Sometimes the timing works out well. On May 13 I wrote about my appreciation of the Rangers’ ability to make adjustments on the fly. They faced a number of problems early in the season, but found adequate solutions at first base, catcher, in the rotation, and in the bullpen. One area I neglected, possibly because the Rangers hadn’t moved to solve the problem, was center field. Julio Borbon impressed after making his debut last season, and was installed as the everyday center fielder to start the season. It was just a few days before I wrote this that he hit rock bottom.
On May 6, the Rangers and Royals engaged in a shootout. The Rangers jumped out to an 8-0 lead, but the Royals then cut that in half by the fifth before tying the game in the top of the sixth. The Rangers recaptured the lead in the bottom of the inning only to squander it again in the seventh. The Royals then took their first lead in the top of the eighth, but the Rangers scored two in the bottom half to take a lead they’d keep. Borbon had none of the fun, going 0-for-4 and lowering his season batting line to .184/.202/.230. The Rangers clearly had a problem in center field.
Rather than look for a fix, they let the problem play out. It turns out to have been the right decision. Since that game on May 6 Borbon has hit very well, .342/.379/.462 in 172 PA. That checks in a bit better than his 2009 triple slash of .312/.376/.414, which he achieved in 179 PA. In other words, after a painfully slow start Borbon has recovered to essentially improve upon his performance from 2009. While his season stats haven’t quite caught up — his wOBA still sits at a well below average .305 — he will have quite an impressive line at the end of the season if he continues this pace.
This is the kind of performance the Rangers envisioned when they drafted Borbon with the 35th pick of the 2007 draft. Coming from the University of Tennesee, he was considered something of a raw talent, a player with a few plus or plus-plus tools that still had plenty to work on. It didn’t take him long to show improvement. After a rough pro debut in 2007, Borbon hit .306/.346/.395 in the class-A California League before hitting .337/.380/.459 in the AA Texas League. Baseball America rated him Texas’s No. 9 prospect heading into the 2009 season. While they praised him as a “slashing leadoff man and solid center fielder in the Johnny Damon mold,” they did note that his plate approach, notably his ability to work the count, needed more work.
To that point Borbon had drawn a walk in just 5 percent of his plate appearances, and in 2009 he did improve on that, walking 33 times in 457 PA, or 7.2 percent of the time. His overall performance in AAA, .307/.367/.386, earned him a summer call-up and a place in the Rangers lineup. As he did in 2008 at AA and in 2009 at AAA, Borbon showed that he belonged. He ran a high BABIP, but he also showed even more discipline, walking in 8.4 percent of his plate appearances. It’s no wonder the Rangers considered him their starting center fielder for 2010.
That discipline, it appeared, was lost earlier in the season. He walked just once in his first 91 PA while striking out in 16 percent of his at-bats. But then, after the game against Kansas City, it’s like he picked up right where he left off last season. He has walked nine times in his last 172 PA, no great feat but still an enormous improvement from earlier. He has also cut down on his strikeouts. The most noticeable difference is on the results he has produced on balls in play. After posting a .219 BABIP to start the season he has been at .355 in his last 172 PA, which nearly matches the .360 mark he posted last season.
Can Borbon possibly keep up this high rate of hits on balls in play? It is possible. With a plus-plus speed tool, he can beat out his share of infield hits. His batting average has also been less dependent on a high BABIP this year. While he hit .312 on a .360 BABIP last year, he’s hitting .286 on a .313 BABIP this year, and again his average is .342 in his last 172 PA, when his BABIP has been .355. Part of this comes from his batted ball profile. His ground balls are up, fly balls are down, and line drive rate is up, at least compared to the earlier portion of the season.
Seventeen major leaguers posted a BABIP of .355 or greater last season, though few of them have achieved that mark on a consistent basis. For Borbon, however, it might not matter all that much. Last year he hit .312 on a .360 BABIP, but this season he’s hitting .286 on a .313 BABIP. When his BABIP rose, his average shot up with it. Even if Borbon’s BABIP does drop into the .330 range, he should still be able to hit for a decent average.
Heading into May, after a sub-.500 April, the Rangers needed to make a number of adjustments. They found reasonable solutions and replacements in some areas, but left center field alone. That non-move ended up working out. Julio Borbon has been excellent since mid-May
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