#28 - ERICK AYBAR, SS
Erick Johan Aybar was signed as an amateur free agent by the Angels on February 4, 2002, less than a month after his eighteenth birthday. He played a memorable part in Matt McCarthy's minor league memoir Odd Man Out as part of the '02 Pioneer League Provo Angels. Just over four years after signing he made his major league debut in May of 2006. Already dubbed the "Shortstop of the Future", he got the seal of approval to take over the job when Tony Reagins traded Orlando Cabrera to the White Sox for Jon Garland after the 2007 season.
Aybar started 91 games at Short for the Angels in 2008 and solidified himself in the team's plans with a fine glove and a talent for putting the ball in play that warmed Micro-Manager Mike Scioscia's heart. In the following five seasons he never had less than 550 Plate Appearances. His glove stayed above average and his bat underrated - he is already in the franchise's top ten in triples and sacrifice hits. Bill James once called him the most underrated player in the American League which surprised many regular viewers of Angels games who might see him as a freeswinging hacker - but it is precisely this contact-to-pitch approach that has garnered him success - knowing that he is going to be swinging he tends to wait a little longer for the ball to come before hacking away at it, creating lots of contact and a boost to his average over what a selective hitter with his same talents might accrue.
While hacking is frowned upon, especially in a stat-leaning culture that privileges walks as part of a better OBP, Aybar is a case study in a player who, not a good judge of the strike zone, is not actually impatient at the plate. Aybar will hack to foul a pitch more often than he will swing to get a hit, boosting his pitch recognition in what could be called a chess game with the hurler if it wasn't more like a three stooges slapathon. And in all of this he succeeds well in getting on base via the batted ball and moving runners over; he has almost the exact same number of Plate Appearances as an Angel as Don Baylor and Rod Carew (Aybar has 3,519 - Carew 3,570, Baylor 3,536) but only 65 GIDP to Carew's 72 and Baylor's 81. He deserves credit for creating plays instead of letting them just happen based on a keen stroke. He once broke up a Justin Verlander perfect game with this mindset and all he got was criticized.
His 4.4 WAR season in 2011 is among the club's fifty best single seasons and his 17.5 career WAR with the team is the second best of any Angels shortstop behind only Jim Fregosi. His .277 batting average is a tick below David Eckstein's .278 as an Angel but the tenacity to get there was just as intense as Eck's, even if not necessarily appreciated. You see, there is a boneheaded foible-prone side to Aybar that worked to make him less than a fan favorite. His baserunning is not that great - he has made more than a few ridiculously bad outs on the basepaths, but his 38 Caught Stealing versus 110 Stolen Bases still ranks twelfth best all time at 74.3% by an Angels base-stealer.
His biggest blunder, though, was missing a bunt on a suicide squeeze call in Game 4 of the 2008 ALDS. The Angels had finally won a game against Boston in the postseason the night before in Fenway, after having lost ten straight postseason games dating back to 1986 against the Chowds. Down two games to one in the best of five series, a win would have sent them home for a winner take all contest. In the top of the ninth of a tie game, pinch hitter Kendry Morales doubled. Reggie Willits pinch-ran and was bunted over to 3B. The go ahead run was on 3B with one out in the top of the ninth inning with a chance to send the game back to Anaheim. Manny Delcarmen replaced Justin Masterson to face the next batter, Erick Aybar. With the count 2-0, Mike Scioscia called for a suicide squeeze. Willits was off with the pitch. It was high and Aybar missed it. Willits had broken for home on the pitch and valiantly tried to get back to 3B but to no avail. He was thrown out by Jason Varitek and Aybar grounded out with the bases empty to end the inning. The Chowds scored a run in the bottom of the frame and that was that.
Actually, Aybar topped that boneheaded play with an even more boneheaded play in a playoff game - if that is possible. Well it happened in the clinching game of the 2006 Carribean World Series. Venezuela was facing Aybar's Dominican Republic team. Tied 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth, Henry Blanco hit a pop fly to deep short - or shallow left, which was it? Well Aybar went back after it and lost it in the lights too late. The flyball bounced off Aybar's head and rolled out into no-man's land. Alex Gonzalez raced around from 2B and scored the game winner.
Perhaps the takeaway is that despite these series-destroying gaffes, Erick Aybar has shown up and played knowing that every new day starts with a zero-zero score and it is up to each of us to put the day's ball in play and manufacture something positive. Or maybe the takeaway is that if you cannot judge the strike zone, hack away, take the money and run. Go on, take the money and run, Aybar, you've earned it; your day in and day out grinding earned it.