Monday, August 27, 2012

Ryan Ludwick - Comeback Player of the Year?

The baseball journey of Ryan Ludwick has already been a strange odyssey. He toiled in the minors for years and for three different organizations before finally getting a chance with the Cardinals in 2007 at the age of 28. A year later, he would go to his one and only All Star Game as he crushed 37 homers and posted a .966 OPS. His following two campaigns were still productive but disappointing after that big year of 2008. Ludwick was traded in a three-team deal to the Padres in 2010 as they were fighting for a playoff spot (which they lost on the last day of the season). Ludwick tanked there. Ludwick looked like a one-hit wonder as his 2011 season in San Diego was not going any better. Meanwhile, the Pirates had a surprising start to the 2011 series and were looking for help. They obtained Ludwick from the Padres...and he tanked for Pittsburgh too. Ryan Ludwick was over. Or so it seemed. Then the Cincinnati Red signed him as a free agent. Baseball writers snickered. Ludwick was sort of okay in the first half but nothing spectacular. Then the second half hit and so has he.

And look at Ryan Ludwick now! He has a .911 OPS for the Reds in 2012. He has hit 25 homers and added 23 doubles and a triple in just 349 at bats. He has driven in 71 runs in just 103 games. It is enough to make you scratch your head. Ryan Ludwick!?

Ludwick's career makes you wonder about the vagaries of situation, setting and opportunity. He was drafted by the A's in the second round way back in 1999. He hit 55 homers for the A's farm system in his first two full seasons and by the end of the second, had already been promoted to Triple-A. The Rangers took notice and asked that Ludwick be included with three other players in a trade that sent the A's Pena and Renefro. Ludwick was solid for the Rangers' Triple-A club in 2002 and was called up for a cup of coffee to the big leagues. He got 88 plate appearances and hit his first big league homer, but was thoroughly unremarkable. Ludwick also fractured his hip which affected his play for several seasons.

The Rangers traded him after that season to the Indians and Ludwick actually got into 39 games with the Indians in 2003 and finished with a .791 OPS, good for a 108 OPS+. But he didn't stick and played most of the 2004 and 2005 seasons in the minors. He was granted free agency after the 2005 season and signed with the Tigers.

Ludwick had a big year in 2006 for the Tigers' Toledo Mud Hens. But the Tigers never gave him the call to the majors and he was a free agent again after that season. He signed with the Cardinals. It turned out to be a smart move.

The Cardinals of 2007 had a tough time with outfielders. Edmonds was hurt a lot. They tried the son of the pitching coach, and he hit 21 homers but was not very good otherwise. And they had Encarnacion, who was a fringe player at best. The Cardinals turned to Ludwick that season and he ended up playing in 120 games at every outfield position. His OPS was a respectable .818 and had some pop in his bat. Then came his big season in 2008 where he won the Silver Slugger Award, made the All Star team and even made the top fifteen in MVP voting. Ryan Ludwick became the unlikeliest of stars.

Except he wasn't, not really. He had a great 2008, but in 2009 and 2010, he played closer to his ability level. It was still productive. But the Cardinals and their fans were disappointed. He was a better than league average hitter, but they thought they had a superstar. And so he was shipped to San Diego, the MLB equivalent to Siberia.

Ludwick played 160 games for the Padres. His OPS in those 160 games was .659. His slugging percentage disappeared. His home ballpark there affected him mentally. He took those thoughts on the road with him. By the time he got to Pittsburgh, he was a messed up hitter. His OPS for the Pirates was .671.

And then, Ludwick signed with the Reds. Not only do the Reds have a fun home park to hit in, but they play in a division that also has several fun parks to hit. He started slowly this season. His OPS in April was .662 in 17 games. In another 17 games, it rose slightly to .709 in May. But then he caught fire in June and has had an OPS over one for both July and August.

Those statements can be made because the nitty-gritty stats for Ludwick are pretty much the same from year to year. He hits the same number of ground balls each year. He walks about eight percent and strikes out a little over 20 percent of the time. Those numbers have remained pretty much static through the years. He seems to be more aggressive this season and he is swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, but otherwise, his contact percentage and swing and miss percentage are consistent from year to year.

But consider that in his two years in San Diego, his homer per fly ball rate plummeted from his career rate of about 15 percent to 10.4 percent in 2010 and 7.5 percent in 2011. Location is everything as they say in the real estate market. This year, his homer per fly ball rate of 21.4 percent is his highest since his big year in 2008.

Ryan Ludwick should get lots of consideration for Comeback Player of the Year. The reality is that for many players, the situation they find themselves in and where they play has a lot to do with how well they perform. Or to state it another way, they perform the same but the results are better. Whatever the case, he is one of the big reasons the Reds are flying high in 2012. They do not care about the semantics of his season. They are simply enjoying the benefits.

1 comment:

Bill Miller said...

You raise a great point about the importance of ballpark / opportunity, etc. that can make or break a ballplayer's career. It's a much bigger factor than is usually acknowledged.
Nice post,