So do you believe in Brandon Inge yet? I have to admit that I was highly skeptical that he could pick up where he left off last year. I didn’t expect him to slide all the way back to his .200 batting average ways, but I certainly didn’t expect the 375/453/607 line he’s posted to date. Now this year represents a very small sample, and last year could have been a fluke, but it could also be that Inge has achieved a new performance level.
In June 2003 Inge was demoted to AAA Toledo. When Baseball America named Inge the top Tigers’ prospect in 2001 it was for his defense rather than his offense, but no major leaguer can play good enough defense to compensate for the 155/225/275 he was hitting that season.
While in AAA Inge managed to post a more acceptable 275/327/444. The Tigers recalled him in August and he responded with a 12 game hitting streak. Inge decided to abandon thinking after speaking with a sports psychologist and focus on hitting the ball up the middle. He finished up the season hitting 258/308/404. While his offensive performance still wasn’t great, it was a far cry from his anemic performance in the past.
Using Inge’s 2003 AAA event as the breaking point, I went to the Baseball Musings Day-by-Day Database and looked at Inge’s career numbers before and after the demotion.
AB BA OBP SLG HR BB SO
Old Inge 677 .183 .242 .292 11 45 187
New Inge 624 .285 .341 .452 19 52 120
When looking at the New and Old Inge, I’m not so sure that Inge’s success last year and this year can be dismissed because of sample size. New Inge now has only 50 at-bats fewer than Old Inge. He also has increased his batting average .102, his on base percentage .099, and his slugging .160. He’s walking slightly more and striking out significantly less.
So is Inge just hitting better, or are there other factors at work? Well, Comerica Park brought in the left field fence which may have contributed to the home run increase. While the dimension changes didn’t occur at the same break point, the New Inge was never subjected to the huge distances the Old Inge was.
Early in his career, Inge was playing every day as the starting catcher. In 2003 and 2004 he was used more in a platoon situation so he may have benefited from facing fewer righthanders and more lefthanders. The following table shows the percentage of at-bats that Inge had against southpaws each year, and the corresponding OPS against each type of pitcher.
AB % Left L OPS R OPS
2002 321 22% .684 .585
2003 330 33% .761 .527
2004 408 41% .916 .708
While last year he did get a substantial amount of at-bats against lefties, and he did perform significantly better against lefties, his performance against both lefties and righties was markedly improved.
The other possible explanation is that catching was detracting from Inge’s offense. I have to admit that I thought the plan to turn Inge into a uber-utility guy last year was ridiculous. I couldn’t fathom why they were looking for a spot on the field for his bat. Of course I didn’t expect his offense outpouring. Even during last year’s offense boom, he posted only a .690 OPS while catching. It could be the physical drain of catching, as well as the mental drain of calling a game may have been taking a toll.
I think it’s safe to say that Inge is doing more than riding a hot streak. He did benefit last year from his mix of pitcher handedness, and he may be benefiting from being displaced by Pudge behind the plate. He also happened to develop a new approach at the plate that coincided with these other events. While his minor league history doesn’t support an offensive outburst, Inge is only 27 so improvement is certainly possible.
I know Brandon Inge won’t continue to hit as well as he has this season. However, given his strong start I’m much more confident that he can repeat last year’s performance and even improve upon it than I was 3 weeks ago.