September 07, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox right fielder Alex Rios (51) hits a single against the Kansas City Royals in the first inning at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Rios alternating year theory


There’s been plenty of reference made toward Alex Rios’ recent practice of alternating back-and-forth between good and bad offensive seasons. In his position analysis of right field, the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales even led with this:

“The only question for Alex Rios entering the 2013 season will be: Can he come close to repeating what he achieved in 2012, particularly in an odd-numbered season?”

Baseball analysis has been a forum for many a cockamamie theory, but Gonzales is undoubtedly questioning Rios’ ability to perform consistently beyond a single good campaign, rather than suggesting that the White Sox incumbent right fielder is assumed to have an existential hangup with odd years. Yet until he proves otherwise, “only good in even years” is a fly-by label that we’ll see thrown at Rios again.

For reference:

  • 2009: .247/.296/.395
  • 2010: .284/.334/.457
  • 2011: .227/.265/.348
  • 2012: .304/.334/.516

Between two years of being a raw youngster who couldn’t untap his power (’04-’05_, three years of steady, double-heavy and above-average production (’06-’08), and four years of being an enigma (’09-’12), the last characterization has become Rios’ identity. Looking at the break between those chapters of his career, the first inkling is that there has been some age-based physical decline that led to increased volatility in his performance.

Neither UZR nor DRS has loved Rios’ defense since he turned 28, as he’s gone from rating out as regularly saving double-digits runs per year to average or worse. And while he still has elite contact skills, drastically increased swing rates outside the strike zone (from mid-20% to mid-30%) have resulted in accelerated groundball and pop-up rates–weaker contact. Rios has never been one to take a lot of walks, but his total loss of ability to wait on pitches suggests some diminished hand-quickness that he’s compensating for.

That’s an ever-present factor, but Rios has also shown himself simply capable of falling into disrepair. Changes and tweaks in his batting stance have been well-documented, his approach can slip and revel in bad habits of exaggerated pull-happiness for months at a time or, poor offensive performance can bleed over into the field and vice-versa. He’s simply not been to arrest slumps very well, and that kind of activity makes Rios ripe for speculation at what’s eating at him over these stretches. Lo and behold, there’s plenty of anecdotes that can be offered up.

After signing his mega six-year, $65 million at the beginning of 2008, Rios’ struggles in the ’09 season came as he toiled for a Blue Jays team in the midst of a sell-off. He was the subject of trade rumors for much of the summer, fell out of favor with the press after his infamous “Who gives a f***?” shouting match with a fan, and reacted to his final departure with little more than a shrug. That, combined with his awful 2011 that took place in the ever-so-remarkably poisonous final season of a Ozzie Guillen-led clubhouse, gives him a host of off-the-field distraction that can be pointed to as correlating with his on-the-field misery.

There’s no clear answer to Rios’ struggles, which is part of why the waste of his effort in 2012 was such a shame. But that doesn’t mean assessment of the influences of his performance devolves into mysticism either. There are a lot of moving parts here, but from an outside perspective, 2013 should be the first time in a while Rios is returning to a stable situation, comfortable with his role and grounded in a approach that suits him.

But there could always be more to it.

 

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan

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