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What's Wrong With Derrek Lee?
by Phil Bencomo
Much hullaballo has been made about Derrek Lee, or "The Savior" as he's known around these parts, and his lack of power – most noticable is his zero home runs. Thanks to nine doubles, his slugging percentage remains a respectable .481. But that number is far below his 2005 rate of .662, and is even surpassed by his career rate of .500.
So what, if anything, is wrong with Lee? Here are some notable trends.
Quite obviously (thanks to the graph from FanGraphs), Lee is hitting far more line drives and fewer fly balls this season than at any other point in his career. Since home runs almost always come on fly balls, it makes sense for Lee's power output to be down. For example, Alex Rodriguez, leading the Universe in every category possible, has hit fly balls on an astonishing half of all balls in play. With his powerful swing behind those fly balls, A-Rod's home run total has skyrocketed. It's possible that a similar jump in fly ball percentage could do wonders for Lee.
Smarter Pitchers: I can't say with certainty the reason for Lee's drop in power, or his sudden propensity for hard-hit liners, but the most likely cause is opposing pitchers. As mentioned in the comments of my last post, pitchers refuse to throw Lee anything on the inner half of the plate, instead content to pound the outside corner. When Lee was at the top of his game in 2005, he was hitting most of his home runs to left (see this chart). Pitchers have since wised up and are forcing Lee to hit to the opposite field, something he's doing successfully (.367 AVG) so far – but with no home run power. If Lee has opposite field power, and I think he does, he's going to have to start showing it, because pitchers are not giving him anything inside. It may take a serious change in approach, but it's a necessary one.
BABIP: Lee's Batting Average on Balls In Play is well above average – a consequence of Lee's line-drive hitting ways. From the Hardball Times:
Last year, we looked at The Hardball Times's line drive data, and found, unsurprisingly, that hitting more line drives usually results in hitting for a higher batting average. And a couple of articles later, we found that line drives are particularly well-correlated with BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play. As a general formula, BABIP equals the percent of batted balls that are line drives (LD%) plus .120.
Currently, Lee's BABIP is an incredible and unsustainable .468. This is a direct result of his high line drive percentage, which in turn is tied to Lee's high batting average. While a high BABIP is not necessarily a bad thing, since it does help out production, it is a point of concern here because of its direct relation to line drive percentage. If Lee's BABIP drops, a declining line drive percentage will probably be the reason. Ideally, Lee should replace some line drives with fly balls, and his home runs should increase accordingly. The end result should be the Lee of years past.
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Putting It Together: The point here is this: Lee is still managing to put together a productive season (.367 AVG, .457 OBP, .481 SLG, .938 OPS), despite his lack of home runs, thanks to an incredibly high BABIP, which, as mentioned above, is due to his line drive percentage. If Lee stops hitting line drives and doesn't start hitting fly balls with opposite field power, his value is greatly diminished. Pitchers seem to have figured out how to contain Lee's power, and perhaps that change in approach has led to Lee's increase in line drives. Or maybe Lee is trying to hit for power to right, but line drives are all that is coming of it...
Any way you look at it, Lee's in a bad spot. The Cubs need home runs from him, but by hitting the necessary fly balls to do so, he will see a massive drop in BABIP and his non-slugging numbers. And if Lee hits more fly balls but still doesn't show any power, the Cubs are stuck in an even worse situation.