Coming into this week, two of the three major acquisitions made by the Red Sox this offseason were turning in performances that were more major disappointment than major impact. While Daisuke Matsuzaka has been pretty on target to the overall expectations that proceeded him, at least the logically tempered expectations, both Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew had been doing anything but that.
We covered the likelihood of Drew staying as cold has he has been last week. Lo and behold, he has six hits in his last eleven at bats, including three extra base hits. With the comfort of the National League surrounding him in Interleague play, the timing for a breakout couldn’t be better.
Julio Lugo, on the other hand, isn’t showing any of the signs of life that J.D. is. So far this season Lugo has hit .213 with a .274 OBP and .318 SLG in 239 at bats from the leadoff spot in the Red Sox lineup. Lugo’s average and and OBP rank dead last among leadoff batters in all of baseball with at least 150 at bats at the top of the order.
Remarkably, Lugo does however have more runs batted in than any other leadoff batter in the American League. Not really the performance at the top of the order the Red Sox thought they were getting when they signed the thirty-one year old Lugo to a four year $36 million dollar deal in the offseason.
The Red Sox might have expected Lugo to outhit his current on base percentage and all four of the well known pre-season projections would have agreed. I am sure Red Sox fans would happily take the lowest of those projections for Lugo (the Marcel projections) at .282/.346/.414. At this point, for Lugo to run his average to .282 by the end of the season, Lugo would have to hit nearly .330 for the remainder of the season.
Given that Lugo’s slump has only shown signs of progressing and not turning around, is it realistic to think that he can get to, let alone keep up that kind of pace? How bad has it gotten for Lugo of late? Not only did he put a nail in Curt Schilling’s perfect game bid in Oakland, but he’s been absolutely horrible at the plate over the past twenty-two games.
In his last 100 plate appearances, Lugo has been on base in only eighteen of them with twelve hits and six walks. That translates to a .130 batting average and a .182 OBP. His seventeen strikeouts nearly match his times on base.
For someone whose career batting average is .272, it is clear that he is a better hitter than he is showing. So what has happened this year that marks such a departure from the rest of his career?
I’ve noticed two large differences in the outcomes of Lugo’s at bats this season as compared to his career at large. He is hitting less line drives and at the same time fewer and fewer of his batted balls are going for hits. Over his career, Lugo has averaged a .317 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). For context, league average BABIP tends to hover around .300. So far this season, Lugo’s BABIP has been sixth lowest in the majors at .233. The graph below from Fangraphs.com illustrates how off course this is. Lugo is making contact at rates better than his batting average suggests. When he is making contact, he is hitting it right to people.
This trend has only gotten worse over the last twenty plus game slump that he finds himself in. Let’s say that Lugo’s 2007 BABIP was at his career rate as opposed to his current rate. That would equate to 18 more hits over 218 balls in play and a .288 batting average.
So the next question is, why has his BABIP been so much lower than at any time in his career? This is where I turn to a blend of what the stats say and what I see. When I think of a Julio Lugo at bat this year, inevitably I recall a weak ground ball out. And that is proven out by the stats.
There you have it. Not only has he hit more ground balls, but he has also his fewer line drives than at any point in his career. In my opinion the reason Lugo has suffered so greatly has been his proclivity to hit weak ground balls when he makes contact. If he were hitting the ball harder, maybe more of those balls find holes than have thus far.
Is it possible that Lugo turn this around? I don’t know. History certainly says yes, but it certainly doesn’t look likely to the native eye. One thing that I can say for sure is that the time has come to move move him out of the leadoff spot as he searches for his swing.