Rays Hitter Performance Through Two Months
As we segue into June we have a nice arbitrary endpoint to take a look into how the Rays batters have performed to this point. About a month ago I took a similar look only to find that the Rays were exhibiting a highly aggressive approach that swung first and asked questions later. My prescription, at the time, was that if the team wanted to increase their success they should probably curb some of that aggressiveness. Tightening up each individual’s zones would, in theory, lead to getting better pitches to drive, which would lead to a profound upward push in offensive prowess. As we all know, in theory, communism works so it’s beneficial to re-visit this stuff to see if those changes occurred and if they led to more offensive output. Strap in, because much like the team’s offense, we’re about to lift off.
We’re looking at 1,000 pitch trends here for swing%, zone% and run values using Ian Malinowki’s great work to derive these count-adjusted figures. The dashed lines refer to the team’s average for the entirety of the season. We can see now that the earliest part of the season was also the worst period of offense this team has sustained in no small part due to the obscene swing rates the team was showing. It looks like tweaks to the mindset came early and often with the team taking steps down over the course of the season.
You’ll notice mostly similar steps down in zone percentage as pitchers adjusted to the more patient approach by leaving the zone even more often. There are a couple of nice peaks for the run values, but since the swing adjustment the team has enjoyed above average production across the board. There are still dips, but the team never goes below average for the rest of the season.
For me, there are three components to hitting and they follow a chronological order. In slightly more time than it took you to just blink the player needs to go through a series of checks for every single pitch thrown. We have just seen the first step. The batter must determine whether the pitch is going to be a ball or a strike. Furthermore, the batter should be seeking to swing at, not only strikes, but strikes that they can do damage against. This is overly simplistic, obviously.
We like to think that the decision to swing or not is solely up to the batter, but it is the pitcher that is the actor with the batter playing the role of reactor. Often, hell, on nearly every pitch, what the batter wants to do and what he is allowed to do are two completely different animals. The pitcher is able to dictate whether he would like to induce a ground ball or go for the strikeout with each choice having their own menu of pros and cons. Still, in the fractions of seconds it is the batter that ultimately decides whether he is going to pull the trigger or not, which brings us to the second step of the batting process.
Once the decision to swing has been made the next fork in the road is whether the batter puts the ball in play or swings through for a strike. Sure, there are foul balls, but those are less interesting. What you see above tells you the rolling 500-swing averages for the batter’s ability to put the ball in play or die trying.
The team has worked hard to reduce the whiff rate enjoying a recent stretch where they were Gods at putting the ball in play instead of swinging for a strike. This led to their best offensive output on swings for the season, but regression has mostly taken hold for the very most recent stretch Lately, the team has settled in around their average for whiffs, but a bit below their season-long ball in play rate, which is certainly buoyed by that explosive stretch.
The third component of hitting is what actually happens to the ball once it is put in play. Here I have mapped the batting average, slugging and resultant isolated power over 300-pitch intervals. Again, run values are a nice way to wrap all of these things into one number. Run values mostly track pretty well with batting average, but it is the ability to turn those hits into extra bases that really moves the needle.
The team fought hard to increase the offensive production over the course of the season on balls in play, but you will notice that the most recent time period shows some give back. This is not dissimilar from the drop that occurred around the 700 pitch era, which bounced back to climb even higher so I don’t think this is worth panicking about. You will notice, however, that the isolated power has mostly slipped to early season levels, though, which can help explain why the production hasn’t been quite as fine despite above average balls in play going for hits.
All in all this looks like a team that has improved their process to find that happy median I hoped they could locate and build a home around. The team enjoyed a long, sustained run of excellence, but of late that seems to have slipped. Part of the reason for this is that replacement-level players have been called upon to fill in for very good everyday players. That isn’t the end of the world if they can contribute, but so far they have provided mostly replacement-level production, and this does not even take into account the defensive slippage that is outside the scope of this analysis. This gives a nice transition into the player-level stuff:
Recall that the first component of hitting is the ball-strike determination so let’s start there again. Here, I have introduced the calculation Runs Above Average (RAA) that multiplies the provided run values with the number of pitches so that we can account for both value and volume.
Surprisingly, the Rays best hitter this year has been Brandon Guyer. He is not alone as several batters are hot on his heels. Forsythe was providing a similar level of production prior to the injury, and boy does the team miss him atop the order. Pearce has seen the exact same number of pitches, but hasn’t provided quite as much offense, while Souza takes another step down despite seeing a ton of play.
What you’ll notice is that the team is stuffed with above average hitters. That does not mean that everyone has provided something of value, however. We see that Desmond Jennings combines one of the worst production figures on the team, while seeing a ton of pitches. He has provided the least, but he’s not alone as Mikie Mahtook hasn’t been able to extend last year’s late season success, and Hank Conger hasn’t provided anything outside of one game. He’s joined by fellow backstop Curt Casali. Catchers not hitting isn’t anything new or really even much of an issue. Most catchers don’t hit, but guys like Jennings and Mahtook have been counted upon to give the team more than they are capable. This has led to them being exposed.
This is a good time to point out that the color codes simply show the largest numbers and not some sort of evaluation on whether that is a good thing or not. In the case of percent of balls in play you want that to be good, but for consistency sake I have also extended the color codes to things that you do not want to be high like whiff percentage.
We see the run values skewing more into the negative here and there’s a good reason for that. For decades there was an axiom in the National Football League that there were three things that could happen when you throw the ball, and two of them weren’t good. Well, this is somewhat similar. When a pitcher throws a called ball it is always a good thing for the batter and vice-versa when a strike is thrown, but when a batter swings he might miss or he might foul it off. He might even be lucky enough to put it in play, but let’s not get the cart before the horse here.
