We've (and by we, I mean mostly clack) done a lot of articles like this already. They're all explaining some statistic, but I think the bigger goal of this series is to try and find baseball truths through the numbers we have available.
That's why I'm going a little off book for this one, combining some research I was doing on Jed Lowrie into a discussion on sliders.
Why slider? Well, let's get into that after the jump...
The reason I was looking into Lowrie in the first place was I wondered if we could see pitcher's approach changing towards him in what pitches he was throw. Since he's been in a prolonged slump (before the injury), it stood to reason that maybe pitchers were attacking him differently. Were they throwing in different parts of the zone? Was their selection changing?
What I found was the slider.
Here's a quick example, showing his top pitches thrown from the beginning of the year until May 31:
As you can see, the second-most pitch he was thrown was the change, followed by the sinker, a two-seam fastball and then the slider. But, by far, his whiff rate was highest on the slider, even though it was used no more than any other breaking pitch.
So, when we turned our eyes to the June 1st through now graphic:
Suddenly, sliders jumped right to the top of the mark. We could be dealing in random variations, since it's a little more than a months' data compared to two whole months before that. But, there is a shift.
More importantly, the number of sliders thrown for strikes went way up and Lowrie's swing percentage on those sliders also rose. His whiff rate remained the same, but it was still his highest swing-through rate of any of the pitches he saw.
Meaning he made less contact (and less solid contact) on those sliders than any pitch he sees. Why wouldn't pitchers adapt to that?
See, the slider is a pretty devastating pitch for everyone. Let's look at this article over at The Hardball Times, which takes benchmarks for all pitches based on Pitch F/X data to see how effective each one is:
Two things to note: first off, sliders were more popular than any other breaking pitch right now. Only the fastballs topped it in terms of straight usage. Second, there was only one pitch with a higher whiff rate than the good, ole' slider, and that was the splitter, which hardly anyone throws.
Keep going, looking at line drive rate on the pitch or any of the other stats on that table. At league average levels, (not even the elite sliders, just league average ones) the slider is one of the best pitches a pitcher can throw. That's why so many guys develop them.
Well, I should say, it's the best offspeed pitch a guy can throw, because fastballs clearly work better than most. The whiff rate isn't as high, but there are plenty of numbers there to show why guys like throwing their heat most often.
So, how should we be judging Lowrie in this particular instance? He's swinging at a number of sliders, but he's not anywhere close to the league average whiff rate of 32 percent. In fact, we should expect him to whiff on more sliders than anything else, since it's such an effective pitch.
Maybe the book did change on Lowrie some, moving away from a changeup first guy, but it quickly developed into throwing him the nastiest pitch in the arsenal and letting him just watch it.
If there's one thing Lowrie could do better on sliders, it's watch a few more. Swinging at half of them is higher than the league average rate, by that chart above. By that chart, he's swinging about five percent more often at sliders than the league average.
That's not a huge percentage by any means, and it doesn't show a concrete hole in his game either. It just demonstrates why some pitches are so effective.
You know what else it shows? That pitchers need to get on the splitter more often. Seriously, can Mike Foltynewicz develop one? Lance McCullers? Like, pronto?
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Among those who have played in 20 games or more, Reggie Jackson is the career leaders in slugging percentage in World Series play. Jackson slugged .755 in 27 World Series games.
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When the Royals traded for Alcides Escobar, they figured they were going to get an all-glove shortstop and they hoped he would develop into a slightly below-average or average hitter. Last season, the Royals got what they expected. Escobar hit 27% below league average, but had a UZR of +10.2. The statistics, however, have done a full 180 this season; Escobar is the second best hitting shortstop in the league behind the Nationals Ian Desmond, but has the third worst UZR among shortstops, only ahead of Derek Jeter and Starlin Castro. It seems unlikely that Alcides Escobar has morphed into a completely different player. In the future, Alcides Escobar will not be the second best hitting shortstop in baseball, but will also not be (and likely has not been) the third worst fielding shorstop.
This piece will only look at Escobar's hitting; fitting in a discussion of defensive statistics into this article would be too overwhelming. Later posts will discuss his defense, and hopefully what value Royals fans can expect from him down the road.
Kings of Kauffman writer Kevin Scobee addressed Escobar's hitting in an article posted at the end of May. Comparing this season to last season, Scobee came to the conclusion:
(Alcides) may not be worse, but there’s not really any telling evidence that he is better either.
Escobar has continued to hit in the six weeks since Scobee wrote his article. Thankfully, he covered his bases by writing:
None of this is to say though that Escobar can’t keep up this string of luck and ride out another couple months hitting at this level.
