Why Didn’t Andre Ethier Live Up To Expectations?

As you’ll notice around RotoGraphs this week, many of my fine colleagues are looking back at their “10 Bold Predictions” from before the season and seeing how many of them came true. Having joined the team late, I had time to make only one prediction before the season started: “Andre Ethier Is Going To Have a Huge Season”. You can click back to that article to read the full explanation of why, but it basically came down to two reasons – first, he was finally healthy after two years of finger & knee troubles, and second, he would likely be motivated to prove his worth as he headed into his free agent year. I argued that if everything broke right, he could be a steal as a potential top-15 outfielder who was routinely going in the mid-30s in spring drafts. It didn’t quite happen; Ethier ranked outside the top-30 in most of the major ranking systems.

On the surface, Ethier’s 2012 looked a lot like his 2011, compiling a .348 wOBA as opposed to the previous year’s .343. (An increase in slugging percentage was mostly offset by a lesser OBP.) So what went wrong? For the first two months, not a whole lot, actually; like he’d done in the previous two seasons, Ethier got off to a hot start, hitting .324/.381/.569 with nine homers through the end of May.

But Ethier fell apart completely in June, hitting only .218/.306/.322 with a single homer. (This roughly coincided with the signing of his new 5/$85m extension on June 11, though he’d been trending downward before that.) It should be noted here that the Dodgers were an absolute mess during this time as well; with Matt Kemp on the shelf and Ned Colletti’s late-season roster makeover not yet in place, they were often rolling out lineups that included most or all of Dee Gordon, Elian Herrera, Scott Van Slyke, Juan Rivera, James Loney, Adam Kennedy, & Bobby Abreu at the same time. At one point, they were shut out in five of six games; at another, they scored a grand total of two runs in dropping six games in San Francisco & Oakland. It can be argued that for a few weeks, Ethier & A.J. Ellis were the only major-league quality hitters on the field, and if he was pressing to try to shoulder that load, it wouldn’t be totally surprising.

On June 27th, Ethier strained his left oblique and was lost through the All-Star Break, after which he continued to struggle; between June 11 and August 16th, more than two months, he hit just one longball. That lasted until he modified his grip to compensate for a massive blister on his left palm in mid-August, after which he regained some of his lost power, with nine homers over the final two months. Still, with Kemp healthy, and Adrian Gonzalez & Hanley Ramirez in the mix, Ethier was occasionally dropped to seventh in the lineup late in the year, the first time he’d batted that low in three years.

Taking the season as a whole, it’s easy to see that Ethier was a different hitter than he’d been before. He walked less (8.1%) than he’d had since his rookie season of 2006, and his 20.1% whiff percentage represented a career high; and that’s what tends to happen when your O-Swing & is the highest it’s been in five years. Looking deeper, there may be an underlying reason to explain part of this: Andre Ethier can’t hit lefty pitching any better than I can, and that became a larger problem this year.

Total PA

Ethier’s never really been able to hit lefties, of course, with a bad .913/.649 OPS split over his career, and it got worse in 2012, ending at a massive .945/.606. That’s not news, but the way other teams treated it might be. In August over at my site, I pointed out that opposing managers were taking advantage of Ethier’s ongoing inability to hit lefties by throwing more southpaws at him than ever before. With the full season now complete, let’s update that table to include all of 2012, which you can see at right. As you can see, Ethier spent more time in 2012 dealing with lefty pitching than he had in any year before. It was actually worse earlier, since that number is down from the 43.0% it was in August as Don Mattingly pushed Ethier down in the lineup against southpaws to limit his exposure. The more Ethier has to face lefty pitching, the less success he’s going to have.

Going forward, Ethier’s value could be heavily affected by the move the Dodgers might make this winter. For the first time, Mattingly seemed willing to consider Ethier as the platoon player that he’s probably always been, and as you saw in the splits above, he destroys righty pitching. If the Dodgers do manage to get a right-handed outfield bat to take Ethier’s time against lefties, his overall stat line could improve simply through avoiding the near-guaranteed outs he’s been making against lefty pitching for years. In what could be a dangerous Dodger lineup, that alone could make him more desirable. Or, perhaps, if past history is a guide, he’ll merely tantalize us early and then fade out late.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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I suspect conditioning is an issue for Ethier and he can’t hit lefties.

More teams are catching on to the value of having at least 2 LOOGYs in the pen. Ethier is not going to face many RHP’s from the 7’th inning on, especially with runners on base ahead of him.