Right now Borbon looks like the worst hitter on the Rangers. He was never supposed to have too much power, but save for a tiny stint at high-A, he has never hit below .300 at any level and walked enough to parlay that into a real nice OBP (.360 for his minor league career, and .376 over 179 plate appearances with the Rangers last year). So far this season, those skills have evaporated and left him with a line of .188/.207/.238. Today's Dallas Morning News will tell you that is the lowest OBP in the majors this year. So what is going on? Why have the skills he has displayed in his career so far deserted him this year?
It's because he swings at too many pitches. In sifting through all the stats about Borbon, there are about a million data points that indicate that he is doing poorly (his ISO has been cut in half, his BABIP dropped 140 points, his line drive rate dropped by 2%, his walk rate dropped from 8.4% in his Rangers' stint in 2009 to an unbelievably-low 1.2% this year), but I think that, to varying degrees, all of them can be traced back to the fact that Julio Borbon is swinging at too many pitches. And they're bad pitches, too. In his time with the Rangers last year, Borbon swung at 40% of the pitches thrown to him. This year, that number is up to 50%. To provide some context, of the 188 qualifying major league hitters this year, a 40% swing rate makes you about the 40th most patient hitter. A 50% swing rate, however, makes you about the 160th most patient hitter. That is a giant difference.
Even more alarming is the breakdown of Borbon's swing rates at pitches inside and outside of the strike zone. For pitches inside the strike zone, Borbon swung at 56% of them last year and 59% of them this year. A small jump. For pitches outside the zone, Borbon swung 27.4% last year (reasonable) and 40.5% this year (kind of insane). Only seven players this year have chased more pitches out of the zone.
Now, swinging at pitches isn't bad. It's the only way to get hits. But consistently swinging at bad pitches has a number of trickle-down effects. Consider it: with Borbon swinging at everything, he's getting far fewer walks (1 in 84 plate appearances this year). He's also finding himself in more bad counts (in 2009, 36% of the pitches he saw were called balls. In 2010, it's down to 27%.), that and his propensity to swing unselectively is leading to pitchers giving him fewer pitches over the plate, which is leading to him making weaker contact, hurting both his ability to hit hard fly balls and line drives, which is decreasing his batting average on balls in play.
His strikeout rate hasn't changed much at all, which is kind of amazing, but this change in swing rate has changed his batted ball profile. Borbon's line drive rate has gone from 18.6% to 14.8%. Meanwhile, his flyball rate went from 27.1% to 36.1%. However, Borbon has yet to hit a home run this year, so it seems like those fly balls would be more like easy outs than any sort of offensive weapon. His spray charts confirm this:
The chart doesn't distinguish between line drives and fly balls, but I think we can see that his balls in play are not threatening the fences too often. By my count, only about 9% of his balls in play are going near the warning track. Further, an increased number of those infield outs are infield flies (12.5% of his flyballs were of the infield variety in '09, 22.7% in '10), which have all the offensive value of a strikeout. For a player with Borbon's speed, someone who can turn ground balls into hits from time to time, fly balls are especially unproductive. But by getting himself into poor counts, he isn't consistently seeing pitches that he can do much with, leading to all these weak pop-ups.
Now that we've got an idea of what's wrong, what are the chances that it gets fixed?
Kind of not good. On the positive side of the ledger, I don't think his drop in BABIP can be fully explained by the increase in fly balls and decrease in other types of batted balls. Especially considering his skillset, I think his BABIP is going to go up. That should get him over the Mendoza line, which is exciting.
On the negative side of the ledger, though, is the history of ball players making significant in-season alterations to their swing rates. This early in the season, a lot of stats are dismissed as unreliable because of sample size. Anyone can luck into a .333 average over 3 plate appearances. Only the most gifted baseball humans on Earth can do it over 1,000 plate appearances. So at what sample size can we start to take Borbon seriously?
A gentleman writing under the alias "Pizza Cutter" has done a really awesome study into this, and his results do not bode well for this case: Swing rates become reliable after about 50 plate appearances. This makes a measure of sense: whether or not a hitter swings is probably the thing over which the hitter has the most control. If a hitter wants to get a home run, a lot of other things have to go right for that to become reality. If a hitter wants to swing, he swings. After about 50 plate appearances, a hitter has pretty much announced when and how often he wants to swing.
So swing rates do not usually change much over the course of a season. There's kind of a silver lining though. If swing rates tend not to change because a hitter has so much control over them, then couldn't they change drastically if a hitter desired for that to be the case? That is, if Borbon realizes what is going on, then he could stop swinging so much, right? I mean, there is the matter of determining what is and isn't out of the zone, but he has already demonstrated with his work last year that he is capable of that. If he just chooses to cut down on his swinging at out-of-zone pitches, then assuming I have all this right, everything should go back to being awesome. I don't know what precedent there is for this sort of thing, but it checks out in my head.
It would be awesome if it did happen, because if he can get on base a lot, he can do his awesome base-stealing thing. That along with his good defense in center adds up to a valuable young player at a super cheap price. Get enough of those on the same team, and then I can pester Tom into getting me a press pass to playoff baseball. And that's what it's all about. Pestering Tom.