Omar Infante had a bad year. A very bad year.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. The Royals have suffered a black hole at the keystone for years. Really ever since Frank White vacated the position way back in 1990. Carlos Febles, Tony Graffanino, Mark Grudzielanek, Chris Getz… There have been some decent individual performances here and there, but nothing really of note. Not that Infante was to be the second coming of White. No one would ever suggest such a thing.
But by signing Infante to a four-year, $30 million contract before the 2014 season, the Royals finally felt as though they would have some stability at a position where it had been lacking.
Infante reported to camp in what was probably less than the best shape of his life. He battled shoulder soreness in spring training that dogged him throughout the season. The shoulder issues compounded into a back problem in the middle of the year. Oh yeah, he was also hit in the face by a pitch the first week of the season. Through all the issues, Infante only hit the disabled list once (in May) and played in 135 games.
It was not a good thing that he played in so many games.
Normally, Infante can be counted on for a little bit of power (relative to the average second baseman), some decent contact and some solid defense. None of that happened in 2014.
Infante slugged .337 for the Royals last summer, hitting six home runs and 21 doubles. It was his lowest slugging percentage since he posted a miserable .238 SLG way back in 2003 in 69 games for the Tigers. Anything the Royals received in the power department from a second baseman would be a bonus given the Royals most recently suffered through the Getz Era at the position, but surely they expected more. After all, Infante had hit 12 and 10 home runs in his previous two seasons while posting slugging percentages of .419 and .450.
Infante’s batted ball profile didn’t change much from year to year. He hits a line drive around 22 percent of the time and a fly ball at a rate of around 39 percent. From Texas Leaguers, here is a spray chart from his 2012 and 2013 seasons combined. Note the hits clustering in the outfield from left and center. There’s a smaller and shallower cluster of hits to right. This makes sense for a batter like Infante. If he’s going to drive the ball, he’s going to have to generate the bat speed, get the barrel out in front and pull the ball.
Compare that to last season.
Not much difference, is there? As I said above, Infante’s batted ball profile didn’t shift much at all from 2012 and 2013. Meanwhile, not only his slugging percentage found new depths, his batting average suffered. His .252 BA was his lowest since 2005 and was certainly fueled by an abnormally low (for Infante) .275 BABIP. And since Infante doesn’t walk (career 5.5 percent walk rate) his on base percentage is heavily dependent upon the base hit. So… yeah. His offensive numbers were down across the board.
We can surmise his shoulder and back issues had a lot to do with his struggles. He was still making the usual types and amount of contact, but he was making less good contact than his norm. His contact rate of 85.8 percent was right in line with his career rates, so it’s an easy conclusion to reach. Since we’re using the 2012 and 2013 seasons as the kind of benchmarks of the player the Royals hoped they were signing, let’s take a look at how Infante has hit different categories of pitches over the last three seasons to see if we can peel a few more layers.
One thing that jumps out is how his performance against breaking stuff and offspeed pitches has been in lockstep over the last three years. Another thing that jumps out is how his performance against fastballs and sinker in 2013 was an outlier. (His BABIP in 2013 was .333.) And a final note is how he struggled against every category of pitch last summer. And it wasn’t like pitchers decided he could handle the heat so they offered more offspeed and breaking pitches. Infante actually saw more fastballs in ’14 than he did in each of the previous two seasons. Again, the theory is he was hurt and struggled to get around on the ball, so he saw more fastballs because while he could make contact as usual, he couldn’t generate the bat speed to truly drive the ball.
What I’m suggesting is that it wouldn’t be crazy to see a bounce-back season from Infante at the plate. As long as he’s healthy. PECOTA agrees and has Infante as their top gainer in WARP with a projection of .278/.308/.380. That’s still well short of 2012 and 2013, but let’s not be picky. It’s an improvement over last year.
Defensively, Infante was pretty average. The Fielding Bible had him at +4 defensive runs saved, which is kind of where we would expect him to be given his past performances. Inside Edge says he was below average, fielding 97.3 percent of the “routine” plays, which puts him 17th out of 20 qualified second basemen. On “likely” plays, Infante made 72.2 percent. He ranked 14th. From Fangraphs, you can see for yourself how Infante did in the field.
I’ve heard some whispers among those in the Royals brain trust that Infante’s injuries also limited him in the field. That’s probably fair, but I don’t think it really held him back all that much. A fair assessment of Infante’s defense would be “competent” and that’s what I think the Royals got from him last summer.
Infante still has three years (plus an option) on his Royals contract. History will probably judge this deal harshly as it seems a stretch the Royals – or anyone, for that matter – can get value from a 35 year old second baseman, which will be Infante’s age in 2017. In the short-term, there’s a strong possibility we will see a different player at the plate in 2015. A healthy Infante can be a solid player for the Royals in the coming season.