As a Seattle resident, I have the pleasure of attending a good number of Mariner’s games each year, mostly in the company of another founding member of ottoneu (owner of this team). A couple weeks back, we attended a game and marveled at the massive swings being taken by one Raul Ibanez, which led to one of us commenting, “It’s like he’s decided, ‘Screw it – I’m old and I am going to try to crush the ball, even if I can’t do anything else.”
It reminded me of the Jerry Seinfeld quip about old people backing out of their driveways: “I’m old and I’m coming back! I survived, let’s see if you can.”
Jeff Sullivan noticed the Ibanez pattern a couple weeks back, but as a fantasy player, there were three questions I wanted to answer: First, is there evidence that Ibanez has actually changed his approach to crush as many home runs as possible at the expense of the rest of his game? Second, what does this mean for his rest of season power potential? And finally, is there any reason to buy (or sell) Ibanez?
As for the approach, the evidence is a bit mixed. If a guy decided to just go for broke, you’d expect to see more swings, less contact, more fly balls, and harder contact. The Plate Discipline stats on his Fangraphs page suggest he is swinging more (particularly at pitches outside the zone) than he used to and making less contact, but the Pitchf/X Plate Discipline numbers don’t show nearly as stark a contrast. At the same time, he is on pace for a career high K% and a career low BB% (unless you count a 37 game stint in 1998), so he does appear to be hacking away.
More fly balls is even easier to measure – Ibanez’s career FB% is 37.8%. In 2012 it was 39.2%, and in 2013 it is 42.6%. And, at least if we can base how hard he is swinging on how far the ball is traveling, he is swinging harder, too – his HR+FB distance for 2013 is 300.7 feet, compared to 293.4 last year and 295.8 from 2007-12 (the years for which Jeff Zimmerman‘s fantastic Baseball Heat Maps has data).
Seems to me that the theory my friend and I espoused while watching Ibanez swing is true – he is swinging a bit more, swinging for more fly balls, hitting the ball harder, and more or less selling out for power.
For fantasy owners looking to add some pop, the numbers above are awfully encouraging. When a player suddenly sees a jump in HR output, there are typically three explanations – he is hitting more fly balls, which means there are more opportunities for fly balls to become HR; he is hitting for more distance, meaning that more of his fly balls are becoming home runs; or he is getting lucky by hitting the right fly balls at the right times. Only the first two are sustainable.
LOooking at Ibanez, we can see an increase in the number of fly balls and the increase in the distance of those fly balls, as noted above, which are both great signs. However, there is one discouraging sign – despite the bump in distance, Ibanez has hit eight home runs that ESPN’s Home Run Tracker qualify as “Just Enough” and only two that make the “No Doubt” category. Among the 12 MLB players who entered Tuesday night’s game with at least 20 HR, Ibanez is last in No Doubt HR per HR and third in Just Enough HR per HR. This means that Ibanez has been lucky even when compared to a group that is more likely, on average, to have been lucky.
All in all, Ibanez looks like a guy who is legitimately trying to (and succeeding at) hitting for more power this year. I see no reason to think that he will fall all the way back to teh 15.2% HR/FB rate he posted last year, or the career 13.5% rate. But what he has done so far is probably not sustainable. His current 40 HR pace won’t keep up, but I think he will be closer to the 10 rest of season HR projected by ZiPS than the four projected by STEAMER, and ending up around 12-13 more HR would not shock me.
Just don’t expect much to come with those HR. An OBP in the low .300’s and an AVG in the .250 range are probably about right, and even with all those HR, the Mariner offense will neither provide many base runners to drive in nor drive in Ibanez on those rare occasions when he reaches base without touching them all.