Sunday, July 7, 2013

What is Going On with Raul Ibanez?

Raul Ibanez has hit home runs in 8.0% of his plate appearances this year. He has hit a home run every 11.7 at bats. Those are easily his best home run ratios of his career. By comparison, Babe Ruth hit home runs in 6.7% of his plate appearances, and hit a home run every 11.8 at bats, over his career. Raul Ibanez is hitting home runs at a clip the Bambino would envy.

Plus, Raul Ibanez is 41 years old. Here is the very short list of players 41 or older with 20 or more home runs in a season:
Rk Player HR Year Age Tm G PA AB BA OBP SLG
1 Ted Williams 29 1960 41 BOS 113 390 310 .316 .451 .645
2 Barry Bonds 28 2007 42 SFG 126 477 340 .276 .480 .565
3 Barry Bonds 26 2006 41 SFG 130 493 367 .270 .454 .545
4 Darrell Evans 22 1988 41 DET 144 522 437 .208 .337 .380
5 Raul Ibanez 21 2013 41 SEA 65 262 245 .257 .305 .559
6 Dave Winfield 21 1993 41 MIN 143 594 547 .271 .325 .442
Generated 7/7/2013.

Of course, Ibanez has done this while playing in less than half of the games the Mariners will play this season. Williams' record looks very vulnerable.

The question is, how has he done it? Not only is he 41, but he plays at Safeco Field, one of the best pitchers' parks in the game. 

My initial thought was that maybe he's being used smarter. Ibanez bats left. Over his career, he's hit 26 homers per 650 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers and 19 per 650 against lefties. Last year, every one of his 19 home runs were hit against right-handed pitchers. So is Mariners manager Eric Wedge holding out Ibanez against lefties, reserving him for the most productive at bats? Intuitively, that wouldn't seem to be the case - to maximize home runs, you'd maximize at bats. And, in fact, Ibanez has had 71.4% of his plate appearances this year against right handed pitchers--lower than, but not by a lot, his career average of 73.9%. So that's not it. Besides, he's been better against lefties this year (a homer every 10.1 at bats) than righties (12.4). More on that below.

Wait, you're saying, Safeco pulled in the fences this year. Is he a product of an easier ballpark? Well, Safeco still rates as one of the toughest ballparks in which to hit a home run. And the major changes to the outfield fences were in left and left-center. Every one of Ibanez's 13 homers at home have been hit to right-center (fences pulled in just four feet) or right (no change). So it's not the home park.

But what about the quality of his home runs overall? According to ESPN's amazing Home Run Tracker, Ibanez has hit, among his 21 home runs to date:

  • Two classified as "No Doubt:" Home runs that cleared the fence by 20 or more feet and landed 50 or more feet back
  • Eight "Just Enough:" Less than ten feet over the fence or less than one fence height deep
  • Eleven "Plenty:" Between the two extremes
That works out to 38% Just Enough, 52% Plenty, and 10% No Doubt. The averages are approximately 27% Just Enough, 55% Plenty, and 18% No Doubt. The averages are based on 2006 data, so in 2013, there are some differences. But unless the differences are large, we can say that Ibanez's homers have not been hit as far as average.

In fact, according to the Home Run Tracker, his average home run has traveled 383.6 feet, compared to an AL average of 396.2. Of the 105 batters with nine or more home runs, only three (Domonic Brown, Will Venable, and Coco Crisp) have a shorter average distance. This is the fourth consecutive year the distance has declined for Ibanez: his homers traveled 402.0 feet in 2009, 401.9 feet in 2010, 390.9 feet in 2011, and 387.0 feet in 2012. 

So it seems to me that Ibanez's 21 homers have been a product of (1) power he's displayed against lefties that's a fluke, and (2) home runs that have gone over the fence without a lot to spare. Both suggest that his home run pace to date won't be sustained. I say this realizing he's been on a bit of tear of late, hitting three bombs in the Mariners' past five games and seven in the last ten games. With 21 homers in the bank, I'd guess Williams's record is definitely in jeopardy. But I wouldn't be surprised to see a marked slowdown for Ibanez in the second half of the year, as the lefties and the short distances catch up with him.

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