No, “Raul and the Cliff” isn’t the name of a new sitcom featuring Raul Ibanez and Cliff Lee. Rather, the title refers to the cliff from which the Phillies left fielder is supposedly going to tumble as a result of his relative old age (he’ll be 39 in June) and perceived proneness to injuries.
During the off-season, some — including myself — suggested reducing Ibanez’s playing time in favor of a platoon. It makes sense, since he is 40 points of wOBA better against right-handers than left-handers. However, the ultimate goal for many was simply to reduce his playing time overall, not to achieve optimal strategy or ensure that Domonic Brown got 600 PA in right field.
Contrary to popular opinion, Ibanez is far from toast. His 2010 season was disappointing, but only when compared to his ’09 season. Phillies fans are mostly familiar with him from the past two seasons and not from his time with the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, so it was only natural to make the comparison.
Ibanez finished ’09 with a .379 wOBA, a career high. His great numbers were buoyed by a .280 isolated Power, the sixth-highest in baseball that year, behind Albert Pujols, Carlos Pena, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and Mark Reynolds. Look at those six names and sing the Sesame Street song, “one of these things is not like the other”. Ibanez’s previous career high was .243 in ’02 and his overall career average is .192. There weren’t any flukes with Ibanez’s on-base skills; just his power.
His ISO dropped to .169 last year and his slugging percentage plummeted by more than 100 points. In 71 more plate appearances, Ibanez hit 18 fewer home runs than he did the previous year. His .793 OPS was his lowest since 2005, but given the drop in offense across baseball, Ibanez still finished with a .341 wOBA and a 112 OPS+.
Think about it for a second: isn’t it kind of amazing that a 38-year-old posted a 112 OPS+? It is — in the last 50 years, only 45 players age 38 or older have posted an OPS+ of 112 or greater, and many of them are among baseball’s best.
When we talk about baseball players aging, we usually do so in very broad terms. Players with certain body types and skill sets will age differently than players with other types and sets. Just because a player is old doesn’t mean he is due to immediately fall off a cliff.
PECOTA projects Ibanez with a triple-slash line of .260/.330/.439, which is a slight decline from last year. A .770 OPS would fall right around the National League average for left fielders. I’m more optimistic than PECOTA on Ibanez’s future — I could see him falling between his 2008 and ’10 offensive performances (123 and 112 OPS+, respectively).
No matter where he ends up, one thing is for certain: reports of Ibanez’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.