I like Lastings Milledge. There are a number of reasons I root for the guy: I think he got a bad rap in New York and Washington and he's worked really hard since coming to Pittsburgh to prove those critics wrong, as much as progress as I think Neal Huntington has made with the the minor league system there's a huge portion of the public who wants to see Major League results from his trades and Milledge would be something the point to in that category, and most importantly if he ever finds his stride in the batter's box it'd be great news for the Pittsburgh Pirates both present and future.
2010 is supposed to be a season for evaluation with the Pirates, though, and it's no secret that to this point in the season Milledge is really struggling at the plate. Through last night's game, he's hitting just .245/.308/.318 with no home runs. He's now played 88 games with the Pirates and his line at the plate is just .276/.325/.370 with four homers and there's pretty much nothing about that line that's impressive.
Those 88 games aren't really enough to make a judgment, but with Jose Tabata absolutely destroying the ball in Triple A (.344/.409/.451 right now) there's suddenly a bit of urgency to figure out what we've got in Milledge and how long it's worth pursuing. His biggest problem in 2010 is that he's been more or less unable to hit the ball out of the infield. His groundball rate is almost 60%, which is much higher than his career numbers and eighth in all of baseball. The guys in front of him are mostly the Michael Bourn/Denard Span type hitters with a few struggling players like Hunter Pence and Derek Jeter mixed in. His pop-up rate, 18.2% (meaning that 18.2% of the flyballs he hits stay in the infield which is why it's often abbreviated IFFB), is pretty high (16th of the currently 182 qualified players) as well. Combined, it's really easy to infer that Milledge just isn't hitting the ball hard. Even if he doesn't become a 30 homer guy, he needs to be driving the ball into gaps like Andrew McCutchen does. The thing is, his line drive rate isn't that much lower than McCutchen's; 'Cutch is at 18% and Milledge is 16.3% so far. The difference is in the ground balls (46% for McCutchen) and pop-ups (McCutchen's IFFB is 5.6%, a third of Milledge's).
Milledge has never been this type of hitter before. His line drive rate is usually up around 20% and his groundball percentage usually moves between 40%-45%. So what's up with all the grounders this year? Bad luck, perhaps. A change in his swing, maybe. The problem, of course, is that he wasn't a particularly good hitter before this year and so he needs to improve on things (that IFFB% stands out in particular given the type of hitter he profiles as) rather than maintain past performances to be a viable full-time outfielder going forward. The Pirates would still be well-served to keep him playing every day for now, but with each groundout to shortstop it seems like a longer shot that he's going to be an everyday player.