For the remainder of the 2012 season, I’ll take a weekly look at one Angel’s recent performance and how it relates to their overall season and, in some cases, the fortunes of the team. This week, our focus lies on SS Erick Aybar.
As May concluded, Angel shortstop Erick Aybar’s batting average stood at .223. In his first 49 games, he’d drawn 6 walks, hadn’t homered, and had stolen only 4 bases. He was awful.
Despite last season’s Gold Glove, Aybar generally rated as an average major league shortstop. Position value alone helped offset his abysmal batting numbers, but not enough to warrant his everyday presence in the line-up. After 2011’s 4-WAR season, Aybar’s miserable 2-month slump raised questions from fans like myself, wondering whether the former hot prospect was done as a major league starter. Turning 28 before the season began, Aybar should have been in his peak. Instead, he was a sub-replacement level player coming off a contract extension set to pay him $8.5 million every season between 2013 and 2016. The contract looked like a disaster, not as expensive as the Ryan Howard iceberg rising on Philly’s horizon, but another example of the Angels throwing money into a sinkhole of declining players incapable of reaching base.
Since a May 17th nadir that saw his batting average drop beneath .190, Aybar’s quietly rebounded. It took a while to notice. A player whose batting average climbs up through the .210’s doesn’t draw a ton of attention unless he’s Albert Pujols. With the Angels mired in mediocrity, the focus remained on the ascension of Trout and the demise of Haren and Santana, more immediately critical components of the club. Aybar was stashed at the bottom of the lineup, expected to plug up the left side of the infield and try to not look too inept at the plate. A month after he bottomed, Erick Aybar went 3-3 against Arizona and has trended upward since. A brief D.L. stint at the end of July didn’t slow him down and as I write, he’s gotten his stat line up to .295/.329/.421, good enough for a 112 OPS+ that would mark a career high. Above average offense placed alongside decent defense at SS has allowed Aybar’s WAR to reach 3.4, not far off last season’s pace.
So, what’s been the reason for Aybar’s rebound and, while we’re at it, what was behind the initial hurricane of awful? I can only speculate on whether Aybar was pressing or unfocused at 2012’s onset. He has seemed to lack a degree of concentration at times during his career, though. In the minors, he committed exactly 32 errors in three straight seasons, a high total for someone with strong defensive tools. Aybar never developed into the base stealer his speed projected him to have and his discipline at the plate hasn’t advanced since he was signed as a teenager. Fine. Aybar’s not Bobby Abreu. Instead, he’s an aggressive contact hitter with some speed who can find holes in the infield and shallow outfield. Such an approach naturally leaves him susceptible to the whims of bABIP. He’s not generating hits over the wall and he’s not drawing walks during unlucky spells. Aybar places all his value on whether his hits find gloves or not.
In 2012, here are his monthly batting average totals thus far:
.222, .223, .315, .267, .341, .424.
And here are his bABIP totals:
.265, .253, .341, .245, .364, .452.
Any player will see his batting average tend to rise and fall with bABIP fluctuations. With someone like Aybar, powerless and prone to ground-ball singles, the link between average and bABIP is particularly striking. He hasn’t struck out more than 13 times or homered more than 3 times in any month this season. His walk totals range from 1 (September) to 5 (June and July). Even casting aside luck, Aybar isn’t quite the same player in his fortunate September than he was during his woeful April. His April ground ball rate was an absurd 69.8%, a number that can only produce satisfactory results with a ton of luck and the speed of Movie Tom Cruise. His grounders regressed to about 45% every month from May through August before a spike up to 54.2% in September, a month in which his luck has been insanely good. His line drive rate has also improved, from 7.9% in April to between 17-29% since. A 7.9% line drive rate is just awful. I mean, I throw out a lot of numbers and percentages that might seem complicated at a first glance, but single-digit line drive rates are beneath what pitchers typically put up. 20% is about average.
Alright, so Aybar was Steve Rodgers in April and, well, not quite Captain America in the second half but, like, Captain Missouri at least*. His career line drive rate is 18.1, so the 29% he put up in August helps explain his .341 average and 10 extra-base hits. Aybar’s ability to improve on the types of balls put in play eliminates the notion that his 2nd half success has resulted from luck and nothing else. At the same time, his April rates demonstrate struggles extending beyond a low bABIP. Aybar’s weak contact didn’t extend beyond the middle of May, thankfully.
*Pockets $50 check from Marvel
Over the last week, Aybar’s been absurd. In 5 games, he’s tallied 11 hits, 2 doubles, and 2 steals for a .550/.571/.650 line. It won’t continue, but after that April, he deserves a little fortune. And if it continues for the remaining 2 weeks of the 2012 season, he might bring the Angels into the playoffs. More likely, he’ll prevent us from having to read a series of articles describing his contract as an “albatross.” Small consolation.