"...it's better to burn out, 'cause rust never sleeps/ The king is gone, but he's not forgotten..."
Sometime during the 2008 season, mauichuck made the prediction that Travis Hafner would either rebound and become the type of monster hitter he had been from 2004-2006, or flame out altogether. Hafner, of course, was in the midst of his worst season as a pro. Just two years removed from putting up an OPS just shy of 1.100, Hafner hit .197/.305/.323 in 2008, struggling with the after effects of a still amorphous shoulder problem. Chuck's prediction seemed reasonable enough at the time, but has proven to be completely wrong. The past three seasons, in a somewhat strange way, Hafner has been remarkably consistent. Here are his batting lines from 2009-2011:
- 2009: 96 games, .272/.355/.470, .826 OPS, 16 HRs, 1.63 K/BB
- 2010: 118 games, .278/.374/.449, .824 OPS, 13 HRs, 1.84 K/BB
- 2011: 94 games, .280/.361/.449, .811 OPS, 13 HRs, 2.17 K/BB
Hafner has become a steady part-time player, with moderately above average power and discipline. Not bad, though not great for a one-time monster slugger with the team's largest contract. Given his skill set, there isn't really any reason to expect a massive and sudden decline from Hafner in the immediate future, and most projections for him (fangraphs has a few here) show him putting up similar numbers in 2012 as he has over the past three seasons.
What is sort of interesting is the final number I put up in the lines above. In his prime, Hafner put up fantastic walk-rates partly because of his great plate discipline and party because of the unwillingness of pitchers to challenge him with pitches over the plate. Over the past three seasons Hafner's strikeout rates have increased incrementally each year (21.2% last season) while his BB-rates have been on the decline (his 9.8% rate last season was a career low). What I find interesting is that his decline has come almost entirely as the result of his performance against left-handed pitchers. His line against right-handed hitters in 2011 was .302/.404/.482 with a 13.1 BB% and a 20.8 K%, right in line with what he has done each of the past three years. But against lefties he dropped to a .233/.259/.379 line, with a remarkably low 1.9 BB% (dropping precipitously over the past three seasons) and a 22.2 K%. Travis Hafner can't hit lefties anymore.
And more importantly, Hafner shouldn't hit against lefties in 2012. Despite his struggles, Hafner still logged 108 plate appearances against lefties last season, good for more than 29% of his total PAs. This was actually up from the previous two seasons in which he had faced about 24% lefties. One of the reasons the Indians need to have a right-handed bat on the team who can hit lefties is so that Travis Hafner doesn't have to face them. Sadly, of the guys most likely to fill the role of Hafner's replacement against lefties (Duncan, Cunningham, Santana) - none of them really fit the bill of lefty-specialist. But even if they aren't fantastic against lefties, merely being good, which they all have at some point, could represent a significant incremental improvement in the 2012 Tribe.