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AJ Pierzynski: What’s Next?

That was unexpected. At age 35, A.J. Pierzynski shattered his season-high home run total and churned out a top-5 season among catchers. Over his career, Pierzynski’s main asset has been his durability and ability to hit for decent averages. He had a few average power seasons once he joined the White Sox, but seemed to be slowing down during his age-33 and age-34 years. Pierzynski’s power surge was the main culprit behind his exceptional season.

In his career, Pierzynski’s power has basically been exclusively on pulled balls. That changed slightly last season. Pierzynski managed to hit 18 of his 27 home runs to his pull side, but he added seven shots to centerfield. That power to center has been extremely uncommon throughout his career.

Pierzynski Pull HR Center HR Opposite HR
2002 4 0 2
2003 10 1 0
2004 10 1 0
2005 12 4 2
2006 11 3 2
2007 13 0 1
2008 9 2 2
2009 10 3 0
2010 8 0 1
2011 7 1 0
2012 18 7 2

Pierzynski clubbed seven home runs to center last season, which is a career best. He also had more success on pulled balls, beating his previous mark by five home runs. It’s not as if Pierzynski was barely hitting these extra home runs out, either. Only six of his home runs were classified as “just enough” according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker. That’s not an extreme amount.

To complicate matters, his average speed of the ball off the bat, and his average true home run distances remained fairly unchanged. Both figures actually slightly declined from 2011, when he hit just eight homers. Pierzynski didn’t start hitting balls farther or harder in 2012, he just hit more balls out of the park.

A look at Pierzynski’s batted ball data sheds a little bit of light on his success. Pierzynski hit just 42% of his balls on the ground last season, the lowest rate of his career. When he put the ball in the air, he was more successful than usual. Pierzynski’s 18.6% HR/FB rate was a career high. It was also the first time since 2006 that he put up a HR/FB rate in double-figures.

Pierzynski talked about altering his approach in an August interview with the Chicago Tribune. According to Pierzynski, he worked with former White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker in summer 2011 and altered his mechanics. But he broke his wrist in August, and wasn’t able to show the full effects of his new approach until 2012.

Looking through his 2011 splits, it’s tough to pinpoint a moment where you could tell he began this new approach. Pierzynski had a strong June, hitting .351/.378/.506, but only hit one home run during that time. His numbers fell to a much less impressive .240/.318/.360 in July, just before a broken wrist derailed his season. Even if Pierzynski altered his approach last summer, there was no indication he would start hitting for more power.

Pierzynski is an interesting case going forward. A good chunk of his performance screams fluke. His HR/FB rate was much higher than we would typically expect, and, despite what he says, little in his approach changed. The one area that invites pause is the fact that he didn’t get overly lucky with “just enough” home runs. Still, it’s not hard to see Pierzynski experience some regression next season. At age-36, he’s certainly going to be a risk. And while Pierzynski might be able to retain some of his power gains, there’s no way any fantasy owner should draft him expecting 20 home runs. A return to his 2007 through 2009 power numbers could be in order, but it’s tough to predict more than that. That would still make him useful in fantasy leagues, but not worth a high draft pick.