After spending two years off the map nursing various injuries, Jeff Clement is killing the ball in Triple-A in 2012. Through 47 games, he’s hitting .321/.403/.562 with seven homers, 16 doubles, and a triple. He’s drawn 23 walks and struck out 35 times in 186 plate appearances. He’s particularly on fire right now; five of those homers and four of those doubles (and the triple!) have all come in the last ten games. The Pirates are locked in a team-wide struggle with the Mendoza line this year, so it’s fair to ask: Could Jeff Clement help the Pirates?
Let’s turn back the clock a bit here. The last time that Clement had a full, healthy season and looked like something of a prospect was 2009, when the Pirates acquired him. He was 25, and had been in Triple-A for a concerning amount of time (since 2006), but he was hitting. He hit .274/.354/.496 with Tacoma and Indianapolis that year and though his production dropped when he went from the hitter-friendly PCL to the International League, but let’s use this season as a point of comparison.
|2009||25||2 Teams||2 Lgs||119||536||470||129||35||3||21||55||108||.274||.354||.496||.850||233||6||2|
Clement’s struggles in the Majors have always been a function of strike-zone understanding. In 397 plate appearances with the Pirates and Mariners, he’s drawn just 24 walks (6.0% of plate appearances) and struck out 103 times (25.9%). He had some mechanical problems with the Pirates, if I’m remembering correctly, but in general his biggest problem is just that he can’t recognize strikes. In both 2008 and 2009, he swung at fewer strikes than the average player, but chased more balls out of the strike zone. It’s simplistic, but there it is.
The point is, I don’t really care how many homers Clement has hit in the last two weeks or what his slugging percentage is or about any of those things. We know that when he’s healthy, he can hit the ball a mile; in 154 plate appearances with the Pirates in 2010, he hit seven homers despite his .201 batting average. What I want to know is if he’s doing better recognizing Triple-A pitching.
It’s a pretty small sample for this year, but it’d be fair to argue that he is. His walk rate this year is 12.6%, up from 10.3% in 2009. His strikeout rate is 18.9%, down from 20.1% in 2009. The problem is that Clement’s 28 now and he’s been in Triple-A since 2006. Of course he’s better. It’d be insane if he wasn’t. It’s hard to extract much meaning from a 28 year old in Triple-A that’s been there for as long as Clement has, though, other than to say that after all of his injuries he’s finally healthy again. I’m not sure that’s really an indicator that he’d be a useful big league player at this point, though.
Then again, the Pirates are terrible at hitting baseballs. Casey McGehee’s hitting .196/.289/.286 and he’s got 128 plate appearances. Jose Tabata’s hitting .219/.278/.333 and he’s got 199 plate appearances. Why not cut McGehee loose, call Clement up, platoon him with Matt Hague at first base, shift Garrett Jones back to right field, and use Tabata to spell Alex Presley and Jones until there’s some evidence that he’s going to start hitting again? Doing that couldn’t possibly be worse than what the Pirates are doing now by trotting Tabata and McGehee out there practically every day. The McGehee experiment isn’t working and honestly, it’s time to stop treating Tabata like some great unknown quantity that needs n at-bats before his true talent is revealed. Clement’s hitting in Indy. Let’s plug him in and get him some swings and see if he can bring something more to the table than a few balls into the right field grandstand and a ton of strikeouts this time around. He probably won’t, but it’s at least worth investigating at this point.