One of the lingering questions this offseason is "Which Ryan Church will we see?" That question refers to the red hot Ryan Church we saw before his second concussion last year, and the ice cold Ryan Church we saw afterwards. While the truth obviously isn't that cut and dry, and almost certain he will generally be somewhere in between those two incarnations, its an interesting question. A lot of us like to think that "Churchie" was on his way to a breakout season in his first season as a real full-time player. His defense was impressive, and he was just tearing the cover off the ball through May. So was this a legitimate breakout? Is it something we can expect to see Ryan repeat and sustain in the upcoming season?
April: 94 ABs .319 / .390 / .497
May: 67 ABs .299 / .364 / .612
September: 86 ABs .209 / .299 / .302
Those are Church's monthly batting lines in 2008 for each month in which he had a at least 40 ABs. Obviously, looking at April-May and then September is like night and day, and the concussions clearly derailed his season. But if we repeat this same excercize for each of the previous three years, we find some rather telling data:
April : 42 ABs .190 / .261 / .333
May : 61 ABs .377 / .406 / .508
June : 57 ABs .368 / .439 / .737
July : 46 ABs .239 / .308 / .370
April: 41 ABs .244 / .380 / .659
August: 57 ABs .246 / .317 / .439
September: 43 ABs .302 / .367 / .581
April: 88 ABs .284 / .394 / .500
May: 89 ABs .247 / .356 / .427
June: 88 ABs .239 / .280 / .352
July: 76 ABs .263 / .313 / .408
August: 86 ABs .291 / .340 / .447
September: 43 ABs .349 / .442 / .767
The fact is, Church has always been an incredibly "streaky" hitter. The variance between his good months and his bad months is about as large as you'll find with a major league hitter. In his good months, he looks like an MVP candidate, and in his bad months, he looks like he belongs in Triple A. His hot start to 2008 was hardly an outlier in this scheme. He's had hot stretches like that before (May-June 2005, April and September 2006, April and September 2007), and he's never been able to sustain them for more than a month or two at a time. He nearly always regresses, falling to a sub-.600 OPS for a month in both 2005 and 2007. Obviously, with the concussions, its impossible to know if he would have managed to finally sustain his hot streak in 2008, but looking at this, I have less faith than I want to.
The good news is two-fold. First, Church's glove will make him a worthwhile player to have around by itself. Even if he sees a prolonged slump, having him on the bench wouldn't exactly be a waste, he can likely play all three outfield positions and (eventually) provide some nice lefty pop in PH situations. The other good news is that his likely understudy, Jeremy Reed, is having an outstanding spring. With the third most ABs on the team to date (47), Reed is hitting a robust .426 / .491 / .617. He's shown more pop than the oft-injured March wonder that is Angel Pagan, and the fact that his SLG is more than .200 points higher than his career mark is a good indication that he's ready for a nice offensive showing this season. Even PECOTA sees Reed as being quite similar to Church, projecting the former for a .269 / .321 / .396 Weighted Mean batting line and .316 / .369 / .488 90th Percentile projected batting line, and the latter for .251 / .332 / .414 Weighted Mean and .292 / .375 / .496 90th Percentile. And on top of that, Fernando Tatis, a possible right-handed counterpart for Right Field, who is also having a good spring, is right in that same boat projection-wise. So Jerry Manuel will have some options here.
In this end, the onus here will likely wind up on Jerry's shoulders. At this point, even if he gets off to a hot start, a slump should be expected from Church as we get into warmer weather. It will be up to Jerry to recognize that if it happens, and take the appropriate action. Swapping his role with Reed's should be a very reasonable solution, though Tatis and Nick Evans might give Jerry a few options to play with. But unless Manuel can push some magic button that will turn Church into a consistent hitter, Jerry will need to be his toes and have a willingness to sit Church down when he struggles.