Juan Nicasio Has a New Slider, and He Needs His Old One Back

The Mariners recently inked Juan Nicasio to a 2-year/$17 million deal in their first significant addition to their pitching staff this offseason. After years as a middling starter, Nicasio emerged as a rock-solid relief option with the Rockies in 2014 before the Dodgers fully bought into his potential as a reliever the following year. The Pirates then acquired him and shifted him into the rotation a bit in 2016; however, he had more success in their bullpen and moved their full-time in 2017. He was again on the move last year though — this time playing for two new teams — but he never started a game, posting a cumulative 2.61 ERA over 72.1 IP in 76 appearances.

He’s on the wrong side of 30, and breakout relievers tend to pop up and decline quickly, but it can be argued that Nicasio has done nothing but improve since moving into the bullpen.

Juan Nicasio as RP IP ERA AVG OBP SLG wOBA
2014 20.2 3.48 .227 .275 .400 .300
2015 56.1 3.83 .257 .359 .381 .320
2016 55.2 3.88 .249 .328 .387 .308
2017 72.1 2.61 .216 .277 .333 .265

As a reliever, Nicasio is largely a two-pitch pitcher, primarily throwing a 4-seam fastball and a slider. He had occasionally mixed in a sinker and changeup in previous years, but 2017 saw Nicasio throw a 4-seam fastball or slider 98.31% of the time. This pitch mix in combination with his K/9 dipping from slightly over 10 to just under 9 may raise a couple eyebrows, but Nicasio also improved his command considerably.

His 6.9% BB% in 2017 was his lowest since his debut season and marked a second straight year of improvement and his 24.7% K% compares well to previous years. This would suggest that Nicasio is only getting more efficient with his outs, not striking guys out at a lesser rate. And sure enough, his 1.08 WHIP last year was by far the lowest it’s ever been.

A quick look at his splits from 2017 showed a distinct improvement against left-handed batters compared to previous years.

Juan Nicasio vs. LHH IP AVG OBP SLG wOBA
2015 14.1 .359 .494 .516 .427
2016 21.0 .241 .351 .476 .350
2017 33.0 .205 .252 .292 .235

In his largest sample yet, Nicasio made huge strides.

Since improvements against opposite-handed batters tend to suggest an improvement in a pitcher’s changeup or breaking ball and given that Nicasio essentially throws just two pitches, his slider seemed like a good starting point. I found that (per Brooks Baseball) it has an entirely different shape in 2017.

Juan Nicasio Sliders Velocity HMov VMov
2015 86.92 1.94 1.86
2016 87.11 1.49 2.80
2017 88.92 0.47 4.04

While Nicasio’s slider was laterally less impressive in 2017, it made up for that with sharper drop.

Here is his slider in 2016 with a little frisbee action.

Slider 2016.gif

And here it is in 2017 a bit more tightly wound.

Slider 2017.gif

Nicasio’s slider was devasting to right-handers in 2015 and 2016 (cumulative .218 wOBA/ 221 xwOBA), but it seemingly fell into the swing path of lefties, as they smashed it for a .369 wOBA/.272 xwOBA in the same period. In 2017, lefties floundered against it for the first time, posting just a .194 wOBA/.175 xwOBA. But his other slider disappeared.

Using this somewhat cutter-like breaking ball against RHB in 2017 yielded a 302 wOBA and .320 xwOBA. Considering the fastball didn’t play up (.298 wOBA/.334 xwOBA), that kind of performance is a slight concern, but righties’ triple slash against him was still an encouraging .225/.296/.367 (.287 wOBA).

On the surface, the Mariners seem to have gotten a quality reliever at about market rate for his talent, but I think there is still some upside here. Certainly, in this new slider, Nicasio has found a legitimate weapon against LHB, but the Mariners must hope his natural slider is not lost. In order to remain a high-quality, high-leverage setup man — the kind that posts sub-3 ERAs — he’s going to have to bring out both.

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The Relatively Minor Impact of Sprint Speed On Outfield Defense (2017)

Quantifying defense is a notoriously difficult task. The relatively low number of chances each fielder gets per season compared to the number of at-bats they may receive makes single-season defensive metrics a bit wonky and unreliable when viewed in the same scope of offensive metrics. With that in mind, let’s try to draw a bunch of conclusions from UZR anyway.

This year, Statcast released Sprint Speed data, detailing players’ top speeds in each season, dating back to 2015. Common sense dictates that outfielders rely more on speed than infielders do, so they were chosen to be the focus of this analysis. Using 2017 Sprint Speed and UZR data, we can see if there is some correlation between top speed and outfield defense. To account for playtime, we’ll use UZR/150 in place of UZR.

