Attack Of The Sliders, Part 1: Struggling Hitters

The most recent advent of baseball has brought with it a fervor for sliders across the league. Others have written about it — Matthew Trueblood wrote last September that pitchers were choosing sliders over sinkers, while just recently Eno Sarris noted that it’s more severe now when examining the struggles of Bryce Harper. It’s true. We’re on track to witness the largest year-over-year jump in sliders since 2010-11. They’re now accounting for 18% of all pitches and the league is on pace for about 8,000 more sliders thrown than last season. If we were talking about White Castle sliders, you’d pretty much be dead.

It makes sense that pitchers are chucking more sliders. It’s the pitch generates the most whiffs of any offering thrown with regularity. It makes sense that the pitch is usurping the sinker, because the sinker generates the least amount of whiffs. Every team has a guy who can throw gas at this point, and now half the league is leaning into it the slider as a primary breaking pitch as hitters and pitchers alike optimize for the best possible outcome. And it’s affecting some more than others.

Through this past weekend, 149 hitters had already seen at least 100 sliders. Of those, 100 had seen more than the average amount compared to their peers, but some guys are really getting beraged. Here are the 10 players who are seeing the biggest jump in sliders faced, of the group who’s seen the most sliders so far this year:

attack of the sliders

Certainly, this is a talented group. But it’s also equally as weird. I’m not sure you’d put them together for any particular reason outside of maybe age, and even that only regards about half of them. Even here, the closest thing they all have in common is a bad whiff rate at sliders. Their overall performance against the pitch, though, lets us split them into two groups of five. Today, we’ll take the bad news.

bad sliders

Before delving into the case of each player above, let’s keep in mind the average rates for each stat above for this entire group of hitters:

  • SL Whiff%: 16.8
  • Take%: 52.3
  • wOBA: .285
  • EV: 83.2

These points give us some context for just how much trouble the slider is giving each of these five guys.

Schoop signed a one year, $8.5 million prove-it contract with Minnesota over the winter. So far, the returns are good and he’s definitely rebounding from a woof-worthy stint in Baltimore. He’s showing the most power of his career, as his .234 isolated slugging tells us, and isn’t necessarily lucking into his success. It’s hard to say if sliders are keeping him contained or portend tougher times ahead, but he’s in the bottom 20% in everything but wOBA against them. It’s not a stretch to think the low exit velo and hack-happy approach leaves him exposed.

Leonys Martín is tied with Jordan Luplow as Cleveland’s best outfielder, though Luplow has played in 16 less games. Collectively, the group has actually been worth -.1 wins so far this season, though, so it’s not a terribly meaningful title, anyway. Martín isn’t offending anyone, but his inability to lay off sliders may make for predictable ABs as summer wages on. Despite this, his ability to make just enough quality contact to be definitively average will probably keep him in the lineup, as Cleveland’s front office appears aloof to the dearth of talent they’re leaving to patrol the outfield.

Pitch Info actually has Corey Seager as a positive performer against sliders for every season before this one. Maybe he’s not used to using his body as a baseball player again after a long injury and rehab process from last season, or maybe this is just a blip on the radar. But the drop in performance against sliders is worrisome because of the volume he’s seeing. He’s always had a take percentage against the pitch that’s similar to this year’s, but he’s also always been able to drive it much better. This feels like the kind of thing that could make or break a big moment or two in the Dodgers’ season.

Ozzie Albies…hmm. Albies is becoming more and more curious in the early stage of his career. He came up with a reputation of being able to control the barrel of his bat and take a walk, then hit the big leagues and swung at everything, showed impressive and unexpected power, then started to whiff. A lot. Simply having the major league experience he does at this point still bodes well for his long-term outlook. Atlanta is in a curious position, though. They chose to lean heavily this winter on a core that appeared to arrive early instead of using that performance as a reason to buy complementary pieces sooner. Albies is a big part of that choice, but right now everyone is left to take his solid all-around game and hope the upside shown by his ability to discern the strike zone catches up to his ability to drive the ball when he finally does square it up.

