Aybar or Johnson?

The Rays enjoy the luxury of being able to employ a Designated Hitter into the lineup for most of their games each season. While that in itself is an advantage over their National League counterparts, it has never been been much of an advantage for the team compared to their competition in the American League, especially in 2010.

Baseball-Reference.com is a terrific site that captures historical lineup data for teams year by year. According to their lineup archives, the following players have been the primary Designated Hitter for the Rays in a single season: Paul Sorrento, Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn, Aubrey Huff, Al Martin, Robert Fick, Jonny Gomes, Cliff Floyd, Pat Burrell, and Willy Aybar. Fick’s efforts in 2004 were the worst in franchise history as he had an OPS of just .600 that season which is equivalent to a very weak hitting reserve middle infielder while Jose Canseco had a .931 OPS in 1999.

As a group, the Rays’ Designated Hitters have a slash line (BA/OBP/SLG) of .251/.336/.443. Compare that to the .265/.348/.450 slash line that all Designated Hitters as a group since 1998 and it highlights that the Designated Hitter issue that has plagued the Rays each of the past two seasons is not a new problem.

If you were to ask most fans to say the first word that comes to mind when they hear the term Designated Hitter, power would likely be the word. Jim Thome, Frank Thomas, and David Ortiz are images that come to mind as hired bats that are paid to mash the ball in the middle of the lineup. Isolated Power (IsoP) is a metric used by analysts to measure raw power and it is calculated by subtracting a hitter’s batting average from their slugging percentage.

A .200 IsoP is considered a good benchmark for a power hitter but only a few Rays’ Designated Hitters have achieved that benchmark. Jose Canseco in 1999, Greg Vaughn in 2001, Aubrey Huff in 2002, and Jonny Gomes from 2005-2007 are the only hitters to do so. Gomes had a .253 IsoP in 2005 and since that year, the IsoP score for a Rays’ Designated Hitter has gotten progressively worse. Gomes has an IsoP of .253, .216, and .216 during his stint which Floyd followed up with a .187, Burrell with a .146, and Aybar with a paltry .115 this season.

Aybar had a slash line of .230/.309/.344 this season in 270 at bats while all of the other Designated Hitters in the American League hit .253/.333/428 as a group. Aybar’s power deficiencies stand out even more so when put up against his counterparts this season. That said, he will probably be the Rays’ Designated Hitter tonight as they face the ever-dominant lefty Cliff Lee.

Aybar is not the ideal Designated Hitter but the choice for tonight’s deciding Game 5 comes down to Aybar or the left-handed hitting Dan Johnson and here’s why Joe Maddon will likely choose Aybar. Aybar has a .277/.342/.428 slash line against left-handed starting pitchers in 495 career at bats while Johnson has a .243/.365/.404 slash line against that group in just 255 at bats. The only thing that Johnson does better than Aybar in this situation is get on base more often and that is because Johnson has a 16% walk rate in this split while Aybar has just a 9% walk rate. Normally, Johnson would be the play here because he gets on base at a superior rate and takes more pitches per plate appearance than Aybar does but against Cliff Lee, the script is flipped.

Cliff Lee has thrown 219.1 innings in 2010 and in that time, he has struck out 195 batters while walking just 18 – one of the best strikeout to walk ratios baseball has seen since Brett Saberhagen. In 47.1 innings of post-season pitching, Lee has walked just six batters. Simply put, if a batter goes up there looking for a walk, they’re going to end up looking at a third strike as the Rays did three times the first time through the line-up in Game 1. This nullifies Johnson’s advantage over Aybar as far as getting on base and his slight edge in IsoP (.161 to .152) does not strongly warrant putting him in over Aybar.

The Rays need to produce runs against Lee and Aybar gives the Rays the best chance in this split with the superior batting average and slugging percentage. Additionally, a small sample size shows he is 4 for 12 lifetime against Lee and has struck out just three times. Expect to find Aybar in the middle of the lineup tonight in between Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena as the Rays attempt to become just first team since the 2001 New York Yankees to drop the first two home games of a League Divisional Series and come back to win the final three.