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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.