The Jemile Weeks Issue

By Jason Wojciechowski on May 9, 2012 at 9:50 AM

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Dave from Saratoga, New York writes

Big East Coast A's fan here; I have a question about Jemile Weeks. Is it possible he'll be sent down to AAA to get his swing back on track? He's killing us this year.

And what are the chances last year was a fluke? Are we looking at another Bobby Crosby/Kurt Suzuki/Daric Barton/Travis Buck kind of player, a guy whose numbers diminish every year?

These aren't easy questions. The first isn't easy because even to the extent I have any connections in the A's front office,1 they wouldn't tell me what they were thinking about Jemile Weeks anyway. At least not on the record. That said, I think we can grapple with the kinds of considerations and factors the A's would presumably take into account in making a decision whether to demote Weeks.

The first question is: what are the alternatives to sending him to AAA? Weeks's .188/.260/.304 batting line won't play anywhere in the lineup, but if you can reduce his effect on any given game from five plate appearances to four by hitting him 8th or 9th instead of first, then maybe you let him work out his issues at the bottom of the order.

There's also the old "give him two days off and let him rest his mind" trick. To the extent that we think either of these things will fix Weeks, it's presumably because we're aiming at a psychological issue -- we want to take the pressure off for a few days (in the "get him some rest" solution) or a few weeks (in the "bat him 9th" solution) and let him focus on just getting himself right without worrying about being The Table-Setter in front of the guys who are hitting (Josh Reddick, Jonny Gomes, Yoenis Cespedes).

Maybe, though, the problem isn't psychological, or isn't psychological in the way of putting too much pressure on himself. Maybe the issue is that his hitting mechanics are messed up as he tries to hit for power, self-conscious about hitting just two homers in almost 100 games last season while his brother bopped twenty. In that case, the essential question is which coaches you want him working with to fix the issue. A lot of noise was made this off-season about having Chili Davis around to mentor Weeks and Cliff Pennington in The Ways of the Switch-Hitter. Sending Weeks to AAA puts him instead under the care of Greg Sparks, a guy who only hit left-handed, plus whatever roving instructors the A's can spare to help Weeks out. Presumably the A's have faith in all the coaches on their staff, but that's a different thing from finding the very best fit for a particular struggling hitter.

The A's might also judge that as a matter of developing Jemile Weeks to be the best player he can be so that he peaks at a high level in the next couple of years, when Oakland is hoping to compete, they're better off having him struggle at the major-league level than work on his issues in the minors. This could be because they see positive psychological benefits to working through one's issues against the very top competition or because they don't think he would take a demotion well. Some players are likely to respond to a demotion by making things worse -- pressing, perhaps, or even sulking.

Then there's the question of "how much improvement do we get on the field from demoting Weeks?" The A's would presumably make Eric Sogard the starter at second base and call up Adam Rosales to be the utility man. (There are other alternatives, I suppose, involving Brandon Inge playing second while calling up Josh Donaldson or Wes Timmons, but those are either horrifying or complicated, so let's take the easy route.) I like Eric Sogard. I am a fan. He's not that good, though. His OBP in 142 career PA (a sample just slightly larger than Weeks's 2012) is .248. He's very likely not that bad, but the gain at the major-league level from playing Sogard instead of Weeks isn't going to be huge on offense, and there's a decent chance that Weeks is a better defender at the keystone anyway, reducing any gain you get at the plate.

This also raises the question of how much the A's care about winning as many games as they can in 2012. Bob Melvin certainly cares about winning games with the roster he's given, but that's a different question from the one facing Billy Beane: do you demote a struggling young player to try to push for 85 wins instead of 84?

That was the world's longest "I don't know." What about the second question? Was 2011 a fluke?

Everybody loved Weeks when he was knocking the ball around, batting .303, hitting doubles and triples, but his minor-league performance had been mixed. He hit well at Sacramento, albeit not that well once you adjust for the park and the league, and he was downright poor at Midland. He had a hip injury in 2010 that cost him almost three months of AA time, but he also played in the Texas League for about a month in 2009 and didn't hit at all.

Add all this up and you see why PECOTA and ZiPS projected this:

PECOTA 264 318 368
ZiPS 267 318 374

That's some pretty sharp agreement. The park factor matters, of course, since these are projections into Oakland, not into a neutral ground, but ZiPS figures Weeks for just an 88 OPS+ and PECOTA has him down for a TAv of .254 (with league average being .260). PECOTA also saw the odds that Weeks would repeat his 2011 being less than 10%.

It's an interesting list of names that Dave presents, by the way. Bobby Crosby turned out to be injury-prone, and I can't believe that his list of maladies, which goes on for pages and pages on his Baseball Prospectus player card had nothing to do with the fact that he never hit like 2004-05 again. (Noting, by the way, that his 2005, while just a half-season, was far superior to his 2004 with the bat.) I think it's no coincidence that his FRAA numbers declined just as his hitting did.

