If you want a partial explanation for the Braves' offensive struggles this season, a reasonable place to look would be in the direction of third baseman Chipper Jones, who's playing like last season's decline was very, very real. After a monster two-season stretch during which he batted .350/.446/.590 over 1134 plate appearances and accumulated 14.9 fWAR, he finally showed some signs of age in his age-37 season last year.
After being the only player to be 50+ runs above average offensively in 2007 and 2008, Jones was just +12.7 with the bat in 2009 despite having similar playing time. The main culprits were a substantial drop in his BABIP and a significant loss of power. He still posted an above average .354 wOBA though, primarily thanks to a huge walk rate that he maintained from the previous season. But that performance paled in comparison to what he had done the previous two years, which had convinced Atlanta to give Jones a three-year, $42M contract after the 2008 season. Jones is currently on pace for less than 2 WAR by season's end, something that he's never done since establishing himself in 1995.
Now, we can certainly attribute a good deal of Jones' decline to his BABIP. Going from having respective BABIPs of .348 and .383 to having BABIPs of .287 and .245 will generally put a damper on one's numbers. But even so, Jones has seen decline in other facets of his game as well, and I'd like to touch on some of the things that have caused one of the greatest hitters of all-time to become much less than that.
- He's no longer mashing right-handers
Jones has long been regarded as one of the great switch-hitters of all-time, with a minimal platoon split thanks to exceptional skill from both sides of the plate. In his final three seasons before the Big Decline of 2009 (it rhymes!!!!), he posted these wOBA marks against RHP in each respective season: .436, .483 and .443. Pretty good.
But in 2009 and 2010? He's got wOBAs of .341 and .333 against righties, with some huge decline in his power and a plummeting BABIP. He's struggling against lefties this year, too, but in 2009 he showed little signs of slowing down against southpaws. The sample size is relatively small (526 plate appearances), but that's pretty alarming from a guy who's always thrived against the "normal" pitchers in his career, particularly in the seasons preceding this one and the last.
- He's been unlucky with line drives
Jones hasn't seen much of a drop in his line drive rate this season or the last, but he has seen a decline in their ability to drop for hits. The league average BABIP on line drives is about .720, a number that Jones easily surpassed from 2006 through 2008. But after that mark dropped from .813 in 2008 to .691 in 2009, it's dropped even farther in 2010, all the way down to .571 on the year. And as you would expect, it's directly correlated with the value that he's offered from line drives as well.
2007: .788 BABIP, .779 wOBA
2008: .813 BABIP, .811 wOBA
2009: .691 BABIP, .661 wOBA
2010: .571 BABIP, .585 wOBA
- He's struggling with offspeed stuff
I'm not sure how significant this is, but Jones has really gotten all of his value from fastballs so far this season. According to FanGraphs' pitch values, Jones has been below average against every pitch type calculated by Pitch F/X with the exception of fastballs. I just thought that this was interesting because from Jones posted above average marks against curves, sliders and change-ups in every season from 2006 through 2009. Maybe his bat is slowing down so he's cheating on fastballs to try to make up for it, which has left him vulnerable to good offspeed stuff like never before?
- He's getting less pitches to hit
It's not surprising that pitchers have given Jones fewer pitches in the zone after he made them pay so gravely in previous years. Jones saw pitches in the zone 48% of the time in 2008, but that mark is down to just 43% in 2010. Jones has actually seen an improvement in his walk rate because of this, his 20.4% mark is the highest in the majors, but it seems that he's getting less pitches that he can really get a hold of.
Now, I'm not completely sure what's wrong with Jones, and a nice stretch of good luck with BABIP could certainly quiet some of the chatter. But this guy was expected to anchor Atlanta's offense and he's making $14M per year through 2012, so it's definitely worth noting when he's on pace to finish the year with around 1.5 WAR. Particularly when that would be easily the worst season of his career.