Elijah Dukes hasn't had nearly the season Nationals fans had hoped for this year. He hasn't even had a year that realists expected.
Last year, in his age-24 season, he hit .264 / .386 / .478, good for the fourth best wOBA among NL right-fielders with at least 330 PA. He also was a +11.2 UZR/150 right-fielder, which, combined with his bat made him a genuine all-star caliber performer, at least when he was healthy.
With is strike-zone command and raw power, the projection systems saw no reason for him to fall break-neck pace. PECOTA had him at .278 / .386 / .486.
This year, everything has gone backwards. Even with a recent uptick, he's hitting .250 / .319 / .412, which would be ok if he was a good-fielding shortstop or catcher, but it's totally inadequate in right.
His glove has also regressed. I give him a pass for his time in center, but even in right he's been a -7.3 UZR/150 fielder, as he's making more errors and his range has declined.
And then there's his base-running. He has a stunningly bad 17% success rate on steals (2 for 12). He's been picked off five times. He had the rare CS and PO two-fer in his boxscore last night. Based on Baseball Prospectus's EQBRR stat, Dukes has cost the Nationals a whopping 5.22 runs compared to an average base-runner, a huge number, especially given his relatively sparse playing time.
Chalk up the base-running to Dukes just being a knucklehead. Manny gave him a green light on the basepaths early on, with predictable results.
More worrisome is the decline of power and on-base percentage. A Dukes apologist might say that we simply missed his hottest hot streak of the season, since Dukes hit .279 / .388 / .529 in 80 PA in Syracuse. There's some truth to that, but it doesn't come close to telling the whole tale.
The big issue is that Dukes has just totally lost track of his strike-zone command, which previously had been one of his greatest strengths.
His walk rate has slipped all the way from 15.3% last year to 9.0% this year. He's swinging at 29.4% of pitches out of the zone, compared to 20.3% last year. That's a huge difference.
As a result, he's not getting in nearly as many hitter's counts. Last year, he was in a 3-0 count in 8% of his plate appearances; this year, just 3%. Last year, he saw a 2-0 pitch 15% of the time; this year, 12%. And last year he saw 3-1 13% of the time; this year, just 7%.
Surprisingly, despite all this hacking, his strikeout rate has gone down from 28.6% to 21.1%. Chalk that up to his natural talent. Even in a hole, he has enough plate coverage and bat control to make contact. But he's not able to drive the ball at all. His ISO power is down 50 points from .214 to .162, and his home run per fly ball rate is down from 18.8% to 8.5%.
I'm not convinced that the problem is that he's pulling the ball too much, as Boz said in his last chat. Go to his spray chart here, and you'll see he was pretty much a dead-pull hitter last year, and he's a dead-pull hitter this year. Then again, you'll see pretty similar patterns from guys like David Ortiz in his prime and Adam Dunn.
We don't want him to hit like a little bitch. We just want him to chase fewer pitcher's pitches, make pitchers come at him, and get back to those chest-thumping walk-off walks. His ground ball rates haven't really gone up, which you would expect if he is reaching out trying to pull breaking balls on the outside corner all the time.
So what's happening? Is he pressing because he saw his buddy Lastings get shipped down after a week of struggles? Does he miss Lenny Harris (ha!)? Did all the time playing out of position in center mess up his bat? Is he just a young player who lost track of his game and is having trouble finding his way back?
All the above is probably part of it, but the solution is simple. Rather than trying to slap more balls the other way, he needs to work more hitters counts, take more walks, and when he gets a pitch to hit, deposit it in the Red Loft.
One idea that should be totally off the table is to simply non-tender him and let him leave for nothing, as Boz suggested. To let a pre-arbitration player with so much talent go for nothing is completely nutso.