The Victorino Power Outage

There was a time last season when Shane Victorino was having more than just a good season; he was a legitimate MVP candidate. The argument can probably be made that, until a rough, ragged September diminished his season numbers, Victorino’s chances were way better than non-zero at taking the award. A centerfielder hitting .314/.389/.551 as late as August 23 certainly merits that consideration, even though a .179/.257/.321 line from thereon sabotaged those hopes and Shane finished 13th in the voting.

Regardless, it seemed like Victorino had tapped into something latent, a subterranean vein of offensive skill that outclassed what he had previously been known for or expected to produce. Much like John Mayberry Jr.’s second half last year, there were plenty of reasons to think Victorino could carry this newfound production into his walk year and help hold down the fort as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley made their way back.

Suffice to say that hasn’t happened.

Victorino enters game action Saturday with a rather paltry .252/.319/.399 slash line to his name, his .718 OPS good for a 95 OPS+ but feeling like a disappointment in the shadow of 2011’s promise. In his six prior full seasons in Philadelphia, Shane has never slugged lower than .414, and his average SLG has been even higher at .443. Shane’s calling card remains his prowess as a right-handed bat; his .333/.389/.652 split against southpaws is right in line with what we’ve come to expect, but those gaudy figures come in just 72 of Shane’s 306 PA. You can begin to brace yourselves, than, for his current split as a lefty: .226/.299/.322.

The concept of Shane struggling from the left side is nothing new. His career splits feature a gulf of more than .140 in OPS between left and right, although that’s obviously dwarfed by this season’s .400-plus-point spread.

To the right, we see a comparison of Shane’s SLG on balls in play, first from the 2011 regular season (top) and the 2012 season-to-date (bottom). What pops out immediately is that the heart of the plate is actually one of Shane’s coldest zones so far this season. Pitches belt-high and in, as well as those over the middle and down, still seem to let Shane drive the ball with some authority, but a vast and unsettling portion of the plate is that troubling royal blue.

Swinging and missing isn’t the problem – Shane’s whiff rate on pitches in the strike zone is down from 9.3 percent in 2011 to 7.3 percent so far this season, and his chase rate has seen only a very modest increase, from 30.1 percent to 31.2 percent.

On raw numbers, little seems to have changed in terms of approach for Victorino, but the results are obviously lacking. The .050-point drop in BABIP from the previous year seems tied in to a similar drop in well-hit average.

Another area of interest is the outer edge of the plate, away from Victorino. In the past, Shane had been able to slap pitches away to left or left-center. Ten of Shane’s 42 extra-base hits last season as a lefty went left of center. The rate has increased this year, but the volume isn’t there: four of 12 have been earned going the other way, and only one of those was down the line.

To the left, we see a comparison of Shane’s extra-base hit locations. Now, we’re comparing a full season with not-quite-half a season, so 2012 will obviously look barren in comparison. But something resembling a trend seems to be appearing, at least to my eye. Is the lack of hits the other way ties to a diminished amount of plate coverage? Weaker contact on pitches farther away? Good leftfield play? Or some combination of all of the above?

No matter the precise symptoms – I’m not here to offer a diagnosis or provide an answer – it seems the thing to look for in Shane moving forward is an uptick in hard-hit balls the other way when he’s batting left-handed. Batting righty remains no issue at all, but if Shane is to rebuild the value he had stored up with his excellent 5/6ths of a season in 2011, it seems that would be one thing that needs to return.

Think of this as something allegorical to Ryan Howard’s opposite-field power. Where you’d expect Howard to hit pitches deeper in the zone out to left when he’s going right, so it seems Victorino doing the same for extra singles or doubles would potentially be a sign of better things to come.