Attack Of The Sliders, Part 2: Hitters Who Are Hanging, And Then Some

When I last left you, I spoke about how sliders are taking the game by storm. We’re witnessing the biggest year-over-year jump in the pitch being thrown in more than a decade and the reasons are pretty cut and dry. They get more swings and misses than any other common breaker, and, considering the rate at which the ball is flying out of the park, pitchers are incentivized to optimize for strikeouts more than ever.

As if it were baseball’s form of natural selection, some hitters are handling it better than others. Jonathan Schoop, Leonys Martín, Corey Seager, Ozzie Albies, and Byron Buxton had all seen at least a five percent jump in sliders faced. And they’ve struggled against the pitch to the point where their performances may give us pause moving forward. Enough time has passed that we can reset our parameters for considering who’s doing well.

Coming into the weekend, 87 hitters had faced at least 150 sliders. Of that group, 16 had seen at least five percent more than they did in 2018. Here are the eight who have handled them best:

attack of the sliders 2.png

Whether or not any of these hitters have been historically good against the slide piece isn’t necessarily interesting. The difficulty the pitch poses combined with the uptick in the amount they’ve each seen it would lend itself to additional struggles. And in many ways, the way they’ve performed against it this year tells the story of their production. For point of reference moving forward, consider how the population of 87 who have seen at least 150 sliders so far this year had performed, on average:

  • SL Whiff%: 16.6
  • Take%: 53.3
  • wOBA: .287
  • EV: 83.1

These data points jive pretty well with what we saw in Attack of the Sliders, Part 1. They let us sift the group of eight above into two groups — ones named Yandy Diaz, and ones not. Let’s start with the others first.  

the good guyz

Most of these guys hit the slider hard. All of them are below average at letting it go by, and, accordingly, whiff on it more than average. But by and large they all make their contact count against the pitch as much as they can, and their performance against sliders is contributing in no small part to their total value this year.

For Soler and Santana in particular, their performance against sliders so far in 2019 might be a key to what’s keeping them in the lineup. They rate out as a couple of the worst defenders amongst these eight players so the weight of their relevance sits on their bats. What’s most interesting is that they’re reaching success in different ways despite similar results. They have nearly identical plate discipline, but Santana makes nearly 18% more contact on pitches out of the zone than Soler. That would lead us to believe that contact he makes generates his lower exit velocity if he isn’t barreling the ball, but still putting it to places that can’t be defended. When it’s left in the zone, no one connects more than Soler out of this bunch. His top 25% exit velo against sliders supports his ability to swing freely but really lock in on the stuff over the plate.

Javy Baez continues to make an extreme contact profile work, and he’s so good that it isn’t just about taking advantage of mistakes. He’s one of the worst hitters in the league at taking a pitch — he swings at more than 90% of qualified hitters — and yet, he’s in the 85th percentile in wOBA and nearly 80th percentile EV amongst hitters seeing the biggest increase in sliders. With his plus defense, this peak under the hood illuminates why he’s been the most valuable of the bunch so far.

The two Yankees on the list also tell an interesting tale. After all their injuries, New York is doing the unthinkable and pacing the AL East. Voit’s performance last year made it highly likely that he wasn’t a flash in the pan, and he’s officially taken the Yankees first base job and run away with it. Being able to hang with sliders and other breakers while crushing everything else appears to simply be his M.O.

Frazier, meanwhile, requires a bit of an asterisk. He only had 41 scattered plate appearances last year, but the big increase in sliders over more playing time in this campaign suggests a tremendous amount of immediate respect from opposing pitchers. With how hard he hits sliders, we might be able to expect a better overall performance against them moving forward, because as basic as it sounds hitting the ball hard is still a huge indicator of productive play. It could also make the Yankees somehow more difficult to face. He almost embodies the way they’re winning this year — an unheralded guy or one whose sheen had worn off for various reasons, coming out and balling.

