Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | January 29, 2010

The Magglio Theory

Recently I was reading a post from Joe Posnanski’s blog that had nothing to do with the Detroit Tigers, Magglio Ordonez, or the 2009 season in general.  It was a post about Carlton Fisk’s comments on Mark McGwire’s steroid usage. Posnanski wrote the following:

“We don’t know. And while some people seem endlessly interested in standing on soap boxes and shouting down at the cheaters who have been caught or have come forward for whatever reason, it seems like we don’t want to know. Yes, the era may be defined by steroids, but it’s like people don’t want to hear that steroids were not the only reason that people hit a bunch more home runs. There are a lot of reasons people hit home runs.

For instance, there was a player, a really good player, who had never hit more than 26 home runs in a season. He was a good hitter but he was just not a 30-home run guy. And he was also a catcher, which meant that it was likely his body had taken a terrible beating and had worn down.

But this is the point I want to make: When you talk about the three greatest power hitting catchers of all time — Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra, right? Well, there’s Josh Gibson, of course, but we don’t have his numbers. When the three power catchers (Piazza, Bench and Berra) were 37 years old, how many home runs do you think they averaged? The three greatest power-hitting catchers of all time averaged 11 home runs at age 37. How many do you think our guy hit? He hit 37!

Of course, our guy is Carlton Fisk. And I am not suggesting that he did anything illegal — I am in fact entirely convinced that he did not do anything illegal and never would. But he had never hit more than 26 homers in his career. And he was a 37-year-old catcher — no 37-year old catcher had ever even hit 20 homers before. And at 37, he hit 37 home runs because, well, baseball isn’t always easy to reduce to a few indignant words.”

I thought that this was an outstanding observation, and as someone who gets quickly irritated with the rhetoric surrounding steroid usage in sports I found it to be both a profound statement as well as one that speaks to the kind of World we could live in if EVERY accomplishment ever made by any player is held up to the “That looks suspicious” standard of judgment.

However, reading the comments, there was a commenter named “Chet O.” who with the sixty-ninth comment to the post made an interesting counterpoint.   This is the part of what Chet wrote that intrigued me:

“Tossing in the fact that Fisk hit 37 HRs at age 37 further obscures the point. Fisk hit .238 in 1985–31 points below his career average. Fisk DHed 28 times that year and got in 153 games–the second highest total of his career. He was an aging veteran who was swinging for the fences and making huge sacrifices in his contact rate. He was not a better player at 37 than he had been at 27.”

Reading what Chet said immediately made me think of Ordonez.   Was Ordonez a reverse version of Fisk?

Tiger fans are well aware of the Magglio Ordonez story of 2009.   By the mid-way point of the 2009 season Ordonez was performing at a below replacement level standard and there were articles that began to speculate that he may be benched or replaced during the season.  At one point he briefly formed the right-handed hitting side of a platoon, as even at his worst he was still an effective hitter against left-handed pitching.   By the time the Tigers finished their 81st game, Ordonez was sporting a 266/332/352 line in 68 games played and was one of the worst regular hitters at any field position in the Majors.   He had only 4 home runs and a .086 ISO more fit for a middle infielder than a power hitting Right Fielder.

Then the second half of the season happened.  From Game 82 (July 6th) forward, Ordonez put up a 364/430/522 line with five home runs in 63 games played.  He was a new player, arguably one of the best hitters in the American League in the season’s second half, and a key reason for Detroit’s improved performance in the final two months of the year.  For comparison’s sake, in his monstrous 2007 season his line was 363/434/595.

There have been many reasons — All of which I vary from doubting to flat out not believing at all — Given for his struggles in the early season by various speculators and fans.   Among them are speculated previous steroid use, the fact that he had a significant family issue involving his wife’s illness early in the season, and his participation in the World Baseball Classic.

However, I wonder if its just not the case that he’s becoming an older player and had to adjust?  There was a point in the season where articles were being written that he was adjusting his approach at the plate, and given his established skill level I wonder if that isn’t the cause for the change.    I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what happened to Ordonez.   Certainly, he’s not the first player to have an extended slump or even an entire down year.   Nor is he the first highly skilled player to do so.    What I have never seen before is a player who is known to be a power hitter who hits well for average and takes a decent amount of walks carry that level of performance for many, many years before entering the phase of his career where decline is imminent.   And then enter that phase and show a clear and demarcated decline for a not-insignificant period of time (3 months / ~250 PAs) before returning to his previous ability to hit for average and take walks — But not for power.

Certainly, he regained *some* power:  His ISO over the second half of the season was .158, which is 17 points lower than his overall ISO since joining the Tigers but nearly twice the rate of what he did in the first half of the season.   However, the power that returned was mostly doubles power, as he still only hit a home run every 41.8 At Bats, as opposed to the home per 28 At Bats rate that he’s established in his time with Detroit.

So what happened with Magglio?  I have a theory, one that came to mind when thinking about Fisk:  He sacrificed his power to hit for average.   According to this theory, its not that Magglio went back to “same old Magglio” in late 2009, so much as he used his superior bat control — An ability that he never lost — to continue to slap hits instead of loading up for power.   I’ve often heard that players with superior bat control like Ichiro could “hit 30 homers if they want to”, but elect instead to increase hit frequency.   While I’ve seen no empirical evidence of this ability, it sounds intuitively correct.   In addition, another player that I know to have superior bat control, Placido Polanco, once hit 14 and 17 home runs in individual seasons.   During the six year period of time that I would define as his prime (2003-2008), those two seasons saw him post two of the three worst batting averages he would have during this period of time.

So anecdotally, there seems to be some support for the idea that players with superior bat control can elect to hit for more power at the sacrifice of their batting averages.  This would be a good opportunity for study, if one hasn’t already been done without my knowledge.   In any event, I wonder if this didn’t happen with Magglio?  He suddenly was able to bat .364 over a period of time that was way too long to constitute a simple hot streak, when he’s only hit that well over a full season once in his career.   He still managed to draw walks at roughly an equal rate.   Yet in order to reach this point, he had to significantly draw from his home run power.   I wonder if what we saw was just an aging hitter with declining skills leveraging the skills that he still has intact to allow himself to continue to be a useful player moving forward?

It is difficult for me to test this theory because most of the numbers that would make obvious that such an approach took place are of a variety that I don’t have access to month-by-month or game-by-game breakdowns.  Only full season.   And sadly the MLB did not implement hitter fX last year (though I’ve heard they will in 2010.….Let’s hope so), so I cannot really analyze things at the micro level.   Without any of these things, all I have to go on is the idea that maybe this is what happened.

What does it mean going forward?   Well, it depends on how much his skills continue to erode.  He may be able to keep on performing at this level for many years to come if he still has similar bat speed and control.  Or both his bat speed and control may decline and erode his ability to “get by” on his reduced rate of power.   There’s also the chance that my theory is completely wrong and he’ll return to the same old Magglio in 2010.   In any event, it should be interesting to see how things turn out for him in 2010 and if he returns to “the old Magglio” or if comes back as the Magglio of late ’09 whose performance was more Wade Boggs than Jermaine Dye.    This is something to watch out for as the season goes on.

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