Josh Willingham Stands to Improve in 2014

Writer’s Note: Willingham ranked 89th on Zach Sanders’ outfield rankings.

It couldn’t be more blatantly obvious that Josh Willingham had a down season. Not only were his offensive numbers down monumentally, but he only got into 111 games. That was the lowest mark the oft-injured outfielder had posted since 2008, and the second-fewest in his career.

And when he did get into the lineup, he was pretty brutal. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of his numbers from 2012 (his best season) to 2013 (his worst).

Statistic 2012 2013
Games Played 145 111
Batting Average .260 .208
On-Base .366 .342
Slugging .524 .368
Home Runs 35 14
RBI 110 48
Runs 85 42
wOBA .380 .322
ISO .264 .159
Walk Rate 12.4% 14.0%
Whiff Rate 22.9% 27.2%

All of these numbers would seem to point to the sort of a decline that a plodding 34-year-old corner outfielder with swing-and-miss tendencies might expect. But that’s not entirely fair.

It’s pretty easy to pinpoint where Willingham’s season went wrong, and quite frankly, how and why.

On April 27, for some unknown reason Willingham attempted and stole his only base of the season. It came with a price, however, as Willingham slid awkwardly into second, apparently wrenching his knee badly.

But he soldiered on. On the day of the fateful slide, Willingham was hitting .254/.397/.542. From that day until June 30, Willingham hit .214/.342/.353. That was the last day Willingham would play until an Aug. 9 doubleheader at U.S. Cellular Field, as he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery after a cortisone shot provided no relief for what ended up being a medial meniscus tear and a bone bruise.

To Willingham’s credit, he rushed back to a Twins team that — even by Aug. 9 — had nothing to play for. The Twins ended that day 51-62, 16.5 games out of first.

But it was pretty obvious that Willingham would be rusty, and he was. Willingham hit just .182/.318/.315 the rest of the way.

And it’s not entirely certain that Willingham was just rusty; plenty of players fall off in their mid-to-late 30s with little reason other than Father Time getting his way. But some of his batted-ball rates tend to suggest that, with a full offseason to heal and regain strength, Willingham could at least rebound back to being a useful player.

Consider how close to his career marks Willingham was this season:

Batted-Ball Rate 2013 Career
GB/FB 0.81 0.84
LD% 18.3% 19.0%
GB% 36.5% 36.9%
FB% 45.2% 44.1%
IFFB% 17.6% 12.8%
HR/FB% 11.8% 15.1%

There aren’t many huge disparities we can see here. The unfortunate exchange Willingham made was seeing his HR/FB rate regress beneath his career average — and down from an unsustainably-high 21.2% in 2012 — while seeing popups and flyball rate on the whole jump. In fact, the popup rate skyrocketed, and that’s obviously not good for anything.

After running through some of the numbers, I tend to believe that both of Willingham’s seasons with the Twins are outliers. In order to regain his relevance not only to the Twins but to fantasy players, he’ll need to see his home run rates and popup rates bounce back to their career norms. I don’t think that’s entirely out of the realm of possible.

If that should happen, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect him to post a mid-.800s OPS, 25ish home runs, and enough secondary statistics to maybe jump him up 30-40 spots in the rankings. That’s well into ‘mixed league-draftable’ territory for me.

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In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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You did a good job explaining his 2013 season, but a 34 year old doesn’t necessarily get back to his pre-injury health simply from an off-season of rest.