Is Derrek Lee The New Garrett Atkins?

Derrek Lee was signed this off-season to play first-base and be a veteran run producer in the middle of the line-up. I think a lot of people have the order there mixed up (the team did need a first-baseman, and if Lee bounced back to hit like he did in 2009, that would be a bonus). The 35 year-old has been put into the #3 spot in the line-up though, and so his lack of production thus far has some fans comparing him to a certain free agent mistake from the previous year. That isn’t quite right.

First off, while Lee isn’t hitting well (.211/.294/.276 going into yesterday’s game), his plate discipline numbers are right where you’d expect them to be with a 10.6% walk rate and a 22.4% strike-out rate (I had him projected at 10.8% and 23%). The main issues are (1) his low batting average on balls in play keeping all his numbers down, and (2) his lack of power.

(1) His BABIP of .259 is over 60 points below his career average, and would easily be a career low. Considering the fact the FanGraphs has his line-drive rate at a robust 22%, and that he hasn’t yet hit a pop-up (which is almost a certain out, and drags the BABIP down), I’d have to say this is largely just bad luck. Give Lee a .300 BABIP – still below his career .321 – and his OBP moves up to .322 (which would be above league, average at this point).

(2) Lee has only one home run, and his home run per flyball rate is at 4.2%. There’s no way his power took such a nose-dive (even last year it was at 12.1%) – he’s hit some longer flyballs (including a couple to the warning track last night), but the results aren’t there yet.

Someone asked about Lee’s bat speed potentially being gone; I’m not a scout, but the PitchFX perhaps shows his decreasing ability to connect well with the fastball. Here’s what Lee’s done when  swinging at the four-seamer the last few years:

Whiff% Foul% In Play%
2008 14.3% 41.5% 44.2%
2009 14.3% 44.6% 41.0%
2010 14.7% 50.5% 34.8%
2011 12.4% 64.0% 23.3%

So he’s actually swinging and missing the pitch less this year than he has been, but he’s tending to foul it off instead of putting it in play. Circumstantial evidence maybe, but the fact that he’s been able to catch up enough to at least get wood on the ball makes me slightly less worried (though perhaps I’m focusing on the wrong thing – who knows).

In conclusion, Derrek Lee might not be an ideal middle of the order hitter in a “good” line-up, but I think he’ll actually produce sooner or later this year. And at least he can field at first-base.

Stats: K% & BB%, BABIP, HR/FB%