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Entries in free agent (8)

Wednesday
Dec112013

Carlos Beltran a Different Man at the Plate, Too

After nearly a decade of rumors fitting him for pinstripes, Carlos Beltran has officially become a Yankee by inking a three-year, $45 million contract. Beltran, entering his age 37 season, isn't the same all-around superstar who once complemented his big bat with high-percentage base thievery and gliding, Gold Glove-caliber defense in the outfield. The same can be said at the plate -- he's not the same hitter he used to be. But in this case, his production hasn't suffered much as a result.

Beltran has shown a keen eye during his big league career, posting a double-digit walk rate nine times in sixteen seasons. But as the switch-hitter has crossed his mid-30's, he has turned into more of a hacker: his unintentional walk rate dipped from 10.7 percent in 2011 to 8.1 percent in 2012 and 6.2 percent this past year. The last time Beltran drew so few walks was 1998, when he was a 21-year-old blue-chipper getting a late-September look with the Royals. Yet Beltran is still raking, putting up a park-and-league adjusted OPS 54 percent above average in '11, and 28 percent above average in both '12 and '13. What gives?

Turns out, the Yankees' latest mercenary replacement for Robinson Cano has expanded his strike zone against "soft" pitches -- curveballs, sliders and changeups -- while still doing damage against those offerings. Those extra chases haven't helped Beltran, but he has offset them by also becoming more aggressive on breaking and off-speed stuff thrown within the strike zone.

Here's Beltran's swing rate against soft pitches over the past three seasons. You'll note two key changes in Beltran's approach: he's chasing more curves, sliders and changeups thrown below the knees, but he's also letting it rip more often on soft stuff thrown high in the strike zone:

Beltran's swing rate vs. soft pitches, 2011

Beltran's swing rate vs. soft pitches, 2012

Beltran's swing rate vs. soft pitches, 2013

In 2011, Beltran's chase rate versus curves, sliders and changeups (29 percent) was comfortably below the major league average (32 percent). But he has lunged at more soft stuff in both 2012 (35 percent) and 2013 (38 percent). Bad things tend to happen when hitters swing at soft pitches thrown off the plate (they slugged a collective .197 on those offerings from 2011-13), and Beltran is no exception (his three-year slugging percentage is .235).

While Beltran has shown less patience on soft stuff thrown out of the zone, he has simultaneously become more discerning -- and deadly -- on piches tossed over the plate. Beltran's swing rate on in-zone breaking and off-speed pitches has climbed from around 71 percent in 2011 and '12 to 75 percent in 2013 (the MLB average is about 65 percent). Great things tend to happen when hitters swing at in-zone curves, sliders and changeups (.492 slugging percentage), and Beltran is once again no exception: he slugged .535 in 2011, .572 in 2012, and .582 in 2013.

Carlos Beltran has shown less ability to lay off breaking and off-speed pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, leading to more weakly hit grounders and fly balls. But he has become better at knowing when to take a cut at soft stuff thrown inside of the strike zone, leading to more drives that split the gaps or clear the fence. The result has basically been a wash. Beltran is a more aggressive hitter than he used to be, though not a worse hitter. He's just different.

Wednesday
Jan022013

Swisher Has Multiple Personalities at the Plate

In Nick Swisher, the Cleveland Indians signed one of the game's better blends of patience and power. The former Ohio State Buckeye, signed to a four-year, $56 million deal in December, ranks in the top ten among outfielders in on-base percentage (.366) and places in the top twenty in slugging (.478) and OPS+ (125) since the beginning of the 2010 season. The switch-hitting Swisher is a threat from both sides of the plate, posting a near-identical OPS from the left side (.830) and the right (.834), but his approach couldn't be more different. Swish is a pure slugger as a lefty, swinging freely and posting lofty power and punchout totals. He's a doubles hitters as a righty, but his more patient and contact-oriented style  makes him an on-base machine.

Here's a look at Swisher's swing rate by pitch location from both sides of the plate over the past three seasons. He's much more aggressive as a lefty batter, taking a cut at about 69% of pitches thrown over the plate (57% as a righty) and chasing about a quarter of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (16% as a righty). Swinging more frequently from the left side, Swisher has drawn a walk in 10.5% of his plate appearances. As a righty, he has walked 15.4% of the time.

        Swisher as a LHB, 2010-12                  Swisher as a RHB, 2010-12

 

 

Swisher's lefty swing puts more pitches in the cheap seats (more on that in a moment), but it also leads to more whiffs. He has a 26% miss rate as a lefty hitter, compared to 15% as a righty. Not surprisingly, Swisher's K rate is far higher as a lefty (24.7%) than as a righty (14.9%).

