If you followed the Blue Jays in any capacity in 2013, you know how much of a black hole second base was. Alex Anthopoulos had acquired two players in November 2012 to compete for the job, hoping one would run away with it. Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis, the two players given that task, failed to complete it. Collectively they were worth -2.5 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs and Bonifacio was ultimately traded to the Royals before the season’s end. Over the next couple of days, Matthew Gwin and I will preview the two candidates for the upcoming season in Maicer Izturis and Ryan Goins.
Heading into 2013, Maicer Izturis wasn’t known as a particularly special player, but one who could give you a win and a half to two wins per year, if given sufficient playing time. Then came 2013, a season which saw Izturis post career worst offensive and defensive numbers; making him the worst player in baseball according to FanGraphs’ version of WAR. In part, his offensive struggles have been credited to bad luck, as his BABIP in 2013 was .249, more than 40 points below his career average. However, when one looks deeper, there’s quite a bit more to it than that.
Attributing Izturis’ down year to bad luck is quite a ludicrous suggestion actually. One of the key aspects of BABIP is LD%. Logic dictates that if one hits the ball weakly, there is a better chance of the play resulting in an out than if he would have hit a line drive. In 2013, for the 3rd straight season, Izturis’ LD% was above his career and league average. Look at his batted ball rates over the past 3 years as well as his career averages.
His LD% has stayed relatively steady over the past few years, and it has actually been much higher than his career averages. Clearly the strength of his contact has not been the problem. As a result, we can discount BABIP as the main reason why Izturis was the worst player in baseball last season. It has had an effect, but it isn’t the sole reason.
Instead, take a look at the following strike zone plots, which show Izturis’ groundball tendencies from 2006-2012 and just the 2013 season respectively. (Click to enlarge).
Using those charts as well as the previous batted ball chart, you can clearly see that Izturis hit a lot more groundballs in 2013 than he did in years past. The question that arises from this data is simple: What caused Maicer Izturis to have a groundball percentage so far above his normal rates in 2013? Why did 7% of his flyballs turn into ground balls…seemingly, overnight?
When this happens to a player, one of the likely causes is a swing change. Why a player’s swing mechanics change could have multiple causes; injuries to the wrist/shoulder are definitely a cause, and age is as well. If we look at Izturis’ swing from 2012 and his swing from 2013, it is pretty clear that he has been affected, and for the worse.
Looking at those screenshots, the first being in 2012 when Izturis was an Angel, and second being in 2013 as a Blue Jay, a few changes stand out. In 2012, his leg kick is much lower than it was in 2013. As Blue Jays fans, we know all too well how a leg kick can effect a player’s swing and resulting production (see Bautista, Jose, pre-September 2009). For Izturis, it completely messed up his timing in 2013, which is a reason why he hit so many ground balls. If you are starting later than usual, when swinging, you don’t get as good a read on the ball as you would had you been ready earlier. In turn, one will likely have to change their swing to compensate for that.
The second thing you can see in that picture is that Izturis was much heavier last season then he was in the season prior. Being out of shape could also lead to your swing changing. If you are out of shape, your bat speed decreases, which is pretty visible if you compare the next two GIF’s.
Maicer is able to get to the ball much faster in 2012 than he was able to in 2013, as he gets older this will only continue to get worse. Being out of shape combined with the effects of aging could only mean that Izturis’ struggles from last year will potentially continue. Chris spoke with a reporter that is in Dunedin right now and he said that Izturis looks much lighter than he did last year, which is a very good sign.
In the GIF you can also see that Izturis’ hips fire later than they did in 2012. Like all the other changes to his swing, that is part of his timing being messed up, and is a major factor into why his GB% was so much higher than his normal rate in 2013.
Another reason that I stated above that one’s swing would change is that the player underwent wrist or shoulder injuries. Although they aren’t recent, Izturis missed over 50 games in 2010 due to shoulder injuries, and being out of shape might have re-aggrevated them last season.
I also looked at the types of pitches Izturis saw in 2013 relative to the previous years in his career, and noticed something that I’m sure had an effect on his batted ball rates. Look at this chart, and compare his 2013 numbers to the rest of his career.
The first thing that jumps out at you is that he saw 5% less hard stuff in 2013 than he did the previous year, and it was more than 2% lower than his previous career low. This resulted in Izturis getting thrown a lot more breaking and offspeed pitches, which we know causes players to get over the ball, resulting in more groundballs.
Maicer Izturis clearly struggled in 2013 due to hitting a lot more ground balls than usual. This was caused by a multitude of factors, one of which may have already been fixed (weight), and one that we won’t be able to tell until the season gets going (swing mechanics). Furthermore, a slight regression in BABIP and the pitches he sees should have Izturis’ batted ball rates back closer to his career rates rather than those of 2013.
Will Izturis be a 2 win player again for the Blue Jays? Probably not. But he sure as hell won’t be costing them 2 wins again, and, if given the starting job over Ryan Goins, he could be a semi-productive ballplayer in a position that didn’t have that last season.
Thanks to Chris Sherwin and Steve McEwen for helping on the post.