You can understand why folks gravitate to Tony Campana. He’s got a great story (childhood cancer survivor, worked hard to get here, etc.), he seems like a nice guy, and, frankly, he’s small. Those types always get positive buzz.
Much like with Darwin Barney, I *want* to like Campana as a baseball player. I’ll cheer for him as hard as I can. It would be a swell story if he ended up a meaningful contributor in 2012 for the Chicago Cubs.
But we all know that, no matter how hard we pull for him, Tony Campana is not going to be a useful MLB regular – or even spot starter – unless he figures out how to get on base. Campana, a career .303 hitter in the minors with a .359 OPB, went just .259/.303 in those categories in the bigs. With average defense and premium speed, it really does all come down to getting on base for Campana. And as good at it as he was in the minors, he was terrible at it in the Majors last year.
Why the big shift down? Well, a number of factors contributed, but let’s first rule out bad luck associated with his batting average. Campana’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .321 in the bigs last year, which is high, as you’d expect for a speedster. Obviously his batting average wasn’t crushed but an unluckily low BABIP.
A big part of the story was his slightly increased K rate, which jumped to 19.4% in the bigs (still better than average) from about 16% in the minors. That slight increase can actually crush your batting average. Think of it this way: if 32/33% of the balls you put in play are good for hits, but you suddenly strike out in 3.5% more at bats, that’s 3.5% fewer balls in play, and thus about 1.2% fewer hits. That would take a .300 batting average down to .288, and would offer a commensurate drop in the OBP.
As for the rest of the drop in Campana’s batting average, my guess is a combination of weaker contact and better defense took a chunk.
But another big contributor to the drop in OBP was Campana’s walk rate, which fell all the way down to 5.16% in the bigs, after hovering around 8% in the minors (league average in the bigs is about 8.5%, for what it’s worth). The math there is pretty easy to see – if you start walking in 3% fewer plate appearances, your OBP will drop by .030. Oof.
Take it all together, and you’ve got a guy who goes from being extremely valuable at a .359 OBP in the minors, to being a super fast guy whom you can’t afford to start because of his rough .303 OBP.
Campana does have at least one thing going for him: he’s about average when it comes to seeing pitches. At 3.78 pitches per plate appearance last year, Campana would have placed been 87th in baseball if he’d qualified, but would have been fourth on the Cubs behind only Carlos Pena (gone), Kosuke Fukudome (gone), and Darwin Barney. That’s a testament to just how bad the Cubs were at seeing pitches last year, but that’s another story. The point is, Campana is already at least average at seeing pitches. Now he just needs to learn to take a few more of the questionable ones, and put a few more of the good ones on the ground. Easy for me to say, obviously.
Another bit of good news for Campana? He knows what he needs to work on, and is doing it:
“I have to go out and show I can hold my own offensively. And if I can show them what I can do offensively, maybe I’ll get my chance. They’ll probably start out that I’ll get my spots and it’ll increase from there.”
He has to show he can get on base. Told that a veteran scout suggested Campana should be fined every time he hits the ball in the air, the outfielder nodded.
“I agree,” Campana said. “Me hitting the ball in the air, I’m not making any money up there. I’m not going to hit even 10 home runs a year — maybe a couple. Why would you hit the ball in the air?
“You can hit line drives, and I have to be able to hit the ball in gaps, so I can get a little respect,” he said. “You don’t want outfielders playing 10 feet from the infielders. I got a little stronger so I think I’ll get that respect. Then it’s just putting bat on ball.” …
Campana has a career .303 batting average and .359 on-base percentage in the Minors. He’s working on improving his bunting, but knows he also has to be able to make contact, especially if the opposing third baseman is so far in on the grass he can shake Campana’s hand.
“There’s a lot of advantages of me being able to bunt,” Campana said. “Bringing [the third baseman] in will make it easier for me.”
So where does this all leave Campana? Unless there’s a trade, he’s still going to be fighting just to make the team, let alone to win some starts.
If he can cut down on his strikeouts slightly (which you’d expect in a guy’s second year), and take a few more walks (you’d expect a slight increase as Campana refines his approach), he’ll see a modest increase in his OBP (various projections actually do have all of those things happening, and have Campana with an OBP closer to .330 in 2012). But if he’s going to get that OBP back to where it was in the minors, and at a level where the Cubs can’t afford not to start him, he’ll have to increase his batting average dramatically. That means more ground balls, more bunts, and, of course, more line drives.
It’s good to know that’s exactly what he’s been working on.