Saturday, May 22, 2010

How bad has Atkins been?

If you're an O's fan, you've probably noticed that Garrett Atkins hasn't played since Wednesday. On the season, Atkins is hitting an abysmal .221/.261/.283 with no home runs. In 33 games played, he has six walks while striking out 24 times. Among all AL first basemen with at least 100 plate appearances, Atkins ranks last in on-base percentage, second-to-last in slugging percentage, last in OPS, and second-to-last in BB% (5.0%).

And Atkins hasn't been much better in the field either. According to FanGraphs, Atkins has played below-average defense at first base (-2.8 UZR). So bad hitting combined with bad defense makes for a pretty unproductive player, right? Well, yeah, of course.

Among all MLB first basemen with at least 100 plate appearances this season, Atkins has been the worst. He's the only first baseman with that many at bats without a home run. Also, his -0.9 WAR is the lowest behind Matt LaPorta (-0.5) and Jeff Clement (-0.5). At least LaPorta (25) and Clement (26) have an excuse: They're still relatively young. Atkins, however, is 30. And because of his overall bad play, he has been worth -$3.6 million.

So it's not exactly a shock to say that the Atkins signing hasn't worked out very well. But I'm not trying to pick on Atkins; his numbers have been declining for years now. Since 2006 when Atkins hit .329/.409/.556 with 29 home runs (easily his best offensive season), his power numbers have declined each season, as has his ability to get on base. Here are his OBPs after 2006 leading up to this season: .367, .328, and .308. And here are his slugging percentages: .486, .452, and .342. His isolated power (slugging percentage - batting average) has also dropped significantly, from .228 in 2006 to .116 in 2009.

So what happened? Did Atkins just have a few decent seasons and was never that great of a player? Did opposing pitchers eventually figure him out? Were his numbers inflated from playing in Colorado? It's probably a combination of all of those things, but at least one constant has been his decreasing level of discipline at the plate.

In 2006, Atkins swung at 61.7 percent of pitches inside the strike zone and just 14.7 percent of pitches outside of it. Here are his numbers for those two categories in the seasons after that, including his numbers so far in 2010:

2007: 64.8%, 18.7%
2008: 62.5%, 19.1%
2009: 58.5%, 18.0%
2010: 57.0%, 26.6%

So Atkins is swinging at fewer pitches in the zone while chasing more pitches outside of it: not exactly a recipe for success at the plate.

Mike Flanagan also mentioned something interesting on a MASN telecast the other night. He said that, in recent years, Atkins has simply been missing pitches to hit when getting ahead at the plate. So, for example, in 2-0 and 3-1 counts, Atkins isn't hitting fastballs around the middle of the plate, or, if he did hit them, he isn't driving the ball and is mainly hitting singles.

First, let's examine the situational stats, which are somewhat intriguing to look at even if they're not the most effective way of analyzing the case at hand. Here is how Atkins has hit in 2-0 and then 3-1 counts from 2006-2010:



The 2-0 count results are probably a bit more conclusive than the 3-1 results, if not only because there are more at bats. Atkins's power numbers certainly declined in 2-0 counts, but it's hard to tell much more than that, because there aren't a whole lot of at bats to look at.

Now, since that didn't prove much, let's focus on something else instead: fastballs. In hitter's counts, opposing pitchers throw lots of fastballs because, obviously, they don't want to give up walks. So being able to hit the fastball is rather important when a hitter is ahead in the count.

Again, using FanGraphs, Atkins absolutely destroyed fastballs in 2006 and was 35.7 runs above average when hitting those pitches -- which was good enough for sixth in the majors, behind Ryan Howard (55.4), David Ortiz (47.3), Manny Ramirez (40.4), Nick Johnson (37.4), and Albert Pujols (36.3). Some other names near the top of that list: Lance Berkman, Grady Sizemore, Jorge Posada, Jermaine Dye, Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltran, Jason Bay, and Chase Utley. That's not a bad group of players to be listed with.

Unfortunately, Atkins never came close to hitting the fastball that well again. In 2007, he was 9.3 runs above average when hitting fastballs, but here are his numbers since then: 0.0, -3.0, and -4.5.

So it certainly seems like Flanagan was on to something when discussing Atkins's deficiencies at the plate. When getting ahead in the count, there's no question that Atkins hasn't been driving the ball. But he also doesn't get ahead in the count that often because he's chasing more pitches out of the zone, and whenever he is ahead in the count, or at any other time for that matter, he hasn't been hitting fastballs well enough.

Atkins seems like a nice guy, and it's a shame that his numbers have gone downhill at such a rapid pace. But with his current lack of offensive skills, Atkins is hurting the Orioles and probably shouldn't be on a major league roster -- and definitely not in any kind of full-time role.

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