In 2005, Jhonny Peralta became the Indians' every day shortstop. His first full season was brimming with promise as he posted a .292/.366/.520 line for a 137 OPS+. In the offseason leading up to Jhonny's second full campaign, The Killers released their second full album. This disc included the rather dark track entitled "Uncle Jonny" about the narrator's uncle and his battle with cocaine. All this to say that not only is Peralta my favorite player, but now I refer to him as "Uncle Jhonny", which causes people to wonder not only about my lineage but also my emotional/mental stability.
Sadly, Jhonny is not putting up his usual numbers at the dish this season, particularly in terms of extra base hits. While he averages 56 XBH per season over the course of his career, he is on pace for a mere 42 this year. This is going to make Thanksgiving awkward. With Luis Valbuena and Asdrubal Cabrera seemingly tabbed to fill the keystone positions in the middle of the diamond, Andy Marte pounding the ball at AAA, and the NAIA's finest waiting further down the line, the question becomes: whither Uncle Jhonny?
We've all heard the scuttlebutt about Peralta; he doesn't like Wedge, Wedge doesn't like him, he's not happy about being moved to third base, et c. This all may be true, but there's one thing that must be understood going into this discussion: Jhonny is an average ballplayer. His age 23 season's promise notwithstanding, Jhonny's OPS+ is an even 100 on his career. He's only 27, so he should just be reaching his prime, but right now that's what he is. Or was, or whatever. This year, his OPS+ is 87, which, as I understand it, is around 13 below his career number. Most startling is his .373 slugging percentage, which is some .060 off his career pace and an even .100 off of last year's tally. Going a little deeper into the numbers, I came up with three factors that might explain why UJ isn't hitting like we think he should.
The first of these is that he's not elevating the ball very well. On his career, 19.7% of Jhonny's batted balls have gone for line drives and another 33.6% have gone for fly balls. This year, those numbers fall to 17.7 and 28.3% respectively, which has Jhonny hitting 54% of his batted balls on the ground, an increase of some 8% over his career total and 11% over last year. That means he's hitting 1.91 balls on the ground for every one he puts aloft, up .52 from his career average. On the year, this gives Jhon (to his friends) an extra 19 ground balls over what his career numbers would suggest he provides. With his speed, it's almost impossible to convert any of those into homers.
Secondly, Jhonny has taken a step back from his progressively more aggressive approach at the plate. Since his first full season in the bigs, Peralta has become increasingly more free-swinging at the plate. These numbers have risen slowly but steadily from swinging at 45.1% of pitches at age 23 to having a rip at 50.9% last year. This season, he has swung at 44.9% of pitches, virtually right on with what he did his first year. The problem is that this year he is swinging at 6% more of the pitches outside of the zone and 1% fewer of those inside it. The 1% is statistically meaningless, but I think the numbers put together hint at either a diminished plate discipline or more likely a loss of the strike zone. The word may have gotten out, because he is seeing a career low 47.8% of pitches thrown to him being in the strike zone. A free-swinging Jhonny is good, but a flailing one, like the one we're seeing now, is decidedly not so.
Finally, Jhonny is just not hitting the fastball well at all. In his good years ('05, '07, '08), he posted positive wFB/C (basically runs above average per 100 fastballs) numbers. In his bad years, he has fallen below zero in that particular category, and this year he is posting a career (excluding his cup of coffee in '04) worst -.63 wFB/C. Cut fastballs, a pitch against which Jhonny has historically dominated, are now dominating him to the tune of -3.49 wCT/C. Perhaps most illuminatingly, he is hitting sliders well for the first time in his career this season, tallying 1.66 wSL/C.
So what is my conclusion from all of this statistical analysis (if I can flatter myself to call it that)? I think Jhonny's bat is slower now than it has been in years past. He mangled fastballs in 2005 at a rate far better than his career average, and even held his own against the slider then. Now he has what we called "slider bat speed" back in the ol' NAIA: he can't quite square the fastball, but if he reads a breaking ball early enough, he can yank it. He knows this, so he's starting to guess more at the plate. This leads to his committing earlier and getting fooled more, which is why he is swinging at more pitches out of the zone than ever before. His bat's being slower than the fast ball leads to more harmless tappers on the infield, and his being on the front foot more leads to more rolled-over change-ups. Ergo, his GB/FB is through the roof and his power numbers suffer for it. All this leads to his being more timid at the plate, so his overall level of swings is way down. That's how I read the numbers, at any rate.
It's possible that I'm completely wrong. Over the course of his career, Jhonny's AVG and OBP have always gone up in the second half, though his SLG has usually gone down. My hope is that his slump is mostly mental, and Wedge's firing will get him back to driving the ball a little bit more. If all else fails, we'll just send the guy in for LASIK again.