A linear regression suggests that sprint speed accounts for about 32.5% (r = .3250) of the variation in UZR/150 among players who logged at least 500 innings in the outfield in 2017.

sprint v. UZR:150

Ultimately, speed does not paint close to the whole picture of a defender’s ability.  Sure, Byron Buxton (30.2 ft/s; 13.1 UZR/150) and Billy Hamilton (30.1 ft/s; 10 UZR/150) translate their speed into elite defense, but that lesson has been lost on guys like Keon Broxton (29.5 ft/s; -4 UZR/150). All else being equal, fast outfielders are better than slow outfielders, but there are evidently many more influential factors in play.

Conceivably, range (RngR) would be influenced by Sprint Speed more than other UZR components, but the correlation between Sprint Speed and RngR/150 (RngR prorated to 1350 innings) was actually lower than that found between Sprint Speed and UZR/150. In this case, Sprint Speed was found to account for just 28.5% (r = .2850) of variation in RngR/150.

 

sprint v. RngR

While seemingly counterintuitive, this result suggests that while an outfielder’s range is substantially influenced by how fast they can run, that effect is overshadowed by a combination of other skills like first-step speed/reaction time and route efficiency.

Upon its full-fledged release, the Sprint Speed leaderboard saw 12 centerfielders among the top 14 fastest players. It would appear then that centerfield would be the position most influenced by a players’ sprint speed — they do have the most ground to cover after all. While it stands to be shown that Sprint Speed has a greater impact on defense in center field compared to left and right field, a more important note may be that the focus of evaluating defensive ability should shift toward the cognitive abilities that influence reaction time, route efficiency, etc. and not the physical prowess which helps make up for their deficiencies.

Amid Mariners’ Struggle to Streak, Segura’s Skid Hard to Ignore

In their continued flirtation with mediocrity, the Mariners have dropped two straight games to pull within one of .500, and while blame may be pointed in several directions, Jean Segura has begun to draw the ire of fans.

Note: “FA” includes both 4-seam and 2-seam fastballs. The pitches were separated whenever possible in data collection. 

A few solid weeks coming off the All-Star break has done little to hide a steep drop in production from the Mariner’s leadoff man in the season’s second half. A stellar triple slash of .349/.390/.482 (138 wRC+) has plummeted to just .228/.297/.305 (65 wRC+) since the return of summer baseball. His perpetual placement at the top of the order has hindered the M’s ability to score consistently, and with a generally hit-or-miss pitching staff, the team has struggled to build significant momentum toward a Wild Card spot. Dreams of overcoming a limping rotation start with the return of Jean Segura.

Part of Segura’s wildly successful first half was his ability to hit 4-seam fastballs. He clobbered them to a .434 wOBA with the support of a solid 88.3 mph average exit velocity (EV). Since the break, his EV on 4-seam fastballs has remained consistent at 89.0 mph, but he has found much more modest results with a .318 wOBA. He hasn’t forgotten how to square up fastballs, but he hasn’t been able to place them where he wants either. That is due in part to pitchers’ developing approach to Segura.

Prior to the break, pitchers worked both sides of the plate with their 4-seam fastball to Segura.

 

4-seam Heatmap pre-break
4-seam Heatmap pre-break

They seemingly left a few too many over the heart of the plate as well, but more importantly, laying off most of those outside fastballs didn’t pose an issue for Segura.

4-seam Swing% pre-break
FA Swing% pre-break

He did most of his damage on low-and-inside fastballs while also punishing some elevated mistakes around the middle of the plate.

4-seam SLG:P pre-break
FA SLG/P pre-break

But there are obvious cold zones inside and up-and-inside, and pitchers have taken notice. Although they haven’t thrown fewer 4-seam fastballs to Segura (38.21% pre-break Pitch% compared to 37.01% post-break Pitch%), they have altered their approach to him to try to expose his weak spots.

4-seam Heatmap post-break
4-seam Heatmap post-break

There is a distinct trend toward pitching Segura far up and inside and testing him outside. It seems likely that Segura’s penchant for swinging at inside fastballs has left this venue open for pitchers to attack.

For the most part, he continues to hack at those inside fastballs despite them not faring low enough for him, but he has started to oblige pitchers on the outer edge as well.

4-seam Swing% post-break
FA Swing% post-break

Given that his EV on fastballs hasn’t decreased, there’s an easy assumption that he is adjusting, but he may be tumbling the wrong dominoes by opening up the outside part of the plate.

Since the All-Star break, Segura has seen the changeups coming in more precisely low-and-away instead of spread across the plate.

 

 

And worryingly, he has begun to swing at them more often.

 

Because Segura is starting to offer more at outside fastballs as well, it is possible he has become vulnerable to changeups in the same area and is making poorer contact against them as a result.

