On Friday, May 8, the Chicago Cubs were playing the Milwaukee Brewers. It was a nondescript, early season game. In the third inning, Ryan Braun drove a hard grounder down the third baseline, and the ball was destined for left field. It was a certain double until third baseman Aramis Ramirez, displaying excellent defensive prowess for which he receives little credit, dove quickly, snagging the hard grounder.
And the 2009 season went off the rails.
Ramirez was out for more than two months after dislocating his shoulder on the play, and Cubs fans suffered through a nightmarish rotation of Aaron Miles and Mike Fontenot at third base. Meanwhile, prospect Jake Fox was lighting up AAA pitching like so many fireflies. Dear God, couldn’t he play third base, at least temporarily, we all cried.
But it was weeks before the Cubs finally gave him a shot at third base – where, of course, he played competently. And better still, he brought the big stick. He was a spark that the middling Cubs’ offense desperately needed. Visions of Jake Fox, 2010 starter, crept into the collective fan consciousness. And then Ramirez returned, and Fox faded, ever so slightly, into the background.
But it wasn’t just the return of Ramirez that put Baby Fox in the corner. In fact, as Alfonso Soriano continued to struggle, and eventually stopped playing due to a knee problem, Fox continued to see more starts. But still, his presence was not felt in the way it was just weeks earlier when he manned third base. So what happened? Why did we stop noticing him?
Put simply: he stopped producing. And it may say a great deal about his prospects as a Major League player – starter or role player. Now, a word of caution at the outset: in general, you extrapolate from one season’s worth of stats (or in Fox’s case, about a half of a full season’s worth of stats) at your own peril. But that’s all we’ve got to go on for now. So bring on the peril.
Overall, Fox had a fine season considering his role and his relatively inexperience in the league. He put up a .259 / .311 / .468 / .779 line (that’s batting average, OBP, SLG, and OPS), with an OPS+ of 98. That was with slightly less than a half season’s worth of the plate appearances you’d expect to see for a full-time starter.
But looking a guy’s full season of stats doesn’t necessarily tell you a whole lot about his true performance, particularly when the guy was bounced around in a variety of roles. Obviously it can’t tell us anything about the direction of Fox’s production. That’s where his monthly splits come in:
- June – Fox played in 17 games, and started 11. He hit .304 / .340 / .522 / .861.
- July – Fox played in 19 games, and started 11. He hit .300 / .339 / .660 / .999 .
- August – Fox played in 23 games, and started 15. He hit .246 / .315 / .431 / .746 .
- September (and a bit from October) – Fox played in 19 games, and started 11. He hit .167 / .231 / .250 / .481 .
The general trend here – outside of the obvious later-in-the-season-worse-performance trend – is the more games Fox started, the worse he performed. That’s why we stopped noticing Fox as much. And more importantly, it tends to indicate that Fox is perhaps not cut out to be a starter.
But that general trend is undercut by the broader, on point splits: namely, how Fox did as a starter, a sub, and a pinch hitter.
- As starter: .262 / .308 / .481 / .789 (48 games).
- As sub: .242 / .325 / .394 / .719 (34 games, 40 total plate appearances).
- As pinch hitter: .208 / .300 / .292 / .592 (30 plate appearances).
Unlike the monthly trend, these stats indicate that Jake Fox is a better starter than he is a sub (and a hell of a lot better than he is a pinch hitter). So what does this mean? How do we reconcile these seemingly conflicting stats?
Together, the stats establish that Jake Fox is a better hitter when he’s a starter. But he’s better still when he’s a spot starter.
Recall, when Aramis Ramirez went down, not only did Fox not immediately begin starting in his place, but also, when he did finally start seeing time at third base, it was as a spot starter. He would spell a guy here and there, but that was it.
When Alfonso Soriano went down, on the other hand, Fox started seeing much more regular time in the starting lineup. In August, for example, Fox saw the highest percentage of his appearances as starts. Nearly two thirds of his appearances that month were starts – not a full-time regular, but more regularity than he was seeing in June. Fox ultimately started more than half of the Cubs’ games in August. And that’s when things turned south. He was better as a spot starter.
This, of course, does not necessarily mean that Jake Fox should be a starter for the Chicago Cubs – in spot duty or otherwise. Consider the following stats, which reflect his numbers facing teams against whom he started at least three times:
- 9 games against the Pirates (6 starts): .240 / .321 / .320 / .641
- 9 games against the Brewers (8 starts): .226 / .294 / .452 / .746
- 7 games against the Reds (3 starts): .154 / .250 / .154 / .404
- 7 games against the Astros (3 starts): .200 / .235 / .467 / .702
- 6 games against the White Sox (4 starts): .278 / .316 / .556 / .871 (note, outside of division)
- 5 games against the Phillies (3 starts): .231 / .250 / .231 / .481
Clearly, the teams that saw Fox the most had the most success against him. Were he to become a regular starter, it is not unreasonable to think this trend may continue. In fact, it may be the case that Fox is not better or worse as a sub or regular starter or spot starter – he might just be worse as the season wears on, and opponents figure out the holes in his swing.
But it’s not as though Fox would be a total disaster going forward, and this exercise is not intended to indicate any such thing. After all, this is a guy who played games at catcher, 1st, 3rd, LF and RF. That has a great deal of value. And his lefty/righty splits are very intriguing:
- Against righties: .263 / .318 / .500 / .818
- Against lefties: .250 / .290 / .375 / .665
Those look more like the splits of a productive regular (a lefty, anyway) than a bench guy.
In the end, however, as exciting as it was to watch Jake Fox succeed earlier in the season, and provide a spark, thoughts of him as a starter on the Cubs next year are probably premature. To be certain, he could continue to develop and adjust, and become a solid enough hitter in a regular role that the Cubs will have to find a permanent position. But based on his first season, it does not seem likely to happen.
So what to do with Mr. Fox?
There may very well be small market clubs that view Fox as a cheap starter or DH. And if a team wants to trade the Cubs as though he’s a starter, great. That’s value worth accepting. But Fox does not appear to be a starter, and if he is to remain on the Cubs, he is probably of more value on the bench.