Reyes — affectionately known as The Franimal — is the healthy counterpart to San Diego’s highly likable Big Boi outfielders who can absolutely crush the ball. He has some of the worst plate discipline against sliders but encouraging results when he does connect. At just 23, he’s showing a ton for the Padres to get excited about. Sure, the team is 10 games back in their division, but they’re also two games over .500 and on the precipice of arriving as competitors. If Reyes continues to grow in his ability to track breaking balls at the plate, he could help propel them forward. Even if he merely stays the same, he’s going to continue to have a positive impact.

Avi Garcia offers another fascinating look at Tampa Bay’s ability to acquire and develop players who seems to have enormous holes in their game. He’s on pace for the best season of his career, much like fellow teammates Tommy Pham and Yandy Diaz, who were similarly cast off from their former clubs. He’s been up and down against the slider throughout his career in the Majors but has clicked in 2019. His plate discipline is still suspect, but the last time he was this good he was worth more than four wins for a cellar dwelling White Sox team. Another performance like that on a team pushing for the playoffs is going to be one to watch.

And that brings us to Yandy.

yandy

Diaz has seen more sliders than most hitters, spit on them more than anyone who’s seen as big an increase, whiffs less, and hits it harder than nearly everyone. Sure, his ability to drive the ball hasn’t resulted in the best wOBA against sliders, but the Rays have already gotten him to hit as many homers this year as he has in the last two years combined. That’s far from a baby step. His defense is middling but his long-expected ability to hit is finally bearing fruit. He’s a prime example of how the Rays keep creating formidable matchups for their opponents in the most creative (cheapest?) ways possible.

The slider is probably here to stay. So far, these hitters are staying with it, and I will, too. Stay tuned for more updates on how the pitch is impacting the game at the highest level!

Slider data from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo from Chris O’Meara/AP

The One Stable Stat We Have Is Telling Us About Potential Breakouts Already Happening

Welcome to the start of the 2019 season. We’ve got some interesting stuff going on already! The Yankees are missing an entire starting roster due to injuries. Christian Yelich is so hot at the plate that he might actually spontaneously combust. Tim Beckham is your fourth-best player in the entire league. Things have been wild! By and large, they also don’t — and can’t — mean much because the sample size is so small. Almost.

Thanks to work by Rob Arthur, we know a single batted ball in the air can be predictive. Basically, the idea is that a single exit velocity reading can purely measure how strong a hitter is without having to attempt to account for noise like bad fielding or a kindly gust of wind like other stats might. That strength correlates pretty well with OPS, giving us a reasonable measure of what we might be able to expect from certain hitters moving forward, almost regardless when they rip one like this.

So far this season, 15 hitters have hit two line drives or fly balls at 109 mph or more. Data points can often seem awkwardly arbitrary, but this one isn’t. As Arthur explains, it’s the point at which players gain a bump of six points of OPS per each additional mph they hit a ball. We’re looking at line drives and fly balls because they’re the hardest to defend. About half of those 15 guys are ones who are more established as stars or at least serious threats in the league: Bryce Harper, Nomar Mazara, Gary Sanchez, Joey Gallo, Nelson Cruz, Jose Abreu, Mike Trout, Hanley Ramirez. The other half are not. Here they are, with the rate at which they knocked a ball in the air at 109+ mph last year:

mmmashing

The highest fWAR production of any of these players in 2018 was Harrison Bader’s 3.5, which probably has to do more with his excellent defense at a premium position than his 106 wRC+. Nobody else broke two wins above replacement, though Voit almost did in just 47 games because he played like a madman in September. Mancini and Buxton actually managed negative fWAR of -.2 and -.4, and Buxton managed that in just 27 games. Voit and Alonso offer some later and very late development sheen, but outside of that it’s a rather motley crew.

Here’s how they’re airing it out so far this season, barely more than a week into the season.

Mashin 2

The Mets chose the middle ground between holding Alonso in the minors last year and further manipulating his service time by breaking camp with him in the Major Leagues. Bully for them. He’s been exactly as advertised, with a K-rate over 30% but seven RBI and an isolated slugging about a hundred points better than league average. The average of projection systems ZiPS, Steamer, and THE BAT see him having a .748 OPS the rest of the way, but the way he’s hitting early suggests he might not have much trouble exceeding that.

