The Rays Have a Swinging Problem
As you well know the Rays swing the bat a lot. An awful lot. According to Fangraphs there is no team that swings more often, which isn’t necessarily a death sentence if they were doing well upon swinging, but the team is also dead last in contact rate. With the invaluable help of Baseball Savant we can take a more refined look at these things. Let’s start with the most general stuff before working our way down into the more granular (all data current through April 29):
In the above image the yellowish dots show all pitches and the blackish dots show all swings. There is a high density of swings middle-middle, which is a great thing! The problem comes in with all the black dots below the zone and to both sides of the lateral zone. While there are some swings above the zone there is much less room to play with as the majority of very high fastballs are easier to take than those where the bottom falls out.
We can drill down to look at four different quadrants and the total. The four types of pitch result are looked at as out of zone takes (generally good), in zone swings (generally good), in zone takes (generally bad) and out of zone swings (usually bad). It is worth mentioning that when I use the word “zone” I am referring to the rulebook strikezone and not the more commonly called zone. Starting at the bottom lines we can see that the Rays have swung at roughly half the pitches they have seen. Unfortunately, only forty percent of pitches have actually been in the zone. Even within the zone it can be difficult to find a pitch to your liking, but when you’re swinging this often out of the zone you should not expect good results. Twenty percent of all pitches have resulted in an out of zone swing, which is something that only a pitcher could be happy about.
Another takeaway is that even when a batter swings at a pitch in the zone you’re looking at negative expected value. A ball in play might go for a hit, but it usually goes for an out. A ball is always a ball. Swinging at a ball is almost always a bad idea. Some batters show an ability to hit pitches hard even when they’re just out of the zone, but imagine if that pitch was just a little more of a strike. This highlights two issues we have seen so far. The Rays are swinging a lot, and even when a pitch is in the zone they’re not generating enough production to offset the hyper-aggressive tendencies that have made our lineup very predictable. Let’s zoom in on just the swings:
The ball in play versus swinging strike percentages highlight a huge problem with acting as if every batter can be Vlad Guerrero Sr. When the team stays within the zone they put a ton of balls in play and while the whiff percentage is still a bit high it becomes more of a trade off than a net negative. When swinging at balls out of the zone those figures switch places and we see that very rarely does a ball fall between the chalk with nearly all of those marginal pitches turning into swinging strikes. Fouls mostly hold constant so we’re putting numbers to a problem that is fairly obvious to anyone that has watched this team. The run values show us that an out of zone swing is about half as valuable as one in the zone. We need to tighten up.
Getting a bit more visual we can see where the Rays are getting their hits and where they are coming up empty. Singles don’t always require good contact, but it does look like the majority are in the bottom half of the zone. The hits that go for extra bases might be down there, but they could also be elevated. Another thing to note is that outside of the wide zone you see almost all whiffs. A batter may get lucky from time to time, but good rarely comes from a swing at what should almost always be a ball. Even within the wide zone you see most of those hits going for singles with a plethora of whiffs. It is only within the zone where you can expect good process to yield good results. Let’s drill down further and look at only the balls in play:
Again, we see the wide discrepancy between the results of pitches hit whether in or out of the zone. While the batting average goes up slightly (5.6%) when putting a ball in play that would have been a strike we see a vast difference (28.3%) on the slugging side. It’s very difficult to turn a wouldbe ball into an extra base hit. You know this, I know this, everyone that has ever played the game at any level knows this. It is a very good thing to swing at pitches that you can hit hard. It is not a good thing to swing at everything and hope for good results. Swings at balls lead to more whiffs, fewer balls in play, and drastically lower power even when a batter does do anything with a pitch. Switching gears let’s break this down for each batter so that we can get a better idea of who is letting their aggressiveness get the better of them:
These are ranked by total run value so that we can get a sense of who has been the strongest and weakest batters, overall, before delving into the where and the why. The guy that everyone should be modeling their approach after has hit leadoff in virtually every game this year. He does a great job of not swinging at balls, and is still able to swing at a high level of in zone pitches even if he also leads the team in taking the occasional strike. The other thing is that he has very good results on his out of zone swings, which suggests that when he is expanding it is into an area where he is comfortable and capable of doing damage.
