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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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.