Injuries Aren't Grady Sizemore's Only Problem

One of the hottest issues surrounding the Indians right now is what to do about Grady Sizemore. As you’ve probably heard, Cleveland has an $8.5 million dollar option on Sizemore for 2012 (his salary would be $9 million, but $500,000 is guaranteed with a buyout) and there’s a realistic chance that the Indians will not retain the former face of the Tribe franchise.

The biggest question in deciding whether or not to exercise the option seems to be whether Sizemore can stay healthy. Once a true everyday player (he missed only 5 games from 2005-8), he hasn’t played more than 106 games since 2008 and has appeared in only 104 games in the last two years. Unfortunately for Sizemore, he underwent knee surgery this month (he’d already suffered serious problems with his other knee, as well as his elbow), making his health even more of a question; the decision about his option will likely come down to whether the team thinks he’ll be able to stay on the field.

But while Sizemore’s health is the major concern—if he’s hurt it doesn’t matter how good he is—the Indians should also consider that, over the last two seasons, we’ve seen the deterioration of what was once one of his greatest skills: plate discipline.

Entering the 2010 season, Sizemore—then just 27 years old—had compiled an impressive career walk rate of 11.2 percent, and his 13.0-percent walk rate in the previous three years was tops among AL hitters with at least 1,900 plate appearances. Never an elite average guy—he’s never hit .300, and it’s been five years since he topped .280—he still managed to be a great hitter because he could walk his way on base.

That changed last year, when his walk rate suddenly plummeted to 6.4 percent—less than half his 2007-9 mark. In 2011, it took another slight dip, falling to 6.1 percent. A low average contributed to his sub-.300 on-base percentages the last two seasons, but his walk rate took a much bigger hit.

It’s easy to see what happened: Sizemore ceased to be selective at the plate. In 2009, he swung at only 18 percent of pitches he saw that out of the strike zone, or about 1 in 6; prior to that, his O-Swing rate had never risen past 20 percent, and as a rookie in 2005, he chased only 15 percent of bad pitches. In 2010, that shot up to 33 percent, and it he had a 31 percent O-Swing rate in 2011.

His rookie year excepted, Sizemore’s swinging strike rate was stable and between 7 and 8 percent through 2009. It shot up to 11 percent in 2010, then climbed to 13 percent this year. Predictably, his contact rate declined too: after sitting in the 82-83 percent range for five years, Sizemore fell to 74 percent last year and 72 percent in 2011.

Put it another way: he’s swinging and missing at bad pitches like he never did before. In addition to his declining walk rate, this can be seen in his rising strikeout rate—after never topping 21 percent through 2009, Sizemore struck out in 25 percent of his PA’s in 2010 and 29 percent last year. A high strikeout rate isn’t necessarily a problem, but when combined with his lowered walk rate and worsening swing stats it paints a picture of a player who has lost his patience at the plate.

Granted, the two partial seasons are fairly small sample sizes, and the fact that he was struggling to stay healthy couldn’t have helped. But his combined 435 PA’s in 2010-11 are enough to feel fairly confident that such a drastic shift in relatively fast-stabilizing numbers is actually a reflection that something has changed. Plus, the problem here isn’t physical: it’s his ability to recognize pitches, not his ability to hit them well. If anything, I would think recent health problems would make a hitter take a less aggressive approach.

When Sizemore is on the field he’s definitely a useful player, and given that the Indians don’t have an obvious in-house candidate to replace him it’s probably worth their while to keep him on board if they think he’ll be able to fully recover from this surgery before the start of the season. But unless he changes his approach there’s no way Cleveland will see the Sizemore of old in 2012, even if he’s fully healthy—injuries aren’t the only thing standing in between him and his former greatness.

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