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Jimmy Rollins’s Vanishing Bat

One of the more confounding parts of baseball, and surely if you’re a baseball player, is the disappearance of what appeared to be an entirely reliable skill set for extended periods of time. Some of it can be explained away by statistical measures while others are attempted to be explained away by a narrative. But frequently, it’s hard to unearth a tidy explanation. And that’s simultaneously frustrating and rather fascinating.

I was scanning the leader board recently, looking at strikeout and walk rates for hitters and those who have seen notable changes this year. For curiosity’s sake, here’s what caught my eye after a cursory glance:

Name Season BB% K%
Rickie Weeks 2012 14.10% 31.20%
2011 9.70% 20.80%
Nick Markakis 2012 10.10% 17.50%
2011 8.70% 10.50%
Miguel Montero 2012 11.00% 25.20%
2011 8.50% 17.50%
Miguel Cabrera 2012 6.70% 13.90%
2011 15.70% 12.90%
Mark Teixeira 2012 6.90% 11.30%
2011 11.10% 16.10%
Kurt Suzuki 2012 2.90% 17.60%
2011 7.40% 12.40%
Josh Willingham 2012 13.50% 19.20%
2011 9.90% 26.60%
Jimmy Rollins 2012 8.60% 16.20%
2011 9.20% 9.40%
Corey Hart 2012 7.20% 28.30%
2011 9.30% 20.70%
Ben Zobrist 2012 17.50% 16.40%
2011 11.40% 19.00%
Asdrubal Cabrera 2012 11.20% 7.50%
2011 6.60% 17.80%

There are some oddities in here for sure. Miguel Cabrera’s walk rate is vanishing almost as quickly as Asdrubal Cabrera’s strikeout rate. Mark Teixeira is striking less but hitting for far less power while Nick Markakis is striking out a ton more and hitting for a lot more power. Rickie Weeks is sort of refusing to swing at all and yet striking out like he’s Mark Reynolds and Kurt Suzuki is swinging at everything and getting results like he’s Matt Walbeck.

The name that jumped out at me was Jimmy Rollins. I’m not sure exactly why – if it’s the new contract, if it’s because contact skills have been such an important part of his game, or maybe just because he’s simply a player I’ve enjoyed watching. But Jimmy Rollins is scuffling right now, with a slash line of .229/.295/.283. That puts his wOBA just ahead of guys like Cliff Pennington and Jamey Carroll, and just a notch behind Willie Bloomquist. Rollins has been a good, and at times great, offensive shortstop for the better part of a decade. Yet in his first 42 games of 2012, he’s among the worst.

His contact rates are all well within reason for what you would expect from Jimmy Rollins, and in fact, his contact rate in the strikezone is currently at a career high. His swinging strike rate is just 4.7%, which is a tiny bit above last year, but slightly lower than his career norm.

The swinging strike figure is particularly curious. There are 120 (qualified) players with a strikeout rate of 15% or higher, and exactly two have a swinging strike rate as low or lower than Jimmy Rollins (A.J. Ellis and Nick Markakis). But his strikeout looking rate is about 3.8%, which is actually below the league average (roughly 4.5%). His strikeouts when swinging, however, are up significantly:

Data Source: StatCorner.com

This isn’t the first time Rollins has seen a strikeout rate quite this high, but it’s certainly the highest rate of swinging strikeout rates we’ve seen from him. One of the other major differences with his strikeout totals is that when he was striking out this much, he was still hitting for good power, but that’s changed dramatically thus far in 2012:

There are some reasons to think that things ought to improve a bit, however. His IFFB rate is at a rather nutty 18% right now, although he does have a career rate of 10.7% which is above the major league average. His HR/FB rate is also quite low at just 2% where he owns a career 7.7% rate. His BABIP is .272 where his xBABIP is about .293, so he may expect a few more fortuitous hops going forward. Rollins also is notoriously streaky, and has historically taken some time to get his bat properly tuned. In his career, his wOBA is at its best in July, August, and September.

Rollins’ contact rates continue to be solid, but when he’s making contact, it’s just not very good contact. The high IFFB% coupled with his high swinging strikeout rate make me wonder if he’s simply not picking the ball up as well as he has in the past. This all could be part of the natural aging curve, but if it continues, it’s going to look more like the DOW Jones on black Tuesday than a natural arc.

Looking at shortstops, WAR, and age, there haven’t been many who produced at a high level after age 33:

 

It’s obviously still early in 2012, and it’s possible that Rollins can right the ship much as he has over the course of his career and put together a terrific second half. Looking at his peripherals, we ought to see some kind of approximation of the “old” Jimmy Rollins that we’re used to — and certainly as a fan of the game, I hope he does turn it around. After investing another $33 million dollars in Rollins through 2014, Philadelphia clearly expects he will.

But separating the fan from the objective observer, I’m worried that this is the beginning of a rapid decline, and that would be a real shame for one of the more dynamic and enjoyable players to watch.