When All-Star catcher Victor Martinez went down due to injury, the Cleveland Indians figured to suffer a significant loss of production behind the plate. Instead, a former trade throw-in stepped to the fore and bashed 21 home runs, third-most among all backstops. Kelly Shoppach, a long-time Red Sox prospect picked up in the Andy Marte/Coco Crisp deal in January of 2006, made the most of his first opportunity at substantial major league playing time. While Marte continued to play his way into oblivion (-1.81 WPA/LI), Shoppach emerged as an important cog in Cleveland’s offense.
The former Baylor star batted .261/.348/.517, good for a 1.24 WPA/LI that ranked 7th among catchers. Shoppach’s .256 Isolated Power (ISO) topped his position by a healthy margin, besting Colorado’s Chris Ianetta by 16 points, and ranked 14th among all hitters with at least 400 PA.
While Shoppach has clearly proven that he possesses as much power as any player behind the dish, there are several reasons to expect a downturn in his performance, should he again see significant playing time in Cleveland or elsewhere.
Shoppach whiffs. A lot. In fact, only Three True Outcomes hero Jack Cust went down via strike three more often than Shoppach, who tied D-Backs third baseman Mark Reynolds with an ignoble 37.8 K%. As one would expect from such a high strikeout rate, Shoppach has significant issues making contact. His 64% contact rate ranked ahead of only Reynolds among all batters with at least 400 PA. Shoppach made contact with just 73.4% of pitches swung at within the strike zone, 3rd-worst among hitters (you guessed it, Reynolds and Cust rank 1st and 2nd). It’s not as though he’s a hacking mess at the plate (Shoppach drew walks at a 9.3% clip in 2008 and his O-Swing% was an average 25.6%), but chances are, he’ll either hit the ball across state lines or miss it entirely.
With a player like Shoppach who strike out so frequently, the ball is being put in play less often than it would be for a hitter with a more average contact rate. As such, hitters with high K rates are more prone to fluctuation in their Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). Fewer opportunities for the ball to be put in play means a higher degree of variability, due to the smaller sample size.
Given Shoppach’s 18.6 Line Drive rate (LD%), we would expect his BABIP to come in around .306 (expected BABIP is LD% + .120, so .186 + .120 = .306). Shoppach’s actual BABIP? .359. That number is likely to tumble considerably in 2009. Players who strike out nearly 40% of the time just don’t hit .261 for any sustained length of time.
There’s no doubt that Kelly Shoppach can mash with the best of them behind the plate. However, his colossal K rate makes him a target for plenty of regression this upcoming season. If we adjust for his line drive rate and subtract those extra 53 points of average (the difference between his .359 BABIP and his .306 expected BABIP), Shoppach’s batting line is pared down to .208/.295/.464. The 28 year-old is a valuable player when he hits .260, but that’s just not going to continue. Barring huge gains in the contact department, Shoppach could be appealing to Pedro Cerrano’s shrine on a regular basis, deploring the existence of those darned curveballs.