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Early Season Underperformers at Third

I don’t have to tell this audience about the what goes up must come down principle, but we’ve had some, ahem, “performances” that haven’t been quite up to snuff at third base and I thought it was high time to give their shortcomings a little virtual ink. This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means as there have been several candidates at the hot corner who haven’t lived up to expectations (Casey McGehee, Ian Stewart, Pedro Alvarez, I’m giving you the evil eye) but between Kevin Youkilis and Chone Figgins we’ve got good poster boys for small sample size analysis.

Kevin Youkilis

Youkilis (as of Friday afternoon) has a triple slash line that looks like a misprint: .182/.426/.273. Yowsa. His on base percentage is right in line with what we’d expect from him, but there’s this whole “making contact” thing that seems to be eluding him. He has 13 walks and just 6 hits, none of which have left the ballpark. Right now, he’s running a 30+% strikeout clip, and a 27.7% walk rate, neither of which are likely to continue.

He has historically been a good starter with a career April line of .307/.415/.480 so this stagger out of the proverbial block is a little unusual for him, but I tend to believe it’s an aberration. Yes, his BABIP is a little low too but given his track record, you have to believe Youkilis is very likely to heat up soon.

His hit trajectory hasn’t been the same over these first couple weeks, with many of his fly balls landing in the infield and the rest of them seemingly driven into the turf.  His GB/FB ratio over the course of his career has been .77 and right now he’s at 1.57. His career IFFB% rate is 5.7% and right now he’s at 14.3%. This just won’t continue. It just won’t. So hang in there.

Are pitchers approaching him differently? Well, maybe.

Over the course of his career, he’s seen roughly 60% strikes, at least as far as defined by those being called a strike or him taking a whack at it. Today he’s at 52% so he’s either being extremely patient, or pitchers have been a little extra careful with him. This rather coincides with his zone% which has been in decline since 2005, but at a downright silly level currently. A quick graph for the visual learners:

So Youkilis is seeing far fewer pitches in the zone thus far. He also appears to be seeing fewer fastballs than in the past:

It certainly makes sense that pitchers have increasingly careful with him as he’s become one of the better hitters in the league, and it could be that pitchers are more willing to take a chance on David Ortiz hitting behind him so he’s seeing a little bit more junk than the past, but in the early goings of 2011, the results indicate that he’s going to walk a trillian times this season.

ZiPS is now predicting that the rest of the season will look like this for Youkilis: .274, 19HR, 63 RBI — which is going to disappoint a lot of fantasy owners, not to mention Boston fans. I’ve got money that says he bests this line by a good margin, as I don’t think he’s ready to turn into Scott Rolen just yet.

Chone Figgins

Figgins can’t seriously be as bad as he was last year, can he?

Nope. He’s worse.

Many fantasy owners pounced on Figgins for their respective teams as he’s got dual eligibility at 2B and 3B, even in a down year he had value at stolen bases, and most expected a degree of regression towards his career averages in other categories. Figgins even had himself a nice Spring Training, looking a lot like a guy named Chone Figgins before he wore blue.

And then the season started.

He’s sporting a .167/.200/.310 triple slash line and the few times he’s managed to reach base, he’s not even giving owners much in the way of steals with just one successful thievery so far.  He might be an early BABIP victim however, as he has a career .311 BABIP and right now it stands at .167. Based on his rate hit trajectory rate from last season, his expected BABIP was in the .340 range, so you’d have to assume things will improve.

On that note, however, it’s worth pointing out that what’s killing him right now is he’s just flat out hitting too many balls in the air and not taking advantage of his speed with his GB/FB rate down from 1.46 to .87 between last year and this year (although he currently boasts the highest HR/FB rate of his career at 6.7%!).

There’s nothing particularly glaring when scanning his plate discipline, so my expectation is he will have to settle into, at a minimum, the hitter he was last year — with the inherent potentional that he really ought to be better than that.

ZiPS is calling for a .258 batting average, 31 stolen bases, and another 66 runs, so they’re not scared off by this two week egg-laying and neither should you. If you drafted Figgins to run, he’s likely to continue to do so. Just remind yourself that his days of scoring 100+ runs expired when he started playing for a team without a supporting cast.