While changeups don’t make up a large portion of the pitches Segura sees, they have kept him to a measly .208 wOBA the second half compared to a .514 wOBA in the first half. And a steep drop in his EV (from 87.6 mph to 82.7 mph) doesn’t support a luck-based turnaround here.

In addition to changeups, sliders, particularly from RHP, may also be presenting an issue for Segura.

He had a .360 wOBA against sliders from RHP in the first half compared to just a .219 wOBA in the second half. He has already pulled more groundballs on low and away sliders during this half than last, and some unproductive launch angles have done him in on a few hard hit balls. His second-half xwOBA of .280 against right-handed sliders is nearly identical to his first half mark (.281 xwOBA) so some poor luck could be in play, but his struggles here may be tied to the fastballs he has seen as well.

While the location of sliders from RHP has remained predominately low and away, Segura has started to make less contact with back-door sliders.

 

After seeing more and more inside fastballs, Segura could be developing a weak spot for those inside sliders that look good coming in until they dart toward the bottom of the zone.

Segura may have his work cut out for him; the situation could always be more complex too. The coaching staff better have their heads on straight for this one regardless. As talented as Segura is, history isn’t always left in the past, and the Mariners don’t want to be on the hook for any Brewers-esque campaigns from him.

All data from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. 

Streaking with Javier Baez

With Addison Russell now on the disabled list, Javier Baez has taken his electric defense to shortstop, but it may be his bat that ultimately steals the show. Since the All-Star break, Baez has been on a tear and it’s no coincidence either.

Prior to the break, Baez was sporting a rough but relatively typical .256/.295/.450 line (84 wRC+), but since the break, he has been hitting .317/.379/.633, good for a 148 wRC+.

There is no obvious batted ball luck here. Baez’s 86.6 mph average exit velocity (EV) ranked 234th in the league (min. 50 results) before the All-Star break. But since then he’s hit the ball at an average of 93.7 mph, which currently puts him in a tie with Giancarlo Stanton for 4th in the league (min. 25 results) with Bryce Harper trailing right behind them. Pretty good company if you ask me.

That 7.1 mph jump in EV between halves is actually the largest increase between halves for any player included in the previous samples, so there could be more to his success than just a random hot streak. No physical swing changes jump out to me though, which leads me to believe his improvements are mental or not of his own doing.

Let’s consider how LHP have pitched to Baez since the break. (Match the lower Total Pitches count to post-All-Star break performance for each gif).

LHP Pitch% gif.gif

Prior to the break we see LHPs working primarily low in the zone against Baez. After the break, LHP have consistently missed below and above the zone. Given that Baez is a low-ball hitter against LHP, it is possible that this new elevation is intentional, but Baez hasn’t been tempted into changing his game plan, roughly maintaining his swing rates regardless of a pitch’s elevation. Over such a small sample size (18 PA), it seems likely that this is just noise due to LHPs missing their spots. Whatever the case, LHP have been all over the place against Baez, and he has torched them to the tune of a 194 wRC+ since the break.

Looking at Pitch% grids from RHP now, it seems that a solid approach to Baez has started to slip.

RHP Pitch% gif

Obviously, RHP try to keep the ball low and away from Baez, but since the break, those pitches have started to creep up in the zone. And those pitches that do end up low and away have tended to end up way low and way away.

In the next gif, we see Baez is actually taking hacks at those low and away pitches at a higher rate than before.

RHP Swing% gif.gif

But the fact that he has made less contact in those areas seems to have prevented him from being punished as much by weak contact.

From the following gif of SLG/P by zone, we see Baez making the most of those elevated mistakes from RHP while still covering the bottom of the zone very well.

RHP SLG:P gif

This has been all been good news for Baez, but it could also bad news for him in a way too.

He has gotten off to a blistering start in the second half, but potentially, a significant portion of his success could be credited to pitchers who haven’t challenged him the same way they did earlier in the season.

Pitchers seem to be throwing fewer quality strikes to Baez, which is part of the reason he has seen his BB% increase from 5.0% in the first half to 9.1% in the second half. In the same timeframe, his K% has jumped from 26.0% to 34.8%. This large increase in both BB% and K% coupled with a substantial increase in EV across the board might suggest that Baez is taking his chances to just let it fly on hittable pitches because his pitch recognition hasn’t been challenged as staunchly.

While “letting it fly” may revive some ugly memories of a strikeout-heavy 2014, it may also be how Javy can find the most success. Avoiding strikeouts is no longer paramount, and the skill may even still be on a downtrend. We are witnessing a bizarre season from Joey Gallo who is being celebrated for his high K/high power output; it’s possible Baez could follow a similar path.

