How likely is a Casey McGehee bounceback?

The Brewers have somewhere around a million questions surrounding their team and what they will do with it this offseason, and somewhere in the middle of all of them is Casey McGehee. After being a key contributor in 2009 and 2010, the third baseman fell off a (very high) cliff last year, to the tune of a .228/.280/.346 line for a guy who had an .800 OPS or better in each of the last two seasons.

One of the many important decisions the club has to make is what to do with McGehee, who could hit his way into the soon-to-be vacant cleanup slot if he returns to form, and could hit his way out of the major leagues if he… doesn’t. (Also, with McGehee projected to earn $3.1 million in arbitration according to MLB Trade Rumors, the Brewers might not have the luxury to just sit back and see which one shows up.) Today, we’re going to look back at what might have contributed to McGehee’s struggles, and what a reasonable expectation would be going forward.

There is no easy explanation to what happened to McGehee last year. His strikeout and walk rates were well within his career norms, and there was little variation in his poor performances save for a good (.260/.324/.480) August. McGehee did suffer a thumb injury in late April, and was limited for a couple days before returning to the lineup, only to post a .593 OPS for the next month (he was on a 9-game hitting streak before getting hurt). The injury does line up nicely with the onset of McGehee’s struggles, but one seemingly minor injury isn’t going to ruin a player’s entire season, and if anyone thought it were a significant issue, McGehee certainly would have been shut down somewhere along the line.

While we can really only speculate as to his health (probably irresponsibly, I might add), there are some very tangible indicators that luck was not with McGehee last year. His BABIP absolutely plummeted (from .306 in 2010 to .249 last year-league average is typically a shade below .300) even while his line drive rate largely stayed strong at 16.2%, compared to a 16.9% in 2010. In addition, Also, the fly balls McGehee hit found their way out of the park significantly less often last year, dropping from 12.5% in 2010 (same as Ian Kinsler this year) to 9.2% in 2011 (same as Casey Kotchman). Players McGehee’s age who suffer unexpected drops in either of these departments typically bounce back the next season, and that will probably be the case here as well, but it’s also important to remember that McGehee’s offensive problems weren’t limited to a few line drives being caught or fly balls dying at the warning track.

A closer look at McGehee’s batted-ball splits offer some insight into what else might be going on: McGehee hit a few more grounders than in years past (50% of batted balls compared to 47.5% in 2010 and 38% in 2009) and his fly-ball rate was down as well (33.8%, down from 35.7% in 2010 and 40.4% in ’09). This trend has been going on since his rookie season, when his GB/FB ratio stood at .94 and has since risen to 1.33 and 1.48 in the past two years. Whether this is a function of McGehee being pitched to more carefully, something mechanical in his swing, or flukiness (the latter is by far the least likely, as McGehee has had at least 350 PA in each year we’ve looked at, well above the point at which we can be comfortable with such data), more of the balls McGehee puts in play are ending up on the ground, an approach that requires more speed than McGehee has to work. It’s starting to look like McGehee might not be the same kind of player he was in 2009 and (to a lesser degree) 2010. I shouldn’t need to tell you that’s not a good sign.

While we are able to find some clues about what happened to McGehee with numbers (in concert with what we saw), it won’t really help us when we’re looking at next year. So, I did some research on players with similar ages and numbers to McGehee who also suffered an offensive nosedive. Players I looked at:

  • Had at least two years in the majors and at least 900 big-league at-bats in the two years before their “collapse year.”
  • Had an OBP of at least .325 and a SLG of at least .450 in those two years.
  • Were between the ages of 25 and 29 in their “collapse year”, and failed to crack a .310 OBP and .375 SLG in at least 300 AB.
Darin Erstad 1999 25 0.297 0.392 0.476 0.253 0.307 0.374 676 0.355 0.408 0.541
Jimmy Wynn 1971 29 0.276 0.415 0.5 0.203 0.3 0.295 542 0.273 0.389 0.47
Felipe Lopez 2007 27 0.283 0.397 0.452 0.245 0.306 0.351 481 0.283 0.343 0.387
Don Mattingly 1990 29 0.306 0.385 0.47 0.256 0.308 0.335 587 0.288 0.339 0.394
Lee Thomas 1963 28 0.287 0.394 0.477 0.22 0.201 0.316 573 0.262 0.325 0.398
Butch Hobson 1980 27 0.256 0.333 0.453 0.228 0.281 0.349 268 0.235 0.319 0.336
J.J. Hardy 2009 26 0.28 0.361 0.47 0.23 0.301 0.358 340 0.268 0.317 0.394
Willie McGee 1986 27 0.323 0.368 0.451 0.256 0.306 0.37 620 0.286 0.311 0.434
Corey Patterson 2005 25 0.277 0.346 0.472 0.215 0.252 0.348 463 0.277 0.309 0.443
Larry Sheets 1989 29 0.274 0.363 0.455 0.243 0.304 0.359 360 0.261 0.308 0.403
Terry Kennedy 1984 28 0.29 0.365 0.46 0.24 0.284 0.353 532 0.261 0.301 0.372
Garrett Atkins 2009 29 0.294 0.386 0.469 0.226 0.308 0.342 140 0.214 0.276 0.286
Mike Pagliarulo 1988 28 0.235 0.346 0.472 0.216 0.276 0.367 412 0.197 0.275 0.299
Khalil Greene 2008 28 0.25 0.331 0.452 0.213 0.26 0.339 170 0.2 0.269 0.347
Casey McGheee 2011 28 0.291 0.346 0.477 0.223 0.28 0.346

(To clarify, “Age” and “Year” both refer to the year that the player fell off a cliff, “AVG”, “OBP” and “SLG” are from the two years prior (established baseline, if you will).  Anything with a “c” after it is referring to the “collapse year”, and “d” is referring to the year after. I restricted my post-collapse numbers to the year immediately following because next year is all we really need to be concerned about at this point.)

This is an interesting collection of players, but the results aren’t very encouraging. Only one of the 14 players was able to return to their previous baseline, and the (unweighted) average post-collapse line was .261/.321/.393, which looks a lot worse when you consider all of these guys had been premium hitters and were generally playing offense-first positions. Almost all the players experienced at least a modest dead-cat bounce, and there are a few successful rebounds (Erstad, Wynn), but the ugly truth is that most of these guys didn’t make it back to league average, let alone what they used to be.

You can follow Nick Prill on Twitter at @n_prill.