Jeff Keppinger Really Should Be Reaching First Base By Now

Why is the White Sox biggest off-season recruit having such a hard time hitting the ball?

photo: scott strazzante/chicago tribune

Jeff Keppinger keeping his eye on the ball back in spring training.

Hawk Harrelson is already bumming. After the White Sox’s ugly loss to Cleveland last night—the team’s fourth in a row, and 10th in their last 13—the veteran play-by-play man could barely muster the nerve to deliver his patented game-closing call. It almost sounded like he thought the season, not just the ballgame, was “ovah.”

It’s been a trying few weeks for the South Siders, who—with a record of 7-12—now occupy the cellar in one of baseball’s least competitive divisions. The pitching isn’t the problem: Robin Ventura’s staff has allowed the second-fewest runs in the American League. The Sox just haven’t been able to score any runs. Sox hitters have reached base in 27 percent of their at-bats, a number that ties them with the woeful Marlins for last place in all of baseball. 

Given the amount of money slugger Adam Dunn gets paid, it makes sense that he’s received most of the criticism (for his part, Big Donk says he feels comfortable in the box, but he carries the league’s worst on-base percentage, went down on strikes 27 times, and has failed an early experiment to attack pitches up and in).

But it’s not just Dunn falling flat. His ineptitude has, if anything, just deflected attention away from the other big story in the weak Sox offense. Remember the team’s only headline-grabbing offseason signing? Turns out his play has been nearly as dreadful. You know this guy.

Jeff Keppinger.

Instead of paying an arm and a leg for the aging Kevin Youkilis, new general manager Rick Hahn opted instead to bring in the 33-year-old Keppinger for $12 million over three years. Besides Youk, the Sox haven’t had a reliable starter in the hot corner for some time, and Kepp—known around baseball for his ability to make contact with virtually any pitch—was supposed to step right in and produce. (Fangraphs’s Jeff Sullivan has called him a “human ball return.”)

Last season with Tampa Bay was his best in the big leagues. His OPS+ of 126, which adjusts for the park a player hits in and the league in which he plays, was the highest he’s recorded since 2007. And it was well above his career average of 94.

So what’s Ventura gotten out of him so far? The sample size is relatively small, but in 76 at-bats, Keppinger has hit 12 singles and one double, walked literally zero times, and fanned on nine occasions. He’s three for 34 at U.S. Cellular Field, and, before his single in the first inning last night, was hitless in 26 straight plate appearances.

Keppinger’s weighted on-base average is actually worse than Dunn’s, and just a hair better than the Twins’ Aaron Hicks, who sports the MLB’s lowest. Nobody has been as bad, in as many at-bats, as the Sox’s “marquee” free agent.

Okay, so Sox fans shouldn’t panic quite yet. April is typically Keppinger’s worst month, and only 12 of his 76 at-bats have come against southpaws, who he traditionally pounds. His line-drive rate, at 26.5 percent, is several points higher than the league average, too.

Pessimists, however, might start to wonder if 2012—when he hit almost 40 points better against right-handers than his career average—was an anomaly. It remains to be seen whether, for the foreseeable future, the Sox will be stuck with another dud in the infield.

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