I wonder if Steven Hawking ever pondered what would happen if you placed a black hole inside of a black hole. Because that pretty much sums up the Royals second base situation ever since Omar Infante arrived in Kansas City.
The Royals have desperately needed an able-bodied second baseman for years. Ruben Gotay, Mark Grudzielanek, Mark Teahen, Chris Getz and even Yuniesky Betancourt have all started at second base on Opening Day for the Royals in the last 10 years. Though he was in the twilight of his career, Grudzielanek was serviceable at the position. The rest… Not so much. Maybe that was why Dayton Moore threw a four-year contract valued at $30.25 million (including a team option for a fifth year) at Infante in December of 2013.
In exchange for the cash, Infante has posted an injury-plagued two seasons, posting a -0.4 fWAR which is valued by FanGraphs at a negative $3.9 million. He’s practically stealing from the Glass family at this point.
Infante was entering his age 32 season when he signed that four year deal. In offering, Moore and the Royals brain trust ignored all evidence offered that second basemen tended to age faster than anyone else on the diamond. Indeed, Nate Silver, back in his days at Baseball Prospectus discovered production from second basemen declines somewhat faster than the average player once they reach their thirties. It would appear the Royals made this discovery at the Everyday Low Price of roughly $30 million.
The Royals, naturally, will offer the injury defense. They will tell us that Infante hasn’t been right. He had surgery in November to remove bone chips in his elbow and the Royals believe that will alleviate the pain he was feeling in his shoulder. The connection being, Infante adjusted his throwing mechanics due to the discomfort caused by the bone chips which led to the shoulder issues. He also missed time with a herniated disk in his back in 2014 and was left off the 2015 post season rosters due to an oblique strain. While you can’t connect all the dots and blame the bone chips for all the injuries, it’s pretty clear we are watching a player who has difficulty staying healthy and on the field. The flip side is, do the Royals really want him on the field?
That’s a rhetorical question. Of course the Royals want him on the field. They’re paying him a serious amount of cash to play baseball. Yet the past two seasons, his presence in the lineup has hurt more than helped his team.
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The numbers were down across the board in 2015, but there are some interesting nuggets that can be found. If you’re looking for a positive, Infante did have two more extra base hits in 2015 compared to the previous season. Yet his slugging percentage dropped by about 20 points. The number that jumps out to me are his strikeouts, which were steady from 2014 to 2015, despite Infante finishing last season with roughly 90 fewer at bats. The trend becomes even more troubling when you learn his strikeout looking rate dropped from 16 percent in 2014 to 10 percent last summer. For a guy who has been a contact player his entire career, this is a troubling trend.
It turns out Infante was more aggressive at the plate last year. His swing rate was a notch below 48 percent, which was his highest going all the way back to 2007 in his first stint with the Tigers. His O-Swing rate – or the rate at which he swung at pitches outside of the strike zone – was above 35 percent and the highest of his career. As a result of the “grip it and rip it” approach at the plate (although it was frequently sans “rip it”) Infante walked just nine times in 455 plate appearances. Nine times. Among players with more than 450 plate appearances, no one walked less. It’s a Royal epidemic.
Just for fun, (and it’s a bizarre definition of “fun”) here are the 10 hitters with the lowest walk rates in baseball last summer.
That’s gross. Funny that three Royals are in the bottom ten along with two Mets. Hey, five of the players most adverse to drawing a walk in 2015 played in the World Series! The Baseball Gods can have a twisted sense of humor.
While his swing rate was up across the board, there was a noticeable jump in offerings at breaking pitches. Infante swung at a higher percentage of curves and sliders than he had at any point since PitchF/X began tracking.
The jump in swing rate at offspeed had an unfortunate consequence. Going back to 2007, Infante has a whiff rate on breaking pitches usually anywhere between 10 and 13 percent. He’s been fairly consistent. Last year… Not so much. His whiff rate on sliders and curves jumped to an unseemly 20 percent.
Thanks to the PitchF/X data collected by Brooks Baseball, we can see exactly where Infante’s breaking pitch Achilles was located. The next table has 2014 swing and miss data on curves and sliders on the left. 2015 is on the right.
Infante was chasing the breaking stuff low and away a little more frequently, but was missing at a much higher rate than he had in the past.
So we’ve identified the root of the problem. What was the cause? That’s a little less easy to identify. My first inclination was to look at how Infante attacked the fastball, thinking he was avoiding the hard stuff because he was having difficulty catching up to it. However, the numbers from the tables and charts above don’t bare out that hypothesis. Then was it pitch recognition? Hard to say since he’s never really had this issue at any time in his career. Or was it something psychological, where Infante was pressing at the plate, trying to force the issue and it just so happened the breaking pitch low and away was always his weakness. It was just exposed with an aggressive approach.
Whatever the reason, Infante needs to adjust his methods at the plate and reign in his swings on the breaking stuff. In optimal conditions, he’s a below average offensive performer. There’s no reason he should throw more of the balance to the pitcher.
Defensively, Infante has been a solid performer at second. I thought he flashed better range and a stronger arm last summer compared to 2014. Maybe he learned to adjust to the injuries to his arm, or maybe he just learned to play through the pain. Whatever the reason, he was better defensively last year.
He’s also developed a comfort level with his double play partner, Alcides Escobar. There wasn’t a prettier play up the middle than this July night in Cleveland.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, Infante finished 2015 with three defensive runs saved. That’s not an amazing number by any stretch, but it was the 12th best mark among second basemen.
While the defense was strong, there was no amount of glove work that could overcome the dismal offensive production. Time will tell if the surgery to remove the bone spurs propels Infante to his best season yet as a Royal. His age and decline prior to the injuries advise against making a bet for him to rebound. With Christian Colon waiting in the wings, the Royals may not be as patient as they have been in the past. The window is open and the pressure is on Infante to prove he can perform. No one is asking for an All-Star performance. At this point, just some positive value would be a step in the right direction.