The Tigers surprised a few people when they signed third baseman Brandon Inge to a two-year $11.5 million contract after last season. One could reason that there wasn't much available outside the organization, so that signing him for another year might have been the best option. It also made sense from a public relations standpoint to keep the popular and civil-minded Inge for another year. Many wondered though whether it was really necessary to sign the soon to be 34-year-old .236 lifetime hitter with declining defensive skills for two more years.
This year's slow start is causing fans to question the move some more. Inge is currently batting .202 with just one homer and a woefully low .298 slugging average. Is this it for Inge? Is this what we're going to see all year?
I wouldn't worry too much about the batting average. Batting average is a volatile statistic and he's never hit for a high average anyway. According to the FanGraphs database, he has struck out in 27% of his at bats which is awful, but not much different from his 26% lifetime rate. On the plus side, 19.2% of his batted balls have resulted in line drives which is higher than his 17.7% lifetime rate. So, he has been a little unlucky perhaps, but it doesn't appear as if he has lost anything it terms of making solid contact.
His lack of power stands out a little more than his batting average because were are used to seeing a little pop from the third sacker. He has only one homer in 104 at bats, but he does have seven doubles. He is actually hitting fly balls at a higher rate than usual (46% this year versus 43% lifetime), so why isn't he hitting more home runs? The reason is because he has hit homers on only 2.8% of his fly balls which is way down from his 8.3% career rate. The first thought might be that he's not hitting the ball as hard this year, but don't forget the elevated line drive rate. The home runs should come, maybe not 27 like he hit in 2009 but his typical 12-15.
One noticeable difference in Inge this year is that he is more aggressive at the plate, swinging more often earlier in the count. Aggressiveness is not necessarily a bad thing. Batters should swing at pitches they can hit, but patience can also be a virtue especially for a hitter that doesn't make a lot of contact. After averaging 4.1 pitches per plate appearance in 2009-2010, Inge is down to 3.8 this year. The result has been fewer walks. He has walked in just 6.1% of his plate appearances this year which is down from 8.8 in 2009-2010. Since his more aggressive approach has not resulted in more hits, a reversion back to a more patient style seems like a good idea.
The biggest concern might be Inge's fielding. Just based on observation, the once stellar defender seems to have lost a step or two. He does not appear to be making the plays he did in the past and the advanced fielding statistics agree. Taking the average of his Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Total Zone (TZ), three statistics which can be found at FanGraphs, give us an estimate of how many runs he is worth with his fielding. According to this aggregate number, Inge's defense has been on the decline for a few years.
Inge saved the Tigers an estimated 20 runs with his fielding compared to the average third baseman in 2006-2007 when he was in his defensive prime. In 2008-2009, that number dropped to four runs. Since the beginning of last year, he is just one run above average. While these defensive measures are far from perfect, they suggest that what many are seeing is true - that Inge is no longer a plus fielder at third. It appears that he is only an average fielder now.
So, is Inge all done? Not quite. I think his hitting will bounce back to his career norms, as mediocre as those may be. However, with his decline in fielding, he is no longer a real asset to a team that is trying to contend for a division title.
Will the Tigers replace Inge? One possibility would be to recall Danny Worth or Cale Iorg from Toledo to play shortstop and to move Jhonny Peralta to third. That won't help their offense, but might help them a little defensively. Still, it appears unlikely that they would eat almost two years of salary without an obvious replacement available.
Another option is to trade for a third baseman or shortstop, but that's much easier said than done. Those are two positions which are thin around MLB right now and it would cost a lot in terms of prospects to get a significant upgrade. Thus, I think we are stuck with Inge for the time being. Hopefully, he'll emerge from his early season slump and put up some numbers that are a little more tolerable.