Maybe this is a random hot streak. Maybe it’s just Baez letting loose a bit. But with strikeouts being increasingly overlooked, maybe it’s time to just let Javier Baez be Javier Baez.

All data from Baseball Savant and FanGraphs

 

Lift Off: The Swing Behind Robinson Chirinos’s Surge

When the Texas Rangers signed Robinson Chirinos to an extension in March, GM Jon Daniels felt confident that the team had two starting-caliber catchers. With Johnathan Lucroy penciled in as the actual starter, that statement was more of a display of confidence in Chirinos who has since gracefully assumed the role of a backup. Now, this second string catcher is out-playing the former All-Star, Lucroy, by a wide margin.

To date, Johnathan Lucroy has been paltry at the plate and his defense seems to have fallen off a cliff. By BaseballProspectus’s WARP, Lucroy has actually been the worst player in all of baseball at -1.19 bWARP. Regardless of how the rest of the season turns out, I’m sure the Rangers will be happy to trade him or let him walk because Robinson Chirinos is finally shining.

In limited playing time, Chirinos has put on a power display, slashing a robust .248/.339/.634 (148 wRC+) to go with his typical defense for a solid 1.15 bWARP.

He has performed well on both sides of the ball since garnering more playing time in 2014, but like many players around the league, he seems to have caught the fly-ball bug this year in an effort to take his game to another level.

Robinson Chirinos LD% GB% FB%
2014 20.9% 41.9% 37.2%
2015 19.2% 35.5% 45.3%
2016 14.4% 40.4% 45.2%
2017 11.1% 33.3% 55.6%
Career 17.4% 39.1% 43.5%

That 55.6% fly ball rate is easily the highest its ever been, and it appears quite deliberate when we consider that his line drive rate has plummeted. But of course, Chirinos couldn’t succeed with more weak fly balls, no no no. In 2015 (the first season with exit velocity data), fly balls came off Chirinos’ bat at 91.1 mph on average compared to the 90.3 mph league average. That figure was up to 93.6 mph in 2016 (league average: 91.1 mph) and has stayed steady at 93.7 mph this year (league average: 91.5 mph).

It’s no wonder then that Chirinos has found more success with fly balls since 2016.

Robinson Chirinos AVG OBP SLG wRC+ wRC+ (overall)
2014 .235 .230 .765 169 93
2015 .237 .231 .968 148 106
2016 .356 .340 1.067 257 108
2017 .425 .425 1.400 372 148

There has always been some pop in Chirinos’s bat, so while his power has really played up recently, the spike shouldn’t be too surprising.

Since his debut in 2011, Chirinos has increased his ISO each year up to an astounding .386 this year.

Robinson Chirinos Plate Appearances ISO
2011 60 .091
2013 30 .107
2014 338 .176
2015 273 .206
2016 170 .259
2017 115 .386
Career 986 .215

Hitting more hard fly balls will do that for you, but that doesn’t happen on accident. We can see that in 2016, Chirinos started to strikeout more as his swinging strike rate (SwStr%) jumped from 8.6% to 12.1%. He has tamed his whiffs a bit, but his current K% (24.3%) and SwStr% (11.0%) are still well above career norms of 22.7% and 9.9%, respectively.

So it seems the real fly ball “evolution” for Chirinos occurred last year, but something still changed coming into this year that has taken his progress to another level. Let’s take a look at his swing in 2016.

2016:

R. Chirinos 2016 Full Swing.gif

No obvious poor tendencies here to me. Let’s see a swing from this year.

2017:

R. Chirinos 2017 Full Swing.gif

Again nothing wrong here, but watch the leg kick. It’s not only bigger than it previously was, but the toe tap is nowhere to be seen. Often, guys incorporate a toe tap as a timing mechanism, but if not done with great consistency, it can mess up your timing and kill the momentum a proper weight shift creates, especially when a pitch gets on you quicker than expected.

Speaking of pitches that can fool you with velocity, fastballs have given Chirinos some fits in the past. From his debut through 2016, Chirinos had a .317 wOBA on 4-seam/2-seam fastballs, cutters and sinkers. On those same pitches in 2017, he has a .486 wOBA. And this doesn’t strike me as a total fluke either. Through 2016 Chirinos had a 86.7 mph average exit velocity on those fastballs. This year, it’s up to 90.2 mph, which is solidly above the 87.9 mph league average.

While the leg kick isn’t everything, I would wager that it is a big component of a new focus at the plate because it may not be entirely natural. If we look at film from way back in 2009, we see no toe tap:

R. Chirinos 2009 Full Swing.gif

And during batting practice in 2015, it is also absent:

R. Chirinos 2015 BP Full Swing.gif

But it was present when he got his first major-league hit:

R. Chirinos 2011 Full Swing (First Hit).gif

Ultimately, Robinson Chirinos strikes me as another guy who has found real results after revamping his swing. His true talent may be a far cry from a 148 wRC+, as a ludicrous 30.0% HR/FB rate should ease up and put dents in his triple slash, but Chirinos could always swing it — it was just a matter of hitting it where they ain’t, and last time I checked, there ain’t any outfielders in the bleachers.

