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.

 

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