Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Upside and Wins: How Jimmy Rollins Looms Large This Upcoming Season

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Three things are certain in life: death, taxes and Jimmy Rollins at shortstop in Philly.

Recently, the Philadelphia Phillies’ shortstop was immersed in a hotly contested controversy about his role in Philadelphia and whether or not he should be traded. Manager Ryne Sandberg had some obtuse, yet unanswered comments about the Phillies leader. This controversy boiled over into a debate from Clearwater to Philly. The main talking points? Can Rollins still lead the clubhouse? Where’s his energy and ambition? Is this J-Roll’s Iverson “practice” moment?

After all, it became certain Rollins wasn’t concerned about anything. Sure, he was rather discomforted with the fact that he was benched for three consecutive spring training outings. Then again, he knew what his role was going to be with the Phillies come March 31st.

And so did Sandberg.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. made it clear as well: “Jimmy isn’t going anywhere.”

Nothing conclusive ever emanated from the Rollins-Sandberg squabble. If anything, Sandberg knows deep down inside his baseball loving interior that he needs Rollins more than ever. And this is where Rollins’ upside becomes a factor.

The Phillies have been pegged to be a loser in the National League East. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks they can finish better than third place. Instead of a high ceiling, the Phillies have a low floor, one that could possibly bottom out with more losses than the New York Mets and Miami Marlins.

It also seems as if Rollins is bottoming out as well. 2013 was his worst season on record. Rollins struggled mightily, hitting .252 with six HR and 39 RBI. He did manage to steal 22 bases though. Rollins managed to accrue a meager 1.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), his worse since 2002.

But what changed? How did Rollins see his HR total drop by 17 the year before? How is it that the shortstop’s RBI total looked similar to what he did in 2010, when he barely played half a season?

One could consider it hard luck. The chart below highlights the average of Rollins’ last three healthy seasons (2009, 2011-12) as compared to his production from 2013.

2009, 11-12

2013

PA

685

666

HR

20

6

R

96.3

65

RBI

69.3

39

SB

30.3

22

BB%

8.1

8.9

K%

10.9

14.0

BABIP

.262

.288

AVG

.256

.252

OPS

.733

.667

LD%

19.4

23.6

GB%

39.3

37.9

FB%

41.2

38.5

HR/FB

8.7

3.1

ISO

.160

.097

WAR

3.6

1.6

Rollins’ three-year average from his last three seasons at full-health suggest he lost a considerable amount of power at the plate. His Isolated Power (ISO), which measures one’s raw power and ability to hit for extra bases, dropped significantly in 2013. This will explain why his groundball and flyball rate both dropped by two points but his line-drive rate jumped by four points. Simply put, Rollins’ batted ball power diminished.

After all, many of the identifiers remained the same or improved. Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which measures how many balls in play go for hits, increased more than marginally for Rollins. Meanwhile, his AVG and walk rate remained constant. The significant drop in his OPS can be explained by his drastic decline in slugging percentage.

In sum, Rollins bottomed out at age 34 due to a power outage. His rapid descent into a less than marginal hitter took everyone by surprise. As his numbers suggest, nobody saw this coming. No index exists showing declining rates at this pace. It’s as if he just hit a wall. In other words, no bell curve explanation is necessary here.

So where is his upside?

Like many in Atlanta are hoping with B.J. Upton, one has to consider the possibility that Rollins’ 2013 campaign was a mere fluke. Rarely does a player of Rollins’ capacity just fall off as quickly as he did. With no looming indicators, none at all, Rollins may be able to bounce back in a meaningful way.

At 35 years old, Rollins isn’t going to pounce on pitching like he used to. Historically speaking, he isn’t nowhere near as bad as he was in 2013 either. Realizing Rollins is no longer useful in a power-vesting way, the Phillies should utilize him as a contact threat capable of moving base runner’s into scoring position.

In other words, Rollins must be nestled in as the two-hole hitter in the Phillies lineup.

By maintaining Rollins in the two-hole, the Phillies are relying on two things. First, Sandberg & Co. need leadoff hitter Ben Revere to reach first base. Second, they need Rollins to move Revere into scoring position. Following Rollins are the more adequate power options of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd and Domonic Brown.

So long as Rollins can put Revere in a position to score, the Phillies will have an advantage at the top of their lineup. This is where the upside in Rollins lies. He must understand his new role with the Phillies, at his age, is to enable to the lineup to score runs, not to score the runs himself.

Optimism can only go so far. For the Phillies, 2014 has a bleak outlook. The club is trapped in a quagmire. Reassigning roles and tapping into new sources of production, such as an enabling role with limited overall production from Rollins, will put this club in a better position to compete with the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves.

Rollins no longer carries a big stick. He is much more aligned with the majority of other light-hitting middle infielders. However, he does possess upside which could carry over well late into the season, enabling the scoring of runs by sacrificing himself in the lineup. This realization could lead to stronger results for the Phillies, facilitating a stronger win-loss record and keeping them in the mix of things later into the season than anticipated.

This is how Rollins will loom large in 2014. No longer a producer, Rollins must embrace his new role of enabler.

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