Josh Donaldson, likely the most noteworthy face of baseball’s evolving offensive environment, ditched his toe tap when he revamped his swing and became an MVP. Bryce Harper left his toe tap in JuCo and easily cashed in on his potential en route to an MVP too. Now, it’s Robinson Chirinos’s time to take home an MVP.

Probably not.

But this is a guy that deserves to start. He recently turned 33, and that gives me slight pause in endorsing him next season and beyond, but we’re strapped in now for a good ride and I don’t think it ends before the season does.

 

Jake Marisnick: A Fly Ball Revolutionary

At the major league level, there has never been anything special about the way Jake Marisnick swings a baseball bat. His career 66 wRC+ coming into the 2017 season is nothing short of bad, but his legs and glove have allowed him to carve out a nice career as defense-first outfielder for the Astros.

Cut to 2017 and Marisnick’s 129 wRC+ through the season’s first 3 months has raised some eyebrows. As we begin to scratch the surface of Jake Marisnick, we see a lot of changes behind an all-encompassing stat like wRC+.

Over 125 PA (55 games) in 2017, Marisnick has a .245/.328/.536 line. A .245 average is higher than I would have expected this year, but it was surely within the realm of possibilities. A .536 slugging percentage gives me great pause though. Considering Marisnick’s career SLG of .338 coming into 2017, this is an immense improvement. With such a large uptick in power, I like to consider physical changes first, so let’s take a look at a few changes in Jake’s batting stance.

2015:

J. Marisnick 2015 Pre Swing.png

First, note that this is from 2015. To me, there were no noticeable changes between 2015 and 2016. We see that pre-swing Marisnick is mostly upright, standing neither open nor closed with his hands kind of “floating” out in front of his chest. Here is a clearer image (from 2016) of his hands “floating” before they get pulled into the load.

J. Marisnick 2015 "Floating" Hands.gif

While this is a habit of comfort and not definitively an issue, it seems to force a load with over-involved hands and arms.

These days Marisnick sets up like this:

2017:

J. Marisnick 2017 Pre Swing

Marisnick’s pre-swing stance is now clearly open and less upright, and his hands are no longer floating but steady and drawn slightly back. The earlier engagement of the hands is most obvious when you note the change in position of Marisnick’s elbows between pictures.

Speaking of elbows, check out Marisnick’s back elbow in 2015 and in 2017.

2015:

J. Marisnick 2015 Back Elbow.png

2017:

J. Marisnick 2017 Back Elbow.png

Once his front foot touches down, Marisnick in 2015 has a high back elbow which straightens out his bat and perhaps lengthens the path of his swing. Marisnick in 2017 has a more angled bat as a result of a lower elbow, which creates a more direct path to contact.

Marisnick appears to have made attempts to see the ball better (open batting stance) and trim motions that lengthen his swing. In turn, these tweaks have helped Marisnick post the best contact rates of his career.

Jake Marisnick Soft% Medium% Hard%
2015 23.4% 52.9% 23.8%
2016 21.1% 52.6% 26.3%
2017 14.9% 52.2% 32.8%
Career 22.3% 52.7% 25.0%

Although Marisnick has always had a “just put it in play” bat, he has consistently hit fly balls too often to maintain a passable average and on-base percentage.

Jake Marisnick LD% GB% FB%
2015 19.7% 41.9% 38.4%
2016 19.3% 45.2% 35.5%
2017 16.9% 36.9% 46.2%
Career 20.5% 41.8% 37.8%

This year he’s hitting even more fly balls. A bump in hard contact is a bit general to support this change though, so let’s look at exit velocity (EV) on just fly balls. We see that in 2016 Marisnick had an 88.5 mph average EV on fly balls whereas this year he is sitting comfortably at 94.1 mph. That 5.6 mph increase was among the biggest jumps from 2016 to 2017, sharing company with the likes of George Springer, Scott Schleber, and Wil Myers. Ultimately, Marisnick has transformed his fly balls from near auto-outs (pre-2017 career: .172/.167/.487) to legitimate weapons (current: .345/.333/.1.276).

This is not a comprehensive analysis, but certainly, this iteration of Jake Marisnick is not one we have seen before. Should we expect his 129 wRC+ to hold up all year? No. Pitchers adjust, and his climbing K% (35.2%) leads me to think his AVG/OBP may tank if the power doesn’t come down to compensate. But I believe regressing to his previous self is equally unlikely. He may just be a fourth-outfielder type, but a Jake Marisnick that can run, field, and at least kind of hit is not a Jake Marisnick I want to play against.

