My colleagues Michael Barr and Howard Bender did a very thorough job this year outlining the relatively weak crop of third baseman, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version: Just 13 teams had their 3B get enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, nearly a quarter were more than 10 percent below league average in terms of wRC+ at what is typically considered a premium position for offense.
Casey McGehee’s wRC+ of 68 was the worst of the qualifiers at 32 percent below league average, but he was not the worst at the position — take a bow, Chone Figgins and your wRC+ of 34 — though that’s a fairly low bar by which to judge success. McGehee wasn’t even the worst of the remaining four third baseman, that would be Brandon Inge, who posted a wRC+ of 48. But while Inge is hitting .333/.444/.600 in the playoffs, McGehee has been relegated to a pinch-hitting role and is just 1-for-5 in his limited opportunities.
Jerry Hairston Jr. may have unseated McGehee in the short term, but it’s unlikely that the Brewers will go into 2012 banking on 140-150 games out of Hairston, meaning that they’ll either give McGehee another look or they’ll dig into the free agent market. There are some interesting names in that bunch — Aramis Ramirez chiefly among them — but not many of them stand out as definite upgrades over McGehee, especially since he’s just in his first year of arbitration and therefore likely to be cheaper than a free agent.
The question then is whether another 150 games of McGehee is a good thing for the Brewers and for fantasy owners. Given that McGehee has just three major league seasons to his name — one very good, one pretty good, and one forgettable — it’s hard to just write of 2011 as an aberration and recommend him as a potentially undervalued option.
One major factor that suppressed McGehee’s production this year was a BABIP of .249, some 50 points below his career average and 80 points lower than his career year in 2009. So there’s an aspect of bad luck here, but there’s more to his struggles than just needing to get right with Jobu in the offseason.
When he was at his best in ‘09, McGehee hit a high number of line drives, 21 percent to be exact, and more flyballs than grounders, 40 percent compared to just 38 percent. As that ratio has tilted in favor of groundballs, McGehee’s overall performance has turned for the worst. His line drive rate dipped a little from 2010 to 2011, but the sheer number of grounders — 50 percent this season — is what turned him from second division starter to waiver wire passover. So the question is: Why so many groundballs?
McGehee isn’t quite a dead-pull hitter, but he certainly shows his best power in that that direction, hitting 28 of his 52 career home runs to left field, with another 15 going out to center. For his career, 38 percent of his balls in play have been pulled, a rate that rose to 40 percent in 2011.
Of that 40 percent, 87 percent ended as either a groundball or as an infield pop up, neither of which typically turns into an extra base hit without serious defensive help. A third of McGehee’s flyballs left the yard when he pulled them, but with such a low percentage of his PAs ending up with that outcome, the good ratio wasn’t enough to produce a good total yield. With the major source of his power all but gone, McGehee wasn’t even fortunate enough to turn a high GB rate into a decent batting average as he hit just .204 on grounders.
Some of his troubles could be related to a declining rate in fastballs throw to him, as he saw fastballs a career low 52 percent of the time. As a righty, an off-balance or early swing will typically result in a groundball to the left side of infield, exactly what happened to McGehee in a plurality of his at-bats. His 17 percent strikeout rate, while immaterial to his batted ball issues, didn’t help his overall line either.
I am concerned with McGehee’s groundball issues persisting into 2012. This wasn’t an isolated aberration, but rather a second year in the trend of an increasing GB/FB ratio and decreasing production. However, if the root cause is an inability to stay back on offspeed pitches, that’s a potentially correctable flaw. I don’t expect McGehee to see more fastballs next season, opposing pitchers aren’t really merciful that way, but if he can start taking offspeed pitches to the opposite field, he may just get a few more pitches he can pull effectively.
Late drafters will have the benefit of waiting to see how he’s hitting in Spring Training before making a speculative grab on him. For early drafters, I think it’s better to let someone else take the risk that he’ll just continue to pound balls into the dirt until we see if he’s less susceptible to sliders and curveballs next year.
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