Of Jeff Keppinger and Brooks Conrad | The Process Report

Of Jeff Keppinger and Brooks Conrad

Jeff Keppinger and Brooks Conrad are two utility infielders with offensive flavors and varying approaches.

Keppinger could make franchise history this season. By striking out once every 14.3 at-bats during the first half, Keppinger put himself in position to set the single-season club record. Currently, the accomplishment belongs to Toby Hall*, who, in 2006, struck out once every 13 at-bats. It would be a surprise if Keppinger failed to shatter the record; he’s topped Hall’s mark in each season but one since becoming a regular in 2007.

There are two ways to avoid strikeouts. One is to put the ball into play early in an at-bat, before a strikeout becomes a possibility. The other is to make a high-rate of contact regardless of the count. Keppinger does both. He doesn’t walk much and he tends to see a below-average amount of pitches per plate appearance. Keppinger makes up for it by making contact on 93 percent of his swings over the last three seasons.

The key to Keppinger’s contact rate is a compact swing. Although Keppinger starts by rocking back and forth in an open stance with a wide base, he makes up for the balance issues with a quick stride. Keppinger isn’t worried about shifting his weight in order to muscle up on the ball, rather, he allows the ball travel deep before pulling his hands through. When Keppinger does hit for power, it’s because of his bat speed, not his muscle.

Take the image below. It comes from the ninth inning of a May 5 game against the Athletics. Ryan Cook is on the mound. While Cook is a tough matchup for anyone, he presents a platoon disadvantage for Keppinger. Cook gets ahead 1-2 before tossing the pitch below, a 95-mph fastball that ends up just off the inside corner. Notice how the bat is essentially invisible until the last frame, where Keppinger is making contact.

Brooks Baseball’s new hitter cards show Keppinger whiffing on two fastballs all season. He does take more empty swings against breaking stuff, which is to be expected, but relative to the league as a whole he remains above-average. It’s a testament to Keppinger’s compact swing, hand-eye coordination, and fantastic bat control. Those physical attributes can be lost in the fray when only checking the stats.

So can usage rates. While Keppinger’s batting average appears like a fluke if viewed raw, it’s worth noting that he is seeing more left-handed pitchers than before. Thus, people should have expected an increase in raw numbers. The determining factor in whether Keppinger will hit over .300 is if an inflated batting average against lefties can continue to outweigh a deflated batting average against righties. If so, Keppinger should find himself getting a raise come the winter.

*As it turns out, Hall is the closest thing the Rays have to a homegrown contact hitter, at least by this metric. He owns four of the top six seasons in team history, with Miguel Cairo grabbing three of the top 10 spots, and Wade Boggs, Rey Sanchez, and Brent Abernathy making appearances.

Whereas Keppinger’s swing is short and sweet, Conrad’s is long and sour. There is a pro to a longer swing: more power. There are myriad cons, too.

Conrad is more vulnerable at the plate. Pitchers can beat him with hard stuff inside and soft stuff away. Perhaps the only Rays player to whiff more often at fastballs is B.J. Upton, and it’s unlikely that any Rays player swings and misses at secondary stuff more than Conrad. The reasons are obvious. Conrad has to start his swing earlier, meaning he has less time to read the pitch, leaving him out in front on pitches that look like fastballs before diving, running, or cutting out of the zone.

Conrad also has to adjust during the swing, creating a circular, or loopy, nature. Think of an outfield route. The quickest way to get from point A to point B is on a straight line. Conrad’s swings are like an outfielder with perpetually circuitous paths.

The image below shows to inside fastballs that Conrad hit less than a combined 90 feet. Both pitches came on fastball-friendly counts (the first pitch is on a 3-1 count, the second on a 0-0 count), yet because of the placement and velocity (93-mph apiece) Conrad is unable to do anything with them:

Those aforementioned Brooks Baseball hitter cards have Conrad whiffing 14 times on 27 swings at breaking pitches this season, 12 times on 19 swings at offspeed pitches, and 13 times on 67 swings tailored for fastballs. You know Conrad is going to swing and miss and strikeout a lot, you just hope he hits for enough power and walks enough to make up for it.

Despite their differences in approach, Keppinger and Conrad can help a team. If nothing else, they help supply factoids like this: Since 2009, Keppinger has hit 22 home runs and struck out 102 times in 1,460 plate appearances. Conrad has hit 17 home runs and struck out 136 times in 445 plate appearances.



One Comment

  1. I think the new BP tool is really good for this kind of stuff. Whiff rate on “hard stuff”:
    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/pitchfx/hitter_cards/hitter_card.php?player=433898&month=&year=&throws=&pi_type=fast&report=whiff

    Whiff rate on breaking balls:
    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/pitchfx/hitter_cards/hitter_card.php?player=433898&month=&year=&throws=&pi_type=break&report=whiff

    What’s really interesting is if you sort his tAV for each of the three larger pitch grouping. He’s a lot of meh on hard stuff, but he is mashing all sorts of off-speed pitches:

    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/pitchfx/hitter_cards/hitter_card.php?player=433898&month=&year=&throws=&pi_type=off&report=tav

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