Leury Garcia on His Way to Becoming an Everyday Player

Prior to the start of the 2017 season, there was no obvious spot for Leury Garcia on the Chicago White Sox. He has provided defensive flexibility and speed in short stints with the major league club since 2013, but his bat has been too poor to compensate for. With no minor-league options left, Garcia headed into a make-or-break spring training with some uncertainty about the direction of his career, but he hit his way onto the White Sox’ roster and hasn’t looked back yet, posting a .298/.345/.459 slash line (113 wRC+) over 200 PA. Couple that line with fantastic ratings in the field (mostly centerfield), and Garcia could finally be proving to be a quality major league player.

Currently, Leury Garcia is sitting at 1.6/2.0 fWAR/rWAR, and although his great defensive ratings in a such a small sample size prop up his WAR a bit, Garcia’s biggest improvement has come at the plate. He still is basically allergic to walks, but his previously worrying K% (career: 25.6%) has been slashed to just 17% this year. While he cites “swinging at strikes” as reason for his success, I would argue there is a lot more going on. Let’s start from the beginning: the batting stance.

Taking a look back to 2016, we see Garcia very relaxed prior to the pitch being delivered.

L. Garcia 2016 Pre Hands.png

Now in 2017, Garcia begins in what your little league coach may have called an “athletic stance.”

L. Garcia 2017 Pre Hands

Here, the crouch is deeper, the hands are prepared to load – the body is more engaged from the get-go. Now, let’s take a look at a full cut from 2016 and 2017.

2016:

L. Garcia 2016 Full Swing

 

2017:

L. Garcia 2017 Full SwingOff the bat, we notice a bigger leg kick and quieter hands and shoulders.

In 2016, Garcia’s leg kick was modest and almost incidental, whereas in 2017, Garcia has gone with a very deliberate high leg kick. In theory, this allows for a more or at least more efficient weight transfer, which lends some extra “oomf” to a player’s swing. To date, Garcia has hit 6 of his 8 career homers this year while easily posting the highest ISO (.160) of his career. Oh, and this gif was taken from a 2-homer game he had back in May.

While the hands are a physically smaller component of a swing, they easily can become a great hinderance. Garcia shows shades of Ben Revere with his 2016 swing, dropping his hands from his shoulders to his chest before actually loading his hands. Then, while loading his hands, his shoulders begin to turn in, introducing unnecessary rotation and lengthening what may otherwise be a compact swing.

In 2017, Garcia has corrected these superfluous motions. There is still a small hitch in his load, but it is smaller and more fluid than before. More importantly, his shoulders are much quieter, and all this together, gives Garcia a more direct path to the ball. With a quicker path to the ball and less moving parts to his swing, Garcia has lessened sources of error that sap his offensive potential and turned his focus toward “[swinging] at pitches in the strike zone.”

As mentioned earlier, Garcia has managed to cut his K% to 17.0% this year, which falls 4 percentage points below the MLB average of 21.1% for non-pitchers. And like he said he has focused on, Garcia has swung at more pitches in the strike zone this year:

Leury Garcia O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% SwStr%
2017 30.8% 71.9% 52.5% 81.5% 9.6%
Career 33.3% 67.8% 51.5% 76.7% 11.8%

Not only has he swung at more strikes, but he has also swung at fewer balls. This overhaul in plate discipline has allowed Garcia to incredibly cut his swinging-strike rate over 2 percentage points.

Now that Garcia is more selective at the plate, he has used his revamped swing to actually get some value out of his fly balls while still using his legs to make every liner and grounder a potential problem for defenders. It is tough to see Garcia’s fly balls still landing for a .387/.364/1.129 (268 wRC+) line by season’s end, but I see him picking up right where he left off after his current DL stint.

That finally brings us around to his defense. He has graded out as a great centerfielder this year, but reports don’t praise him for his defensive polish there. He has all the tools to find success in the outfield, as he came up an athletic shortstop, but he is still understandably rough at times. My defensive analysis is equally unpolished, so I’ll leave this point as food for thought. Garcia has the tools to play just about anywhere on the diamond (he’s even taken the mound before), but he hasn’t proved to be a consistently good glove. Is it likely that he has found a home in centerfield?

All things considered, Garcia has the makings of an improved player — an everyday player perhaps — but I’m dubious about his chances of ever keeping up his current ~4-5 WAR pace over a full season. I would paint Garcia as a slightly above average hitter who contributes value on the base paths with pure speed and value on defense with great range and the occasional “athletic” play. Though he likely isn’t the centerfielder of the future for the White Sox, Garcia looks like he could settle into a role as a prototypical everyday utility man.

