Perhaps this post is a bit reactionary; however, looking at R.J.’s post about Kelly Shoppach’s missing pop, I’m not the only one concerned about Shoppach’s bat returning to an acceptable level. Coming into Tuesday night’s game, the Rays’ right-handed catcher was hitting .156/.241/.234 in 87 plate appearances. If that absent power is going to show up, it better do so in a hurry.
Aside from his .078 ISO, Shoppach is not walking much (6.9%) and striking out a whopping 40% of the time. As a matter of fact, Shoppach has struck out 102 times in 93 games with the Rays. Three-outcome hitters are fine if they are producing all three outcomes. Thus far, Shoppach is only showing the strikeout portion of the trio while the walks and home runs have been slow to manifest.
This should not come as a shock to anyone who watches the Rays on a regular basis; however, Shoppach is swinging at more pitches this season. He has increased his swings on pitches both inside and outside of the zone. Although his contact rate is up, he has missed on more than 20% of his hacks. A look at Shoppach’s line drive rate and batting average on balls in play suggest bad luck, but the low rates appear to be a byproduct of bad pitch selection and overall process more than anything else.
The Rays learned about sunk costs the hard way with Troy Percival and Pat Burrell. As Shoppach nears 100 plate appearances, he may be headed that way. The team is already on the hook for his $3 million salary and he is not guaranteed a contract next season. Last season, Burrell was cut after 94 plate appearances and $9 million remaining.
Shoppach is younger than Burrell and plays a defensive position; meanwhile there are a few options in Triple-A which could factor in the decision. The short-term option would be Jose Lobaton. The 26-year-old has been with Tampa Bay since 2009, but has yet to appear in a major league game despite a few call-ups. A solid defender behind the plate, Lobaton has enjoyed a hot start at the plate in 2011. In 121 plate appearances he is hitting .324/.412/.559. He is showing more pop than ever before while his walk rate has always been pretty good. His numbers are unlikely to translate to the next level, but stranger things have happened.
The more popular and more long-term answer is Robinson Chirinos. Rays fans got to see some of his talent when Chirinos tore up the Grapefruit League in March. He got off to a slow start in April hitting just .176/.253/.191 in 68 at-bats for Triple-A Durham; however, he has turned it on in May with a slash line of .333/.382/.413 in 63 at-bats. Because he just around 200 total plate appearances at the Triple-A level, and is still just a few years removed from being an infielder, the Rays may want give him more development in the minors. On the other hand, he will turn 27 on Sunday.
As an organization known for its due diligence, they will give Shoppach a bit more time before considering making a change. Both Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos would offer defensive upgrades and could almost certainly be upgrades at the plate. Lobaton represents more of a band-aid approach whereas Chirinos has a legitimate change to evolve into a primary catcher. In any event, with every swing and miss we could be getting closer to sinking Shoppach and freeing Lobaton or Chirinos.