For all of the hand-wringing about Tim Lincecum’s sudden decline in San Francisco, there’s been another surprising implosion that seems to be flying far under the radar. Longtime Brewer Rickie Weeks, who had been essentially tied with Brandon Phillips as the National League’s best second baseman over the previous two seasons, limped into the All-Star break with a dismal .199/.314/.343 line. There’s more to life than batting average, of course, but of the 155 qualified hitters this year, he currently stands dead last, the only man in baseball with an average south of .200. His Brewers start the second half five games under .500 and eight games behind the Pirates after making it into October last year, and while the absence of Prince Fielder and the struggles of John Axford seem like obvious culprits, Weeks’ sudden transformation into “Brendan Ryan on a bad day” can’t be dismissed as a huge reason why.
It doesn’t take a ton of research to see Weeks’ biggest issue in 2012, and that’s that he’s simply having difficulty making contact. For a guy who struck out 20.8% of the time last year and had never topped 24.4%, seeing his whiff rate jump up to 28.6% this year is jarring. It’s the seventh highest rate in baseball, and at least some of the guys ahead of him – like Adam Dunn & Pedro Alvarez – are compensating for that with huge power when they do connect. Weeks isn’t putting bat on ball, and when he is, he’s either not making solid contact or not getting any love from the BABIP gods with a .267 mark that’s far below his career norms. It’s a bad combination, and the fact that the outcome is poor shouldn’t be surprising, though he is attempting to compensate with patience, leading to a career-high walk rate.
Yet despite Weeks’ sorry position on the bottom of the leaderboards, I like to think there’s some hope here, and not just because I have a hard time believing that a player with his track record can completely disappear in his age 29 season. Over the last month – arbitrary endpoints, I’ll admit – he’s looked more like the Weeks of old, hitting .280/.363/.460 in 113 plate appearances, along with two home runs in his final three games before the break.
That’s not enough to say “he’s back”, but it helps as well that we have a fairly obvious reason to point to for his early struggles. Last year, Weeks was humming along through the end of July, putting together a .272/.346/.478 seasonal line which ranked among his best. But on July 27, he severely injured his ankle in a game against the Cubs, which ended up costing him about six weeks of play. Though he returned in the middle of September, it may have been too soon; in playoff series against Arizona and St. Louis, he managed just six hits and two walks in 45 plate appearances.
The injury was so severe that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel wrote that Weeks claimed he was still not fully healed on January 29, just three weeks before spring training. A month later, manager Ron Roenicke was talking about how Weeks would need to “adapt to his stiff ankle,” and Weeks reiterated on February 23 that he was still only at 95%; given what we know about how athletes are often poor at being honest about their health, perhaps even that shouldn’t be taken at face value.
As if entering 2012 with an ankle that was probably still not fully healed wasn’t difficult enough, his body didn’t do him any other favors in trying to compensate. He missed several days in camp with a sore right shoulder, then missed a few games in May after taking a Lendy Castillo fastball off his left wrist – the same wrist, it should be noted, that cost him nearly all of 2009 after tendon surgery.
Knowing all that, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that Weeks started off so slowly this year, and his struggles were almost immediate. After an 0-5 against Los Angeles on April 19, Weeks’ batting average dipped to .200 and he hasn’t been back above since. (The fact that he’s still at just .199 even after his good month should tell you just how bad things were for him.) Yet as more time has gone by, putting him nearly a year past the ankle injury and two months past the wrist soreness, Weeks may finally be healthy enough to give the production that we’re used to seeing from him.
Given that second base is traditionally such a tough position to fill for fantasy purposes – and that anyone banking on Brian Roberts has been sorely disappointed – taking a risk on Weeks seems to be a worthwhile bet. He’s got the track record, he’s on the right side of 30, he’s got a clear reason to point to for his struggles, and he’s beginning to show the production we’re used to from him. With a batting average that still starts with a one, he may still be undervalued – making now the time to pounce.