What’s the deal with Khalil?

Entering the 2008 season, Khalil Greene looked to be on the rise. At age 27, the Padres shortstop had knocked 27 homers despite playing half his games in a mausoleum that hurts his offensive game above and beyond what we might expect (from 2004 to 2007, Greene’s OPS was 176 points lower at Petco Park than away from it; as a team, the Padres dropped around 60 points of OPS at home during that same stretch). Sure, there were some flaws in his game—the .291 OBP and 4:1 K/BB ratio sort of call attention to themselves—but when you’re hitting with that kind of power and playing Gold Glove defense at a premium position, it’s a little easier to overlook those.

This year, the story has been different. Through July 29, he’s hitting .215/.262/.342, which comes out to a 64 OPS+. At age 28, in what should be his physical prime, Greene has seen the batting average drop and the power all but disappear. That’s a bad combination. A guy who struggles to keep his OBP above .300 in a good year really can’t afford to stop driving the ball.

One area where Greene has struggled in 2008 is on the road, which is a bit strange given his previous success there. Over the past four years, he’s hit .280/.334/.511 away from Petco Park—numbers that look a lot like Alfonso Soriano‘s career line (.282/.327/.518 through July 29). This year those numbers are .212/.225/.317, with an appalling 5 walks against 56 strikeouts. That line bears stronger resemblance to… geez, I dunno, Bob Forsch?

Greene’s dismal road numbers are a manifestation, of course, not a root cause. With that in mind, I asked a series of questions in the hope of better understanding his struggles this year and also what the future might hold:

  • How had Greene performed entering the season?
  • How had similar players performed at the same age?
  • Did any of them experience a similar collapse at that age?
  • Have any other players experienced such a collapse?
  • What, if any, are the shared characteristics of such players?
  • Were there obvious reasons for collapse in any of these cases (i.e., maybe something changed)?
  • What happened in Greene’s case?
  • Can he rebound, and if so, how?

We’ll tackle these one at a time.

How had Greene performed entering the season?

Greene came into 2008 with a respectable .254/.312/.444 career line. That’s a 101 OPS+, which is just fine for a shortstop. He’s also been remarkably consistent from year to year: After posting a 114 OPS+ as a rookie in 2004, Greene followed up with three straight seasons hovering around 100—again, not great but acceptable.

His overall production is roughly league average every year. The way he achieves it—low OBP, high SLG—is anything but average. For this reason, it’s difficult to find comparable players for Greene. That said, let’s take a look.

How had similar players performed at the same age?

Greene’s list of comps through age 27 as given by Baseball-Reference is intriguing. Several active players show up on the list, the best matches being Miguel Tejada and Bill Hall:

Greene, Tejada, Hall through Age 27
Greene 2008 .254 .312 .444 .363 .190 101
Tejada 2286 .257 .324 .443 .499 .186 99
Hall 2058 .264 .320 .467 .311 .203 101

Tejada had slightly better plate discipline, while Hall had more power, but essentially we’re looking at the same player. Because Greene and Hall are the same age, and we don’t have complete data yet on Hall’s age 28 season, we’ll want to expand our scope to include a few others from the list so we have more data points:

Greene and Others through Age 27
Greene 2008 .254 .312 .444 .363 .190 101
Rich Gedman 2282 .269 .318 .433 .462 .164 101
Matt Nokes 1995 .263 .315 .446 .506 .183 109
Tejada 2286 .257 .324 .443 .499 .186 99
Jose Valentin 1725 .245 .319 .429 .437 .184 89
Hall 2058 .264 .320 .467 .311 .203 101
Ramon Hernandez 1894 .253 .322 .400 .591 .147 89
Todd Hundley 2008 .238 .311 .425 .442 .187 98
Jeff Kent 1688 .272 .326 .455 .323 .183 108
Bret Boone 1814 .261 .310 .415 .340 .154 90

All comps are not created equal. Nokes and Kent had a higher OPS+ at the same age, while Valentin, Hernandez, and Boone fell to the other end of the spectrum. I love that Greene and Hundley had the exact same number of at-bats during that stretch. Their numbers are eerily similar:

Greene and Hundley through Age 27
Greene 2008 .254 .312 .444 .363 .190 101
Hundley 2008 .238 .311 .425 .442 .187 98

Anyway, back to the big picture, we’re looking at a bunch of guys at tough defensive positions who had displayed decent power to that point and marginal command of the strike zone. I find it fascinating that several catchers appear on the list, because intuitively, it seems that someone who spends a lot of time getting banged up behind the dish would be an excellent candidate for collapsing offensively before age 30. This is a connection that doesn’t exist, of course, because Greene isn’t actually a catcher, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

(Incidentally, the one player from B-R’s list of comps that I didn’t include, Gus Triandos, also was a catcher. I omitted Triandos because he played in the ’50s, while everyone else has been around in the past 30 years, which raises another interesting point—with a few rare exceptions, catchers and middle infielders didn’t hit like this before the ’80s.)

Did any of them experience a similar collapse at that age?

One piece of information the comps don’t give us is the shape of a player’s career. We use the list of similar players as a point of departure and then start digging. Time to break out the metaphorical shovels:

  • Gedman was pretty bad at age 28 (.231/.279/.368 in a limited role), but this was a significant improvement over the previous season (.205/.250/.278); then again, his career effectively ended at age 26 before he hung on in zombie mode for another six years, so we probably can’t learn much from his example
  • Nokes saw his production drop slightly from age 27 to age 28, but most of that was batting average; his power remained unchanged
  • Tejada did okay—he raised his batting average 40 points and won the AL MVP
  • Valentin was his usual inconsistent self; the batting average dropped, but he drew more walks and hit for better power
  • Hall is the same age and is basically duplicating his age 27 season; of course, he experienced a precipitous drop from age 26 (125 OPS+) to age 27 (89 OPS+), so maybe he already had his premature decline—it’s too early to know for sure
  • Hernandez picked up 20 points of SLG despite moving to a less forgiving ballpark
  • Hundley had another monster season at age 28 before declining the next year (at least in part because of injuries)
  • Kent’s power slipped slightly, although he was still a barely better than league-average offensive threat at this point; he didn’t become a Hall of Fame caliber player until age 30
  • Boone essentially duplicated his age 27 season
Have any other players experienced such a collapse?

To answer this question (or at least attempt to answer it), I used the indispensable Baseball-Reference Play Index to find players who met the following criteria:

  1. Entered age 27 season (season 1) with 1000+ career PA
  2. Posted 95-105 OPS+ in season 1 (while qualifying for batting title); guys like Vada Pinson, Thurman Munson, Jesse Barfield, Mark McGwire, and Jimmy Rollins fall into this category
  3. Posted 60-70 OPS+ in season 2 (while qualifying for batting title); you’ll find Luis Aparicio, Dave Campbell, Ron Oester, Kirt Manwaring, and Adam Everett here

Between 1901 and 2007, 61 players met criterion 3; of those, 4 also met criteria 1 and 2. Here’s how they did (including the following year, season 3):

Established Players Who Fell Apart at Age 28
Season 1 Season 2 Season 3
Player Year Age AB OPS+ Year Age AB OPS+ Year Age AB OPS+
Billy Hatcher 1988 27 530 102 1989 28 481 70 1990 29 504 91
Tommy Helms 1968 27 507 96 1969 28 480 69 1970 29 575 44
Jim Busby 1954 27 628 105 1955 28 528 68 1956 29 494 72
Fresco Thompson 1929 27 623 98 1930 28 478 70 1931 29 181 84

Thompson and Busby played more than half a century ago, when playing conditions were very different, and Helms wasn’t much of a hitter (his ’68 performance was a fluke). That leaves us with Hatcher, which isn’t a lot of data points.

What if we expand the age ranges to, say, age 25-28 in season 1, but limit ourselves to the expansion era (1961- )?

Established Players Who Fell Apart between Ages 26 and 29
Season 1 Season 2 Season 3
Player Year Age AB OPS+ Year Age AB OPS+ Year Age AB OPS+
Delino DeShields 1995 26 425 99 1996 27 581 60 1997 28 572 111
Hatcher 1988 27 530 102 1989 28 481 70 1990 29 504 91

Okay, great; now we have two data points. On the one hand, 100% of players in our pool rebounded in season 3. On the other hand, we might as well be flipping coins with a sample that small.

