Is Jimmy Rollins' career stuck in an irreversible downward spiral?
The Philadelphia Phillies arguably became World Series favorites when they signed Cliff Lee to a five-year, $120 million contract in December. After all, a starting rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt isn't just the best in baseball; it's the best rotation in recent history.
The rest of the offseason, however, hasn't been nearly as kind to the Phillies.
Chase Utley's right knee issues have him doubtful for Opening Day. Domonic Brown's fractured hand will sideline him well into April, if not longer. And earlier this week, the team got a scare when Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez collided in the outfield during a spring training game. Ibanez was fine, and Victorino came away with only a few cuts and bruises, but it's yet another example of why the Phillies may want to up their health insurance policy this season.
Needless to say, the Phillies have to rely on veterans like Jimmy Rollins to help carry the team until it gets healthy. Unfortunately, J-Roll wasn't exactly a picture of health last season, either, and when he did take the field he looked like a player on the decline. All together, Rollins missed nearly three months of action in 2010 due to calf, hamstring and foot injuries. And in his 350 at-bats, he hit just .243 with eight home runs, 41 RBIs, 17 stolen bases and 48 runs scored.
The .243 batting average is what sticks out most, and it further solidified concerns fantasy owners had when Rollins hit a then-career low .250 in 2009. From 2004 to 2008, he never hit worse than .277, but a .248 average over his past 1,022 at-bats could be his new baseline for performance. Lending credence to that is the fact Rollins produced the worst line-drive rate of his career last season (16.8 percent) and swung at more pitches outside the strike zone (23.1 percent) than he did the previous two years.
From a power perspective, Rollins managed just one home run per every 43.75 at-bats, a significant decline after he hit one homer per every 32 at-bats in 2009, and his home run-to-fly ball rate (HR/FB) also continued to trend in the wrong direction. Over the past five seasons, his HR/FB rates look like this: 11.1, 10.7, 7.2, 8.5 and 6.7.
Put it all together, and we have a fairly grim picture when projecting Rollins going forward. However, for all of the negatives surrounding the Phillies' shortstop this season, you have to look at him compared with the other options at shortstop. Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki are the undisputed top two at the position. After that? Whether it's Jose Reyes, Derek Jeter, Elvis Andrus, etc., they all have questions surrounding them. Worst case, Rollins still deserves to be drafted as the fifth or sixth shortstop. And it's not crazy to consider him third or fourth.
We've documented why Rollins will never again be the elite player he was in 2006 and 2007, but it's unwise to simply write him off because of a few chinks in his armor. There's still a lot to like here. While he missed substantial time last season due to leg issues, the fact he stole 14 bases in 57 games after the All-Star break last year tells us his speed is still there. Maybe his 40-steal days are behind him, but 30-plus still seems well within reach.
As for the power, well, maybe last year was an indication that he's lost some pop. Even so, last year's pace would have put him at roughly 15 home runs with a full season of playing time. For a shortstop, that's still great production. Think about it. After Hanley and Tulo, only three other shortstops ranked in our top 20 (Alexei Ramirez, Stephen Drew and Juan Uribe) hit at least 15 home runs last season. Rollins might not have quite the same power/speed combo of a few years ago, but he still offers plenty of both.
And yes, there's even hope in the batting average department. We can't simply explain away the precipitous batting average drop Rollins experienced the past two seasons, but his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2009 (.251) and 2010 (.246) indicate he was unlucky. Some of his leg issues last year could have contributed to this, too. With a .290 career BABIP, Rollins should experience better fortune in this area going forward.
But that's not all. Rollins has never been great at getting on base, but last year's 10.2 percent walk rate was actually the best mark of his entire career, and his 9.1 percent strikeout rate was a career best, as well. Maybe those improvements last year didn't directly show up in his stat line, but the fact he's apparently still making adjustments and improving now that he's on the wrong side of 30 is definitely encouraging.
Finally, a speedy player like Rollins who makes such consistent contact just doesn't profile as an annual .240-.250 hitter. Dating back to 2004, he's never posted a contact rate below 88 percent, and his 91 percent contact rate last season was a career high and would have been the ninth-best mark in all of baseball had he qualified. With better luck in 2011, he should at the very least get his average back in the .260-.270 range, with potential to go higher. And as long as he's batting atop the Phillies' lineup, he'll be a good source of runs, too.
The real question with Rollins is whether he can stay healthy. It's hard to have real confidence after he missed nearly half of the 2010 season, but last year was the first time he ever played fewer than 137 games since he became a regular in 2001, so it's not fair to slap him with the injury-prone tag just yet. Plus, Rollins is only 32 years old. If he was entering his mid- or late-30s, that'd be one thing, but at this point he should still have plenty of tread on his tires. It's also worth noting that Rollins took up yoga over the offseason in order to hopefully avoid injury this season. Maybe it makes a difference, maybe it doesn't. At the very least, it's good to see him being proactive about trying to stay on the field this year.
If all of that isn't enough, Rollins is in a contract year. Studies have shown that, on average, players do in fact perform better in contract years, so, at the very least, he'll have a little extra motivation to stay healthy and produce in 2011. And that never hurts.
Despite the general pessimism heading into 2011, this is a still a guy who is only one year removed from hitting 21 home runs with 31 stolen bases and 100 runs scored. Only Hanley matched that type of power/speed production last season. Don't expect Rollins to bounce back to the player he was a few years ago, but a rebound to 2009 could very well be in the cards.
So what if Rollins has slowly started to decline. Compared to the rest of the options at shortstop, his unique combination of power and speed still makes him a valuable fantasy commodity.