A batter must fall out of the nest in order to learn to fly. Even if swinging the bat often leads to a negative outcome it is a necessity in order to thrive offensively. Incredulously, this has not thwarted Pearce and Forsythe from seeing above average results once they have decided to swing the bat. Both pair a high rate of balls in play with a low rate of swinging strikes, which is about as ideal as it gets in this war torn universe. Souza and Dickerson are examples of guys that go the other way with low rates of balls in play mostly due to their very high levels of swinging strikes. That hasn’t stopped Souza from being a contributor as his power has made up for the miss, but Dickerson is struggling to balance that equation. We can see this a bit better when move on the third phase of hitting:
Souza is able to make up for his swing and miss, because he isn’t just an all-or-nothing slugger. He has above average speed down the line and on the bases that helps him carry a higher batting average on contact. Additionally, he hits the ball really hard so that defenders struggle to rein in this beast. That has not been the case for Dickerson, who exceeds Souza’s power output, but doesn’t have the ability to rack up base hits that help offset some of his whiffs and pop ups. Casali is a similar player to Dickerson as the power is readily apparent, but the low batting average on contact takes away from production.
The other end of this spectrum is someone like Logan Morrison who is able to move the ball around in order to collect hits, but this comes with the tradeoff of power. I’m happy to see him being productive of late, but those that thought we were replacing James Loney with more of a power bat will be sorely disappointed. Given the choice, though, I’ll take these guys that can chip in via one avenue over the guys that are providing nothing like Jennings, Mahtook and Conger, which sounds like the worst law firm money can buy.
We have looked at each of these players overall production, but going back to the first component we pick up a nuanced point that I have mostly skipped over to this point. Nevermore, my sweet Lenore!
Starting with just the pitches that were out of zone we can look at all of these things so far discussed. A high RAA here means you’re taking balls for balls and those that are swung upon are falling in. Miller tops the charts here as he shows a relatively low whiff rate when he does swing with a good ball in play rate yielding solid figures for both batting average and slugging. Longo and Forsythe show similar abilities with some trade off between swinging strikes and balls in play.
Hidden in Guyer’s line are all those times he was hit by the pitch. He’s a tad aggressive on these would-be balls, but he does a good job of not missing when he does swing. He hasn’t seen much success when he does put the ball in play, but this is buoyed by his preternatural ability to get hit, which is just as good as a single in most instances. You’ll notice at the bottom that the guys showing the worst performance on these pitches are some of the guys that swing the most often. Dickerson or Conger might start seeing better results if they weren’t leaving the zone so often, which hands the rest of the plate appearance to a pitcher that can no throw whatever he wants wherever he wants. Let’s flip over to in zone pitches:
Notice anything different about those BACON and SLGCON figures? They’re universally higher for in zone pitches that get put in play. Every single batter on the planet, even Vlad Guerrero, is going to have better production when they’re swinging at better pitches. This is not a secret. One of the issues with getting to that point, however, is what you’re giving away to get there. We see the obscene whiff rates for guys like Souza, Dickerson and Beckham on pitches that are within the rulebook strike zone and you wonder what their effectiveness would look like if they just made a little more contact.
One thing that is surprising to me is what happens to Miller on pitches in the zone. It probably warrants further research, but it is pretty incredible that he sees better production across the board on out of zone pitches. A guess, and that is all it is, is that he adores the ball just off the plate that is technically out of the zone, but plays into his strength as he slices to left-center about as well as any lefty I have ever seen.
Continuing with the theme of brevity I’m going to post the totals without further comment:
Lastly, I want to take this notion of zones and swings to it’s natural conclusion. So far we have looked at these four components without looking at the interplay between them. To that end I have created this table:
Using Baseball Savant, which is the source for all of this data so please thank Daren for me, I was able to get an idea of what league average rates look like for these approaches. You’ll notice that I have done the same for the preceding tables at the bottom where available.
I have, also, looked at the differences between the Rays and league average in two different ways. The first, Diff, looks the raw number of swings or takes that the Rays would have shown if they operated at the league average rates. You’ll notice little difference between the out of zone takes as the Rays have four more takes on these pitches, but you’ll notice that the Rays do have what amounts to 24 fewer swings on pitches out of the zone than the league average rate would imply. This is a good thing! Similarly, they are taking around 15 fewer pitches, and swinging at 34 more on in zone offerings. This is exactly what you want to do and the team should think about what they can do to improve these rates even further. The second calculation is pretty straightforward as it presents these differences as a percent change. Here’s what this stuff looks like over the course of the season:
Again, we’re looking at 1,000-pitch rolling averages for all pitches thrown over the course of the season. The departure here is that the dashed lines indicate league average and not the team’s to this point. Over the course of the year the team has mostly increased it’s take rate on out of zone pitches, though has spilled over to some in zone stuff as the swing rate on would-be strikes is also trending downward. The out of zone swing rate has trended up ever-so-slightly, but has been below league average for much of the year. We see the same thing with in zone take rates as the team sought to find balance between assertiveness and aggressiveness. The caveat here is that the most recent stuff looks like it is starting to turn the wrong way for all categories. It might make sense for the Rays to turn that around a bit by getting back to what led to so much offensive success over the middle part of this season to date.
The Rays have adjusted to the adjustment by gradually easing their aggressiveness over the course of the season. This is something that may need to continue as pitchers seem to be offering even fewer strikes than they did a week or a month ago. The actor dictates what happens, but it would appear that the Rays are reacting with a splendid approach. It should come as no surprise that not only does this offensive shower on our dusty prairies bring forth crops of runs, but it also would appear to be sustainable. As for the pitching, well, that’s another matter that I hope to dig into shortly.
(All data current through June 1, 2016)