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May 09, 2006

Same As It Ever Was

The 2005 Rangers featured the worst cleanup hitters in the American League. Ranger #4 hitters -- mostly Hank Blalock with a tablespoon of Mark Teixeira and dashes of Alfonso Soriano and Phil Nevin-- ranked 11th in slugging and dead-freaking-last in on-base percentage after adjusting for home park. Though Texas sported a respectable offense overall, Buck Showalter needed to find an upgrade at cleanup.

He found Phil Nevin. Nevin started at DH and in the cleanup spot during intrasquad scrimmages in February, and by mid-March, whatever competition existed for the role had ended. While not an ideal solution, having Nevin at cleanup was defensible for several reasons:

Nevin admitted he sulked his way to a line of .182/.250/.323 after his ’05 trade to Texas. He entered Spring Training emotionally refreshed. Fair enough. (That doesn’t explain away his .237/.287/.379 showing in San Diego during last season, but bear with me.)
In 2004, he batted .289/.368/.492, excellent production for an extremely hitter-unfriendly environment of Petco Park.
No likely batting order would place Nevin lower than sixth. Certainly, Laynce Nix, Rod Barajas, and true rookie Ian Kinsler belonged at the back of the lineup. In addition, Blalock had struggled badly batting cleanup last season and Kevin Mench had backslid to a .469 slugging percentage.
The concept of sunk cost notwithstanding, Texas wanted some return on its $10 million investment.

In retrospect (or facile 20-20 hindsight, if you prefer), Nevin’s establishment as cleanup hitter almost seems preordained. He only needed to avoid flopping during the spring, and he didn’t. Several early homers caught the attention of management and skeptical fans, and despite a late slump he finished at .241/.338/.534. The patience and power had returned, if not the average.

Now, one-fifth into the regular season, Texas is no better off at the cleanup spot than in 2005. 100% of the plate appearances by #4 hitters have accrued to Phil Nevin, who has a line of .242/.333/.455. The cleanup hitters on the other thirteen AL clubs are batting .283/.360/.508. Thus, Nevin is only echoing last year’s frustration:

Ranger Cleanup Hitters
2005 (mostly H. Blalock)
2006 (all P. Nevin)
Note: AL run production is up about 3.5% this season.

After a fine start (.278/.369/.557 in April, .295 and 23 RBI with runners on) Nevin has five hits in his last 35 at-bats including one double and no homers. Well, hitters do slump, and condemning one after just 34 games is absurd, so perhaps I should cut him some slack. Unfortunately, the real problem isn’t his slump, it’s his half-decade-long inability to hit right-handers:

.268 / .322 / .373 -- .695
.252 / .317 / .356 -- .672
.273 / .337 / .451 -- .787
.253 / .285 / .387 -- .673
.219 / .318 / .417 -- .735
.260 / .319 / .402 -- .721

His frailty against righties wouldn’t cause much dismay except that, ahem, he faces a righty 70% of the time and bats fourth. Nevin hammers lefties (.299/.387/.549 since 2002) but against righties Texas could replace him with Gary Matthews and suffer no ill.

Adam Morris of Lone Star Ball has beat this drum for a while, and he’s right. Texas needs another lefty bat to bolster the offense. Phil Nevin deserves credit for regaining a sizable fraction of his past superiority, but he shouldn’t play every day.

Posted by Lucas at May 9, 2006 11:59 PM