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Assuming The Position 2006: First Base
by Derek Smart
Going into 2004, Cub fans could be excused for thinking their team had gotten away with, if not murder, then perhaps serious maiming, or at the very least, a sound pummeling about the head and shoulders.
Not only had they acquired Derrek Lee, an above average Major League first baseman, for the price of a somewhat flawed prospect who had quite obviously fallen out of favor with his manager, but the man they brought to town had spent his career playing in a ballpark that ate right-handed power as a tasty before-meal snack.
Now that he was unshackled and set free to roam in a stadium that adores starboard-side sluggers the way Katie loves her Tom-Tom, the predictions of forty-homer seasons flowed unfettered, washing Lee in the collective optimism of a Cubfandom giddy with anticipation of an expected return to playoff baseball, and Goats willing, a trip to the World Series.
As we all know now, such glory was not to be, and to add insult to injury Lee, while performing far better than the three-headed out-monster preceding him, was not the player many had hoped for. Good? Yes. Great? No, and despite the heightened expectations, what we saw was not just predictable, but very much in line with his previous work.
The story on Lee was clear to anyone with an internet connection and the wherewithal to look up some historical splits. Derrek was a notoriously slow starter, his woeful Aprils and Mays denting his overall production like five-inch hail on a Camero's hood. This tendency stood as a great and obvious barrier to progress, and as I wrote in this space last year, should have tempered our flights of fancy.
Lee begins each season with a pronounced dearth of production, and last year was no different. On the surface, his May line looks a little less troublesome than usual when compared to the three-year trend, but that's all batting average. His walk rate was much lower, as was his isolated power....
...I think it's appropriate at this juncture to ask ourselves if we were expecting too much of Lee. No one looked on him as a savior, but certainly there was an assumption that he would get on base at a rate comparable to his past performance, and might even experience a power boost thanks to home surroundings that are a bit more favorable to the long ball. Instead his OBP fell, as did his isolated power numbers (remove his July 2004, an outlier even by Derrek's standards of streakiness, and his ISO for 2004 drops to .202).
I rehash this in the interest of context, for while many were disappointed in what Lee brought in 2004, it was a performance that was within reasonable proximity of his previous work. Not only that, but his results since 2000 were remarkably consistent, and based on that data, Lee's .278/.356/.504 line in his inaugural Cub season was practically preordained.
Which makes what happened in 2005 all the more remarkable.
If you took Lee's previous career highs in AVG, OBP, and SLG, and put them all together to make a single hitting line, you'd have a .282/.379/.508 season. Solid. And I think coming into this past year that had Cub fans collectively rubbed a magic lamp and had the genie inside offer that as Lee's year, it gets accepted without a moment of hesitation. Turning such a sure thing down with the hope or expectation of seeing more, particularly after a year of witnessing Lee firsthand, would be hubris of the first order.
So imagine the surprise and delight of the Cub faithful when Lee began 2005 hotter than Jessica Alba in a Turkish Bath. The surprise coming not just from the fact of Lee's early season production, but the degree of dominance he showed coming out of the gate. As an illustration, let's take the table I reproduced above and insert 2005's numbers where the 2004 figures used to reside.
Scary Fact #1: Lee's worst month in 2005 (his .284/.392/.608 August) was significantly better than his cumulative line from 2004 (.278/.356/.504).
Scary Fact #2: Lee's worst month in 2005, had it been his line for the year, would have set career highs in AVG, OBP, and SLG for a season.
Scary Fact #3: Take a lineup made entirely of players producing at exactly league average. Replace one of them with Derrek Lee V2005. You've just added an average of .531 runs every single game.
Scary Fact #4: Take that exactly average lineup + Lee. Replace two of those average players with Jose Macias and Corey Patterson, both V2005. You've just cancelled Derrek out.
Suffice to say, he was brilliant, but despite his great success, the galling thing was that he could have been so much more useful. That he wasn't had nothing to do with the work he turned in, but rather, with the work turned in by those around him.
Lee finished the year with 107 RBI, which for someone who had such a monster year in both power and batting average, seems awfully low. In fact, through 2004 there have been 188 player-seasons where someone hit at least .300 and slugged at least .600 in 500 or more at bats. Of those, only 10 finished with fewer RBIs. Here's the list:
There is no shame in being part of this group. It is an impressive list of names, and while I don't know for sure where they all hit in the order (boxscores for the older players weren't readily available on Retrosheet), I think it's safe to say most of them hit close enough to the middle to get their shots, so their spot in the order wouldn't be likely to affect most of their opportunities.
However, since I don't have historical splits for many of these men when they had runners in scoring position, it's also difficult to say if a performance issue in those situations might have been a factor. Making that determination isn't a problem with Lee, however.
He was tied for 50th in the National League (with Omar Vizquel!) with 124 AB with runners in scoring position, and also had the fifth most walks in that situation with 42. Among NL players with at least 150 PAs with runners in scoring position, he had the highest SLG at .653, was tied for third in OBP at .480, was tied for fourth in BA at .331, and had the highest OPS at 1.133.