Now, let’s watch Mikie Mahtook botch this liner.

L. Garcia 2016 Full Swing + Flop

Is Chris Taylor really this good?

The Dodgers’ Chris Taylor is becoming a hot topic amongst the baseball community as of late, so Kevaghn dives deep into his hot start to find whats driving it.

As we bear witness to his scoring hot start to 2017, we should begin to wonder when and how drastically Chris Taylor will begin to fade. Surely, no one expects him to keep up his robust .395/.521/.684 triple slash over an entire season, but a revamped swing and approach give credence to his profile as a legitimately improved player.

A spray-and-prey, line-drive oriented approach worked well for Taylor in the minors, but major-league pitching gave him more than just some fits. In two stints and barely a cup of coffee with the Seattle Mariners over 3 seasons, Chris Taylor hit no home runs and just 12 extra base hits in 256 PA, good for a .240/.296/.296 line overall or a 71 wRC+. In May of 2016, he was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers for fading pitching prospect Zach Lee in a trade that is just now producing dividends for LA.

Taylor has not been a proponent of the “fly ball revolution” given that his launch angle on fly balls and line drives is lower with the Dodgers than it was with the Mariners (incredibly SSS be damned), but in his 48 PA since his call-up from AAA in 2017, he has hit the ball incredibly hard, leading to a 219 wRC+. Currently, Taylor’s average exit velocity (EV) is 3rd in the league (no batted ball event qualifier) at 95.0 mph, and his average EV on fly balls and line drives is 102.0 mph, or 2nd in the league. Before that excites you too much, let’s consider a couple variables, including other members of the leaderboard.

While Chris Taylor may sit 3rd in EV thus far this year, he is keeping company with notable power hitters, including Miguel Sano, Khris Davis, and Miguel Cabrera. Throw in first-full-year guys like Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo, and we see that not only does Chris Taylor stick out on this list, but he outright does not belong in the group. The formally light-hitting, defense-first prospect may have added a higher leg kick and a more efficient load to his pre-swing over the offseason, but I have a hard time believing he can swing it with the strongest guys in the majors.

I do, however, believe there are legitimate reasons for his current surge. In a sample size as small as 48 PA, some weird things are bound to happen, and in the case of this SSS, Chris Taylor has fully taken advantage of the weirdness – and then some.

From his debut through 2016, Taylor saw first-pitch strikes 64.8% of the time. So far this season, that number is down to 43.8%, a near 7 percentage points lower than Bryce Harper’s 50.7% mark, which was the lowest among qualified batters in 2016. To highlight what a boon a first-pitch ball can be, we note the following data from across the league in 2017.

Count AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Through 0 – 1 .221 .268 .351 66
Through 1 – 0 .259 .377 .435 122

Not only has Taylor been given the advantage of starting 1 – 0 in a disproportionate amount of his plate appearances, but his Zone% is down to 39.9% in 2017 compared to 53.5% for the rest of his career. I don’t think pitchers have been quick to pitch around a resurgent Chris Taylor –rather, a new version of Chris Taylor has taken advantage of the dearth of strikes he is seeing. As pitchers haven’t challenged him, Taylor has had no problem flashing incredible plate discipline.

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
2017 16.4% 70.4% 37.9%
Career 22.2% 67.2% 45.3%

In theory, laying off pitches outside the zone almost entirely has allowed Taylor to constantly pick his spot to put a good swing on a bad pitch. Consequently, he is putting the ball in play to his pull-side more often and with greater EV across the board as noted earlier.

Year Pull% Center% Oppo% Soft% Medium% Hard%
2017 59.3% 22.2% 18.5% 3.7% 55.6% 40.7%
Career 37.1% 31.6% 31.2% 17.3% 55.7% 27.0%

While I would agree that his new swing has improved his ability to drive the ball, I do not think these metrics are indicative of budding power just yet. I am inclined to believe that as Taylor sees more strikes, his new swing will not be enough to boost his offensive profile to that of an everyday player. Although Taylor looks like an improved hitter to me, as pitchers start to attack him more aggressively and with updated scouting reports, his EV should take a significant hit, leading to a precipitous drop in his power numbers and his batting average as well, as his still low average launch angle may lead to too many ground outs in the long run.

 

On Max Kepler’s Power Potential

As a freshly-signed prospect, Max Kepler was best described as toolsy and athletic. Though not a natural at the game, he had the potential to be a fast-moving prospect, and despite injuries slowing him down early on, Kepler began to make good on scouts’ praise of his bat speed and use of the whole field fairly quickly. When it comes to his power though, scouts are lukewarm. Depending on the report you read, Kepler’s power may be somewhat projectable or simply average. Now that he’s played a decent sample of MLB games, we can take a stronger stance on his power potential.

