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Entries in Los Angeles Dodgers (49)

Wednesday
Feb192014

Can Kemp Reclaim Inner Part of the Plate?

Matt Kemp hasn't yet been medically cleared to run this spring, but the Dodgers star owed a combined $128 million through the 2019 season is putting as much distance as possible between himself and all of the fourth outfielder talk. The 29-year-old is coming off a season wrecked by shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries that limited him to just 73 games and a career-low .395 slugging percentage -- nearly 200 points below the mark he posted while finishing as runner-up to Ryan Braun in 2011 NL MVP voting. But he told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Mark Saxon that "Beast Mode" should return in 2014 now that his swing is no longer compromised:

I couldn't really get through the ball. If anybody knows my swing, when y'all see that go up in the air like that," Kemp said, lifting his left arm over his head, "you know something good happened. I was cutting my swing off. I couldn't get extension, man. I couldn't do a lot of things.

The impact that Kemp's ailing left shoulder -- surgically repaired in each of the past two offseasons -- had on his game last year was most apparent when pitchers tried to bust him inside. He throttled inside pitches during his halcyon 2011 season, swatting 14 home runs and slugging .698. Kemp wasn't as much of a monster against inside stuff in 2012 (seven homers, .554 slugging percentage), but he was still way above average (MLB batters slugged .416 versus inside pitches that year).

Last year, though? Kemp admitted he couldn't do a lot of things while his body betrayed him. One of those things he couldn't do was drive inside pitches: he didn't hit a single home run on an inner-third pitch while slugging .290. Among the 249 hitters seeing at least 350 inside pitches last season, Kemp ranked 225th in slugging. A couple years ago, he did more damage than Miguel Cabrera when pitches challenged him inside. Last season, he inflicted less pain than Jose Tabata and Gregor Blanco.

Back when he was healthy and competing for MVP hardware, Kemp had no problem getting extension versus inside stuff. He sprayed the ball all over the diamond, hitting nearly as many home runs to center field (six) and he did to left field (eight).

Kemp's spray chart vs. inside pitches, 2011

 

Unable to fully extend his swing in 2013, Kemp pulled more inside pitches to left field (57.7% of balls put in play, compared to 42.9% in 2011) but did little more than roll over the ball, leading to lots of 5-to-3 outs scribbled on the score card.

Kemp's spray chart vs. inside pitches, 2013

Kemp's clearly no fourth outfielder when healthy, but he did hit like one last year when pitchers came inside. Perhaps opponents are starting to catch on, as he has seen more inner-third pitches three years running (29.3% in 2011, 30.9% in 2012, and 33.4% in 2013). Plenty of scouts will scrutinize Kemp's swing during spring training. If he looks vulnerable against pitches on the inner third, expect pitchers to make him prove that his mended shoulder will finally let him get extended in 2014.

Thursday
Feb062014

A More Patient Yasiel Puig in 2014?

Yasiel Puig was a bat-flipping, stop-sign-defying, cutoff-man-missing marvel in 2013. The Dodgers outfielder tied Ted Williams for the second-best park-and-league-adjusted OPS ever for a rookie getting 400-plus plate appearances (60 percent above average), placing just behind Johnny Mize (162 OPS+) and ahead of Albert Pujols (157 OPS+). Here's a scary thought for pitchers and catchers getting set to report for spring training: the 23-year-old is still learning the strike zone, and he's proving to be a quick study. Considering the progress Puig made in tightening his plate approach down the stretch, pitchers shouldn't count on retiring him with junk pitches in 2014. Puig's newfound patience may even earn him the leadoff role in L.A. this year.

When Puig debuted back in June, he displayed the patience of a kindergartener hell-bent on cracking open a Hershey-stuffed pinata. He swung at 38.3 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, which was far above the 28 percent major league average and second-highest among all National League hitters that month (Alfonso Soriano was first, at 46.6 percent). Puig was particularly hack-happy on pitches thrown inside, chasing 36.2 percent of the time.

