For the second time this month, one of the season's most disappointing players will undergo a sudden shoulder surgery. At the start of September, Tyler Flowers decided to call it a season. On Tuesday, Jeff Keppinger joined him.
Now, mandatory, involuntary procedures seem like a fitting punishment for the key components of the league's worst offense. It would certainly make retirement a far easier option for Paul Konerko. Alas, there are laws against that sort of thing, so we have to assume that these truly are necessary steps for recovery.
With Keppinger, it's a lot easier to trace it back when compared to Flowers. The severity of the catcher's shoulder injury caught a lot of people by surprise, whereas Keppinger's issues led a far more public life at one point this year.
There was a fortnight during spring training over which soreness and irritation prevented him from getting regular playing time at third base, and led to some uncomfortable answers from Robin Ventura. But eventually the discomfort dissipated enough to play regularly at third base while hitting .412 in spring training, so he seemed to answer the questions.
But hell, even when he came out of the gate struggling to such a degree that he drew rubberneckers, he didn't really face much external scrutiny. Even during the good times, the beat writers have left him alone, more or less. It's not like he could've out-talked the statistical case against him.
He's just been floating along, not making any sort of news until he went missing from the lineup card on Tuesday. Ventura then explained the situation, but with a questionable assessment of Keppinger's state:
"It wasn’t continuous where he couldn’t use it," Ventura said. "It kept bothering him over the course of the year. Hitting-wise he was fine, but any time you put him out there in the field for an extended period of time it would start to creep up on him. Clean it up, and make sure he’s ready to go in spring training."
If you're looking for reason to buy into a Keppinger reboot, that's not what you want to hear. You want to hear that he gutted through every aspect of the game; that he swallowed screams every time he swung a bat; that sweet-spot contact inexplicably hurt more than getting jammed.
Because hitting-wise, the results weren't fine. He had decent stretches, including the last two months (.312/.356/.452 since the start of August), which made the timing of the surgery so unexpected. But even though the upswing allowed him to boost his OPS to .600 before closing the book on 2013, he still ranked near the bottom of numerous FanGraphs leaderboards for a guy who received as much playing time as he did.
- OBP: .283 (fourth-worst)
- Slugging percentage: .317 (second-worst)
- OPS: .600 (third-worst)
- Isolated power: .064 (second-worst)
- wOBA: .265 (third-worst)
- WAR: -1.6 (second-worst)
(Sadly, Keppinger has the second-worst WAR on the White Sox this season. Konerko has taken 1.7 wins off the table.)
Baseball-Reference.com puts him below the -2 WAR line with their measurement, which makes his season the third-least valuable season in White Sox history:
It's hard to overstate just how deep of a hole Keppinger dug for himself. His OPS started with a "4" at the start of June, and July was another sub-.500 OPS month. Basically, he was a far bigger drag at his worst than an asset at his best, whether at the plate or in the field.
So it's hard to take "hitting-wise he was fine" as a comprehensive statement. The hope is that Ventura meant more that 1) swinging a bat didn't exacerbate the pain, and 2) with months like June, August and September, Keppinger found a way to hit more than the in-house replacements could provide.
Flowers faced the surgical music only when Josh Phegley took most of the playing time. Likewise, there was no point in Keppinger toughing anything out when Marcus Semien showed up able to hang tough, with Leury Garcia and Conor Gillaspie also making use of reps. Perhaps everybody would have been able to act sooner had a challenger presented himself as a viable option sooner, but these are the problems that crop up when you produce little position-player depth. You gotta dance with who you brought, even if the respirator he's attached to gets in the way.
What's funny is that it'd probably be easier if Keppinger's .600 OPS represented his true, healthy, 100-percent talent level, because at least they could aggressively disregard him. Instead, he's thrown on the pile of players like Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Brent Morel and Flowers -- players who not only squandered an entire season, but didn't even offer the courtesy of providing any real clarity about what might be expected in the future thanks to a condition.
That said, I'm guessing Keppinger will be mildly disregarded during the offseason machinations -- he's still a part of the 2014 roster, but his playing time isn't going to be a priority. He could still be a platoon guy or a generously deployed bench player, but Rick Hahn would be happy to minimize his importance if the moves made sense. That would be the way to go, since Keppinger couldn't minimize his contributions much more than he did this year.