Early in the 2008-2009 off-season it sounded like Raul Ibanez desired a deal that didn’t exist. After five very good years in Seattle Ibanez wanted a multi-year deal, something that teams didn’t seem to be offering non-stars that winter. For a 37-year-old with poor defensive skills, even a two-year offer seemed unlikely. Yet in December newly minted Phillies GM Ruben Amaro signed Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million contract that would keep him in Philadelphia through his age-39 season.
That didn’t sound like a great deal at the time, and the move faced predictable criticism. Defense dominated the conversation, but there were plenty of concerns about Ibanez’s bat. There was no denying his production in Seattle, but it’s tough to project how a player will hit as he reaches his upper 30s. Some players retain most of their skills and continue producing. Others either see a gradual decline or fall off a cliff. The Phillies risked the latter, but Amaro bet on the former. Two and a half months into the season he was looking pretty smart.
Ibanez came out swinging for his new team. In 90 April PA he produced a .485 wOBA, and then followed that with a .427 wOBA in 123 May PA. That production continued into June, as he hit in 12 straight games that month before going 0 for 8 on the 16th and 17th. Those would be the last games he’d play for a few weeks, as he hit the DL with a groin strain. It hurt the Phillies, of course, but it didn’t seem too serious. Ibanez would be back within a month.
As happens any time an older player goes on an prolonged run, steroid speculation surfaces. For Ibanez that came in the form of a now-infamous article on Midwest Sports Fans, in which Jerrod Morris ran some numbers and determined that — well, he didn’t determine anything, really, except that we couldn’t rule out PEDs, something that can be said for just about any player in the game today if you want to stretch the point far enough. It caused a stir that ran right up to Ibanez’s injury.
Upon his return Ibanez hit more like he had earlier in his career and less like the flukey run he experienced in April and May. He produced horribly in August, a .244 wOBA, but he surrounded that with a .375 wOBA in July and a .367 wOBA in September. It added up to the best offensive season of his career, a 379 wOBA. He also came closer than ever before to a World Series victory. There might have been downturns, but Ibanez’s first year in Philly can’t be classified as anything but a success.
In 2010, though, things started off on the downslope with a .295 wOBA in April. That got Phillies fans and analysts talking, of course, but Ibanez did his part to quell the criticism with a .340 wOBA in May. It wasn’t like any month, save August, in his 2009 campaign, but it was still above average. But then came June, which Ibanez started off with a 1 for 17 skid. His 0 for 4 day on June 6 represented a low point, after which his OPS dropped to .699.
That very evening, after the 0 for 4, Corey Seidman of Phillies Nation spilled something he must have been thinking for a while: it was time for the Phillies and Ibanez to part ways. This went beyond mere fan emotion. He went on to cite the myriad struggles Ibanez faced during the year, including a slugging percentage lower than David Eckstein and defense that rivaled the worst corner outfielders in the league. I had a few issues with the premise — for example, Seidman claims that Ibanez had “two great months, one horrible month, and three average months,” even though, as we saw above, .375, .362, and .367 wOBAs are considerably above average — but the point was sound. Considering his defense, age, and recent trends, Ibanez might have been done.
I’m not sure what happened between the games on June 6 and June 7, but whatever it was changed Ibanez’s season. He went just 1 for 3 in the following game, but on June 8 broke out with a 4 for 5 performance. Since June 7 Ibanez has hit .314/.388/.500 in 219 PA. His early season slump comprised 210 PA. Of the 61 hits he has accumulated in this span, 20 have gone for extra bases, including eight home runs. In July he produced a .406 wOBA, and in his first 28 August PA he’s at it again, going 9 for 23 with a double and a homer.
The months of April and June were marked by terrible BABIP marks, .259 and .247. That might have included some luck, though considering the reactions of Phillies fans it didn’t sound like he was striking the ball well. This seemed particularly true in June, when he had a paltry 10 percent line drive rate. In recent months he’s seen his BABIP climb, to .386 on a 21.6 percent line drive rate in July, and a .500 BABIP so far this month. While he won’t keep up those marks for the rest of the season, it has provided him with something of a statistical correction. His .343 wOBA doesn’t look pretty, but it’s far better than where he sat a few months ago.
Through the slumps, Ibanez continued to walk. This year he has walked in 12.4 percent of his PA, easily a career high rate. In April he walked in 16.5 percent of PA, and in May he walked in 12.4 percent. Despite his turnaround starting in early June, it was still a poor month overall, and he walked in just 8.5 percent of his PA. But that shot back up to 12.4 percent in July and is 14.3 percent in August. Last year, in the three months following his injury, Ibanez walked in 12.7, 10.2, and 12.9 percent of his PA, big improvements over his early-season numbers.
In his reaction to the release Ibanez article, Bill Baer hit on an important point:
The 2010 season has been a real struggle for Raul Ibanez and the Philadelphia Phillies, but it is not unique. The Atlanta Braves are wondering if they are ever going to get anything out of Nate McLouth; the New York Yankees have been waiting for Curtis Granderson to find his power; the Houston Astros are trying to find out who took away Carlos Lee‘s offense. Over the next four months those three hitters will, most likely, improve offensively not because someone found a mechanical flaw or they fixed their timing (although that could certainly happen), but because they are simply regressing to their mean. I can flip a coin ten times and get eight tails. If I continue to flip a coin 100 more times, I should expect that coin to come up tails not 80% of the time, but 50% — its true probability. The same holds true for Raul and many other struggling baseball players.
Patience, of course, can be over-extended, and there was a solid case in early June for not granting Ibanez any more time. The Phillies could have called up Domonic Brown then and moved Ibanez to the bench or to the waiver wire. But they saw something, I guess, that gave them a bit of pause. That little pause was the difference between realizing superior production over the past two or so months and having to find yet another player to fill a spot in the outfield.
It has not been a smooth year and two thirds for Raul Ibanez in Philadelphia. He’s faced criticism from all angles, some of it justified, some of it not. Chances are the final year and a third of his contract will play out in a similarly up-and-down manner. His age, poor defense, and, recently, streaky tendencies will not make life easy. But we now know that Ibanez can be a productive player for the Phillies. That might not add up to the $11.5 million he’ll make next year, but it should be good enough as to avoid the mid-season DFA.