Casey McGehee is a Brewer. We have always hated Casey McGehee. Casey McGehee is a Pirate. We have always loved Casey McGehee.
When the Pirates picked up Casey McGehee last night, my initial instinct was to remember that how awful he was in 2011 and how overrated I thought he was in 2010. Being overrated doesn’t mean that a player isn’t useful, of course (see: Neil Walker), which is something that I have to remind myself pretty regularly. The second that I remembered that, I stopped asking why the Pirates would want McGehee — it’s obvious why they’d want a guy that was a 3-win player in 2010 in exchange for a reliever they were otherwise going to non-tender — and shifted to what the Pirates might be seeing in a guy that was just as bad as Pedro Alvarez at the plate last year.
Most Twitter conversation (mostly between James and Ed) last night centered on his very low BABIP in 2011 (.249 vs. .330 and .306 in 2009 and 2010, respectively) and his low HR/FB rate (8.6% vs. 13.6% and 12.5%), two things that could suggest that a hitter is getting unlucky. That’s a start, but it seemed to me at that point that it wasn’t a huge amount to go on given that McGehee does strike out quite a bit (almost a quarter of his plate appearances are either strikeouts or walks [career 16.6% K rate and 7.6% BB rate], which means fewer balls in play, which means a low BABIP would have less of an effect) and that he’s moving to PNC Park, which tends to swallow right-handed hitters homers. Which is to say that yes, McGehee did get a bit unlucky in 2011, but based on those numbers alone I’m not sure that a better BABIP would help him out a whole ton, especially because PNC Park won’t do his power any favors.
So I woke up this morning still pondering the question until I saw this tweet from ESPN’s Christina Kahrl about McGehee’s bad year against lefties in 2011. I figured I’d follow up on that a bit and there’s definitely something there. In McGehee’s breakout 2009 season, he hit .303/.404/.461 against lefties, though he mostly played against righties (290 PAs vs. 104). In 2010, his first full year, he hit .316/.358/.589 against lefties. Eight of his 23 homers came against left-handed hitters, despite only a quarter of his PAs being against lefties. In 2011, McGehee hit .169/.228/.185 against lefties. So, all indications before 2011 were that he was a fairly typical right-handed hitter and then suddenly, he completely bottomed out against lefties.
Was it because he hurt his thumb early in the year? Or because some mystical cosmic force feasted on his ability to hit lefties to fuel its undying hunger? Was he just weirdly unlucky early in the year and let that fester into something worse? If you dig a little deeper, you can see that almost all of his BABIP and HR/FB problems stem from left-handed pitchers, even though his line drive rates and strikeout rates and flyball and groundball rates all seem to be in line with what he did against righties. That’s not as good as he was in the past, but it still suggests he was hugely unlucky against left-handed pitching in 2011. I don’t know if McGehee will get back to his 2009/2010 rates against lefties, but I do know I’d be incredibly surprised if he put up a .413 OPS against southpaws again 2012. If he improves there, he’ll be a much better player for the Pirates than he was for the Brewers last year.