Mark Teahen falls down

In my guest article for The Hardball Times way back in September of 2006, I looked at Kansas City Royals third baseman Mark Teahen, who had just wrapped up the most productive three-month stretch of baseball in his short career.

A quick refresher: In his first 77 at bats in 2006, Teahen was hitting .195/.241/.351 with two home runs while striking out 29.9 percent of the time. His discipline at the plate was being called into question thanks to a 0.21 BB/K ratio. In short, he was completely lost in the batters box.

On May 4 of that season, the Royals had seen enough and decided to send him to Triple-A Omaha for a refresher course in hitting. At that point, Teahen, who was part of the package the Royals acquired in the Carlos Beltran deal in the summer of ’04, had a career line of .239/.299/.372 with nine home runs in 524 at bats and a BB/K ratio of 0.35. It was looking grim for him.

But after a productive minor league stretch, and being recalled a month later, Teahen found his big league stroke and blistered pitchers for the rest of the season to the tune of .313/.384/.557 with 16 home runs. He had cut his strikeout rate to 19.6 percent and was hitting a long ball roughly once every 20 at bats. It it finally appeared he was learning the fine art of plate discipline; his BB/K ratio improved to a more respectable 0.56. It was a stunning and, based on his history, unexpected turnaround.

At the time, it seemed there were a couple of keys to his success. First, he was seeing more pitches at the plate and was drawing more walks. And second, after years of taking the ball to the opposite field, he was finally beginning to pull and hit with more authority.

His evolution from “easy out” to “feared hitter” was enough to convince me and other Royals fans that we had something special. I conveyed my high hopes in my guest article:

“After a horribly slow start, Teahen looks to be on his way. I’m as excited about him as I have been for any Royals player in the past 10 years. As long as he keeps working the count, drawing the walks and pulling the ball, the Royals could have one of the best players in the league at the hot corner for the next several years.”

So what happened?

While on the surface it would be easy to explain part of Teahen’s decline on his approach at the plate, the numbers don’t bear that out. If anything, Teahen has improved his strike zone discipline.

In an effort to track hitters and the location of the pitches they swing at, Fangraphs has begun updating plate discipline on its player cards. It’s a fascinating breakdown of a player’s approach. According to the data, Teahen has actually improved his discipline in that he’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone, known as the O-Swing percentage. Here is how Teahen has done throughout his career on swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone:

2005: 20.3%
2006: 26.4%
2007: 29.1%
2008: 20.6%

If we agree that the lower the O-Swing percentage, the better the plate discipline, then we can say that Teahen has improved by leaps and bounds from 2007 to this year. For a frame of reference, Jason Giambi has the lowest rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone at 9.1 percent while Vladimir Guerrero is swinging freely at 45.1 percent. League average over the last three seasons is roughly 23 percent.

Teahen is laying off more pitches out of the zone (his Achilles heel has long been the pitch low and away) and has seen a corresponding bump in his walk rate:

2005: 8.2%
2006: 9.2%
2007: 9.2%
2008: 11.6%

Interesting how that works: Swing at fewer pitches out of the strike zone and you’ll end up working pitchers for more walks.

His better knowledge of the strike zone has helped his strikeout rate as well:

2005: 23.9%
2006: 21.6%
2007: 23.3%
2008: 20.2%

Teahen’s strikeout rates have always been above major league average (which is just a shade under 20 percent) but that’s just the kind of player he is. Overall, he makes contact about 77 percent of the time he swings the bat, which is below the major league average of around 80 percent. Strikeouts will happen, but to his credit he’s brought his overall number down.

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While the percentages are interesting, we can get a nice overall picture of the development of his plate discipline from his BB/K ratio graph. This year, he has finally broken through and is not only better than the average major league hitter, he’s moved all the way into “good” territory. Again, he’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, so it makes sense that his BB/K ratio has seen positive growth. It’s a nice evolution showing a 26-year-old hitter entering his prime.

If you’re just going off the numbers and charts, you would think that Teahen, with his improved plate discipline, was having a banner year at getting on base. But he’s not. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. After posting an OBP north of .350 over the previous two seasons (.357 in ’06 and .353 in ’07), Teahen is getting on base at a .338 clip.

He’s walking more, but getting on base less. That means the only explanation for a lower OBP would be that there is a problem when he makes contact. That brings us to the second part of his recipe for success: Pulling the ball.

When Teahen was up in the majors for the first time, the scouting reports told of a left-handed hitter who loved to wait on a pitch in the outer half of the zone and take it to the opposite field. He had a classic inside-out swing that yielded soft fly balls to left. If he got ahead of the pitch, he would end up rolling his wrists, which meant most of the balls he hit on the ground were pulled to the right side.

