In 2008 the Yankees awarded Mark Teixeira one of the largest contracts in baseball history. At the time Tex was a power hitting, slick fielding first baseman who was coming off two consecutive .400+ wOBA seasons while being on the right side of age thirty. Tex paid dividends immediately for the Yankees, hitting 39 homers in 2009, and posting an overall wOBA of .402. Money well spent.
Then, 2010 happened. Tex posted the worst month of his career in April 2010, and had to fight his way back to a season line of .256/.365/.481. In a vacuum, it was easy to forgive 2010. Sure, Tex was indescribably awful in April, but he managed 33 homers on the year and was the heart of the offense in July and August. Had injuries not slowed him down it was easy to imagine a scenario in which he continued to rake into September.
If all those hypothetical scenarios would have been true, how should we explain Tex’s 2011? Tex is batting .246/.337/.489. His wOBA is all the way down to .357, worse than last year’s .367 mark. His wRC+ is just 123. In 2010 Tex put up his worst season since his rookie campaign. His numbers this year are even worse. Sure, he’s hit 37 homers, but no player with a .357 wOBA or a .337 OBP can be described as one of the game’s elite offensive players.
The season-by-season trend is what is most alarming for Tex. Since posting a career high .410 in 2008, Tex’s wOBA has decreased every season, to .402 in 2009, to .367 last season, to .357 this season. He’s taken his wRC+ right down along with it, which is the wrong kind of impressive when you consider the drop in offense around baseball.
The downward trend, season after season, raises the serious question if Tex is in decline? It was easy to dismiss last season as an awkward blip in an otherwise stellar career, but we now have consecutive below expectation seasons. What’s going on?
The numbers don’t look good. While many of the articles analyzing Tex recently pointed out that his BABIP of .237 this season is .059 points below his career average, two numbers jump out to me: 30 and 18. From 2007 to 2009 Tex was worth at least 32.2 runs against the fastball each year, including a career best 39.0 in 2008. He’s been around 18 since, being worth 18.8 runs against the pitch in 2010 and 16.9 runs this season. He hasn’t seen a comparable decline against any other pitch (although he has also gotten worse against the curveball, but it was never a pitch he hit well). Sudden, sharp declines against the fastball typically mean bad things for players in the near future.
None of this is to say that Tex is about to go the way of Jorge Posada; far from it. Tex remains a productive member of the Yankees on both sides of the ball. His success against the fastball is down, but it is still very good. The problem is that the Yankees aren’t paying Tex $23 million at a premium offensive position to be just productive or very good (that .337 OBP is unforgivable). They are paying him to be one of the best first basemen in the game. Instead, he is fifth on his own team in wRC+, among all players with at least 350 plate appearances (that cut point lets us include Alex Rodirguez, who is ahead of Tex as well). He’s eleventh among all first basemen in baseball, sixth in the American League, and far from being an elite (think top five) offensive first baseman.
Tex needs to take a page from Curtis Granderson‘s book and work with Kevin Long to change his approach, especially left handed where he has just a .337 wOBA and a .320 OBP. While his numbers paint an undeniable picture of decline, it is hard to imagine that decline is entirely physical given his age, power (.244 ISO this year) and right handed success. Instead, the low BABIP and increased fly ball rate suggests a combination of bad luck, pitchers exploiting a weakness, and stubbornness (seriously, dude, hit the other way). Here’s hoping the Yankees can make some progress with Tex this off season, because if they don’t it is hard to imagine he’ll return to being one of the best hitters in the game in 2012.
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