To see if anything has changed since Kevin wrote his article, I will analyze the same statistics Scobee analyzed as well as some more in an attempt to see how much improvement is legitimate and how much is luck. I will also show how we can use these statistics to predict how Alcides will hit in the future.
In his article, Scobee looked at Escobar's K%, BB%, .ISO and BABIP to show that most of Alcides's offensive improvement was driven by an unsustainable BABIP, and that Escobar's higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate were cause for concern. Alcides's peripheral hitting stats for last season and this season so far are given below:
2011: 4.2 BB%, 12.2 K%, .081 ISO, .285 BABIP
2012: 4.4 BB%, 16.9K%, .125 ISO, .373 BABIP
Currently, Alcides is drawing walks at essentially the same rate he did last season, and is striking out a little more. He is also hitting for a little more power this season, which would be expected from a hitter that is improving. It will be difficult to tell how much of the power increase is due to improvement and not random variation, as it takes an entire season's worth of at-bats for Isolated Power to normalize.
That leaves the most glaring and obvious difference, an 88 point jump in Batting Average of Balls In Play. A BABIP of .373 is probably unsustainable for any batter, especially one that has the track record that Escobar has. If Escobar has improved as a hitter, one can expect his BABIP to improve as well, for hitters have some control over their BABIP.
People have pointed to Escobar increase in line drive percentage as proof that Escobar is actually hitting the ball better. Although nice in theory, LD% is the worst correlating hitting statistic from year-to-year; it correlates less well than BABIP. Part of this is due to the difficulty of calling something a line drive compared to calling it a flyball or a groundball. It is subject to the scorer's opinion, which causes a lot of random variation from season to season. Although there is evidence that Alcides has made improvements at the plate, LD% is not the strongest indicator of such improvements.
We can see that Alcides has improved his approach at the plate by cutting down the amount of pitches he swings outside of the strike zone, and punishing fastballs when he gets the opportunity. Escobar has lowered his Outside of the Strike Zone (O-Swing) Percentage from 32.2% to 29%, which is around league average. Perhaps as a consequence (or perhaps because of random variation) 53% of the pitches Escobar has seen this season were located in the strike zone, which is a career high.
As much as I hate the term "fastball hitter," for the first time in a full season, Escobar is hitting fastballs well. Last season, Alcides earned -10.5 runs below average against four seam fastballs, and earned -12.7 runs below average the season before. This season, Escobar has earned 7.3 runs above average against four seam fastballs. Although this statistic is a descriptive statistic and not a predictive statistic, it is still a positive sign that Escobar has hit fastballs much better this season, and it matches up nicely from what I have noticed watching. If Escobar and Seitzer made an adjustment this offseason to speed up his bat or shorten his swing, it appears to be working so far and they both deserve credit for the adjustment.
The cliff notes version of the past six paragraphs is that Escobar is probably hitting above his true talent level, but their are signs that suggest that some improvement is legitimate. How much is legitimate, however, is what is most important. Thankfully, Bradley Woodrum of Fangraphs published an article last year with a "Should-Hit" calculator. Should-Hit is essentially FIP in reverse, in which it calculates the hitters wRC+ based on his BB%, KK%, HR, PA and BABIP. Although the calculator has bias towards hitters with home run power compared to doubles power, home runs serve as a good enough proxy for power that the calculations are reliable.
Using Woodrum's calculator, I plugged in Alcides ZiPS BB% and KK% to account for future regression, but used his current number of home runs and plate appearances. I then increased is BABIP, starting at .290 by increments of .010 until I reached .360, which produced the following table (wRC+ is a hitting statistic where 100 is league average, and 101 is 1% above league average, 80 is 20% below league average, and so on).
The calculator believes that Escobar current wRC+ is 114, but it is actually 121. As noted above, the formula will underestimate hitters who have more doubles power instead of home run power. Alcides playing half of his games in Kauffman Stadium only exaggerate this problem, leading to the 7% difference. Still, the calculator is a useful tool when projecting Escobar's future. If Alcides can maintain a .310 BABIP, we could expect Escobar to be around 10% below league average as a hitter, which would have placed him amongst the top third of qualified shortstops last season. Pairing this type of hitting with above-average defense at a difficult position would provide the Royals real value moving forward.
In conclusion, Alcides Escobar will probably not hit this well for the rest of his career, but there are positive signs that indicate Escobar has made adjustments at the plate, and some of the increased run production is sustainable.
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