Pedro Ciriaco likes to swing. This is a Proven Fact that anyone who has seen Pedro Ciriaco for even one at-bat can agree with. His tendency to swing means he gives himself the opportunity to put a lot of balls in play, but it also means he swings and misses a whole bunch, too, hence the .382 batting average on balls in play that has resulted in just a .312 batting average.
He's not a prospect, as he's 26 years old, and his ugly minor-league numbers suggest that the romance many Red Sox fans have with him is a short-lived one. If you need this concept reinforced, Jeff Sullivan, formerly a colleague of mine at Baseball Nation, but now with Fangraphs, has you covered. Sullivan called Ciriaco, "the most indiscriminate hitter in the league," not because Ciriaco swings at everything, but because, if you watch, he has no real plan at the plate, no differentiation between one pitch and another. He treats pitches equally, unable to distinguish between ones he should do something with and the ones he should lay off of:
We have reliable PITCHf/x data stretching back to 2008. Since 2008, there have been 1,937 individual player seasons with at least 150 plate appearances. Out of all of those, Ciriaco's O-Swing% currently ranks third-highest. His Z-Swing% currently ranks 1,349th-highest, in a tie. I decided to make up a ratio, with Z-Swing% divided by O-Swing%. This was mostly for curiosity, and it turns out that Ciriaco's ratio of 1.28 is the lowest in the PITCHf/x era. Next-lowest belongs to 2010 Garret Anderson, at 1.32. Even if you think this ratio is mostly a load of crap, it's not a good sign to have the lowest ratio in five years. It's a ratio made up of two important statistics.
Sullivan displays three .gifs from a single at-bat, in which Ciriaco watches a fastball down the middle, swings wildly at a pitch closer to the Earth's core than the strike zone, and finally, watches an offering zip right down the heart of the plate down 0-2 without so much as a thought to swinging. Turns out that Ciriaco just doesn't swing at pitches down the middle, meaning opposing pitchers can get him to chase at offerings he can't do a thing with, then ring him up by attacking down the middle. Baseball is a weird sport, but that's a whole different kind of weird. Really, just look at this (you'll have to check out Sullivan's piece for the full effect of the at-bat):
The count is 0-2. The pitch is down the middle. Ciriaco just kind of looks at, considers swinging, and decides that strike four might be a better pitch to drive. This is one at-bat, of course, and Ciriaco isn't the first hitter to just watch strike three cruise in, but there are reasons for concern regardless.
For Ciriaco's career, two-strike counts have actually gone pretty well. He hits well when the count is even, and holds his own with the pitcher ahead in general, too. Ciriaco has made a situation that is inherently bad -- the pitcher being a single strike from ending a plate appearance -- and managed to hit .275 despite this. It's when he's ahead in the count that's more of a problem, and his lack of a plan fails him. In three-ball counts -- a situation Ciriaco has only seen 12 times in 2012 -- he's hitting .222/.417/.222, or over 75 percent worse than the average hitter in that situation. In the 39 plate appearances in which Ciriaco has been ahead in the count, he's at .250/.308/.361, a split-adjusted OPS+ of 37, or 63 percent worse than average. These are small samples, but it's not a new thing with Ciriaco, either.
Since Ciriaco doesn't swing at many pitches in the strike zone, opposing pitchers can attack him in the zone after falling behind, in order to get things back in a situation that benefits them. Sometimes, Ciriaco then drives a pitch out of the zone for a hit. Other times, he flails, and subsequently fails. Over the long run, which of those two scenarios do you think is going to win out?
Before answering, here's your reminder that Ciriaco has walked nine times in 467 plate appearances this year (1.9 percent), and hasn't racked up more than a dozen free passes in a season since 2009, when he was 23 at Double-A. Let's also throw in that he sees 3.5 pitches per plate appearance, a rate that equals about 240 pitches fewer per season than Will Middlebrooks, who supposedly has problems with patience. That rate puts Ciriaco at number 324 of the 369 batters with at least 150 plate appearances in 2012. For what it's worth, Middlebrooks comes in at 150, closer to the top than the bottom. Or, to hammer things home further, bastion of offensive ineptitude Jose Iglesias has one fewer walk (28) in 418 plate appearances in 2012 than Ciriaco has drawn in the last three seasons combined.
With his quick bat and impressive defense, Ciriaco could be a productive utility infielder in the majors, but he needs to formulate some kind of strategy at the plate, because, right now, even something as simple as "see the ball, hit the ball" features more nuance than his current plan. He's getting the chance to work on that now in a lost season, but the more we see at-bats like the one Sullivan focused on, the less chance there is that Pedro Ciriaco, owner of 3,720 professional plate appearances, will do so.