I thought lowering the minimum number of plate appearances in a single season to 400 might help, but that only adds one more name, Omar Vizquel. He kind of falls into the same category as Helms in that his ’92 numbers were way out of line from anything he’d done before then (or after—at least until several years later). Even with Vizquel, that brings us up to three players in the past 40 years, hardly enough to be useful for our purposes.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that there aren’t many players who established a decent (not great) track record at the plate and then dropped precipitously in their primes while remaining healthy enough to play every day. You might be able to find some guys who went from great to average (I didn’t check because that’s not what I’m looking for), but there aren’t a lot who went from average to lousy.

What, if any, are the shared characteristics of such players?

Uh, they’re a rare breed.

Were there obvious reasons for collapse in any of these cases (i.e., maybe something changed)?

No, but there are obvious reasons why I won’t even attempt to pursue this.

What happened in Greene’s case?

Let’s step away from the numbers for a moment. Greene is an unusual hitter for many reasons. First off, he’s one of those guys who tends not to stay with any one batting stance for extended periods of time. Second, he’s got a quick bat but his pitch recognition skills aren’t very good. If Greene sees a fastball between the belt and eyes, he’ll generally whip the bat through the zone and hit the ball with authority and without any apparent effort. If he sees a slider away, he’s more likely to give an ineffectual flick.

The thing is, Greene has been around the league a while. It’s not like pitchers are just now figuring out that the way to beat him is with breaking balls off the plate. This is why I included a base number of career plate appearances in the initial inquiry. We aren’t looking for guys without a track record who might have benefited from a lack of accurate scouting reports. We’re looking for guys, like Greene, who established a certain level of performance and then fell apart for no obvious reason.

Poor strike zone judgment? Sure, but Greene had succeeded to a degree despite that. It’s tempting to say that his haphazard approach at the plate finally caught up with him, but the question remains: Why now?

I wish I knew. So, one suspects, do Greene and the Padres.

Can he rebound, and if so, how?

Here’s what gets me about Greene. There are many reasons a player might stop hitting for power: age, injuries, a conscious decision to hit for a higher batting average, and probably others. Greene is in his prime and he isn’t, as far as anyone knows, hurt. And yet his batting average is worse than ever and he’s still not controlling the strike zone at all. Shouldn’t there be a tradeoff of some sort? Shouldn’t he be getting something in exchange for his sacrifice in power? How concerned should we be that he isn’t? If he’s already making sacrifices without getting anything in return, what part of his game goes next?

Back to the question at hand: Yes, I think he can rebound, but I’m not sure to what degree. Greene is still reasonably young and it wasn’t that long ago that he exhibited the ability to produce consistently at league average levels (which is pretty good for a shortstop). The best way for him to get his game together is to tighten up his strike zone and do a better job of recognizing pitches. The trouble is, as we noted above, he isn’t exactly new to the scene. Greene has more than 2500 big-league plate appearances under his belt, and it’s hard to envision him suddenly developing a skill he’s never had (he drew some walks as a rookie, but in the bigger picture, including his minor-league record, that’s an aberration, not the norm).

From a more practical standpoint, Greene needs to remember how to crush balls on the road. When a guy yields 300 points of OPS in half his games, that’s a problem. A potentially larger problem is the fact that there is no obvious reason for his struggles away from Petco Park. How do you fix something that you can’t properly diagnose? Most of my optimism at this point hinges on Greene’s track record and age, but I don’t know how comfortable I am placing a lot of faith in those right now.

I’d hoped for a more satisfying conclusion, but this is the best I can offer. Greene is relatively young and he used to be good. With luck, those will work in his favor going forward. Otherwise, he’ll have to settle for being the new Alex Gonzalez (either one), which isn’t quite what anyone was hoping for or expecting.

References & Resources
Thanks to Baseball-Reference for providing the numbers and Vinay Kumar for helping me make sense of them.

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