With the Yankees going through an awful teamwide slump, I thought it would be a good time to highlight the contributions of 2012′s biggest surprise, Raul Ibanez. As a 39 year-old veteran coming off of a subpar season, little was expected from Ibanez in 2012. Ibanez became part of the le Yankees’ DH platoon in part due to his handedness, but also because of his willingness to take a cheap 1-year deal. The signing was much-criticized by a lot of Yankee fans, who thought that Ibanez was simply washed up, and preferred a return engagement from Johnny Damon or somebody else to fill the position. Ibanez’s anemic spring training performance did not do much to assuage his doubters.
Fortunately for the Yankees, Ibanez’s Spring Training performance was not predictive of his actual ability. Ibanez has been a revelation for the Yankees this season, providing significant power production at a time when the middle of the order has struggled to hit home runs. On the season, Ibanez has a .378 wOBA and a 138 wRC+, with 9 homers in 126 plate appearances. Some of the homers have been absolute bombs, and his swing definitely fits well in Yankee Stadium. Interestingly, his BABIP is .226, a lower figure than he has produced in any other season, so his success can’t be attributed to BABIP luck.
Ibanez’s production has been all the more important because of its timing. He has raised the level of his production at times when it has mattered the most, in areas in which several of Ibanez’s teammates have struggled of late. Obviously sample size issues abound, but in high leverage situations, Ibanez has a ridiculous .502 wOBA and 223 wRC+. With men in scoring position, Ibanez has a .392 wOBA and a 148 wRC+. Even if you don’t believe clutch hitting is a sustainable skill, there is no doubt that looking back on what has already happened, timely hits from Ibanez have been essential to several Yankee victories.
What has allowed Ibanez to be so successful? For one, he has improved his approach at the plate compared to 2011, dropping his strikeout rate by nearly half and increasing his walk rate. He is swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone, and has had success against a variety of pitches. Only cutters seem to be giving him problems, and he has crushed sinkers and sliders especially. He has upped his flyball rate, and many more of them are leaving the park than in 2011 (a possibly unsustainable 22 percent this year, compared to 13 percent in 2011).
Ibanez also has his flaws. He is a slow baserunner and a mediocre outfielder, which can be easily seen from the eye test. According to UZR, he has been horrible in right field (which makes sense) but somehow above average in left (which does not make sense, and says more about UZR than it does about Ibanez). With injuries to Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner, Ibanez has been forced into outfield duty more often than the Yankees would have liked. He has definitely given up some runs in the field, but up to this point, his bat has made up for his gaffes.
Ideally, Ibanez will return to only playing DH when Gardner comes back, allowing him and Andruw Jones to focus on being an effective DH platoon that destroys opposite-handed pitching. Ibanez’s ability to raise his game in clutch situations so far this season has made him one of the unsung heroes of an otherwise disappointing start to the season, and the Yankees will need him to continue producing as the lineup rounds into shape. Let’s list this as reason number 5382 why spring training stats don’t really matter, and remember Ibanez when we start getting bent out of shape after a slow start from a veteran hitter.
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