Teixeira’s Amazing, Disappearing Batting Average

Yankees fans can be a fickle bunch, so when their $180M first baseman starts posting .360-.370 wOBA’s instead of .390+ plus, they notice and wonder what’s wrong. Mark Teixeira is still one of the game’s very best hitters, a run-producing machine with serious power from both sides of the plate (.258 ISO vs. RHP and .280 vs. LHP this year, with similar splits throughout his career) and a knack for avoiding strike three (just 15.3% strikeouts this year and 17.2% for his career), but what’s going on with his batting average, the most basic of offensive metrics?

Teixeira has hit just .254 in his last 1,291 PA (2010-2011) after hitting .302 in his previous 1,967 PA (2007-2009). He went from .308 in 2008 to .292 in 2009 to .256 in 2010 to .251 in 2011. The quick and easy answer is a declining BABIP, which is pretty obvious…

That’s the lazy way out though. There’s some very legitimate factors that explain why Teixeira’s ability to pick up a simple base knock has been trending downward the last few years, starting with his batted ball profile…

Since joining the Yankees in 2009, Teixeira’s started to hit the ball in the air far more often than he had been in previous years. Fly balls tend to go over the fence for extra base hits, but they also wind up in outfielders’ gloves quite often. Furthermore, his infield fly rate has jumped from 8.8% in 2007-2009 to 13.0% from 2010-2011. Infield flies are the bane of BABIP. It’s not unrealistic to think that Teixeira has altered his swing in recent years, adding an uppercut to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch.

Let’s take a look at the spray charts, first from 2007-2009

Teixeira is a switch-hitter, and this is his spray chart against right-handed pitchers only. The league split is something like 75-25 in favor of RHP, so this covers the majority of his PA and also helps with the short porch theory. During this three-year span, he did hit the ball to all fields but unsurprisingly did most of his damage to the pull side. I count six homers to left and center fields, and there’s maybe two or three dozen balls hit right to the warning track in those directions. Now here’s his 2010-2011 spray chart

Again, this is against right-handed pitchers only, and there’s a pretty significant difference. Everything is pulled to right; you can count the balls hit to the warning track to left and center on one hand. Just look at the area in front of the 399 sign in left-center, there’s nothing hit out there.

Also look at the outs made on the right side of the infield in both charts. There’s a lot more being made in shallow right field in 2010-2011 than there was from 2007-2009, and part of that is the shift teams are employing against Teixeira. I don’t know how long clubs have been shifting on him, but just watching him play on a day-to-day basis the last three years, the shift became really noticeable late in the 2009 season. First it was just Joe Maddon and the Rays doing it, but by the end of that season every team was stacking three infielders on the right side against the Yankees’ first baseman. Fewer ground balls are going to sneak through the infield with the shift, and that will drag down a player’s batting average as well.

The low average also has a trickle down effect, and it’s part of the reason why Teixeira’s OBP has gone from .398 in 2007-2009 (.400+ in 2007 and 2008) to just .357 from 2010-2011. He still walks quite a bit (11.7% of the time this year and 11.5% in his career) and he is prone to getting hit by pitches (at least a dozen HBPs in 2009 and 2010, and he’ll probably get there again this year), so that helps keep his OBP out of the gutter. Still, it’s another knock against him in OBP leagues.

Teixeira picked up his 100th RBI last night, giving him eight straight years of 30 homers and 100 runs driven in. Only a handful of players in baseball can make that claim, and any hitter that produces those kinds of counting stats on an annual basis will have big fantasy value. Tex isn’t the fantasy stud he once was because he’s hitting .250-something rather than .290+, but he’s in a great lineup and a great ballpark (and he’s not old), so those run producing numbers should continue to be there. If the theory about him adding an uppercut to his swing to take advantage of right field in Yankee Stadium is legit, there’s not much of a reason to expect his batting average to rebound in the future without some good balls-in-play fortune. If Teixeira doesn’t get his batting average back up, he’ll merely be a very good fantasy option and no longer truly elite.

Big ups to Texas Leaguers for the spray charts.

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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

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Pujols has 10 years of consistent 30/100 production. Time will tell if he makes it 11.