So When Do We Get to Be Worried About Andre Ethier?

August 22, 2012 at 8:23 am | Posted in Andre Ethier | Leave a comment

Photo via brendan-c on Flickr. Ethier made contact, so probably wasn’t against a lefty.

In 2010, Andre Ethier had a monster first half for the Dodgers, hitting .324/.379/.553 (.932) before the All-Star break. He tailed off badly in the second half, hitting only .256/.348/.426 (.773) as it became clear that he’d rushed back far too quickly from a broken finger.

In 2011, Ethier once again got off to a good start, hitting .311/.383/.463 (.846) in the first half. As the rest of the team got hot down the stretch, he was dreadful, putting up a .252/.339/.333 (.672) which was later blamed on the fact he was playing on an injured knee that eventually cut his year short and required surgery.

In 2012, Ethier was expected to have a big season. Presumably healthy & motivated headed into his contract year, he once again started off well, hitting .291/.357/.491 (.848) in the first half. Yet once again, he’s been underwhelming in the second half, at only .252/.331/.341 (.672) since the All-Star Game, and we’re left to wonder: what’s going on?

The obvious answer is that it’s yet another injury, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. Yes, he strained his oblique in San Francisco at the end of June and landed on the disabled list, and as his return coincided with the start of the second half it is technically accurate to say that “he’s been awful since he was injured.” The thing is, that oblique strain hardly interrupted a hot streak; over his previous 30 games before that, he’d been only at .241/.317/.352 (.669). (I’m sure someone will suggest that the entire Dodger offense in June was wretched and that Ethier suffered from a lack of protection since he was mainly surrounded by Triple-A fill-ins and Juan Rivera. Before we go down that path, go take a look at what Matt Kemp did last year without “protection”, or how much Ryan Braun has suffered this year without Prince Fielder. It’s not a reason.)

What else happened this year? Ethier, of course, signed a 5/$85m extension (or 6/$100m, depending on how you view it) back on June 12, but that doesn’t coincide with any downturn; as you can see in this Dodgers.com piece from shortly after, he was slumping before the deal and picked it up somewhat after. Nor was it always like this, with Ethier one of “those guys” who always wears out by the end of the year. In 2009, his second half OPS was 123 points higher than in the first; in 2008, it was 191; in 2007, 43.

All of this has led to a .337 wOBA, his lowest since 2007, and good only for 31st among outfielders with at least 400 plate appearances. (Just ahead of Norichika Aoki & David DeJesus!) That’s still good for either third or fifth on the Dodgers, depending on where you’d like to put playing time cutoffs that may or may not exclude Hanley Ramirez & Luis Cruz (!), but it’s also not exactly what you’d want from a guy you just invested nearly nine figures into. Sure, I’ll grant that for the first time his defensive play in right field seems to be catching up to the mostly undeserved acclaim it’s already received, but you aren’t paying him to play defense. You’re paying him to hit, and it’s not happening. Why?

Well, a quick superficial look at his peripherals reveals that he’s striking out more (20.3%) than he’s ever had and walking less (8.2%) than since his rookie season of 2006. You can make a lot of assumptions about that. He’s pressing to live up to the weight of his contract! He’s been forced to carry the offense on his back with all the injuries! That’s what’s so fun – and also dangerous – about statistics, that you can use them to create any narrative you like. He’s lost without his food blog! He’s not the same player without Garret Anderson & Mark Sweeney to guide him!

While the poor K/BB trend isn’t good, I don’t think he’s suddenly lost all patience and ability to make contact. It seems to me that it’s more of a symptom than a cause, and that the real root of the trouble is simply this: other managers aren’t blind.

Year
Total PA
vLH
vRH
LH%
2007
507
119
388
23.5
2008
596
155
441
26.0
2009
685
187
498
27.2
2010
585
178
407
30.4
2011
551
151
400
27.4
2012
417
180
238
43.0

Here’s what I mean by that. Check out the percentage of lefty pitching that Ethier has faced over the last six years, shown in the table at right. For years, Ethier routinely faced lefties 25-30% of the time. This year it’s well over 40%, and as I hardly need to tell you, Ethier is absolutely awful against lefty pitching. Well, I don’t need to tell you, but I will – in over 1,000 career plate appearances against southpaws, Ethier hits only .238/.298/.351 (.650); this year, it’s even worse .216/.281/.315 (.596). Despite his briefly effective first few weeks against lefties this year, Ethier’s back to his typical awful performance against them, and other managers are taking advantage of that fact. If there’s any mystery here, it’s why it took them so long to do this since Ethier’s never really been able to hit them.

Yet either because Don Mattingly is unwilling to offend a star or he simply has no one on the active roster to turn to (and while I know Mattingly-bashing is a fun sport, I’m more inclined to believe the latter, because the bench is short and does anyone really like Rivera that much?) Ethier continues to hit against lefties. It shouldn’t be expected to work, and it doesn’t – it’s a situation that cries out desperately for a platoon partner, a hole I’ve been attempting to fill here for years in my various yearly plans, and all you need to do is look at first base with James Loney & Rivera to see that Mattingly isn’t strictly against the idea.

The problem with that platoon is that both Rivera & Loney are awful against all pitching, yet it can be very productive with the right pieces. For example, look at Seattle catcher John Jaso, having what appears to be an excellent season with a line of .287/.403/.493. That’s a good line from anyone, but it’s especially impressive from a catcher on a bad team in a pitcher’s park. Yet of his 256 plate appearances only 30 have come against fellow lefties. Because Jaso simply cannot hit lefties, the Mariners don’t allow him to try. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but in some circles it seems that it still is.

So it’s a simple equation. It’s not necessarily that Ethier is suddenly terrible, because he’s still bashing righty pitching to the tune of .319/.391/.524 (.916). It’s that he’s continually being put in a position where he’s very unlikely to succeed, and he rarely does. (You’ll notice I haven’t spent much time on the fact that a huge contract was given to what is essentially a platoon player, but we talked about that at length when the deal was signed; everyone, myself included, thought that it was more than he was worth, but considering the lack of alternatives, badly needed PR value, an offense that was already poor, and the deep pockets of new ownership, it was a defensible contract.)

So what can be done? You can’t simply keep tossing him out there against lefties and hope he suddenly learns, because at 30 years of age and more than 1,000 plate appearances into his career against them, it’s not going to suddenly just ‘click’. You need someone else out there when a southpaw is up, and while that may a role more easily filled in the offseason, it suddenly occurs to me that perhaps we’ve been wrong about our daily calls for Jerry Sands to come rescue first base; perhaps, against lefty pitching, he’s needed more in right field.

But whether it’s Sands or someone else, Ethier against lefties just isn’t working. It’s not going to work, and it’s potentially an easy enough solution with Sands a phone call away. It just means that he and the team must accept that despite his contract, taking a seat against most lefty pitching makes the Dodgers more likely to win.

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