The Texas Rangers recently inked Manny Ramirez to a minor league contract, hoping he still has some modicum of the hitting prowess that made him a 12-time All-Star selection. Manny's career credentials are unquestioned -- he has 555 career home runs, 14th on the all-time list, and his 154 OPS+ ties him with Frank Robinson for 15th-best in MLB history. But let's be honest -- no one, Jon Daniels included, knows what to expect from Manny. He's 41, hasn't played a big league game since April of 2011 and slugged .349 last season for the Sacramento Rivers Cats, the Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland A's.
One major reason why the Rangers are willing to see whether Manny's big numbers this season with Taiwan's EDA Rhinos translate to the bigs is the decline of another Hall of Fame-caliber hitter, Lance Berkman. Texas signed Berkman over the winter to a one-year, $11 million deal with a club option for 2014, thinking the 37-year-old could take and rake while resting his aching body as the Rangers' DH.
Unfortunately, Berkman isn't doing much raking. He has just six home runs and a 101 OPS+, and his right knee (surgically repaired four times during his career) is barking. In addition to his creaky knee, it looks like Berkman's overly patient approach could be hurting him.
Big Puma has shown otherworldly strike-zone judgment during his career, and he's still doing a good job of laying off pitches thrown off the plate -- his chase rate is 17.6%, seventh-lowest among MLB hitters and far below the 27% average. But Berkman's judgment on pitches in the zone has taken a turn for the worse. Check out his swing rate against in-zone pitches over the 2011-12 seasons, and then in 2013.
Berkman's swing rate by pitch location vs. in-zone pitches, 2011-12
Berkman's swing rate by pitch location vs. in-zone pitches, 2013
In 2011-12, Berkman took at cut at about 73% of pitches thrown over the plate. For comparison's sake, the MLB average is about 65%. This season, Berkman is swinging at just 62% of in-zone pitches. The trend is even more pronounced against fastballs -- Berkman swung at 70% of in-zone heat in 2011-12, but just 56% in 2013.
With Berkman keeping the bat on his shoulder so often, he has fallen behind in the count far more often this year (40% of his plate appearances) than he did with the Cardinals the previous two years (33%). Maybe he's looking for pitches in a particular spot, unsure that he can still do damage on some high-velocity, in-zone pitches that he used to crush. In any event, don't be surprised if the Rangers act fast should Ramirez rake in the minors and Berkman continue to take so often.