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Theriot Behind in the Count

Now that 20-year-old Starlin Castro is the Chicago Cubs’ starting shortstop, Ryan Theriot has shifted to second base and again holds position eligibility on both sides of the DP combo. And, for the first time in a few years, he’s stealing bases at an efficient rate. Theriot went 28-for-32 in SB attempts during his first year as a starter in 2007, adding about 3.4 runs of value according to Baseball Prospectus’ Equivalent Stolen Base Runs metric. But he went 22-for-35 in 2008 (-3.5 EQSBR) and 21-for-31 last season (-2.6 EQSBR). In 2010, Theriot has swiped 15 bases in 18 tries, with +1.1 EQSBR so far. He’s running, and running well, when he gets the chance. Unfortunately, Theriot’s getting on base at a career-low-clip.

In 314 PA, the 30-year-old has a .280/.321/.307 line, with a paltry .289 wOBA. Never known for driving the ball, Theriot has a .027 Isolated Power that falls short of his very modest .074 career ISO. The fact that he has all of seven extra-base hits this season clearly contributes to his feeble offensive output. But another reason why Theriot’s bat has been nearly 11 runs below average is his declining walk rate.

Theriot took ball four 8.9% of the time from 2007-2009, slightly above the average big league walk rate. This year, he’s walking in just 5.1% of his PA. Is he expanding his strike zone by swinging at more pitches thrown off the plate? Slightly, but it’s hardly a dramatic increase. Here are Theriot’s outside swing percentages in recent seasons, as well as the MLB average for each season. The last column shows Theriot’s O-Swing as a percentage of the big league average:

If Theriot’s not hacking at more pitcher’s pitches, then why has his walk rate dipped? For starters, opponents are throwing him more pitches within the strike zone:

Pitchers have long challenged the former LSU Tiger with in-zone offerings, but he’s getting more pitches over the plate than ever before. Unfortunately, Theriot is having a hard time recognizing balls from strikes. According to StatCorner, the percentage of pitches that he has taken for a strike has increased this year. Theriot has taken 38.6% of pitches for a strike in 2010, compared to 33% in ’09, 36.1% in ’08 and 37.7% in ’07 (the MLB average is 31%).

Pitchers are throwing Theriot more strikes, and he’s keeping the bat on his shoulder more often against those strikes. It’s no surprise, then, that Theriot’s often ending up in pitcher’s counts. His first pitch strike percentage is 66.9 this season. That’s the fourth-highest rate among qualified MLB hitters and well above his 60.1% average from 2007 to 2009 (58-59% MLB average).

Opposing hurlers aren’t afraid of Theriot, and they reflect that confidence by pounding the zone against him. In order to return to his previous .290/.355/.360 range, Theriot needs to knock more than two extra-base hits a month and stop putting himself at the mercy of the pitcher.