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Platoon Advantage: Hitters that Should See Better Results Against Left-Handed Pitching

With so many new and predictive statistics available to people that follow baseball, we sometimes forget to look at some of our old staples. Often times, this is with good reason. Things like xwOBA, batted ball data and wRC+ are more predictive than counting stats of yesteryear.

But one old school stat that we shouldn’t overlook is platoon splits. If a player is performing significantly different than their career norm against pitching of a certain handedness, this could suggest a regression (either positively or negatively) is coming.

Platoon splits are not an exact science. Just because a player has posted a wRC+ of 140 against left-handed pitching doesn’t necessarily mean their true talent level is 40 percent better than league average. And as many have noted in far more thoughtful and extensive work, they also take more time to normalize than we typically think. It’s possible that the trends I’m observing aren’t quite as relevant as they appear. However, the hitters listed below have significantly under performed their career norms to one degree or another and could see a bump in their production if it does revert to their typical level of performance.

Vs. Left-Handed Pitching
2019 2017-18
Player Team OPS wOBA wRC+ OPS wOBA wRC+
Buster Posey Giants 0.501 0.211 28 0.927 0.388 145
Mookie Betts Red Sox 0.622 0.262 56 1.069 0.439 176
Justin Smoak Blue Jays 0.555 0.258 57 0.811 0.350 121
Adalberto Mondesi Royals 0.690 0.288 76 0.787 0.335 109

Mookie Betts

No one expected Betts to repeat his MVP 2018 season, and his .261/.381/.456 slash line combined with 13 home runs and nine stolen bases is hardly killing you, but Betts looks to be in line for a big second half if he can hit left-handed pitching like he has in the past. Betts’ plate discipline and batted ball data all looks consistent with last season’s, the difference is he is slashing just .213/.323/.300 (57 wRC+) against left-handers – despite a career OPS of .936 (146 wRC+) against them.

Buster Posey

Posey is another veteran with a long track record of elite performance against lefties. Posey has a career .919 OPS versus left-handers compared to .797 against right-handers. This season his OPS is just .501 against lefties in 65 plate appearances. Injuries and age-related decline may limit the now 32-year-old’s ability to bounce back – he’s striking out more and walking less than he ever has before. Given Posey is still eligible at fantasy baseball’s biggest tire fire of a position, he could still be worth a flyer. It’s no guarantee, but there may be better days ahead, even if they don’t look like vintage Buster Posey.

Justin Smoak

Smoak, who was recently activated off of the injured list is an interesting case. In 2017-18, Smoak  hit left-handers well (121 wRC+), although the switch hitter had been far less productive against them (93 wRC+) previously in his career. So while Smoak’s track record is less extensive, there are reasons to think he can still rebound. According to Baseball Savant, he has one of the highest negative differentials between his wOBA (.263) and xwOBA (.328) versus lefties in all of baseball. The same is true of his batting average (.187) compared to expected batting average (.250). His strikeout and walk rates are also in line with his breakout 2017. With plenty of DH/first base types on the Jays’ roster, Smoak will need to battle for playing time, but there is a good chance he does rebound if given it.

Adalberto Mondesi

As I wrote last month, I think Mondesi may be a player who’s combination of poor plate discipline and average batted ball skills may be catching up to him. If I am wrong, it could be because he hits left-handers like he did in 2017-18. Mondesi is by far the youngest player on the list and less of a finished product than the others. He’s only had 260 career plate appearances against left-handers, so there’s less to be made of his struggles this season (76 wRC+) or successes previously (109 wRC+). I’d file Mondesi more under “worth keeping an eye on” more than I would “likely to rebound”.

Two Other Interesting Names: Vlad Jr. and Eloy

Baseball’s two highest regarded hitting prospects heading into the 2019 season have also struggled somewhat against left-handers so far in their rookie seasons – both posting an OPS under.730 and wRC+ under 100.

Player Team 2019 (Majors) 2018 (Minors) 2017 (Minors)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Blue Jays 0.709 0.964 0.983
Eloy Jimenez White Sox 0.720 1.015 1.055
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Eloy Jimenez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., both right-handed hitters, hit left-handers well in the minor leagues. Expect improved performances against lefties to pull up their numbers in the second half of 2019 even if they continue to be challenged during their rookie seasons.

What Batted Ball Data Might Be Telling Us About Manny Machado and Adalberto Mondesi

Manny Machado and Adalberto Mondesi, two shortstops drafted inside the top-50 this spring, have had very different seasons to date.