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, June of 2013

  Puig was ridiculously productive in June, of course, as seemingly every ball he put in play evaded leather. He walked in just 3.7 percent of his plate appearances, however -- fine if you're racking up hits like Teddy Ballgame and Ty Cobb, but problematic otherwise. To his credit, Puig quickly began to shrink his eyes-to-ankles strike. He chased fewer inside pitches out of the zone in July, August and September.

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, July of 2013

 

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, August of 2013

 

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, September 2013

 

After chasing 36.2 percent of inside stuff in June, Puig went after 32.5 percent of those pitches in July, 26.3 percent in August, and just 22.3 percent in September. That newfound patience is crucial to Puig's long-term success, considering that pitchers try to bust him in on the hands more often (43.7 percent of the time) than any other big league hitter. Overall, Puig's chase rate was close to the league average by the season's final month (30.5 percent in September), and he boasted a double-digit walk rate during in both August and September.

Gifted as he is, Puig might be considered a "disappointment" by some in 2014 because he set such a high bar for himself as a rookie (the Oliver projection system forecasts Puig for a still-excellent .292/.362/.512 line next year, compared to  his actual .319/.391/.534 in 2013). But the gains he made in controlling the strike zone figure to carry over into next year and beyond, as changes in a hitter's swing rate take on meaning after about 50 plate appearances. Combine Puig's light-tower power with a more polished plate approach, and you have the recipe for a perennial MVP contender. If this guy's not getting himself out, who will?

Monday
Feb032014

Regressing Power Leads To Michael Young's Retirement

Michael Young officially closed the book on his storied 14-year career last Thursday, choosing to “spend time with his family” rather than pursue a free-agent contract with a major league team any further this winter, according to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. The 37-year-old utility infielder had received offers from several teams – including the Dodgers, who were heavily interested in bringing him back after he posted a .314/.321/.392 slash line and 102 OPS+ over 21 games with the franchise to finish out 2013. If he remains retired, Young will own a career slash line of .300/.346/.441 to go with a 102 OPS+ in 1,970 games.

As a young baseball fan who watched ESPN's Baseball Tonight religiously, I remember taking in a lot of Young's big-time hits with the Rangers. Many of those hits featured a common theme: Young's ability to go generate ridiculous power on "inside" pitches -- often taking those pitches to right field with ease.

Here's a perfect example of what I'm referring to. In an at-bat against Seattle's Jason Vargas in 2012, Young took a pitch located on the inner portion of the plate and drove it to right center with a flick of his wrists for a home run. For me, this home run embodies what Young did so exceptionally well during his 14-year career: Dominate the inner-half of the plate. Ironically, this may well be a reason for his retirement.

Diminishing Inner-Half Power

From 2008 to 2011 -- his age 31 through 34 seasons -- Young dominated the inner-half of the plate to the tune of a .345/.374/.544 slash line and .392 weighted on-base average. The driving forces behind those gaudy numbers were his 26.3% line-drive rate (best among batters with at least 1,000 plate appearances in that span) and .401 well-hit average, which was trumped only by Miguel Cabrera (.418) and Albert Pujols (.404) among qualified batters. His best season in this strech was perhaps in 2011, when he led baseball with 213 hits (as a 34-year-old, no less), posted an insane .368/.385/.548 line and mustered up a .428 WHAV against inner-half pitches.

But from that point on, things changed. Young's age 35 season (his last with Texas) in 2012 and last season (where he spent time with Philadelphia and Los Angeles) garnered a still respectable .299/.320/.424 line and .323 wOBA against inner-half stuff, but his line drive rate fell to 23.4% (compared to 26.3% from 2008-2011) and WHAV dropped to .266 -- a decrease of .135 from where it had been previously.

When a hitter's best asset regresses with time, his statistical output tends to follow. In this case, Young's innate ability to place quality contact on inner-half stuff regressed, which was probably a key reason for why he decided to call it quits.