When Tim Lincecum hung a slider in the zone like it was a piñata, Miami Marlins third baseman Casey McGehee didn’t just call it candy, he took it yard for his second home run of the season, breaking a 58-game homerless streak. It’s an amusing data point in what has been a fascinating season for the 31-year-old veteran.
Keep in mind, before this year many thought McGehee was done. After putting up an .859 OPS as a rookie followed by an .801 OPS with 62 extra-base hits for the division-winning 2011 Milwaukee Brewers, he struggled to a .632 OPS across the next two seasons, playing his way out of Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and New York. It earned him a trip to the Japanese leagues with the Rakuten Eagles last year. There, he cranked out 28 homers while hitting .292/.376/.515, or more closely resembling the guy who’d been a contending team’s power source.
Getting a second chance stateside with the Marlins, McGehee is hitting .322/.387/.399 as the team's cleanup hitter, which is let’s say "unusual," because it’s so very different from everything he has done at the major league level or in Japan. His power has evaporated with his slugging almost halved: His previous career Isolated Power rate (slugging minus batting average) was .157, but this year it’s at .077. Despite that his walk rate is up (more than 10 percent for the first time in his career). And he’s batting more than 60 points above his pre-2014 career average of .257. And he’s striking out less than ever before, just 13 percent of the time when big league pitchers used to whiff him 18 percent of the time.
Almost by reflex, McGehee’s unusual breakout season has led to observations that he can’t keep doing this. Equally confident have been the assertions that his BABIP (at .369 before Sunday’s action) has to go down. It’s an entirely safe assertion; regressing toward the average is normal when you look at all players on the macro level, while a massive change in an individual player’s performance level most definitely is not.
Except that it’s adding up to enough time that you have to give the guy his due. He’s hitting .390 in July, which means if regression is supposed to be a law like gravity, McGehee can fly.
Dive a little deeper into McGehee’s numbers, and you’ll see he’s doing more things differently at the plate than just hitting singles and drawing walks instead of homers and whiffs. He isn’t making mistakes when he offers on pitches: Whereas he used to be closer to the MLB average of missing on 15 percent of his swings, this year he’s below 10 percent, ranking in the top 10 in the National League. His rate of striking out looking is at a career-high (and NL high) 56.4 percent, almost 10 percent higher than the guy ranked second (Troy Tulowitzki) and that isn’t really the sort of thing you associate with a hitter getting plinky and just trying to poke singles, is it? Between that seeming passivity and the increased walk rate, you’ve got two things going on in McGehee’s at-bats that you might more associate with Adam Dunn, not a guy with an outside shot at a batting title.
You don’t have to be a Marlins fan or even a Casey McGehee fan to enjoy this, although as someone who was in the press box the day McGehee ripped three home runs in one game off Edwin Jackson back in August 2011, it’s particularly fun to consider. If anything, McGehee’s transformation into a very different kind of player at the major league level reminds me of Carney Lansford becoming more of a singles hitter late in his career, in his age-31 season. Lansford shed much of his power, seeing his ISO halved from .166 in the pumped-up ’87 season to just .081 while hitting .331 in the first half of the 1988 season (earning his first and only All-Star appearance), that before slumping terribly in the second half to appease the BABIP fairy. Then he hit .336 in 1989 to show that he really could do this late-career reincarnation as a singles hitter. Lansford had hit lots of singles before (hitting .336 in the strike-shortened ’81 season), but seeing him deliver at that level more consistently while his power went away that dramatically was odd then.
Almost as odd as McGehee’s power outage has been this season while hitting lots more singles. But unlike McGehee, Lansford's walk rate dropped, which you would have expected since he was seeing less than three pitches per plate appearance back in 1988. What McGehee is doing is thus different, because it's a battle in the batter's box that he's waging differently, watching more pitches, drawing more walks, but making contact when he chooses to.
Which, when you get right down to it, is more than a little fun to see happen. Here’s hoping that McGehee keeps it up, whether in a Marlins uni or wherever he might get sent if they ever do deal him down the stretch, because if he does hit all year long, it'll force us to think about how much we know about what players can do when they set their minds to it.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.