Voit has one more big knock despite seeing 80% fewer pitches so far, and it really seems like the Cardinals are having a hard time knowing the offensive talent they have between their nonchalant send-offs of him and Tommy Pham. He’s been similar to Alonso, but with less Ks and more than two times the amount of walks in the early going. The Big Three project him for a .795 OPS from here on out, with heavy regression in his slugging since his torrid September last season. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him beat that, though.

Buxton has been the Dr. Jekyll to his Mr. Hyde so far, but also left the Twins game on April 3 with a back contusion, so he’s really staying on brand here in the early going. Mancini is a quarter of the way to his 2018 total for smoked line drives or fly balls, despite seeing only a tiny fraction of the pitches. His three percent walk rate is also about half of what he usually produces. That’s not a reliable rate yet but it’s worth considering that Mancini has just run into a hot streak to start the year.

Franco, Bader, and Tellez off the most intrigue, especially measured against what ZiPS, Steamer, and THE BAT project for them moving forward. Franco is projected for a .781 OPS the rest of the way, providing about another 25 homers, 63 runs, and 84 RBI. He’s walking a hilarious 26% more than he’s whiffing right now thanks to a league-leading six intentional walks. Part of that is because he’s batting eighth and is an easy route to the pitcher, but part of it is because he’s shown himself to be a legitimate threat to make pitchers look really, really bad so far. The plate discipline can’t stick at the current rate but if it’s an indicator of a true adjustment — and it might be, as he’s swinging a little less at junk low and away so far — it might be tagteaming with this new drive to smoke the ball to help Franco shoot past that projected .781 OPS.

Tellez is expected to produce a .750 OPS moving forward and is maybe the biggest wild card of these three. He had some hype as a prospect with lots of pop but had a terrible year in his personal life last year as his mother passed and he fell off a lot of radars. He squeezed into 23 games in the Majors at the end of the season and showed that pop, and now he’s doing more of the same but with way better plate discipline. He’s a Blue Jay down to the tee: grips and rips and gets results through bombs. He’s projected to break 20 dingers and a shade under 70 runs and RBI each, but, like Franco, if the plate discipline sticks a little with this ability to drive the ball, he could push past those with relative ease.

Bader looks like he’ll push another 20 home runs but only another 60 runs and RBI each or so. His projected OPS is a shoddy .701. That was folding in the Bader we knew before he matched the two pitches he smashed at 109 mph or better last year in just four percent of the pitches so far this season. He’s also batting in the lower third of the order and might be hard to keep tamped down there if he keeps swinging like he has early on. If there’s a Vegas line on his OPS, take the over.

The plate discipline referenced above may not be fully stable for another month or so at least. The counting stats may be largely subject to game situations. But when we’re breaking down what produces them by just how hard a guy is mashing the baseball through peeking at exit velocity, they’re all showing upside we can buy into now. Get ready for the headlines.

Exit velocity and pitches seen data from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo Rick Scuteri/AP

Luke Voit And When To Believe In A Hot Streak

Baseball is speckled with flashes in the pan. Plenty of players have teased our attention with exceptional play for a month or half-season or even a whole season, only to fade into the background as an afterthought. Chris Shelton, Dom Brown, Josh Rutledge…I’m sure you have your own names that come to mind. These are the kinds of faces our brains drudge up when we think about sample sizes; why we’re reticent to buy into what our eyes see on the field through the summer and why we crave data to support it.

So if you’re reluctant to buy into Luke Voit’s September rampage for the Yankees last season, I understand. But know that you’ve got a reason to keep an open mind. In fact, the biggest reason to believe in Voit may ironically be the biggest reason you doubt him as New York’s starting first baseman for 2019 — how he drove the ball.

He hit at a torrid pace from September 1 through the end of the regular season. He accumulated a .402 isolated slugging percentage over that span by having more extra base hits (15) than singles (14). For point of reference, FanGraphs considers a .250 ISO to be excellent. Mike Trout led the Majors in ISO last year with a .316 number.