Since signing with the Padres in the offseason, Machado has struggled (.261/.342/.451) to produce at his usual elite level. A level that made him worthy of a 10-year, $300-million contract. Mondesi meanwhile, has picked up where he left off in 2018, hitting for modest power (30 extra base hits) and batting average (.277), to go along with his league-leading 26 stolen bases.

But some of the underlying peripherals suggest that these two shortstops could see their performance trend in opposite directions during the second half of the season.

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Is Corey Seager Trying To Hit For More Power?

Corey Seager was a polarizing fantasy player heading into the 2019 season. Baseball’s fifth most valuable player in 2016-17 (12.9 WAR) spent most of 2018 on the disabled list recovering from Tommy John surgery. While Seager’s overall contributions to the Dodgers are obvious, his fantasy value has been up for debate given the increasingly high replacement level at the shortstop position and Seager’s somewhat limited power output.

Entering the 2019 season, Seager had slugged .494 with 54 home runs in 355 career games played. No one would confuse him with Billy Hamilton, but he also wasn’t hitting for the elite power that many other top tier shortstops were.

So far in 2019, Seager has struggled, hitting .235/.329/.356 with just two home runs. But his batted ball profile suggests that he might be trying to do something that his fantasy critics were riding him about heading into the season. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Rowdy Tellez Under-Owned?

Less than a month ago, the Blue Jays traded their primary designated hitter, Kendrys Morales, to the Oakland Athletics. While somewhat surprising given the money owed to Morales, the Jays willingness to retain salary and Oakland’s need to replace the injured Matt Olson facilitated a trade that was completed less than twenty-four hours before Opening Day in Toronto.

While the trade was initially made with an eye towards roster flexibility, it looks as though one big man may be in the process of replacing another in Toronto. After beginning his major league career in September of 2018 with a world-beating hot streak, Rowdy Tellez is picking up where he left off in some potentially important respects. Read the rest of this entry »

Nick Dika’s Bold Predictions for 2019

Ah yes. Predictions. While they might not always be accurate, they sure are fun to make. So comin’ in hot just ahead of opening day in Japan are my boldest ideas about what will happen during the 2019 baseball season.

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2018’s Worst Outfield Defenses and What They Mean for Pitchers in 2019

2018 saw some ugly outfield defense. If DRS isn’t your thing, the teams that posted baseball’s worst outfield DRS numbers ranked towards the very bottom of the league in Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) and Baseball Prospectus’ Fly Ball Efficiency statistics as well. By any measure, these are some of baseball’s weakest outfield defenders.

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Can Austin Barnes Still Breakout?

This time last year, Austin Barnes looked poised for a potential breakout after he slashed .289/.408/.486 with a 142 wRC+ in 263 plate appearances during the 2017 season. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Barnes took a step backwards in 2018. His strikeout rate jumped from 16.4%, all the way up to 28.2%, and his slash line fell to a near-unplayable .205/.329/.290.

With incumbent Yasmani Grandal now in Milwaukee, Barnes has a more direct path to playing time. The 29-year-old will begin 2019 in a platoon with fellow righty, Russell Martin. Its possible that Barnes could inherit the lion’s share of the playing time if Martin gets hurt or continues to see his offensive production decline with age. With only 574 major league plate appearances across four seasons, it remains to be seen if Barnes is the starting-caliber hitter he was in 2017 or the glove-first backup of 2018.

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What Went Wrong: Joey Votto

2018 was undoubtedly a disappointing season for Joey Votto. After pairing his high average, high OBP production with the second highest home run total of his career (36) in 2017, Votto saw his full-season home run total drop below 20 for the first time. And it wasn’t just the home runs that disappeared. Votto posted the lowest slugging percentage (.419) and ISO (.135) of his career.

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Half Season Heroes: Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s 2018 was a season of extremes. After being called up on April 20th, he struggled in his first taste of major league action – slashing .206/.229/.309 with a 43 wRC+ in 70 plate appearances before being sent to triple-A, Buffalo. After being re-called in July, Gurriel went on an absolute tear – slashing .423/.438/.648 with a 200 wRC+. Unsurprisingly, his BABIP was .456 during the month of July. Incredibly, Gurriel walked only once during his epic hot streak (and missed a week in the middle of the month with a concussion). On July 29th, Gurriel sprained his left ankle and spent most of August on the disabled list. Upon his return, he struggled once again, posting a .226/.270/.368 slash line with 4 home runs and a 69 wRC+.

