Last week, Paul Sporer had some highly encouraging things to say about Hunter Dozier in his piece on early batter breakouts. Paul noted that Dozier has radically changed his approach in the early going, and with another week’s worth of data to consider, at least one of his changes remains staggering to ponder. Last season, Dozier was more aggressive than the typical major league hitter, swinging at 50.1 percent of the pitches he saw. Just over a month into this season, he has become extremely selective, lowering his Swing% to less than three-fourths (37.0 percent) of what it was in 2018.
The improved production that we have seen from Dozier — the higher walk rate, lower strikeout rate, higher Avg and OBP and possibly also the increased power as well — can all be traced back in part to this one change in approach. It’s still early enough in the season that it is more than reasonable to ask if his improvement is for real. If we answer that question by looking at the peripherals that underlie Dozier’s improved fantasy stats, we’d have to say it does look real.
But can we be sure the underlying changes in approach are real? For one thing, we are about a month away from when Swing% starts to become much more stable. Even if we assume that Dozier’s Swing% is sustainable given his current approach, who’s to say he won’t revert back to his old approach?
If we ask these questions in regard to Dozier, then we also have to ask them about Niko Goodrum and Yasiel Puig. Goodrum has been on a similar, if not quite as extreme path as Dozier, decreasing his Swing% from 49.3 percent to 40.3 percent. Though Dozier has been the far more productive hitter so far, Goodrum’s improvements in plate discipline have been more impressive. While Dozier has shaved more than 13 percentage points off both his O-Swing% and Z-Swing%, Goodrum has lowered his Z-Swing% by just over six percentage points, from 71.7 percent to 65.4 percent. Meanwhile, he has lopped off nearly 10 points from his O-Swing% (from 33.5 percent to 23.7 percent). Though Dozier has become less prone to swing in general, Goodrum has refined his approach to where he is much less likely to swing at out-of-zone pitches, but only moderately more inclined to let good pitches go by.
Nearly a couple of weeks back, Ben Clemens had documented how Goodrum was also doing a better job of selecting pitches within the strike zone, and he has continued to avoid swinging at pitches on the outer third of the plate. That has resulted in Goodrum pulling the ball more often. That has not translated into an uptick in power, as Goodrum’s .182 ISO is five points lower than his mark from last season. While he is swinging at pitches in the strike zone at a normal rate, Goodrum has been making less frequent contact on pitches in the zone this year (77.9 percent) than last (83.0 percent). He has also been hitting more line drives and fewer flyballs, and while that could easily shift, it’s not necessarily a bad development if it doesn’t.
Even with the dip in Z-Contact%, Goodrum has doubled his walk rate (from 8.5 to 17.0 percent), dropped his strikeout rate from 26.8 to 22.3 percent, and increased his OBP from .315 to .362. He has done this without an inflated BABIP and while making less frequent contact on pitches in the strike zone. Should the latter revert to 2018 levels, Goodrum could be a .260 hitter or better with more extra-base hits.
Puig has moved in the opposite direction from Dozier and Goodrum, and his Avg, OBP and ISO have all paid a steep price. He has always been on the aggressive side, particularly early in his career, but compared to what Puig has done so far this year, his approach from those early seasons looks downright choosy. He has increased his Swing% from 47.8 to 59.1 percent, his O-Swing% from 31.1 to 42.8 percent and the only qualified hitter who has been swinging at a higher rate is Jonathan Schoop (60.3 percent Swing%). As a result, Puig is setting a career low for walk rate (4.0 percent) and a career high for strikeout rate (24.8 percent), which has helped to sink his slash line to .200/.228/.368.
For all three hitters, it is still early enough that, even without a change in approach, each could still have rest-of-season swing rates that are not nearly as aberrant as the ones they have currently. Also, the possibility still exists that they could revert back to their previous approaches. This would seem to be a safe bet, since a lot of unusual trends can last for a month, but not for much longer.
Yet if we look back as recently as last season, there were a couple of hitters who made changes to their approach that largely carried over for the full season. The four hitters featured in the table below all had a Swing% at the end of April 2018 that was at least nine percentage points lower than the one they compiled in 2017. Over the final five months of last season, Justin Bour almost completely reverted to his 2017 form, and Paul DeJong also had substantial regression. However, Lorenzo Cain and Didi Gregorius were much more selective over the final five months of 2018 than they were in 2017, even if they weren’t quite as selective as they were last March and April.
|Hitter||2017||March/April 2018||Change from 2017||Rest of 2018||Change from 2017|
While these are just two cases, it shows us there is a recent precedent for early-season changers like Dozier and Goodrum maintaining much of their improvement over the course of a full season. If experienced veterans like Cain and Gregorius can do it, why can’t a couple of 27-year-olds like Dozier and Goodrum?
There was no equivalent to Puig from last March and April. The closest comparable hitter was Max Kepler, who increased his Swing% by 7.1 percentage points, and he wound up almost completely regressing from May forward. If we go back to early 2017, we find three players who were in Puig’s neighborhood in terms of increase in Swing%. Two of them, Dexter Fowler and Wil Myers, went back to being the selective hitters they had been before. The third hitter, Aledmys Diaz, found roughly the middle point between his 2016 rate and early 2017 rate for the remainder of 2017. He only accumulated 301 plate appearances that season, so one has to consider that he could have regressed even closer to his prior rate with more playing time.
|Hitter||2016||March/April 2017||Change from 2016||Rest of 2017||Change from 2016|
That has to be a comforting thought to Puig owners or those who want to buy low on the Reds’ right fielder. This exercise could be seen as a convoluted way to say “it’s too early,” but the examples of Cain and Gregorius from last season show us that indications of extreme early-season changes might tell us something useful.
For at least another month, we will have to deal with a high degree of uncertainty over how to interpret these kinds of extreme changes. In the meantime, we can remind ourselves that, as disappointing as he has been, it is still premature to sell Puig at a discount. It’s also late enough that it doesn’t make sense to sell high on Dozier or Goodrum, unless you can trade them to an owner who is willing to pay for their season-to-date level of production. In Goodrum’s case, there even appears to be room for him to get even better than he has been so far.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.