To be sure, I’m not arguing that Luke Voit drives the ball 85% better than Mike Trout does based on a single month of ABs. But here are the total amount of hitters who achieved an ISO of even .350 for a month through 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively; followed by how many total monthly qualifiers there were for each year :

  • 33/1,046
  • 40/1,068
  • 42/1,054

That’s it. No more than 42 players in any season ISOd .350 or better for a month from 2016-2018. The guys who did it never accounted for even four percent of those eligible hitters. Keep in mind that the ball was also juiced for a large portion of that time, too, and that we were seeing record amounts of offense. No matter how you want to slice it, performing at this rate is significant, even if only for a month.

That .350 number isn’t just arbitrarily set 50 points lower than what Voit did last September. It’s what his final ISO was for 2018 after accounting for pre-September ABs with the Yankees and scarce early season appearances with the Cardinals before being traded. It lets us account for just a bit more humility in Voit’s overall production while still making the point that he was truly in rarified air at the end of last season.

So he was a phenom for a month. So what?

Let’s consider how players who accomplished what he did between 2016 and 2018 fared through the duration of the season of their crazy ISO performance.

isodudes

The feat continues to be impressive. A large majority of the players weren’t only on fire for a month, but were at least reasonably productive through the whole season. Sure, for some, a large part of their value came in a single month. But for others, they didn’t have the chance to add to their total production because they were injured or called up late. (Check out the lists here, here, and here if you’d like to see the individual players.) Besides, when you’re counting wins at the end of the season, it doesn’t really matter when a guy got one for you as long as he got one for you.

The thing about that data, in particular, is that the 2018 season is already over. Spectacular as Voit’s September  was, there aren’t any more games to track or project for him. If we consider how players who ISOd .350 or better for a month in 2016 and 2017 fared the following season, we can see more of the picture, and what we might be able to reasonably expect from Voit in 2019.

As it turns out, only a combined 13.6% of those players — nine from 2016 and one from 2017 — recorded less than two fWAR the following year. That falls in line almost lock-step with what guys did in the chart above. Though we can see year-to-year volatility in all of these numbers, we also see a considerable lack of risk in the players that produced them. At worst, a single month of off-the-charts production from a player over that time has left a team with an 80% chance of having a solid contributor to continue plugging into their lineup. Being able to rely on a player that way is extremely valuable.

It’s fair to wonder what allowed Voit to drive the ball at such an elite rate last September. In total, 379 hitters had at least 50 combined fly balls and line drives last season. Voit ranked 23rd in average exit velocity in such events at 96.5 mph. That’s better than 94% of his peers.

voit stuffs

His heatmaps tell us that pitchers usually attacked him up with fastballs, which he saw roughly 55% of the time, while throwing breaking balls low and away. But he handled it all. The fastballs are what he really took advantage of, taking them yard 14 times. On breakers, he still managed to get on base by hitting singles. His 10.2% walk rate was also above average. Pitchers may try to adjust how they throw to him in 2019 but he’s already shown he’s capable of checking a lot of boxes that make it hard to get him out.

The most curious thing about Voit might be how the Cardinals let him get away. He’ll play 2019 in his age-28 season. He’s already been in pro ball for six years, but had only accumulated 137 plate appearances before getting traded. That’s less than the 148 he had with the Yankees, and it took him nearly twice as many games with the Cardinals to get them. Beyond those details, though, is that St. Louis is known through baseball for developing exactly this kind of player: one who pops up out of seemingly nowhere and contributes two or three wins that helps the team constantly compete.

And yet they sent Voit to the Yankees for 28-year-old Chasen Shreve, a reliever who’s appeared in the Majors every year since 2014 and has managed -.5 fWAR; 27-year-old reliever Giovanny Gallegos, who barely has 30 innings pitched in the show; plus a million dollars in international bonus money that New York used to sign Osiel Rodriguez, a top Cuban pitching prospect.

The deal is already a clear win for the Yankees. The odds are that Luke Voit will tack on a couple more for them in 2019. Don’t write him off as a flash in the pan.

Heat maps, spray chart, and exit velocity data from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature image Julio Cortez/AP