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The Decline and Summer of Nate Schierholtz

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When looking back through the boxscore from the April debacle against the Phillies, I noticed something odd. Maybe it was something that the historians had gotten wrong, like Abner Doubleday inventing baseball, or the moon landing. It just didn’t fit.

I mean, just, wha? Nate Schierholtz played? And he got a hit? An extra-base hit? On a line drive? In a crucial game situation? What kind of politically correct, revisionist history is this?

It happened. That it's hard to remember shows how Schierholtz’s stock has fallen. He was once the right fielder of the future, but the Giants just couldn’t find at-bats for him over the last three years. It would have been hard to sit or trade players like Dave Roberts and Randy Winn when the team was perennially contending, so Schierholtz is still an unknown quantity. Kind of. I mean, it sure seems like the book is written on him. It has a forward, a prologue, twenty chapters or so, and the dust jacket is signed by the author, a fellow by the name of Slowroller Tosecond. Other than Aaron Rowand against a right-hander with a wicked slider, I’m not sure if I have less confidence in any other Giants hitter right now.

Is that fair? Probably not.

It seems a little disingenuous to have been on the "Bowker needs moar at-bats! Small sample size!" train while jumping off the same train at a different stop. After the aforementioned game against the Phillies, in which he went 5-for-5, Schierholtz was hitting .375/.444/.563. It was an unmistakably BABIP-influenced stretch -- there were several infield hits and grounders with eyes mixed in -- but it was still pretty exciting. Schierholtz is a fantastic defender, so it wouldn’t take a crazy amount of offense for him to be a solid corner outfielder or an overqualified fourth outfielder. He peaked on May 6th against the Marlins, going 3-for-4 to end the day at .381/.458/.587.

 

Then he slumped. He also injured his shoulder. Or something. It was never serious enough to go on the DL -- the Giants like to have a priest give some last rites before they can be sure that they’re using the DL effectively -- but it was serious enough to affect his hitting. Maybe. It reads like a good theory. Whatever happened, Schierholtz went 8-for-52 over his next 19 games, and he was banished. Is banished too strong of a word? In May, he was the starting right fielder. In June, he started twice. He started eight times in July, so things picked up a little for him. Since he lost his job, though, he’s hit .188/.250/.313 in 80 at-bats over the last two months.

The weird thing is that there are some good signs to go along with the bad. His walk rate is up by a fair amount, and his strikeout rate is down. His line-drive percentage is right around the league average, and his .268 BABIP hints that he might not be benefiting from the dinks and dunks that hitters normally get over the course of a season to buoy their average. He’s a career .325/.362/.569 hitter in AAA, and while it’s just a little ridiculous to think he’ll match anything close to that, how thrilled would we be for him just to match his AA season of .270/.325/.443 in 2006? With his defense, that’d be a pretty nice player to have. It seems like that’s a pretty unrealistic peak now.

So this is a community confidence check on Nate Schierholtz. Every player slumps, and every player looks like something less than a major leaguer when they’re doing it. But players who are less than a major leaguer look like something less than a major leaguer when they’re just being themselves. Over the last 130 at-bats, Schierholtz has hit like Jonathan Sanchez, and that’s not really hyperbole. Did the lack of playing time coincide with a decline, or was it the other way around? Is he unlucky, or is he hitting the ball so weakly that his BABIP isn’t as meaningful? How is it possible that a team as wretched as the Giants were in 2007 and 2008 didn’t find a way to get him at-bats?

I don’t have any confidence that he’ll figure it out on the Giants, nor do I think the Giants will give him the chance. He’s still a player with some intriguing skills, though. A team like the Royals or A’s would do well to trade some toenail clippings for him and hope he can be, at the very least, a fourth outfielder with a hint of something more.