I don't know what to think of Kurt Suzuki. His first three years (2.5, really) were very good, as he was an above-average hitter (for the league, not just for his position) each year. He hasn't been that since, though he was close in 2011. The continuing league-wide decline in offense means that the difference between 2009 and 2011 isn't as big as it looks from his raw slash line, but it isn't clear to me that he'll ever be an average hitter again. And speaking of "average," that's where the entire decline comes: it's hard to walk enough to have a respectable OBP when you're batting .240, as Suzuki does. And it's hard to hit above .240 when you hit a pop-up every third at-bat, as it sometimes seems Suzuki does. With Suzuki, maybe his body has just worn down from being a relatively small catcher squatting behind the plate for a lot of games every year.

I'm not through with Daric Barton yet. He's still just 26 and 2011 was a wreck. His approach and swing don't seem any different than they were in 2010. It's possible that the .273 batting average that year that drove his stellar OBP and pushed his SLG to semi-respectable levels can't be repeated given those mechanics. Maybe a .316 BABIP isn't something he's capable of given his body type and swing and the .260 figures he's put up last year and at the start of 2012 are all he's capable of (and thus, he's not a major-leaguer). I'm just not ready to say that.

Travis Buck is one of the great mysteries to me. He hit out of his mind from the day he turned pro all the way up to skipping AAA and coming straight to Oakland, where he kept right on hitting. Until 2008, when he stopped hitting. He's never picked it back up (though he's got a .302/.375/.442 line in 48 PAs for Houston this year), he's hit only o.k. in AAA (again, accounting for park and league), and he's been hurt a lot. I have no idea what to say about Travis Buck.

I will say this about Jemile Weeks, though: I think he's distinguishable from all four of those players. Bobby Crosby was the 25th pick of the draft in 2001, and none of the other three were picked higher than that. Barton went 28th, Buck was a sandwich pick, and Suzuki was a second-rounder. Jemile Weeks went 12th overall. The guys above him were Tim Beckham (tools monster who could still make it), Pedro Alvarez, Eric Hosmer, Brian Matusz, Buster Posey, Kyle Skipworth (oops), Yonder Alonso, Gordon Beckham (stagnated, but he hit once upon a time), Aaron Crow, Jason Castro (reach!), and Justin Smoak. Weeks was taken ahead of Ike Davis, Brett Lawrie, and the high school version of Gerrit Cole.

Weeks, in other words, was supposed to be as good as he was in 2011. There are any number of pieces showing how expected performance falls off after the top picks. Here's one, for example, by Sky Andrecheck, complete with a graph showing how steep the curve is at the very top. 25th picks are supposed to have value. 12th picks are supposed to be good.

Obviously, 12th picks bust, and performance in the pros matters, at this point, more than draft position four years ago, but that draft position serves as a proxy for a judgment of where Weeks's tools and skills are supposed to go as he enters his prime. Maybe the scouts were wrong, but I think it's too early to say that.

In terms of data that's more in my purview, I just don't see many alarming things about Weeks so far. Check out his FanGraphs player card and scroll down to "PITCHf/x Plate Discipline" (and promise me to never ever use the one just labeled "plate discipline"). He's swinging about the same amount as last year, and he's done that by swinging less at pitches out of the zone and more at pitches in it. He's making the same amount of contact, and he's being pitched in the zone at the same rate. He's almost doubled his walk rate from last year, and his Isolated Slugging is unchanged.

There is one difference that I see: Weeks had a BABIP of .350 last year and is at .204 this season. Now, .350 is quite high in the major leagues. The list of guys around a .350 BABIP last year includes names like Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, Alex Gordon, and Mike Napoli. Among players with 350 or more PAs, Weeks ranked 17th in all of baseball in BABIP. You're just never going to ask that to repeat.

But you're also not going to ask .204 to continue forward. Nobody, not even Vernon Wells, posted a .204 BABIP in 350 or more PAs last season. (Wells was the lowest at .214. Just to put a point on this: Alex Rios was next at .237.) So that's going to come up. It has to. Jemile Weeks is a big-league player. The question is how far it will come up, and whether it will come up enough that he'll be really good or just o.k.

The thing is, though, that "just o.k." is still a better hitter than most of the guys Dave is worried about.

Oh, one other note. Shame on me for this, perhaps, but Weeks isn't actually hitting any more balls in the air, per FanGraphs, than he did in 2011. I have a perception that he's just flying out and flying out and flying out, but apparently that's not been the case.

Year LD + FB GB
2011 60.2% 39.8%
2012 58.9% 41.1%

There's fuzziness in there, of course, since perhaps some things have been called liners that would be called grounders in other situations, but there does not appear to be any massive change in the air/ground distribution of Weeks's balls in play so far. He has hit more infield flies than in 2011, but not so many more that they can explain a 150-point drop in BABIP by themselves.

To sum up:

  1. I don't know whether Weeks should be sent down. My inclination is not to, but I don't know the player at all, and even if I did, I wouldn't know him well enough to make the judgments necessary in balancing the psychological and mechanical issues that the A's have to deal with.

  2. I don't think Weeks is Travis Buck. It looks like he may be suffering from a massive case of bad luck so far, as his strike-zone indicators are flat at worst, and may be improved, his batted-ball distribution, to the extent we can tell such things, isn't anything new, all while his BABIP, oh his BABIP, has plummeted. I'd expect things to reverse course shortly, while at the same time not expect him to repeat his 2011, because that was a really good (and/or quite lucky) season.

  1. I don't.