the “veteran clubhouse leadership” argument. But even if you do, that’s what Marlon Byrd and Ryan Dempster are there for. Ramirez, Soriano, Byrd, and Soto are the middle of the order, 3-6, in 2011, not to mention Colvin.

      Derrek Lee is a poor gamble for next year. Is his ceiling really another 35 HR/.400 wOBA season? Probably not; maybe 20 HR and .360 wOBA. Is his floor another .240/.330/.390 season? Yup. Can’t you guarantee yourself that bare-minimum production with the chance of the modest ceiling from a farmhand like Hoffpauir, LaHair, Russ Canzler, Matt Spencer, or Marquez Smith – all at the low, low cost of $400,000 or so? Or maybe Colvin moves in to 1B, with Brett Jackson or Ty Wright ready ahead of schedule for RF?

      If they aren’t going to compete with STL or CIN in 2011, why waste the money? Pocket it for the long-term, and think to 2012, when STL will have half of its payroll tied up in their 1B and LF, and Cincy will have a lot of salary decisions to start thinking about. The smartest thing the Cubs can do this off-season is chase Cliff Lee, and then close the checkbook whether they get him or not. They have 9 rookies on the roster right now. Let the youth movement play out.

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  5. The Hit Dog says:

    So when *will* we get HitFX?

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  6. Brennan Boesch says:

    I am better than Derek Lee. Write more about me!!!!

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  7. Matt Trueblood says:

    To marry stats with scouting for a moment, I think Lee’s drop-off is real and permanent. Anecdotally, he’s just not swinging the bat as well. It seems rooted in the accumulating injuries: I see lacking balance in his swing, a result of back problems that nag more than he lets on, that I firmly believe has robbed him of his power most of the time.

    As a result, he has tinkered with his swing this season to be more line drive-oriented (a common tack for struggling players under Rudy Jaramillo’s tutelage), but that has not been enough to combat the loss of his power due to slowing wrists and a balky core. Sad to say it, but I think D-Lee has come to the end of his rope, at least as a full-tiem Major-League player.

    As a platoon first baseman, perhaps he could rest those injuries more and (as a result) swing harder and better when he is in the lineup. Given the bumper crop of first basemen hitting the market after 2011, Chicago might be wise to bring him back on a one-year deal if possible, and platoon him with lefty-swinging Tyler Colvin, Micah Hoffpauir or Bryan LaHair.

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  8. Matt A says:

    The cubs have 104 million tied up in 8 players for next year with new ownership looking to pair down salary, not add. There is no chance theyre ponying up for dunn, konerko , or most certainly cliff lee this teams window has slammed shut, locked, and boarded up.

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  9. Steve Perry says:

    Looks like Lee is about to be shipped off to Atlanta, according to reports. Lee is a 10 & 5 guy and can veto the trade (as he did to the Angels in July), but he is expected to OK a deal to ATL since ATL leads their division and gives him a shot at another WS.

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