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The Surprising Success of the Free-Swinging Pedro Ciriaco

 Pedro Ciriaco #77 of the Boston Red Sox doing what he does, swinging away wildy and yet still driving the ball hard.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Pedro Ciriaco #77 of the Boston Red Sox doing what he does, swinging away wildy and yet still driving the ball hard. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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After an impressive showing in Spring Training, Pedro Ciriaco returned to AAA. The versatile infielder had spent the last two seasons at that level and with that assignment, the Red Sox became the third organization to evaluate the 26 year old infielder as little more than minor league depth. Had things gone differently for the 2012 Red Sox, Ciriaco probably would have stayed in Pawtucket. He was behind Mike Aviles and Nick Punto on the depth chart at shortstop and Kevin Youkilis, Will Middlebrooks as well as Punto and Aviles at third. Fortunately for him, things did not go as planned.

With Youkilis gone and the Red Sox coping with a rash of injuries, Ciriaco got his first chance to start on July 7, playing in both games of a double header that day against the Yankees. He went 0-4 in the first game with two strikeouts, but that was quickly forgotten when he went 4-5 with two doubles and four RBIs leading the Red Sox to a 9-5 victory. Since joining the big league club, Ciriaco has been a force of nature. He is hitting 38% better than league average by weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) while playing good-to-great defense at shortstop and third base. It has been incredibly fun and exciting to watch. Ciriaco has been so impressive that there has even been some talk around these parts in support of making him the starting shortstop in 2013. Now that he is on pass for something around a 4.5 win season by Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) model, it is high time that he got a closer look.

The elephant in the room with Ciriaco is about as obvious as, well, an elephant in a room. His .350/.363/.483 performance at the plate has come in just 148 plate appearances and it is driven by ridiculous .425 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). His batting line is the definition of unsustainable right now. There is absolutely no way that he can continue to hit like this. However, given his abilities in the field, he doesn’t have to be anywhere near 38% better than average at the plate to be worthy of regular playing time. The average wRC+ for American League shortstops is just 85 and for third basemen, it is 93. Ciri could survive a lot of regression and still be a plus-hitting option on the left side of the field.

Even just a brief glance at his triple-slash line makes it clear that Ciriaco does not walk. Not ever. He hits as if he has a violent distaste for the very idea of the walk. Allow me to put his walk rate into perspective for you. Thus far, in 188 plate appearances in the major leagues, Ciri has walked less than half as often as Mike Aviles. Yeah, it’s that bad. Of course, walks aren’t everything. Walk rate is a result of a hitter’s plate approach and it is possible to have a strong plate approach and still not walk much. Both Marc and I have discussed this in relation to Will Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks doesn’t swing outside of the zone much, but because of his excellent ability to hit strikes, he also doesn’t draw many walks. It is a plate approach that can be extremely effective. It is not Pedro Ciriaco’s plate approach, however.

Plate approach might even be too generous a term for what Ciri does when he steps into the batter’s box. He swings firsts, asks questions later. Among players with at least 100 plate appearance, Ciriaco has swung at pitches out of the zone more than anyone else, hacking at an incredible 47.7% of pitches out of the zone. Only 20 players of the 420 to reach 100 plate appearances this year have swung more often overall than Ciriaco. He has seen the 17th fewest pitches per plate appearance in that group.

Ciriaco swings a lot, but at least he has a great swing. Batted ball data is not the most trustworthy of statistics, but it does reflect a basic truth about Ciri’s game. Despite swinging at a huge number of bad pitches, he drives the ball. His line driver rate is 28.5% for his career and when he doesn’t hit the ball on a line, he hits it on the ground, with a 50.4% ground ball rate. That batted ball profile is a bit exaggerated by the small sample size, but between the line drive ability and his speed, Ciriaco should be able to sustain a better than average BABIP with that profile. A look at his Pitch F/X batter profile (care of Baseball Prospectus) shows that while he swings at a lot of bad pitches, he is a fairly good bad pitch hitter, especially when he chases pitches away. Ciriaco has a history of better than average BABIP as he was coming up through the minors as well. He had a .357 BABIP at the High A level with the Diamondbacks in 2008 and a .338 BABIP in AA in 2009. Before being called up this year, he had a .351 BABIP in Pawtucket.

Ciriaco’s lack of discipline is extreme and it makes it hard to imagine him as a productive everyday player. Even if we credit him with .330 BABIP as his true talent ability (and that is .040 points higher than league average), his OBP would drop to approximately .297, which is below average even for a shortstop. Regress it to league average and it gets really ugly. His power has always been considered below average and his Isolated Power topped .100 just once in the minor leagues. It currently sits at a very respectable .133 and that also makes him look slightly better than he may be. It may be that Fenway suits him- it is a doubles haven after all and he is a gap power type of guy- but unless that power is more sustainable that it appears, Ciriaco would have a difficult time out-performing Mike Aviles over a full season.

He does, however, make perfect sense as a bench player. He runs well, makes solid contract and plays good defense at three infield positions. This season has shown he can be a valuable utility infielder at the major league level. With Nick Punto (who was the extreme opposite in plate approach) gone now, Ciriaco makes sense as a bench player in 2013. he provides the kind of athleticism and energy that you want in that role and though his bat has real limitations, it is not entirely useless at all.