When the Royals signed Omar Infante to a 4 year, $30.25 million contract this offseason, it was assumed he would bring stability and average production to a position that had sorely lacked those things in the last several years. And for the first month of the season, Infante did deliver both of those qualities. He missed just 3 games after being hit by a pitch on his jaw, but through the end of April, Infante had played in 24 games and had a wRC+ of 106.
Since May started, however, things have not gone quite as well.
Following a game on May 6th, Infante started having some back pain. He went on the disabled list the next day, and didn’t return to the lineup until May 26th. He hit a double in his first game back against the Astros, and had the game-winning RBI against the Blue Jays a few nights later, but for the most part, Infante has been in a terrible funk.
Since returning from the DL, Infante has 65 plate appearances. His batting line is as follows:
.164/.185/.213, 1 wRC+
I don’t even have a clever way of describing how bad that is, because my brain can’t quite comprehend it.
This recent stretch has brought his season-long numbers down to a level Infante hasn’t seen since 2005. He now sits at a 66 wRC+, which outpaces only Mike Moustakas amongst Royals regulars. That’s not the kind of company Infante should want to be around right now.
While these last few weeks don’t make up much of a sample size, the fact that Infante’s overall stats are this far below expectations should be concerning. He’s 32 years old, and is signed through 2017, so a decline beginning this year would not bode well for the rest of the contract. Now, we’re left wondering if this is nothing more than a bump in the road, or if it’s a sign of things to come.
Is this the real Omar Infante?
The answer to that question is no. Maybe.
One of the biggest things to stand out with Infante’s stats is his .232 batting average, which is his lowest since 2005. In the last 8 seasons before 2014, Infante’s lowest batting average was .271, nearly 40 points better than this year. Most of that comes from a BABIP of .244, and Infante has never had a BABIP that low, in his 13 year career.
Without context, some may automatically assume a low BABIP means a hitter is simply the recipient of some bad luck. However, that’s not always the case, as shown by players like Moustakas. Infante, like Moustakas, tends to hit a high rate of fly balls, and fly balls are converted into outs more frequently than ground balls. But, Infante, unlike Moustakas, also hits a lot of line drives, and line drives are not converted into outs as frequently as ground balls.
In his career, Infante has a line drive rate of 21.5%, and in 2014 it’s roughly the same, at 21.2%. Using that information, one might infer he is getting unlucky with batted balls, but it’s still not quite that simple. Infante also has a very high infield fly ball rate (15.9%), and obviously that is the worst type of batted ball. He’s hit 11 infield fly balls already. In 2012 and 2013, Infante hit 10 and 15 infield flies all season, respectively.
His current infield fly ball rate is more than 5 percentage points higher than his career average, so that certainly has contributed to a lower BABIP, although it’s tough to say such a dramatic decrease could be caused by just a few more popups.
There are a few different factors that could be at play here. First, Infante may just be feeling the effects of aging, and he isn’t able to square up as many baseballs. Indeed, his batted ball distance is slightly down this season, so that may have something to do with his lower BABIP. Secondly, his swing timing may be off just enough to create weaker contact, which, in turn, will result in a lower BABIP.
But in my opinion, the biggest component of it, is where Infante is making contact with pitches. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but a Royals’ hitter is making too much contact on pitches out of the strike zone.
Unlike several Royals, Infante has shown good plate discipline, swinging at balls out of the zone just 22.4% of the time, which is the lowest chase rate of his career. Unfortunately, he’s making contact on those specific swings 75.3% of the time, which is the highest rate of his career. Now, it is possible to make solid contact on pitches out of the zone, as Infante showed last season.
But that isn’t always the case, as we’ve seen this year.
Remember, the important part of those images is the periphery. There’s a whole bunch of zeroes in the second photo, suggesting that Infante isn’t squaring up as many balls as he did last season. And that’s while Infante is swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone than any Royals regular not named Nori Aoki. If Infante had something closer to his career average O-Swing%, his numbers would likely be even worse.
Overall, Infante has a swinging strike rate of 4.7%, which is the best whiff rate he’s ever posted, and that has led to a strikeout rate of 9.0%. Those elite contact skills can be a good thing, but only if the contact being made is the right kind of contact. For the time being, it doesn’t appear that Infante is making the right kind of contact.
All that being said, the fact that Infante is so far off from many of his career average statistics leads me to believe these first 199 plate appearances are unsustainable. He likely won’t continue his torrid infield fly ball pace, nor should he keep making contact so frequently on those balls out of the zone. I expect to see some positive regression in those categories, which should raise his BABIP to something closer to his normal rate. It’s possible we’re seeing the beginning of Infante’s decline phase, but he’s still shown good speed, a normal line drive rate, and the aforementioned patience, which suggests he’s just in a brutal slump.
Beyond those areas expecting regular regression, Infante is probably hitting into some bad luck, as I mentioned earlier. On pitches in the middle of the zone, his BABIP is .294, and that’s with a line drive rate in that spot that’s higher than last year, when his BABIP on those pitches was .426.
Infante is currently drawing walks in 6% of his plate appearances, which is slightly higher than the walk rates in his previous 3 seasons. If he can maintain a similar walk rate while his other stats normalize, we’ll begin to see Infante’s production climb back toward the major league average level we expected. The Royals can’t afford to have a number two hitter with a .279 on-base percentage, and since Ned Yost doesn’t seem willing to change the batting order, Infante will need to pick it up, and soon.