Nate Schierholtz has gone from pleasant surprise to DFA candidate with the flipping of the calendar year.
In fact, one of my Cubs Insider colleagues had advocated releasing Schierholtz as recently as May 13. The release talk has cooled some as Schierholtz has been hitting better recently: .267/.370/.378 since May 8th, which is not great, but a huge improvement over the prior numbers of .188/.220/.228. But Nate Schierholtz is still not the same player the Cubs signed in 2013.
This abysmal start can be attributed to two issues that combined to result in a .448 OPS in the first 27 games played. First, Schierholtz's strikeout rate has jumped to career high 22.8%, though that figure has been steadily dropping in the month of May. He was striking out at a 26% rate in April, which, combined with zero home runs and a 2.7% BB rate, resulted in an OPS under .500.
Since the calendar has flipped to May, Schierholtz has struck out in under 20.0% of his plate appearances and walked in just under 12%. This change in strikeout and walk rates has resulted in Schierholtz's OPS rebounding out of the dismal levels to slightly below the averages of his current run of .748 OPS production.
The strikeout rate is trending in the right direction but there is still some reason for long-term concern with Schierholtz in this area. His swinging strike and contact rates have all been declining for four years in a row now. Swinging strikes are a good indicator of strikeouts, and Schierholtz has seen his swinging strike rate increase from a low of 8.3% in 2011 to its current rate of 11.5%.
His contact rates have followed a similar decline from 2011, going from 83.6% to 81.2% to 79.7% to 76.1%. He is seeing and swinging at roughly the same pitches as before, but Schierholtz has just continued to miss more and more often when he does swing.
A more troubling trend is the complete lack of power Schierholtz has displayed; the double he had on Sunday was merely his eighth extra base hit. His ISO stands at a paltry .060 at this point in the year, but the most obvious sign is the goose egg in the category in which he set a career high last year: home runs. HR/FB% is considered, along with BABIP, to be one of the more luck-driven stats.
Pitchers, by and large, are believed to have virtually no control over those statistics and batters can see a wide variance in their results. Nate Schierholtz had a career-high 14.2% HR/FB compared to his career average of 7.7%. This indicated that he was likely to see some regression this year in terms of power. Instead, his power his disappeared almost entirely at age 30 with a 0% HR/FB rate.
A variety of explanations might explain this sudden drop-off. There could be a decline in skills to the point where Nate Schierholtz is just done at age 30. This seems unlikely, especially when considering the fact that he has actually hit a lot of line drives so far this year. His 2014 LD% is actually higher this year than it was last year (24.3% to 20.3%). If it was declining skills and bat speed, it would seem likely that he wasn't getting the barrel of the bat on the ball so frequently.
There could be a small sample size at play here combined with the cold weather to start the year. Digging deeper into the numbers, however, reveals that Nate Schierholtz has simply not been hitting the ball as hard as he was throughout most of his career.
The chart here paints a pretty stark picture, as Schierholtz, for just the second time in his career, is averaging below 280 feet on his fly balls. It gets even more interesting when considering the type of contact that is being made. Unfortunately Hitf/x data is not publicly available and I have yet to find a place that offers well-hit ball data to us peasant baseball statistical researchers.
However, Beyond the Box Score had an interesting article about using FB/PU (Fly Ball to Pop Up) ratios to indicate the type of contact hitters are making. The tenth-highest-rated hitter using this metric from 2009-2012 was Chris Davis at 10.13. Here are Nate Schierholtz's year-by-year results using that metric.
Notice again the constant production in the years 2013 and 2009-2011 versus the drastic dip in 2012 and 2014. Here are the combined numbers from those two sets of data.
So why is it significant that Nate Schierholtz's underlying numbers match 2012 as opposed to every other year in his career? 2012 was an injury-riddled year for Schierholtz, and the only reason he was available to the Cubs for just cash was the fact that he suffered a toe injury almost immediately upon arriving in Philadelphia.
This leads to the third hypothesis for Schierholtz's missing power: he is suffering some sort of nagging injury that is affecting his ability to drive the ball. That could be something the potential free agent isn't sharing with the team or it could be something he is toughing out for the sake of a team that was thin in the outfield to start the year.
No matter what the cause of the power decline, the unfortunate truth for the Cubs is that it ultimately results in the same thing when it comes to the trade deadline. The Cubs are unlikely to be able to move Schierholtz for anything even if his power does return in June.
The only real positive is that the Cubs could possibly re-sign him for a cheap short term deal if the cause is anything except rapid decline in skills. That seems an unlikely outcome though, as Schierholtz is probably going to be some other team's rebound candidate in 2015.
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