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The Resurgence of Toronto Blue Jays CF Colby Rasmus

A few months back, I examined the potential resurgence of Toronto Blue Jays‘ center fielder Colby Rasmus. At the time, Rasmus was not getting hits but was hitting the ball hard, and I claimed that he was due for a breakout. Below is the article from mid-June.

Somewhere, in his sunny retirement home in who-the-heck-knows-where, Tony La Russa is snickering about Colby Rasmus.

Rasmus is hitting a triple slash line of just .227/.298/.411 thus far this season, a far cry from the .276/.361/.498 line that catapulted him from top prospect to stud centre-fielder in just his second major league season in 2010. This troubling start to the season follows a disappointing 2011 campaign that saw him jettisoned from St. Louis, away from the scrutinous glare of Tony La Russa, when he hit .225/.298/.391. Eerily similar to his line this year, isn’t it?

So what has changed since his breakout campaign in 2010?

As it happens, not a whole lot has changed.

He’s walking a bit less, down from 11.8% of his plate appearances to 8.7%. That is a regression, but certainly not an extreme one. He’s also striking out less, down from 27.7% of the time in 2010 to just 20.4% of the time this year.

His BABIP is down from a sparkling .354 to just .267. That is nearly a 100-point drop on his average on balls in play. Sometimes these drops are influenced by production of weaker contact. Are pitchers pitching him differently than they did in 2010?

Although he’s seeing fewer four-seam fastballs than he did in 2010, he saw a similar distribution of pitches in 2010 and 2011. Rasmus is seeing a different distribution of pitches, specifically, more two-seamers and fewer four-seamers, but he struggled last year despite seeing a similar repertoire in 2010.

This brings us to the luck factor.

Take a look at this graphic courtesy of texasleaguers.com. This shows Colby’s batted ball distribution for his season up to August 17th in 2010. Let’s compare this graphic with a second graphic, which shows Colby’s batted ball distribution to-date in 2012.

The first thing that becomes obvious is the number of outs recorded on the first-base side of the infield. Rasmus is a predominant pull hitter who produces a lot of outs on the right side of the field. Rasmus is also hitting more groundballs this year, resulting in more infield outs. In order to fully regain his success from 2010, he’ll need a few more fly balls and perhaps a gift from the BABIP gods.

A comparison of the two graphics shows us something rather clearly – more balls in the outfield going for hits in 2010. In 2010 as a whole, Rasmus hit .318 on fly balls. In 2012, he is hitting just .185 on fly balls. Furthermore, in 2010, Rasmus hit .742 on line drives. This year, just .600, a number usually reserved for the least powerful, or least lucky, players in baseball. Last year, only 8 players finished with a batting average on line drives below .600, a list that includes notable sluggers Brett Gardner, Justin Turner, Juan Pierre, Brent Morel, and Marlon Byrd.

It is unlikely that Rasmus truly is the 2010 version of himself. His .354 BABIP is unmatched even by any of his minor league numbers. Rasmus had some luck on his side in 2010.

However, Rasmus is better than he has shown the last two years. Soon enough, his line drives will start falling in for base hits. His fly balls will start dropping in on a more regular basis. Colby Rasmus won’t share company with Juan Pierre for much longer.

Tony La Russa, get ready to stop your chuckling. Colby Rasmus is a player, and he’s about due for a breakout.

That breakout came shortly after.

Here are Colby’s spray charts for 2010 up to August 17th, and for 2012 to date.

Though Rasmus has certainly broken out – he is now hitting a solid .245/.306/.452, good enough to place him in the upper third of all center fielders for OPS – he has not been able to fully bounce back from his unlucky ball in play averages. His average on line drives is now up to .642, and his average on fly balls is up to .217.

Only so much can change in two months.

Expect an even bigger turnaround next year from Rasmus. His unlucky start to the season has bogged down his overall season stats. His slash line has been further bogged down by a nagging groin injury.

Though we can certainly expect significant turnaround, don’t expect that Rasmus will replicate his 2010 season in the near future, unless he reverts back to the approach that gave him success in 2010. Rasmus is hitting more ground balls than ever and not hitting enough fly balls. The power is still there, as he is still hitting approximately the same number of home runs per fly ball, but an increased affinity for first pitch strikes has reduced his ability to drive the ball.

Colby Rasmus is falling behind in the count in 4% more of his plate appearances than he did in 2010. As a result, he has been swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone. Since he is making more contact on pitches outside the strike zone, it is likely that he is making weaker contact than he did in 2010. This is why Rasmus has hit more ground balls than ever.

Fortunately, Rasmus is a good hitter. Despite an increase in ground balls and a decrease in walk rate, he still hits plenty of line drives. With any batter, hitting line drives is a recipe for success.

Despite dismal luck for part of the year, Colby Rasmus has been a top-10 center fielder in baseball. Expect that to improve should he enjoy a full season of even moderate luck.

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Charles Davis is a baseball writer for RantSports.com with a specific focus on the Toronto Blue Jays, their farm system, and prospects league-wide. Read his articles here and follow him on Twitter @CPDavis90.