In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays did not have, essentially, any production from their shortstop position. The trio of Reid Brignac (264 PA), Sean Rodriguez (186 PA) and Elliot Johnson (186 PA) hit an uninspired .193/.256/.282 slash with 10 steals and 9 caught stealing (thank you, Elliot).
This season, the Rays are instituting a unique platoon in which Brignac plays primarily against right-handed groundball pitchers and Rodriguez gets most of the remaining starts. And so far, it looks promising.
Brignac, who is only 26 this season, hit well during Spring Training. He sports a surprising uppercut swing -- a surprise for a hitter who really does not sport much power. But in Spring Training, his swing appeared moderately more level and he managed a .375 on-base percentage and a decent .333/.375/.367 slash.
In the young 2012 season, Brignac has continued to hit well. Though the uppercut swing is still there -- and presumably will always be there -- Brignac has been making solid contact. In his eight plate appearances, Brignac has hit 2 line drives, 3 ground balls and 2 fly balls and walked the remaining 1 time.
In general, line drives in play have a batting average in the .700s, so naturally they are preferable -- and Brignac is hitting them, which is a good sign. But given the choice between ground balls and fly balls, a guy like Brignac (without much home run power) should prefer ground balls. Flies in play tend to go for a low .100s batting average while ground balls that stay fair sneak through at a .240ish clip.
So an uptick in ground balls and line drives is a good thing for Brignac. If he can hold his current approach -- and that is far from a guarantee -- he could perceivably hit something in the neighborhood of .250/.310/.350, which is pretty terrible, but acceptable for a shortstop with impressive defense.
What to Watch For:
If Brignac starts hitting a lot of popups and easy flies, then he is no longer locked in. If this happens, he will likely cede more playing time to Rodriguez and Jeff Keppinger.
But, if Joe Maddon starts playing him against all righties, then we can ascertain that the management likes his approach too. So far, Brignac has started against Hiroki Kuroda (neutral GB/FB pitcher) and Rick Porcello (ground ball pitcher) and sat against CC Sabathia (lefty) and Phil Hughes (fly ball righty).
One of the first tests comes on Wednesday as Brignac is in the starting lineup against Justin Verlander (elite, almost-FB pitcher). Verlander has a 0.68 fly-ball-to-ground-ball ratio, putting him somewhere between neutral like Kuroda (1.00 GB/FB on his career and 0.83 last year) and Hughes (0.55 GB/FB).
If Brignac can continue to hit the ball hard against one of the league's better pitchers -- and continue to play top-tier defense -- and then parlay this early success into a consistent approach, there maybe be hope yet for Reid Brignac.