In 2016, Kepler swatted 17 home runs in 447 PA over 113 games to supplement a rather paltry .235 BA. Extrapolating this number to 600 PA or 162 games, we get roughly 23 or 24 home runs, respectively, which, considering Kepler’s wiry 6’4” frame, seems like a realistic peak power projection, but Kepler has a penchant for spraying the ball around the field rather than over the fence, putting his actual slugging prowess in question.

After reworking his approach to the plate, Kepler experienced such a massive improvement in his strikeout and walk rates once he reached the upper minors (AA/AAA) that he actually started to walk more than he struck out. This discipline helped earned him a promotion although it unsurprisingly did not carry over to the majors, as Kepler fell to a still good 9.4% BB% and 20.8% K%.

This above average walk rate paired with an essentially average K-rate makes Kepler comparable to established MLB players like Christian Yelich, Gregory Polanco, Odubel Herrera, and Eric Hosmer.

Player 2016 BB% 2016 K%
2016 Major League Average (Non-Pitcher) 8.3% 20.6%
Max Kepler 9.4% 20.8%
Odubel Herrera 9.6% 20.4%
Eric Hosmer 8.5% 19.8%
Gregory Polanco 9.0% 20.3%
Christian Yelich 10.9% 20.9%

As more of a slap-hitter, Herrera sticks out in this group , but the other three hit between 21 and 25 home runs last year – right around our peak projection for Kepler. We’ll consider a couple of key batted ball data points in determining whether Kepler can reach that same level.

According to BaseballSavant, only 4 of Kepler’s 17 home runs came on fly balls last year while 16 of Hosmer’s 25 home runs, 11 of Polanco’s 22 home runs, and 12 HR of Yelich’s 21 home runs were fly balls. Additionally, Hosmer, Polanco, and Yelich were able to hit multiple fly ball home runs to the opposite field while Kepler managed 0 total opposite field bombs in his (admittedly much shorter) playing time.

Max Kepler 2016 Fly Balls by Hit Type
2016 Fly Balls by Hit Type
Max Kepler 2016 Fly Balls by EV
2016 Fly Balls by Exit Velocity

It’s no surprise then that Kepler sits in last place among this group in average fly ball exit velocity; however, in this same category, among players in 2016 who hit at least 50 fly balls, Kepler is third to last at 85.8 mph, sandwiched between Ender Inciarte and Angel Pagan. Gross.

Kepler also had a middling average line drive exit velocity (94.3 mph) in 2016, but he still hit 13 line drive home runs. Of the 12 accounted for on BaseballSavant, just 4 came off the bat at less than 100 mph, and one of those was hit at 99.7 mph. As you can see in the following graph, within the confines of the park, Kepler drove hard liners into the gaps and managed to drop several soft line-drive hits in the shallow outfield grass.

Max Kepler Line Drive Hit Types 2016
2016 Line Drives by Hit Type
Max Kepler Line Drive EVs 2016
2016 Line Drives by Exit Velocity

Considering this, Kepler’s average exit velocity may be a bit misleading. As praised in scouting reports, his line drive ability is among his greatest strengths, but he hasn’t fully capitalized on it yet. Of his 312 batted-ball results (outs + hits) in 2016, 74 or 23.7% were line drives, which should be good enough to keep his home run total away from the low teens, but limited fly ball power seems to cap Kepler’s overall power potential when in the same sample, his fly ball rate was 22.1%. This rate isn’t very high, but with little behind them, he managed just 4 home runs hits in 69 fly ball results (5.8%) in 2016.

As we showed before, Max Kepler was similar to both Christian Yelich and Gregory Polanco on at least some plane last year. While we expect Polanco to develop a little more as a power hitter, I would be surprised if Kepler ever consistently hits close to or more than 20 home runs a season without a substantial increase in fly ball exit velocity. Like Polanco, Yelich has already seen his power blossom, going from 7 home runs in 2015 to 21 in 2016, and Jeff Sullivan wrote recently about Yelich potentially benefiting even more by generating more lift (higher launch angles). Although Fangraphs and BaseballSavant don’t have the same batted-ball categorization, we can still see that in 2016, Yelich hit fly balls very hard (96.6 mph average fly ball EV) and very infrequently (12.6% of batted-ball results were fly balls). Since Kepler does not hit fly balls with that same authority, it’s possible that he should stray away from his current batted-ball profile and lower his launch angles to settle in the mold of 2016 Christian Yelich – albeit a poor man’s version. While hitting fewer fly balls, Kepler should see his .235 average rise naturally with plenty of doubles, and finding around 15 home runs should be plenty.