Overall, the 25-year-old rookie finished 2018 hitting .281/.309/.446 with 11 home runs and a 103 wRC+ in 263 plate appearances.

Based on his rookie season, Gurriel looks to be a player that does some things very well and some things very poorly.

Lourdes hits the ball hard. Per Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity (90.3 mph) is well above the league mean. 45.6 percent of his batted balls were struck at over 95 mph – a mark that puts him inside the top ten percent in baseball (minimum 250 at bats) and ahead of players like Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper and Matt Carpenter. Gurriel makes little soft contact (15.5 percent) and is very good at avoiding infield fly balls (3.2 percent).

Gurriel also displayed more power in 2018 – hitting 18 home runs over three levels (AA, AAA and MLB) after hitting just 5 in 2017 – both truncated seasons, as he missed significant time with injuries.

One reason that Gurriel is able to make so much hard contact is his ability to hit the fastball. Gurriel slugged .575 with 7 home runs and a .400 wOBA against fastballs and cutters this season. His ability to handle the fastball is likely part of the reason Gurriel is so aggressive – he swung at 37.8 percent of first pitches in his rookie season.

While Gurriel is able to crush fastballs, he struggles against offspeed and breaking pitches.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. vs. Pitch Types
AVG SLG Whiff%
Fastball 0.328 0.541 14.3
Breaking 0.232 0.329 35.1
Offspeed 0.244 0.400 43.2

In addition to not being able to handle anything with a wrinkle, Gurriel’s plate approach will likely have to improve if he’s going to see success as a major league hitter. He rarely walks – his 3.4% walk rate was seventh worst among all players with at least 250 plate appearances. His minor league numbers were not much better – he posted a .297 OBP over two seasons in the Blue Jays’ organization.

Since 2000, only eight players have produced a wRC+ of 110 or higher with a walk rate below 4 percent and a strikeout rate above 20 percent. Of those eight players, no one has posted at least a 110 wRC+ more than once. Even in 2018, the Javier Baez plate approach is the exception rather than the rule.

Low Walk, High Strikeout Seasons Since 2000
Season Name Tm BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2002 Alfonso Soriano NYY 3.10% 21.19% 0.300 0.332 0.547 131
2010 John Buck TOR 3.66% 25.40% 0.281 0.314 0.489 114
2011 Reed Johnson CHC 1.88% 23.68% 0.309 0.348 0.467 121
2012 Michael Morse WSN 3.72% 22.56% 0.291 0.321 0.470 113
2014 Delmon Young BAL 3.92% 20.00% 0.302 0.337 0.442 120
2014 C.J. Cron LAA 3.95% 24.11% 0.256 0.289 0.450 112
2015 Jonathan Schoop BAL 2.80% 24.61% 0.279 0.306 0.482 113
2018 Adalberto Mondesi KCR 3.78% 26.46% 0.276 0.306 0.498 114

It is worth remembering that Gurriel Jr. is still only 25. He posted a .362 OBP in six years of play in the Cuban National Series and was able to keep his strikeout rate below 17 percent until he reached triple-A partway through his 2018 season. If his power growth is real, he could posses the upside of someone like Miguel Andujar with slightly less home run potential.

Gurriel is eligible at second base and shortstop, and as of right now, will enter the 2019 season competing for at-bats in the Blue Jays’ middle infield. Everything the team has said suggests they want to give Gurriel an opportunity to establish himself, but even after the trade of Aledmys Diaz, he could still be battling for playing time with Troy Tulowitzki, Brandon Drury, Devon Travis and (possibly) Richard Urena. The Jays also have one of baseball’s best prospects in shortstop Bo Bichette, who could be factoring into the playing time mix sooner rather than later as well.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will need to work on his plate discipline and learn to hit something other than a fastball if he’s going to see sustained success in the majors. But with his ability to hit the ball hard and indications in his minor league numbers that improvements are possible, Gurriel is an intriguing player heading into 2019. Just make sure to keep a close eye out for skills improvement and a path to playing time.

Breakout Breakdown: Mike Foltynewicz

One reason the Atlanta Braves surprised the baseball world and won the National League East was the strength of the team’s starting pitching. Sean Newcomb turned in a 2 WAR/3.90 ERA season; Anibal Sanchez reinvented himself at age-34; and several youngsters (Michael Soroka, Touki Toussaint) were effective in limited action. But without Mike Foltynewicz’ stellar season, the Braves may not have turned into NL East champs ahead of schedule in 2018.

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