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Erick Aybar Breaks Out Again

Angels shortstop Erick Aybar always had a pretty slick glove, but in 2008, as a 25-year-old, his bat made noise, too. Aybar showed an all-star level of talent, combining his good defense with a .312/.353/.423 line in 556 plate appearances, picking up 3.7 WAR and ranking behind only Chone Figgins and Torii Hunter and just ahead of Kendrys Morales (before we discovered the lost “s” in his name) and Maicer Izturis.

At the heart of his improved bat, however, was a .332 BABIP. Regardless of the cause — the standard “luck” idea thrown around by many, or adjustments made by pitching staffs, or another explanation — Aybar couldn’t sustain it. His BABIP plummeted to .289 in 2010, the second lowest of his career, and Aybar’s offensive game simply has too many flaws to handle such a drop. He doesn’t walk much (never a walk rate above 6%) and he doesn’t hit for power (prior to 2011, never an ISO above .111).

In 2011, we see Aybar returning to his 2009 levels and beyond, posting a .281/.319/.427 line. The resulting 110 wRC+ even outclasses his 2009 wRC+ of 104, thanks to the league-wide drops in offense. And he’s not even doing it with BABIP. In part, Aybar’s resurgence is due to a return to his old swing-happy ways.

Last season saw Aybar’s worst offensive year since becoming a regular but it also saw his best walk rate of his career — still just a meager 5.9%, but his best nonetheless. The game story for the Angels’ very first game of the season sheds some light on why this might be:

How the Angels would replace Chone Figgins as a catalyst has been a flashing neon worry around this team since December, when Figgins became a Seattle Mariner.

In all, Aybar saw 24 pitches Monday night. Last year, that would have been a week’s worth for him. A hitter doesn’t change overnight, and Aybar has always been a free-swinger, but he is showing signs of gradually reshaping his game to fit the job.

He got on base three times and scored twice Monday night.

For most players, patience is a good thing, but Aybar’s offensive skillset may not be one suitable for taking pitchers. With Aybar’s limited power potential, pitchers have no reason to nibble and can challenge him with pitches early in the count. If he’s taking these pitches, he can easily fall behind 0-2 or 1-2 and be forced to deal with tough pitches out of the zone — his strikeout rate was also a career high 13.8% in 2010.

In 2011, Aybar is swinging more than ever, with a 50.3% swing rate as opposed to a career low 47.1% swing rate in 2010 (he was at 48.8% in 2009, which looks more and more like a BABIP-fueled fluke year). The result? Aybar’s contact skills are maximized. Pitchers aren’t throwing him pitches in the zone (down to 45% from 48%), but he’s so good at making contact it hasn’t mattered. His strikeout rate is down to 11%, and even though his walk rate is down, he’s making up for it with more power — 31 doubles, possibly a function of a zone-swing percentage 4% higher than 2010 and 3% higher than 2009.

Also, Aybar turned 27 years old and is entering his peak this year, which means some physical improvements could be augmenting any improvements in his approach at the plate. Regardless of the reason, Aybar has found a zone at the plate once again. Combined with what is agreed to be at least a decent glove at the shortstop position, the Angels have found themselves a solid player to man shortstop, at least until he hits free agency after the 2012 season.