Monday, July 21, 2014

What's Going On With: Casey McGehee

Miami's Casey McGehee is the frontrunner for National League Comeback Player of the Year, and here's why:
2010 27 MIL 157 610 70 174 38 1 23 104 1 1 50 102 .285 .337 .464 .801 114
2011 28 MIL 155 546 46 122 24 2 13 67 0 3 45 104 .223 .280 .346 .626 69
2012 29 TOT 114 318 36 69 16 1 9 41 1 1 29 70 .217 .284 .358 .643 77
2013 30 TOH 144 513 78 150 30 0 28 93 2 3 70 119 .292 .376 .515 .891
2014 31 MIA 96 373 38 120 21 1 2 56 2 0 42 55 .322 .387 .399 .786 118
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/21/2014.

To summarize: In 2010, he was the Milwaukee Brewers' starting third baseman, with an above-average on base plus slugging (his 114 OPS+ indicates he was 14% better than average, adjusted for his ballpark) and 104 RBI. In 2011, he was the starting third baseman for the NL Central champion Brewers, though his offensive stats nosedived. He was traded from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh before the 2012 season and from Pittsburgh to the Yankees in July that year and continued to struggle at the plate. (TOT above lists his totals for the two teams.) Granted free agency and unable to land a major league gig, he signed with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (TOH) in Japanese Pacific League. McGehee hit well in Japan, and this spring, he signed a contract with the Miami Marlins. Of course, the Marlins are known for penny-pinching, and spending $1.1 million for a 31-year-old third baseman who was washed up in the majors two years ago seemed like a move destined to keep the Marlins-as-joke narrative alive.

Instead, McGehee is, at this writing, third in the National League in batting average, sixth in on base percentage, first in hits, and first in singles. It's not all great--he leads the league in grounding into double plays and he's hit only two homers as the Marlins' cleanup hitter--but his 118 OPS+ is second on the team to slugger Giancarlo Stanton. McGehee is a big reason why the Marlins, picked by many to be the worst team in the league, are, well, tolerable, with a 45-52 record that's better than the Padres, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Cubs, and a surprisingly strong fourth in the league in runs per game.

So What's Different? Mostly, it's plate discipline. It's really as simple as that. In 2011, his last year as a major league regular, he swung at 27.4% of pitches outside the strike zone, the 41st highest total among 66 in the National League. That's decent, but not remarkable. This year, only four NL batting title qualifiers have swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than his 22.6%. As a result, he's walked in 8.5% of plate appearances compared to 7.5% in 2011, and he's made contact 86% of the time he's swung, compared to 83% in 2011. 

And he's been a little lucky. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .369. That's the second best in the NL, where the average is .299. Very high or very low BABIPs are usually not sustainable. McGehee certainly hasn't slowed down at all this year--his slugging percentage has improved every month this year, and he's batting .390 so far in July--but it's reasonable to assume he'll cool off some as his BABIP moves toward a more typical level.

Is It Sustainable? McGehee has cut down on his swing and become more selective at the plate. As a result, he's gone from being a low-average power hitter to a singles-hitting high-average hitter. It's a remarkable transformation. At 31, age will slow him down, and his BABIP will return to Earth, and he's probably not a reasonable choice for a No. 4 hitter. (There are six Marlins with more homers and four with a higher slugging percentage.) So no, he's not a good candidate to finish the year with the third highest batting average and sixth highest on base percentage in the National League. But as comeback stories, his is hard to beat. 

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