Lee brings skills, age to new home

Derrek Lee is 35 and coming off the worst statistical season of his career. But considering how badly the Baltimore Orioles needed a first baseman, he could be their ideal fit after agreeing to terms with them Friday.

Lee, who joins J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds in a completely revamped Orioles infield, brings a number of skills to his new team, though it’s a question of how much his performance is in decline.

Lee has a history, within a small sampling, of being a good hitter with runners in scoring position. He hit .300 or better with runners in scoring position in every season from 2005 to 2009 (note: he only played 50 games in 2006).

His .950 OPS with runners in scoring position in that span ranked 17th among 324 major leaguers with at least 350 plate appearances (he ranked in the top six percent of MLB hitters). But he hit .257 with runners in scoring position last season, his decline mirroring that of an Orioles team that hit .246 in such situations in 2010, a 38-point drop from 2009.

Lee’s drop was in line with that in other statistical categories in what was his least productive season in a long time.

Lee finished 2010 with a .260 batting average and .428 slugging percentage, his lowest in both categories since 1999. His Wins Above Replacement Rating of 2.0 on Fangraphs.com was his worst since 2000.

Orioles First Basemen in 2010

Since returning from a broken wrist suffered in 2006, Lee’s ability to make contact with fastballs has declined (despite super numbers in 2009). In 2007, he missed on 13.7 percent of his swings against fastballs, according to Inside Edge Video Scouting. By 2010, that jumped to 17.2 percent. That might not seem like a large increase, but it translates to 25 more missed swings over a full season, swings that could have had a significant impact.

Lee struggled through a forgettable 2010 season during which he saw his home run total nearly cut in half from the previous year, while his slugging percentage dropped over 150 points and his isolated power slipped from .273 to .168. However, there may be some evidence that this power outage was a mere blip for Lee and that he actually was hitting the ball harder last season compared to 2009.

The Inside Edge video scouts tell us that the percentage of Lee’s at-bats ending in a ball that was “well-hit” increased from 28.4 percent in 2009 to 29.1 percent in 2010, while Fangraphs.com has his line drive rate also increasing from 19.2 percent to 22.5 percent over the last two seasons.

Something else that may help is that Lee is going to a league in which he can rest his body by occasionally being a designated hitter, and he’s going to Camden Yards, a ballpark that is right-handed power hitter friendly.

According to the Bill James Baseball Handbook, over the last three seasons, Camden Yards has a home run Park Factor of 121 for right-handed batters.

That means the park yielded 21 percent more home runs to right-handed hitters than the average park, which ranked tied for fourth-highest in the major leagues.

Lee’s former primary park (Wrigley Field, save for a brief stint with the Braves last season) had a Park Factor of 105 for right-handed hitters, which ranked tied for 11th.

That was a comfortable home for him for nearly seven seasons, in which he posted a .311 batting average and .956 OPS. The Orioles hope Camden Yards can be such a friendly confines.