Here’s his hitting chart for games played at Kauffman Stadium in his rookie season where he hit .246/.309/.376:

True to the scouting reports, we see that most of his fly ball outs went to left, and if he was going to get a base hit, it was likely to come from a liner to right. Also note the cluster of ground balls pulled between first and second base.

Now let’s add his hitting chart from 2006 for comparison:

Kind of interesting how he developed as a hitter. It looks as though the fly balls that settled into the gloves of left fielders in ’05 were now either falling in front of them for singles or sailing over their heads two bases. He was hitting fewer grounders (the numbers bear this out: In 2005, 52.8 percent of his batted balls were on the ground compared to 48.7 percent in ’06) and he was generating more loft. With the added loft came an ability to turn on pitches and spray his batted balls to all fields.

The result was three months of baseball nirvana.

   2006          AB         H        2B        3B        HR        K%       BB%      BB/K        BA       OBP       SLG
 4/3-5/4          77        15         2         2         2     29.9%      6.0%      0.22     0.195     0.241     0.351
 6/3-9/5         316        99        19         5        16     19.6%      9.8%      0.56     0.313     0.384     0.557
  Total          393       114        21         7        18     21.6%      9.2%      0.47     0.290     0.357     0.517

That line from June to September tells you why people adjusted their expectations for Teahen. A sustained run of power and on-base prowess that many had predicted had come to fruition in the form of a .874 OPS. It represented what many thought to be the best-case scenario for the young third baseman. The future looked bright.

Teahen missed the last three weeks of 2006 after undergoing shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff. The surgery was declared a success and he was ready to go by spring training. He opened that season as the Royals’ starting right fielder (a position switch made necessary to make room for prospect Alex Gordon) and over the first two months hit .286/.378/.434 with five home runs and a BB/K ratio of 0.59.

And then he stopped pulling the ball.

The scattered hits represent the full season. Overall, it looks like a strong chart. Five of the six home runs he hit at home were pulled to right or right-center and he continued to drive the ball to the opposite field for extra bases. But the chart also shows the return of the cluster of fly ball outs to left field—something that was prevalent in his chart from 2005 and was largely missing from 2006. Although it’s difficult to tell from that chart, he also reverted to hitting more ground balls to the right side. His overall ground ball rate for the 2007 season was 50 percent.

While he maintained his batting average from June 1 to the end of the season, Teahen’s power completely disappeared. After hitting five home runs in his first 189 at bats of the season (37.8 AB/HR), he hit only two more over his final 355 at bats (177.5 AB/HR).

   2007          AB         H        2B        3B        HR        K%       BB%      BB/K        BA       OBP       SLG
 4/1-5/31        189        54         9         2         5     23.3%     11.9%      0.59     0.286     0.378     0.434
 6/1-9/30        355       101        22         6         2     23.4%      7.4%      0.35     0.285     0.339     0.397
  Total          544       155        31         8         7     23.3%      9.2%      0.43     0.285     0.353     0.410

And now in 2008, his regression to an opposite field hitter with no power appears complete.

It’s a small sample size but we can already see a cluster of outs forming in left and left-center, representing far too many soft fly balls. Again, when he pulls the ball to right, good things happen. But he isn’t pulling the ball enough to get into any kind of power groove. Note his lone home run at Kauffman Stadium (which came on Tuesday) was hit to the opposite field and didn’t even leave the park.

With this approach, Teahen is hitting .251/.338/.361 through May 28 with just 12 extra base hits in 183 at bats. It’s a far cry from the glory days of mid-2006.

Now that Teahen has more than three full major league seasons, we have a pretty good idea of the type of player he will be over the rest of his career. Unfortunately for the Royals, the Teahen of 2008 is closer to reality than the Teahen of 2006.

The Royals like Teahen for his versatility and willingness to do anything for the team. That includes three different Opening Day positions in the last three years. This year alone, he’s started games in left field (where he opened the season), right field and now first base. With his power failing to evolve, he seems ill-suited (offensively speaking) for a corner outfield or first base role. He just won’t provide the offensive punch teams need out of those positions.

Teahen is still a useful major leaguer and with his improving plate discipline, he brings value to any team. But he’s miscast as a corner infielder or outfielder who will hit in the middle third of the lineup. The fact he’s started 18 games batting third, 15 games batting fifth and 14 games batting sixth should give you a good idea about the current state of the Royals’ offense. He would be much better off moving lower in the lineup and moving to yet another position… perhaps second base, where his bat would provide some actual value.

The problem for the Royals is they have too many players like Mark Teahen.

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