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Entries in strikeouts (19)

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.

Tuesday
Aug212012

Rizzo Connecting in Chicago

Despite punishing Pacific Coast League pitching, Anthony Rizzo's first foray in the majors with the Padres last season could be summed up as one giant whiff. Rizzo's mighty -- and mighty long -- swing produced a .141/.281/.242 line in 153 plate appearances. His 30.1% strikeout rate was one of the 15 highest marks in the majors among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. Once San Diego picked up Yonder Alonso as part of the Mat Latos deal with the Reds, they decided they'd rather have Andrew Cashner's dominant-yet-brittle arm than Rizzo's pull power (hardly a great fit at Petco Park) and contact woes.

Called back up to the big leagues in late June, Rizzo has rewarded former Red Sox and current Cubs execs Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, who originally drafted him in the 6th round of the 2007 draft and included him in the December 2010 Adrian Gonzalez trade. Rizzo is batting .294/.335/.471 in 200 PA, and he has chopped his K rate all the way down to 14%.

Check out Rizzo's contact rate by pitch location with the Padres in 2011 and with the Cubs in 2012. He has made marked progress in connecting in every region of the zone, save for low-and-inside:

Rizzo in 2011

 

Rizzo in 2012

 

The biggest difference is on pitches thrown in the upper third of the zone. Rizzo missed 48.8% of high pitches that he swung at last season, blowing away (in a bad way) the 19% MLB average. This year, Rizzo has whiffed just 11.9% on high pitches. That contact has been hard, too. Rizzo batted and slugged .053 on high pitches last season (.405 MLB average for slugging on high pitches). This year, he's slugging .500 against high stuff.

Changes in strikeout rate become significant pretty quickly. And, as Fangraphs' Eno Sarris noted earlier this summer, Rizzo's hands look less fidgety and his swing path appears cleaner in 2012. With Wrigley Field playing much friendlier for lefty pull hitters (96 Park Factor, per StatCorner) than Petco (66 Park Factor) and Rizzo drastically cutting the Ks, it looks like Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod will get to enjoy the fruits of their Sox scouting labor after all.

Wednesday
Jun202012

Two-Strike Takes Hurting Justin Upton

Justin Upton entered the 2012 season as a trendy pick for NL MVP, and for good reason. The D-Backs' franchise player cut his strikeout rate from the mid-twenties to slightly under 19 percent in 2011 and posted a career-best 139 OPS+. But instead of competing for hardware, Upton has struck out in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances and has an 86 OPS+ in 2012. The 24-year-old's hitting woes are partially the result of too many takes on two-strike pitches thrown over the plate.

As you might expect, hitters let it rip when a pitcher throws a two-strike offering in the strike zone. Batters swing about 88 percent of the time in such situations. During his torrid 2011 season, Upton mirrored that mark pretty closely. Check out his in-zone swing rate on two-strike pitches, and then the league average:

Upton's in-zone swing rate with two strikes, 2011

 League average in-zone swing rate with two strikes

Upton swung at 89 percent of two-strike pitches thrown in the strike zone in 2011. In 2012, however, Upton is keeping the bat on his shoulder much more often:

Upton's in-zone swing rate with two strikes, 2012

He has taken a cut just 73 percent of the time on two-strike pitches thrown over the plate, which is dead last among qualified MLB hitters. In related news, Upton leads all big league batters in called strikeouts:

Most called strikeouts, 2012

HitterCalled Ks
Justin Upton 30
Corey Hart 27
Rickie Weeks 25
Ike Davis 24
Adam Dunn 22
Jose Altuve 21
Drew Stubbs 21
Cameron Maybin 21
Jordan Schafer 21
Dustin Ackley 21

 

Fans and analysts often talk of plate discipline in terms of not swinging at junk pitches thrown off the plate, but in-zone discipline is also paramount. Right now, Upton is letting two-strike pitches he needs to swing at to stay alive pass him by, and his K rate has climbed as a result. If this MVP-caliber talent is to help the D-Backs get back in the playoff race, he'll have to tune up his two-strike approach.