In other words, Lee wasn't just dominant in general, he was dominant at key moments, and one could pretty easily argue he was the most dominant player in the National League when scoring was on the line - yet he was only seventh in runs batted in. He also had the lowest seasonal RBI total in the history of the game for a man with at least 500 ABs and an isolated slugging of .320 or higher (Brady Anderson's mythical 1996 is the closest of those 68 player-seasons, with an ISO of .340 and only 110 RBI - of course, he was hitting leadoff). Yet, here he is on this dubiously impressive list.
It's obvious that the issue was a lack of opportunity, but since he was hitting third we can't blame his spot in the order. That means, as we all knew already, that the culprit in this is Dusty Baker and his inability to recognize useful lineup construction even if it wore a giant sign that said, "Hi! Ask me about Useful Lineup Construction!" all while singing the following song (to the tune of Led Zepplin's "Black Dog"):
Hey, hey Dusty
Try some OBP
You need men on base
For that slugger Lee
(air guitar solo)
The two largest factors that will contribute to Lee being passed up for the NL MVP will be the team's failure to reach the postseason, and Lee's relatively low RBI totals. Having men with even modest on-base abilities hitting ahead of him would have likely made the latter point moot, and while it probably wouldn't have been enough to remove the former point as an issue, it certainly would have helped bring the club closer to October baseball.
Still, despite the unintentional torpedo job at Baker's hands, it was a masterful performance. Yet, the suddenness and degree of his development brings with it some questions, most beginning with either 'why' (as in, 'Why this huge improvement?') or 'can' (as in, 'Can he do it again?'), so it's worth taking a moment to view some of the component parts that make up his year and compare them to what he's done in the past.
One thing that jumps out at me is Lee's reduction in strikeouts. He's been steadily making progress in that department for a while, but he really made a jump this last year, making significantly better contact while getting his pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) back up where it needs to be. That Lee is making more contact is a positive, and that he's been progressing in this direction for a while implies that those gains are real, so there's a data point in favor of Lee's continued high level of play.
Another plus is the increase in his XBH%. Not only is it good simply because extra bases are always a plus, it bodes well for his increase in batting average as well. If that betterment had been due to an increase in singles, a case could be made that a lot of the extra hits were seeing-eye specials. However, since only 4 of the 31 hits Lee added from 2004 to 2005 were one-sackers, that argument goes quickly by the wayside.
Also, if I may engage in a bit of scoutiness for a moment, it was clear from watching Lee, particularly early in the season, that he had closed a hole in his swing. Balls on the inside that used to result in whiffs now became fence-clearing blasts, and I think part of the decline in his monthly splits over the course of the season, along with his seeing fewer pitches to hit due to the steady injury-related evisceration of the lineup around him, was the adjustment the league made to this newfound ability.
I think it's reasonable to surmise that closing that hole had a lot to do with the reduction in his strikeouts and the increase in his XBH. It's a natural conclusion, considering the fact that many of the pitches Lee was able to hit very, very hard were balls that would have generated more air than runs a year before.
It's also reasonable to suppose that pitchers won't come into this new sweetspot anymore, at least not looking for the strikeouts they used to get. However, while he won't get the same surprise advantage he got at the start of 2005, now that Lee doesn't have an obvious hole to exploit, pitching him should continue to be extremely difficult.
Not all is sweetness and light, though. What's concerning isn't apparent in what I listed above, which is that while it looks like Lee has gotten his walk rate back in line, when the intentional walks are removed from the equation, he actually has two fewer freebies than he did last year (his career high in IBB had been 8 in 2002, but last season saw him purposefully passed 23 times).
He still improved his BB/SO ratio even when taking that into account, just not to the same degree, and while his non-intentional walk rate held steady in the face of a higher contact rate, which is good, the fact that his non-intentional walk rate seems to have leveled off at a substantially lower plane than he's been at in previous years isn't.
So there are reasons to think Lee can at least approach this sort of season again - the main ones being fewer strikeouts and more extra base hits due to closing the hole in his swing. But the walk rate is something of a concern, as is the fact that he'll be 30 next year. He has almost certainly peaked, so I think the question is less will he regress and more how much?
Personally, I think the adjustments Lee has made and the results they've yielded imply that he has a solid shot at being a .300/.600 guy for a couple more years, and I'd love to see the Cubs get his contract extended for another two or three years if it can be done without breaking the bank.
Lee has a skillset that ages well (power and speed tend to regress less over time when they stick together), so while I doubt we'll see another monstrous season from him, I think it's reasonable to believe that he'll land safely between his previous level and last year's high point, and since he was already something of a bargain, it's worth getting him locked up.
Derrek Lee entered this year as a minor disappointment, despite being a solid player and a good value for the money. He ended 2005 as the indisputable fulcrum of the offense, and one of the top few players in the Majors. The man who had flown under expectations in his inaugural Cub season, come his second year, blew by even the most overblown predictions his arrival had originally wrought.
He is unlikely to receive the recognition he deserves in the form of a National League Most Valuable Player Award - ironically, it was his team that let him down there - but there is little question that, for the Cubs in 2005, he wasn't just valuable, he was The Savior.