Free agent Josh Willingham has always been one of my favorite players.
In the past six years, he has quietly posted a wRC+ of 123—good enough for seventh among all qualified left fielders during that time. And in each of those six years, he was remarkably consistent, posting a wRC+ of at least 117 in each year. Thanks to above average discipline and power, he plods along every year as an underrated contributor on offense. While he may not have quite the same skill on defense, he's been good enough overall for 2-3 WAR every year. I suppose I like him because in addition to being unheralded, he's good—but not too good. I don't know if that's a good reason, but I don't care.
But I'm not the only one who likes Willingham. According to reports, this offseason he has been sought after by the Twins, Indians, Mariners and Rockies. These teams are still pursuing Willingham despite a major downturn in his plate discipline. In 2011 he halved his BB/K ratio from the previous year—a drop from .79 in 2010 to .37 in 2011. He struck out 150 times—28 more than his previous career high, and his walk rate fell, too.
It's not that he tried a completely new approach at the plate in 2011. Indeed, he swung at about the same rate of pitches in 2011 as he did in 2008-2010, and he chased about the same rate of pitches too. Despite an ostensibly identical approach, his contact rate—the percentage of pitches that a batter makes contact on out of all swings—dropped from about 81 percent in 2008-2010 to 76 percent in 2011. This undoubtedly contributed to his drop in plate discipline in 2011. Perhaps he was struggling against a certain kind of pitch in 2011?
This graph shows his whiff rate by pitch height, split up by pitch type and years. I grouped together multiple pitch types to create the larger categories to get larger samples and to mitigate classification issues. Dotted lines indicate the vertical borders of the strikezone. The "other" category is basically all knuckleballs, which he was terrible against in 2011. But excluding these knuckleballs, his contact issues in 2011 are not unique to a type of pitch. It actually looks like he struggling more in general on pitches that are simply low in the zone.
Indeed, it appears that his issues in 2011 can be traced more specifically to contact struggles on pitches low in the zone. I don't know what caused his problems on pitches low in the zone in 2011, but any suitors should be wary of this weakness. In the future, pitchers may expose Willingham on his new weakness, which would eliminate any possibility of Willingham's plate discipline returning to previous levels. Given that the bulk of his value comes from his bat, his contact issues on pitches down in the zone may indicate the beginning of decline.
References and Resources
*PITCHf/x data from MLBAM via Darrel Zimmerman's pbp2 database and scripts by Joseph Adler/Mike Fast/Darrel Zimmerman
You can read more of Josh's work at FanGraphs, Beyond the Box Score, and itsaboutthemoney.net. Josh welcomes discussion through email and twitter. You can reach him at josh82093 at gmail dot com and on Twitter @J__Stock (two underscores).
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Ed. Note: Willingham has landed with the Minnesota Twins.