John Buck's Perplexing Season At the Plate

John Buck has had a terrible 2012 season. But should he be walking off the field and onto the bench immediately? Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

As of late, the struggles of the bottom half of the Miami Marlins' lineup have really worn out the team's fans. With the team's last three regular non-pitcher hitters each batting below .200, it is difficult not to blame fans for being frustrated with the bottom of the lineup. But while Chris Coghlan has received more than his fair share of criticism, particularly from this site, and Gaby Sanchez has been sent down to and returned from Triple-A, fans have reserved a bulk sum of their criticism for catcher John Buck. Buck, the owner of a .163/.299/.279 slash line (.265 wOBA), has been lambasted by the fan base, in large part because he was originally signed for three years and $18 million and did not exactly play well last season. Now that he is struggling worse than last season, fans are ready to toss him out.

But there is a strange problem. John Buck was not terrible for a catcher last season, though he was in the lower third of starting catchers last year. This year, however, he has actually improved his approach at the plate without being rewarded with better overall results. Take a look at the following numbers comparing Buck from last year and his overall career to this season.

Buck K% BB% ISO XB/H BABIP
2012 23.7 16.4 .116 0.708 .196
2011 21.7 10.2 .139 0.613 .268
Career 23.6 7.7 .169 0.712 .281

In bold are the categories in which Buck has significantly differed this season versus his career numbers. If you told me before the season that Buck would have increased his walk rate by even two percent without striking out more often, and this difference would be the most predictive change in talent by June, I would have taken it. But as you can see, Buck seemingly cannot buy a hit on a ball in play to save his life, and that has dragged his entire season into the gutter so far despite all of his significant approach progress.

Legitimate Plate Discipline Changes

About a month ago, I talked about John Buck's increased plate patience and how it has helped him thus far. I mentioned that he was continuing a trend from last season, and over the course of his month and a half-long slump, he has still been extremely patient and selective at the plate.

Buck, Season Swing% OSwing% ZSwing% Contact% OContact% ZContact%
2012 40 24 56 74 54 82
2011 49 30 70 76 65 82
Career 50 31 70 73 58 81

Notice the drastic changes in swing rate. For one reason or another, whether it was through Eduardo Perez's insistence or through his own work, Buck has become an extremely patient hitter. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate has been completely unchanged compared to his career mark, in part due to almost exact contact rates. In other words, because of this new approach, Buck has not only greatly increased a very positive event in the walk but he has also been able to avoid the pitfall of extra strikeouts that many hitters face when they take more pitches. This has happened despite seeing about two percent more pitches in the zone this season than in his career.

BABIP and Batted Balls

The problem this season is that the contact he is making has not landed for hits lately. Buck is hitting just .196 on balls in play; among players with at least 150 PA, that is the lowest in baseball. Now, you might think that is indicative of sharp decline in an already mediocre hitter, but the truth is that BABIP takes a lot longer than 177 PA to become highly predictive of future performance. Just based on that, we would expect some improvement going forward.

This is compounded by the fact that, when you look at Buck's batted balls this season, not much has seemingly changed from his career or 2011 marks.

Buck GB% FB% LD% HR/FB% IFFB%*
2012 45.3 36.8 17.9 10.3 12.8
2011 40.9 40.9 18.2 11.8 11.1
Career 42.1 40.8 17.1 12.3 12.0

*IFFB% is Infield Fly Ball Rate, essentially a rate of how many fly balls go for pop ups

The differences listed here are miniscule. One would expect, with the lack of base hits on balls in play, that one of the culprits is an increased number of pop ups, as is the case with Gaby Sanchez this season. But Buck is not popping up any more balls than he has all of his career. The other potential problem might be a lack of line drives, though even that could not be determined given the bias involved in coding line drives versus other types of balls in play, But Buck is hitting an almost identical amount of line drives as last season.

Buck's power drop is a little more explainable, since you can see that he has lost some fly balls. Still, his HR/FB rate has remained mostly steady, so it is not as if he has lost tons of lift on his fly balls either; he has hit more than a few contacted balls deep into the bowels of Marlins Park. The power could be from a lack of doubles and more outs due to the balls in play situation as well.

So it goes back to balls in play and how Buck seemingly cannot find a hit. This is evident when you split up his BABIP based on batted ball as well.

Buck, BABIP GB FB LD
2012 .146 .111 .500
2011 .201 .125 .703
Career .244 .124 .708

In 2011, Buck's average on fly balls and line drives in play were essentially identical to his career averages. This season, his ground ball average has plummeted, and his line drive average has followed. Keep in mind, the league is hitting .226 on grounders and .681 on line drives, figures that are very similar to John Buck's career line.

Based on all the data, there is no reason to suggest that Buck should continue to hit under .200 on balls in play. There is no reason to expect him to continue to hit more line drives right into gloves and more grounders straight at infielders. Since 2009, no player with at least 1000 PA has hit less than .238 on balls in play, and that player was the at-worst equally bad Rod Barajas. Since that same season, only one player has finished a year batting under .200 with balls in play, and that was Aaron Hill in 2010. Since then, Hill has hit .255/.314/.382 with a .281 BABIP. There is no reason that Buck cannot also bounce back and at least hit .267 on balls in play; that is what ZiPS is projecting and about what he hit last season.

The numbers all suggest that improvement is on the way for Buck, that there is simply no way that this is any more than an extended run at bad luck. But just how much bad luck was involved here? Later this week, we'll take a look at a series of balls in play from Buck this past month and let you decide how many hits he should have gotten.

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