Kirk Nieuwenhuis came up last season after CF Andres Torres went down. Billed as an athletic and toolsy outfielder with some promise, Nieuwenhuis hit the ground running raking to the tune of a .325 batting average in March and April. Then came some strike outs, and more strike outs, and then came a whole lot of weak grounders and even more strikeouts, which led to his demotion in July when he batted .105 — deer in the headlights.
This was the same player that had a .298 avg. a .908 OPS and a .403 OBP in AAA as a 23 year old, but major league pitchers figured him out. They’d pour in a couple of early strikes, some breaking pitches to mess up his line of sight, and would finish him off with a fastball up and in.
Early on Kirk was swinging at everything — including that first strike or two. With a 0 – 0 count, Kirk hit .364. He was clobbering get-me-over strikes. With an 0 – 1 count his average dropped to .250, still, not bad. Now all hitters do poorly with 2 strikes, but not quite as poorly as Kirk. With an 0 – 2 count Kirk hit .172, with a 1 – 2 count he hit .175, with a 2 – 2 count he hit .145 (!). Given a relatively neutral “start from scratch” 3 – 2 count, Kirk hit .129! Why would Kirk hit worse with a 3 – 2 or a 2 – 2 count than he would with a 0 – 2 count? Your guess is as good as mine, but maybe he was trying too hard to work walks on those counts. The take away here is that the more pitches Kirk sees the more his average drops.
The drop-off from the first part of his season (his first 6 weeks) to his 2nd half was unbelievable (he ended the season on a 9 for 73 skid), and while he did strike out a lot in the minors, he also put up some pretty decent numbers — especially in 2011 at AAA with a .408 obp. Sure the league adjusted to him, but 9 for 73?
Strangely, Kirk’s K-rates month to month don’t really tell us much – they’re fairly flat, but Kirk sure did make out more as the year progressed. He went from a 26.7% K-rate in AAA in 2011 (he was actually at 21.5% in 94 games in 2010 at AA) to a 31.2% rate in the majors which is a hefty jump, but lets chalk that up to the higher level of competition. 63 of Kirks K’s came after a first pitch strike and my sense is than an inordinate number of them were called strikes (Kirk needs to be swinging at that first pitch).
But here’s the kicker — again, forget about K-rates for a moment — Kirk hit .125 after working the count to 3 – 2 (for the season), he hit .138 on 2 – 2 counts, and on the ultimate hitter’s count, 3 – 1, he hit a measly .231. On the other hand, he hit .417 on 0 – 0 counts, .611 on 1 – 0 counts, and .522 on 1 – 1 counts. This is a kid who does not do well deep in counts.
Here’s another tidbit, of his 3 full months, his highest drop in avg (from .323 down to .263) coincided with his highest walk total (10) for a single month. Obviously after a torrid April it was impressed upon Kirk to try and walk more. This sent his avg into a tailspin from which it never recovered. In what universe would you preach patience to a player who seems to be at his best when he is most aggressive? A good development program tailors adjustments to talented players even when they aren’t perfect fits … this obviously did not happen for Kirk, in fact they defied convention and tried to make a high OBP lead-off type hitter out of him. Naturally, his performance tanked because his particular skill-set was disinclined to that particular role.
Did Kirk strike out more as he took more pitches? Not really, but he did make out more — his BABIP went from .453 in April, to .396 in May, to .283 in June, to .200 in July. Kirk, while not necessarily striking out more, had a ton of soft grounders mixed in with a healthy dose of pop ups and fly balls because he was too tentative and had completely lost his confidence.
Here’s the breakdown again:
HIGH pitch count
3 – 2 .125
2 – 2 .138
3 – 1 .231
LOW pitch count
0 – 0 .417
1 – 0 .611
1 – 1 . 522
Kirk hit .231 on 3 – 1 counts and .200 on 3 – 0 counts. These are hitters counts for crying out loud! David Wright hit .333 on 3 – 2 counts and .413 on 3 – 1 counts! Ruben Tejada hit .444 on 3 – 1 counts. Good lord even Mike Nickeas hit .333 on 3 – 1 counts! I think Kirk might simply be prone to getting his line of sight messed up when he see’s a lot of pitches and he swings at pitches out of the zone resulting in weak contact.
Another thing to consider with Kirk is that while batting eye rarely improves very much, power almost always does for young players. So here we have this kid who strikes out 31% of the time (Ryan Howard struck out over 30% of the time too), maybe he improves to 26% or 27% (closer to what he was in the minors). I’ll take that any day from a solid fielding Center fielder if it comes with an 800 ops and 20 – 25 homers … sort of a Mark Reynolds / Mark Cameron hybrid, but a lead-off hitter? No.
The premise is essentially pedagogical. I think there was a conflict of program and skill set that confounded Kirk’s progress. Teachers who tailor their instruction to their students’ strengths rather than focusing exclusively on the remediation of weaknesses tend see more improvement. You don’t try and teach a 350 lb. lineman how to play Safety. Nelson Cruz had a .319. OBP last year, did the Rangers bat him in the lead-off spot? Of course not, the vast majority of Cruz’ at bats were in the #5 and #6 spots. Sure, maybe Cruz has a lot more redeeming traits than Kirk, but Kirk was a pretty good player in the minors, who is to say he might not have shown a less gradual drop-off in his production in 2012 if he hadn’t been overwhelmed by having to bat lead-off?
Would Kirk benefit from being more patient in the here and now? I’m willing to entertain that (especially as his BB rate was almost twice what it was in AAA than it was in 2012), but putting him in the lead-off spot can not possibly help him in that regard — he wasn’t ready for it. What happens when you overburden learners before they are ready? Well, not only do they almost always fail, but you destroy their confidence, which is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a young player.
If you’re going to make a more patient hitter out of Kirk Nieuwenhuis, you don’t do it by moving him from pre-algebra to particle physics in the same quarter. You do it gradually, and in the meantime, you’d hope there is room on the Mets for players who don’t fit organizational tenets but provide value in other ways. Kirk was a success story who’d shown improvement at every level and was coming off a stint in AAA where he’d put up a +15% walk rate and a +.400 OBP. He has the tools (speed, some gap power, good defense) to become a valuable player. The Mets need to recognize his strengths and talents and build a player based on them rather than trying to reinvent a Kirk Nieuwenhuis that bears no resemblance to the one who was brought up from AAA last year.
Did Kirk try to be more patient when he was put in the lead-off spot? Who knows, maybe he didn’t, maybe he thought screw you Collins you ancient white haired little gremlin, I’m going to do what got me here, I’m going to swing at every frigging thing they throw at me. That’s possible. Or, more likely, he was a good soldier, did what he and every baseball player and coach knows a lead-off hitter is supposed to do and tried to get on base at a higher clip.
Initially he was successful walking 10 times in May, but at what price? He sacrificed the aggressiveness that was at the core of his success, he became tentative and uncertain, his attempts to make contact resulted in an extraordinary number of soft grounders to go along with his already high strike outs and dwindling walks. Things went from bad to worse as he became ever more desperate to make contact and pitchers more and more pitched him outside the zone.
Putting Nieuwinhuis in the lead-off role is asking for trouble given his history. Will he fail? Well, if Collins is determined to bat him lead-off I would still root for him hoping against the odds that the succeeds, and if he does I’ll be the fist to acknowledge that perhaps he’s a better student of the game than I’d given him credit for, but it’s asking an awful lot from a rookie whose got some valuable redeeming qualities independent of his ability to work walks.