Notice anything interesting about the line graph above? It’s Shane Victorino‘s weighted on-base average (wOBA) from 2006 through 2011. That sharp spike from 2010-11 marks some significant offensive improvement for the switch-hitter. His .405 wOBA ranks tenth among all qualified hitters in Major League Baseball, just behind Joey Votto in ninth place. Along with his outstanding offense, Victorino has played stellar defense (+17.3 UZR/150; small sample size caveat) and been a threat on the bases (3.4 base running runs also ranks tenth in all of MLB). Overall, he has been worth 5.4 Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs (fWAR), tied with Matt Holliday for seventh-best in baseball.
The big change has been his production from the right side against left-handed pitchers. Victorino has always been better against lefties, but not quite this good. Overall, Victorino has a .382 wOBA against lefties over his career, but this year, it is an eye-popping .517. By comparison, Jose Bautista — a favorite to win the American League Most Valuable Player award — has a .505 wOBA against southpaws.
Needless to say, Victorino is hitting for significantly more power against lefties (.364 ISO in 2011; .211 career), but he is also walking significantly more (14% 2011; 8% career) and striking out slightly less (10% in 2011; 11% career). The improved plate discipline has allowed him to significantly alter the quality of contact he makes when he swings the bat. This year, he is hitting fly balls 59% of the time compared to his career average 44% and down from 41% last year. More fly balls means more home runs, but Shane is even converting much more on that front as well: 17.5% of fly balls have gone beyond the outfield fence this year, way up from his 10% career average and his 10% showing last year. All of this against left-handed pitching. Victorino’s splits against right-handed pitching have barely changed.
At first glance, it appears Victorino is getting lucky. His .325 BABIP is above his career average .303, and breaking it down by batted ball type shows some more disparity:
- Ground balls: .266 BABIP in 2011; .269 career
- Fly balls: .159 BABIP in 2011; .106 career
- Line drives: .854 in 2011; .753 career
While he has had a lot of success on line drives, his line drive rate against lefties (16%) is at a career low and is among the lowest in baseball (20th-lowest, in fact). He has hit only 49 line drives total, so based on his career average, we would expect 37 hits as opposed to 42. We can chalk this up to a combination of randomness and some legitimate skill, as we have seen evidence that Victorino is making much better contact.
The fly balls follow a similar path. He has hit 117 fly balls, so based on his career average BABIP on fly balls, we would expect 12 hits rather than 17 (subtracting out his 10 home runs). And, obviously, there isn’t any difference at all with the ground balls. So, Victorino may have ten extra hits than expected, which would account for about 16 points of batting average over 600 at-bats. Overall, though, it doesn’t explain the improved plate discipline and power against left-handed pitching.
The only part that could be fluky in any meaningful way is the HR/FB rate. If his HR/FB rate against lefties regresses from 17.5% to, say, 12.5% next year, it could make the difference of six home runs given 117 fly balls. If we took away six home runs from Victorino right now and gave him credit for one more double (-22 total bases), his slugging percentage drops from .532 to .465.
Sustaining that HR/FB rate against lefties will be the biggest key for Victorino moving forward. If he can, he officially joins the ranks as one of the best hitters in baseball. If not, he is still a well above-average hitter and still quite useful in the Phillies lineup. That is a key consideration, as Victorino can file for free agency after the 2012 season.