Can Ruben Tejada Rebound With the Mets?
By Dan Haefeli
Short answer? Yes.
Slightly longer answer? If he has an opportunity, he very well may.
Sep 11, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada (11) wears an NYPD cap in remembrance of 9/11/01 during batting practice before a game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Well, that was an interesting read, now wasn’t it? But since we’re here, let’s look into it.
We know what happened: 23-year old Ruben Tejada, coming of a pair of moderately successful seasons (despite a lack of power, Tejada’s 95 wRC+ and .690 OPS both sat comfortably above the league average 85 wRC+ and .685 OPS (the discrepancy in wRC+ being caused by the difference in OPS composition – Tejada’s .345 OBP over the past two seasons is well above the .312 league average, and a marginal point in on base percentage is more valuable than one in slugging percentage) was expected to be a consistent piece in the Mets’ ideally consistent infield.
That didn’t happen. Tejada hit a decent (if not exciting) .247/.330/.326 in April, before absolutely tanking in May. He hit .173/.206/.204 in May. His walk rate dropped from 9.8% to 3.9% (the strikeout rate stayed the same), and was showing no signs of escaping his funk. He narrowly escaped demotion at the end of May, but did so by way of injury. He returned in September and went 2-21 with a walk and a strikeout in only seven games before breaking his leg on a collision with Andrew Brown in shallow left field.
Looking further into the numbers, though, we can see that some of the struggles were bad luck, especially against right handed pitching.
The below chart shows Tejada’s batted ball profile. The first thing that stands out is a precipitous drop in line drive rate and a fairly significant increase in fly ball rate (one of the commonly-heard comments on Tejada’s play was the need to cut down on fly balls).
But were those drops enough to cause such a significant dropoff? Perhaps not.
Using Batting Averages on Balls in Play (BABIP), we can figure out how a player’s batted ball profile should play (“expected”, or xBABIP). For example, Ruben Tejada’s BABIP in 2013 was a paltry .228, down from .339 last season. This makes some sense, as line drives are, by a large margin, the most likely batted ball type to turn into a hit. Fly balls, conversely, are the least likely.
Ruben’s expected BABIP was .330! So not only was he unlucky, he was phenomenally unlucky. It’s worth noting, of course, that Tejada has always underperformed his BABIP (.339 vs. .371 expected in 2012; .331 vs. .350 expected in 2011), but to such a degree is largely inexplicable.
If we look at his platoon splits, we see two things stand out: first, that he actually performed more or less how you’d expect against left handed pitching (.274/.348/.371 in 2013, .302/.370/.371 in 2011-12). There was a small decrease that was largely in line with the change in batted ball profile. In fact, comparing 2013 to 2011-12 it suggests that 2012 may have been an aberration. The positive, however, is that he began to hit for more power (in terms of doubles, anyway) than he had in the past:
The important thing to note, though, is that his BABIP had been fair all three seasons.
The second is that he was miserable against right handed pitching, hitting only .171/.219/.212 this year. His BABIP, of course, was only .194. He’s generally been better against lefties than righties, but let’s take a closer look at how 2013 compared to the past two seasons:
Apr 8, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada (11) hits a two RBI single during the fifth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Mets defeated the Phillies 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
It’s clear that the numbers should be down (as evidenced by the reduced BABIP) and that his power numbers should be down beyond that (as per the reduced line drive rate). But what’s important from a narrative perspective (if nothing else) is that the fly ball numbers didn’t increase meaningfully, and his batted ball profile against right handed pitching doesn’t fit such significant struggles.
As an extension of this, we can actually use these numbers to estimate what Ruben Tejada should have hit this year. In fairness, we’re going to use a BABIP of .300 (as the evidence suggests, using the actual xBABIP would create a somewhat liberal estimate). With a BABIP of .300, Tejada would’ve hit roughly .265/.308/.329 against righties. It’s not impressive, by any means, but it’s a significant improvement.
Put that all together, and you’d have a shortstop who hit .269/.321/.341 this year. It’s not great, and is only on the low end of acceptable, but it’s only a bit beyond a third of a season after all. A few good weeks could have bumped the numbers up to a more healthy range, or at least a rebound in his walk rate. But the bulk of Ruben Tejada’s struggles in 2013 came down to luck on batted balls, and much more than one could reasonably expect from his decrease in line drives.
This is all optimistic. I tend to run that way. And, in full disclosure, I’m still somewhat strongly pro-Tejada. He’s on the younger end of major league short stops, and entered this year at an age where most players begin to taste AA. For every piece of evidence that Tejada cannot be a successful major league player, there’s several suggesting otherwise.
That said, none of this should prevent the Mets from seeking to improve short stop. Stephen Drew is expected to receive a qualifying offer from the Boston Red Sox, but that shouldn’t be enough to keep the Mets away. Drew would be a great improvement both offensively and defensively. Further, his presence would allow Tejada to work to develop and mentor behind a successful player (much as he did behind Jose Reyes in 2010-11), and still receive a fair amount of playing time in the majors (it just so happens that Drew, a left-handed hitter, has shown increasing platoon splits over the last several years).
And, of course, bringing in a capable veteran starter would allow additional flexibility in trades. Should Ruben Tejada be able to win his job back, Drew would be movable. And should he not, there’s likely to be a market for a 24-year-old who’s shown the potential to be an above-average short stop.