Entering the 2014 season, Rickie Weeks didn't have too much security. He had just posted a sub-replacement level campaign — his third straight year of decline — and Milwaukee planned to platoon him at second base with Scooter Gennett, who would soon take over the position full-time. At age 31, he appeared to have an inauspicious future.
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And then, a funny thing happened: Weeks played pretty well. Oh, his defense was still unfathomably awful — among second baseman with at least 400 innings in a season since 2002, his UZR/150 of -23.5 this year ranked third-worst. On an aggregate basis, his work in the field was seven runs below average. But he offset that with 9.1 runs on offense, via a 127 wRC+ that tied his previous career high. Although he only amassed 286 plate appearances on the year, he provided his club with 1.2 wins above replacement.
With an 8.7% walk rate and a 25.5% strikeout rate (compared to preceding career numbers of 10.6% and 23.3%), Weeks didn't derive his exquisite offense from plate discipline. His .179 ISO topped the .149 mark he put up in his subpar 2013, but was nonetheless in line with the .175 figure he had theretofore posted. Weeks' quasi-breakout came from that most capricious of statistics: BABIP. 35.5% of his balls in play went for hits in 2014, compared to 30.2% from 2003 to 2013 (and 26.8% in 2013).
BABIP includes a lot of noise, and therefore can fluctuate without indicating an alteration in skill. Hence, Steamer's 2015 projection for Weeks: a .294 BABIP, and a resultant 98 wRC+. Even some regression to the mean vis-à-vis his fielding numbers won't make him a respectable player. But does Steamer's pessimism here accurately reflect the reality? What if Weeks has legitimately changed?
Let's look at batted ball data — specifically, ground balls and fly balls. For hitters, they stabilize at a mere 80 balls in play, so we can feel confident about the validity of Weeks' 2014 (in which opponents fielded 172 balls that he hit). Of those 172, 59.3% stayed on the ground, while only 21.5% went airborne. Considering that the first eleven years of his career saw him accrue 48.8% and 33.8% ground ball and fly ball rates, respectively, I'd say this might have some significance to it. Indeed, even if we regress his BABIP on each type of batted ball to his career norms, that grounder clip would still catapult his BABIP to .325.
What induced this? I can't say for sure, but for what it's worth, Weeks did make some changes in the offseason. From March:
Weeks...made adjustments in his approach in spring camp. Most noticeably, he raised his hands, making it easier to get his bat into the hitting zone in timely fashion.
Perhaps because of this, he posted the highest Z-Swing% of his career, albeit with a similar Z-Contact%. Maybe a more aggressive technique begat ground ball-heavy results; given the BABIP that came with it, I'd say this was a worthwhile change.
So let's say Weeks continues to put the ball on the ground. How will that affect his power? In 2014, he might not have had as many fly balls, but the ones that he did have went fairly far. His average fly ball distance in 2014 was 288.6 feet*; while that represents a seven-foot downgrade from his 2007-2013 average, it still would have ranked 70th in the majors (out of 298 hitters) if he had qualified.
*As some points of reference, Edwin Encarnacion and Anthony Rizzo — who possessed ISOs of .279 and .240, respectively, this season — also hit their fly balls an average of 288 feet. They had higher fly ball rates too, but then again, we shouldn't expect Weeks to turn back into a slugger.
Now, obviously Weeks' clout will decay to some extent with this many worm burners. However, the aforementioned Steamer projection has his ISO decreasing, as well as his BABIP. If he keeps up this new batted-ball profile, the former will probably fall; if he doesn't, the latter will fall — but both of them shouldn't fall. It's an either/or situation, and both outcomes have some promise to them.
Despite Weeks's surprising 2014 output, the Brewers almost certainly won't pick up his option; they still plan to move ahead with Gennett at second, and Weeks won't move accordingly. Wherever he ends up, his performance may fall back a bit from 2014, but don't let it surprise you if he outperforms his projection. This 32-year-old isn't done yet.
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All data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Heat Maps.
Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.