Erick Aybar Needs Your Prayers

One would do well to recall that the last feature article written about Erick Aybar appeared in NotGraphs (#KeepNotGraphs), where he was pictured as the inept, rebel fleet commander Admiral Ackbar from the good section of Star Wars. Before, that there were articles that described him as, “Erick Aybar: Not as Bad as You Might Think,” and “Erick Aybar, Perennial Sleeper,” and “Erick Aybar: 2012 Sleeper.” Since then, Aybar hasn’t had an actual FanGraphs piece done on him. It looks as though people are still sleeping on him (but for good reason this time).

One of the most interesting parts of the novel 1984 is the concept of “Newspeak,” where the government twists and eliminates the meaning of certain words to serve its own purposes. In the novel, Winston, the protagonist, is educated by one his colleagues at the Ministry of Truth, Syme. He tells Winston, “A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not.” In today’s society, particularly in the world of baseball, there is a great need for descriptors such as “ungood” so that people don’t feel bad.

There are numerous expletive-laden phrases that would aptly describe Erick Aybar’s season up to this point, but perhaps it’s best to just say he’s doubleungood. That’s the clearest way of saying that Aybar has been incredibly awful this season. This isn’t just about offense or just about defense. He has been mind-numbingly, historically bad offensively and pretty subpar defensively.

It’s lucky for Aybar that the Braves aren’t exactly their c. 1998 selves because he can hide relatively easily on this roster. The Braves have three of the league’s ten worst players by wRC+ (min. 100 plate appearances), so it’s not like he’s exceptional. Moreover, it doesn’t look like the Braves are terribly interested in winning, anyway, so at least he isn’t holding back a team with championship aspirations (you’re being glared at, Russell Martin).

This season, through 43 games (many of them started) and 161 plate appearances, he has amassed an unimpressive -1.7 WAR, worst in the league. Also absolute worst in the league is his wRC+, which is 11! That’s insane. It’s 89% worse than average! Even 90-year-old A.J. Pierzynski has a 39 wRC+. Consider this: Erick Aybar is running a .184/.222/.211 line. How can a major-league baseball player be this bad?

Well, it’s not terribly helpful to have a .223 BABIP, a number 78 points off of his career average (and basically league average) .301 BABIP. Just for fun, let’s say he has a .301 BABIP this season. That would add approximately nine hits to his total of 27 thus far, giving him a much more respectable .245 batting average. Now let’s say he maintains his ratio of hits to extra-base hits and see what that does to his slugging percentage (he ends up with one more double). This gets him to a much better .245/.279/.279 line. But that’s still probably not good enough to be a major-league player.

As you can probably guess, Aybar’s plate discipline and power numbers suck quite a bit. His four doubles and 23 singles have given him a .027 ISO, which is the worst in the league by 16 points. He has a K-BB% of 14.3%, a number that’s meritorious as a pitcher (hint: Aybar isn’t a pitcher). His O-Swing% increased by five percentage points this year and his contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone decreased by five percentage points, leading to more strikeouts and worse contact when he actually hits it. At least he’s only a slightly below-average baserunner.

Unfortunately, his defensive numbers have been subpar this year also, but at least he’s not the worst player in the league in this category. Instead, he’s eighth-worst, with a raw UZR of -4.9 and a UZR/150 of -22.9. He isn’t committing too many errors, but his range is a definite factor. Aybar hasn’t completed a single play in the remote to unlikely range per Inside Edge. He’s also seen a marked drop in even chance fielding opportunities (down 6.7%) and likely opportunities (down 3%).

There aren’t a whole lot of good reasons for this. He isn’t injured (although he did have to get a chicken bone removed from his throat) and he doesn’t look injured. I can’t find a way to press the videos onto the article, but his swing looks a lot different from last year, at least from the right-hand side of the plate. I’m not a swing expert, but it looks like he isn’t using his hips to turn on the ball like he has in years past, which would explain the lack of power. Additionally, Aybar looks off-balance this year as compared to last year, when he was much better. Another thing to consider is that it seems like his swing has less lift than before, resulting in more ground balls and less power. On the other hand, maybe Aybar is just getting old. He’s 33 and hasn’t missed a lot of time in his career.

On the other hand, he actually was a very good player for a long time, a sleeper even. From 2008 through 2014, he was worth 20.1 WAR, combining passable offense for a middle infielder with good baserunning and decent defense. In fact, he was 57th* in WAR during that time period, better than more highly esteemed names like Carlos Beltran, Nelson Cruz, and David Ortiz. He was a very good player for a very long time, making more money than most people ever dream of. And that’s cause for positivity.

It stands to reason that Aybar will regress back to the mean. No one can sustain those numbers for a full season, if only because they would definitely get benched. There’s a reason why sample size and past performance matters and Mr. Aybar embodies it. If we expected him to keep playing at this level with the same amount of playing time, then he’d end up with the worst season in baseball history with a little over -6 WAR (not that six fewer wins would make that big of a difference to the Braves). But that isn’t going to happen. He’s projected to finish around zero, which would make him an average player the rest of the way. Based on his past performance, I fully expect that to happen and I want it to happen. It’s terribly sad when one of the game’s great, unknown players spirals into oblivion. Nonetheless, what he’s doing right now is insane and not for the right reasons.  Just as Admiral Ackbar managed to right the rebel fleet, Aybar can do the same with his performance.

*Fun fact: Mike Trout is 19th on that list. Remember, WAR totals from 2008 through 2014.

All statistics current through 5/26/2016

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