         Swisher as a LHB, 2010-12                  Swisher as a RHB, 2010-12

    

 

When Swisher does make contact, though, it's louder from the left side. He slugged .495 as a lefty from 2010-12, going deep about 18% of the time that he hit a fly ball. Swisher slugged .443 and had a home run per fly ball rate of under 9% as a righty. 

          Swisher as LHB, 2010-12                       Swisher as RHB, 2010-12

 

Swisher has been more valuable as a righty hitter overall, with his huge on-base advantage from that side (.411 OBP as a righty, .343 as a lefty) outweighing his slugging feats as a lefty. While Progressive Field doesn't boost home run totals near as much as Yankee Stadium, Swisher's multiple personalities at the dish appear well-suited for his new home. According to StatCorner, Progressive Field increases home runs for left-handed hitters by 21% and decreases them by 26% for right-handed hitters. Swisher can let er' rip as a lefty, taking aim at the nine-foot tall fences in center and right field, and draw bushels of walks as a righty, knowing that the 19-foot "Little Green Monster" in left field puts a serious crimp on power numbers.

Friday
Dec142012

Can Hamilton Handle the Heat?

Josh Hamilton displayed even more of a "grip it and rip it" style than usual last season, hitting a career-high 43 home runs but also striking out in 25.5% of his plate appearances, up from 17.3% in 2011. While the extra whiffs didn't keep Hamilton from raking, his marked increase in Ks is worth discussing considering that the 32-year-old is entering what is typically the early decline phase of a player's career. A closer look at his whiffs reveals a surprising question: Can Hamilton handle the heat?

I'm not asking whether the former Rangers slugger can deal with the scrutiny that inevitably comes with inking a deal that pays him the second-highest annual salary in baseball history. Rather, I'm asking whether Hamilton's lightning-quick bat might be slowing. Here's a look at Hamilton's contact rate by pitch location against fastballs in 2011, and then in 2012:

Hamilton's contact rate vs. fastballs, 2011

Hamilton's contact rate vs. fastballs, 2012

He still connected against inside fastballs, but Hamilton came up empty more often versus middle-away heaters. Overall, Hamilton's fastball miss rate increased from 13.7% in 2011 to 24.6% in 2012. For comparison's sake, the MLB average over the past two seasons is about 16%.

Those extra swings and misses on fastballs didn't harm Hamilton when pitchers had below-average or average velocity. In fact, he actually did more damage against those lower-octane pitches in 2012 than in 2011. It was a different story when pitchers brought the heat, however. Hamilton's miss rate against premium gas (95+ miles per hour) more than quadrupled, from 8.4% to 37%. His slugging percentage cratered from .639 to .231:

 Hamilton in 2011 Hamilton in 2012 MLB Avg. for qualified hitters 
Fastball Speed Miss Rate Slugging Pct. Miss Rate Slugging Pct. Miss Rate Slugging Pct.
Under 90 MPH 19 .444 24.2 .558 13.2 .532
90-92 MPH 14.7 .696 21.9 .732 14.2 .521
93-94 MPH 13.5 .489 21.3 .571 16.1 .446
95+ MPH 8.4 .639 37 .231 20.2 .402

 

In 2011, Hamilton ranked tenth among qualified batters in slugging against 95+ MPH fastballs. This past year, he tied Ichiro and Gordon Beckham for the 16th-lowest slugging percentage versus those pitches. The only hitters to whiff more frequently when pitchers lit up the gun were Danny Espinosa, B.J. Upton, Adam Dunn and Chris Davis.

Even if Hamilton has indeed lost some bat speed, it's not like just any pitcher can exploit his weakness. Out of 282 starting pitchers who tossed a fastball in the majors last season, 110 (39%) reached 95 MPH at least once, and just nine (3.2%) averaged at least 95 MPH. Jason Vargas isn't going to read this and say, "huh, I think I'll just throw 95+ against Hamilton."

But it could become more of an issue in the late innings, when live-armed relievers take over. 226 out of 464 relievers (48.7%) hit 95 MPH on the gun at least once last year, and 40 (8.6%) averaged at least 95 MPH. Hamilton did turn into a mere mortal late in the game, with his on-base-plus slugging percentage in innings 7-9 declining from .863 in 2011 to .759 (the AL average is about .691).

Some of this is nitpicking, of course. Hamilton remains lethal at the dish, and a minority of pitchers is in a position to capitalize on his issues with top-shelf velocity. Still, keep an eye on Hamilton's bat speed -- it could be an important factor late in games and in October.