Hitting big league pitching.
And for anyone who questions whether hitting major league pitching is the most difficult task in sports, look no farther than our embattled catcher, A.J. Pierzynski. Just last season at the tender age of 32, A.J. had his best season in three years. He hit .300 for the first time since '03, dropped his strikeout total by almost 20 from the previous year, all while catching 138 games. It was an impressive display from a veteran player who has best personified how baseball is a game of skill as much if not more than it is a game of athleticisim. Last season seems all the more special and extraordinary given the way A.J. has completely fallen apart through 19 games this season.
A.J.'s start to the 2010 season, a testament to putridity, demonstrates that even the most skilled players have only a tenuous hold on the art of hitting at the best of times. That even an experienced hitter like Pierzynski can suffer such an erosion of mechanics elucidates how the strange balance of aggression and restraint that hitting requires.
A.J. is 'pulling out' on the ball as described by Hawk Harrelson. This can be recognized when A.J.'s front leg flies open before his bat passes through the hitting zone. It can be recognized because A.J. seems to be doing it every single time. As hitting coach Greg Walker has admitted, A.J. is a bad ball hitter; someone who is constantly aggressive at the plate, swinging at almost everything. While this has long been the reason that A.J is only a good, but never great player who will never have an OPS over .800 again in his career, it has also allowed him to display his incredible knack for placing balls into defensive holes on the field. When he is balanced, A.J. can poke balls well outside, and take them the other way into short left field, and he can slap pitches that are well inside into the hole between the 1st and 2nd basemen. However when A.J. is repeatedly unbalanced in his hips, he draws away from his potential to drive the ball, which is compounded by his bull-headed nature to chase balls that are already difficult to drive. To make matters worse, when things go bad, A.J. becomes more impatient and chases more pitches that even He-Man couldn't drive out of the infield.
The statistics are just horrifying. A.J. is hitless since Tuesday, and is 1 for his last 26. That's a batting average of .038 if you were wondering. Worse yet is A.J.'s power, he's hit one extra-base hit all year (a double), putting him on pace for 9 doubles this season when he hasn't hit less than 20 since becoming a full-time player in 2001. Strangely, A.J is not striking out (only two on the year), he is simply reaching out and making weak contact with every bad pitch thrown his way.
This might be the worst slump of A.J.'s career. But is it the end of his career? Generally the end of hitter's career is coupled with a physical erosion of skills. They no longer can catch up to major league fastballs, maybe they lose the vision to pick up breaking balls (it would seem unlikely that the second would occur before the first), or perhaps they become too much of a defensive liability to justify their hitting. Rarely do hitters just randomly lose their mechanics, unless they are compensating for some physical deterioration. Unless A.J. went on some sort of phenomenal bender this off-season, one bigger than most, it's unlikely the guy who hit .300 last year is just physically unable to perform at a similar level anymore. Greg Walker has been the first to comment that A.J.'s slump is a great deal mental, and will subside when he stops beating himself and rights his mechanics. But Walker also commented, "I hope it happens sooner than later." And this is an important detail; as there is a real question of how long the White Sox can and should wait for A.J. to come out of it. Right now A.J. is essentially the pitcher's slot in the lineup. He is the epitome of an automatic out, and inexplicably has been hitting out of the 5 hole (Ozzie just uses a number generator to pick his lineup, I swear to God he must).
Much has been made of Mr. Tyler Flowers currently playing for AAA. Flowers has long been mentioned as Pierzynski's heir apparent, and at 24, he's becoming less of a project in development and more of someone who is either ready to be a major league starter now or never will be. Flowers was moved up to AAA last season and initially saw a significant dip in his statistics (his OPS was .993 in 77 AA games, and .803 in 31 AAA games), before becoming a September call-up who didn't seem ready at all, striking out in half of his at-bats. Flowers didn't get many at-bats in the spring, but didn't seem anymore ready, batting .111 before being sent back down to AAA where he relaxed and excelled again. Right now, I feel that if Flowers was brought up immediately, he would produce results similar to when Beckham was forced into the spotlight last season. Not in the sense that he would become a fringe rookie of the year candidate, but that he might go his first week without a hit. Flowers has pressed badly in his big-league opportunities, and if called up to replace a fixture of the team for the past six years, expect a high strike out rate. However, Flowers has done something consistently at all levels that Pierzynski can't. Walk. Whatever menial batting average Flowers posts whenever he breaks in, his On-base percentage will probably be roughly .100 higher because he generally gets a walk every five to six plate appearances. If A.J. continues to give absolutely nothing, Flowers could at least come up and get on base once every other game.
Conversely, while A.J. is notably terrible at throwing out runners, he is surehanded behind the plate and is credited for having a great rapport with the pitchers. All reports are that Flowers is not good at anything behind the plate, having apparently modeled his career after Victor Martinez. For Flowers to be brought up, he's going to struggle in ways that will only be acceptable if a decision to completely give up on A.J. Pierzynski is made.
And if we are going to give up on A.J. Pierzynski, the time to do it is fast-approaching. As of June, A.J. officially qualifies as a player who has been in the league for 10 years, and with the same team for 5 years, giving him a full no-trade clause. I don't actually believe that A.J. would necessarily fight tooth and nail to stay on a team that didn't want him and wouldn't play him, but I know that Kenny Williams would not want to risk dealing with such a PR disaster. Moreover, if by the end of May A.J. is still under a .600 OPS and deserving of consideration to be benched, it will have been too long to wait for him to come around. As much as Sox fans may have grown attached to A.J., he's never been a dominant player, having never posted an OPS over .800 in any of his years with the team. Perhaps a Paul Konerko, or as best exemplified by this season, Carlos Quentin is allowed to struggle for a prolonged period of time because when they come around they can be a dominant player that carries a team. A.J. has never been this. He does not hit for big power, he doesn't draw walks, he can't throw out baserunners, and as much as stats people have argued that RBI isn't really a legitimate stat for evaluating players, A.J. has shown a great tendency to not drive in runs. He's been a role player, an admirable one, but he is not a player the White Sox should wait on, and I don't believe they will.
Of course, as we've covered before, pressuring A.J. will just make his swing worse.