Compare Forsythe to someone like Evan Longoria, who leads the team in swing percentage and you come away wishing that the latter could have an approach more like the former. Evan is swinging at everything. In zone, out of zone, who cares. Have a Ducky’s kind of day, big fella. It’s unfortunate to see a guy take the occasional strike, but there are far worse outcomes. Longo is our best hitter over the course of a season so at some point he will need to show more discipline on pitches off of the plate. This will lead to him eventually seeing more pitches within the zone and we all know how very good he can be on those.
There’s a lot here so please share what you found interesting, but I’m going to close this segment with a couple of quick hitters. Surprisingly, Tim Beckham has the best approach on the team. He is swinging at strikes and taking balls, but has yet to see the fruits of his labor. Keep this up and it won’t be long before he’s giving us big hits to talk about. Previously, I mentioned that Logan Morrison was expanding his zone too much. At the time I didn’t realize that he’s compounding the error by taking so many pitches inside of the zone. This is not a good approach, and the “rewards” he has seen have been well earned. Souza has weird in zone splits where he’s taking a ton of strikes, but also swinging at a bunch. I infer that he is seeing a ton of pitches in the zone, perhaps, due to his relative passivity last year. I love what he is doing on out of zone pitches, but would like to see him get even more aggressive when seeing a strike. More Steve Pearce, please! We’ve looked at all pitches, but now let’s look at just the swings:
I don’t want to dwell here too long, but for the vast majority of batters you’re going to see better production when swinging at easier to hit pitches. This also points to an area of regression for Forsythe and Longoria. I’m highly encouraged that Forsythe can take that hit due to how well he is swinging it at pitches in the zone. In Longo’s case I hope that swinging at better pitches can help raise the in zone figures, though there is certainly less to get excited about as the out of zone stuff starts to normalize. The mythical “Bad Ball Hitter” does come around ever so often. Maybe Corey Dickerson can be that guy, but I’d prefer if he was swinging big at more strikes and fewer balls. Here’s a chart that might make this stuff easier to digest for some:
If a batter shows a tendency then there is always a counter with pitchers holding all of the cards. Neither hyper aggressiveness nor extreme passivity are inherently a good thing. This is a game that preys on predictability, and in this information age pitchers are able to make adjustments virtually in real time. The upshot of a swing hard, swing often approach is that eventually you will start seeing more balls, but this window cannot be capitalized upon without an adjustment to the adjustment. At some point our batters are going to have to start taking more pitches in order to get more that they can punish. Let’s see if these adjustments have taken place throughout this short patch of time starting with all pitches:
The dashed lines show the Rays average for each metric over the year so we can gauge when they were above or below. You can see a dip in swing percentage that led to a corresponding increase in zone rate between the 1500 and 1800 pitch range. It was short lived. The next time the team started to tighten up it was in the face of a rapidly declining zone percentage, which would seem to lead to little advantage. Both went on to rise shortly. My takeaway here is that pitchers can adjust faster than batters since they are the creator and the batters are the destroyer. If this is true then it would seem to hamper any idea of setting pitchers up through short-term wild changes in approach. Let’s take a look at the results on balls in play:
We have a nice spike in the middle of the season, which looks a bit BABIP-fueled, though there is some lag with the increased power production seeming to come a bit prior to the batting average. Both facets have since regressed back to their prior level leading me to believe that this lower level is where the team will mostly reside. It is unclear if that mid-season spike is related to the willingness to take a pitch or two, but if that were the case then it would seem to indicate that the team will need to alternate between the approach extremes if they’re indeed married to swinging more often in the aggregate. Personally, I’d prefer to see them swing hard at strikes and take pitches that aren’t in the zone, but I’m afraid that isn’t really grounded in reality. If we had better hitters we could let them do their thing. The fact that the team is going through these wild swings indicates to me that they feel that they don’t have the talent on hand to compete and need to do things like this in order to have any chance at scoring runs. Time will ultimately tell.