Buxton is another Twin who’s enjoying a fine rebound after a dismal 2018. Out of the guys who have seen the most sliders this year, he’s tied with Brandon Lowe for the highest fWAR. If he maintained his current rate of offense — he has a 115 wRC+ — and paired it with his elite defense, he’d be a huge piece for the Twins as they continue to muscle through the league. But we know he’s prone to big slumps and any additional increase in sliders could spell some trouble. Slight regression from a few guys in Minnesota could mean a lot more in a wacky AL Central, and, perhaps more than usual, the games will start to break more and more for or against them based on just a few centimeters.

Whiffs are increasingly inseparable from baseball. The guys featured above all embody that, and emphasize how important it is to make your contact count. So far, they’ve been vulnerable, despite being quality contributors. Whether it changes or not could have a pronounced impact on their final lines for 2019.

Stay tuned for part two of this story, when I’ll explore five guys excelling against the slider despite seeing a bunch more of them!

Slider data from Statcast. Pitch values and WAR from FanGraphs. Feature photo John McCoy/Getty Images

Examining The Struggles of Ozzie Albies Through The Lens of Neuroscience

Ozzie Albies has been at the heart of his team’s unexpected push for the NL East division lead all season. He was there before Ronald Acuña came up. He’s been healthy since Acuña got hurt. He blasted through April with a triple slash of .293/.341/.647. A .647 slugging percentage! Everyone was astounded. Articles were written about how rare and mystifying it was, whether it was sustainable, and how it was nearly impossible to provide a comp for him because there hasn’t been a player like him before. He appeared to be imposing his will on anyone who dared to pitch to him.

Well, gang, May happened. And June is in the midst of happening. And while his overall performance to date still provides us great insight to the player we can look forward to, Albies has had a much tougher go of things. That triple slash slunk to .264/.306/.432 in May. So far this month, it’s at .154/.200/.346.

The good has been unprecedented; the bad has turned abysmal. Each has been more extreme than his profile ever seemed to offer. When Albies was first called up last year, Baseball Prospectus said he “has a slash-and-dash offensive approach that marries well with his advanced bat control and plus-plus speed.” But since he’s been in the Bigs, he’s been more of a free-swinging, freewheelin’ monster.

In 2017, he offered at more than 51% of the pitches he saw. Had he qualified, that would’ve placed him in the bottom 20% of the league, in the company of Yangervis Solarte and Brandon Crawford. This season he’s been even more severe, swinging at more than 55% of all pitches faced. That puts him in the bottom 5% of qualifiers. So, really, what is going on?

Neuroscience GIF-downsized_large

This gif shows the plate from the catcher’s view, and consists of only lefthanded plate appearances by Albies. It accounts for about 70% of his plate appearances and is where the struggles have really come in, as he’s hit only .232 from the left side as opposed to .318 from the right.

On the left side of the gif is a heatmap of Albies’s swing percentages. On the right is where pitchers have located to him. The first is through April, and the second is from May through 6/14. At the start of the season, pitchers filled the zone and challenged him. Per Baseball Savant, more than 41% of pitches he faced crossed the plate that month, and he used his exceptional bat control to punish those balls. However, since May, pitchers have thrown it in the zone far less — a shade under 33% of their total pitches to him. When you’re swinging at more than 55% of the pitches you’re seeing, but only one in three is over the plate, you’re bound to run into trouble.

There are two possible suggestions to make for Albies here. One would be mechanical, assuming something is wrong with his swing. That would probably be premature, given how good he’s been at such a young age. The other would be mental, which seems more likely. His advanced bat control appears to have convinced him that he can hit anything, so he’s going for it. But by doing so, he might be poorly manipulating the signals in his brain he uses to make contact.

Bijan Pesaran, a professor of neuroscience at New York University, explains it this way through the scope of ping pong players:

“When [they] are playing at a high level, they look at the ball up to the point where they hit it. As soon as the paddle makes contact with the ball, you can see their eyes and head turn to now look at their opponent. They think they are looking at their opponent when they are hitting the ball, but they are looking at the ball. Their eyes are tracking the ball, even though they are aware of their opponent.”

Pesaran also says that the cerebral cortex is arranged more like a mosaic than a traditional puzzle. That’s the part of the brain ballplayers would use for pitch recognition and location. If Albies is going to parts of the zone he’s unfamiliar with — parts he doesn’t approach when he’s hitting at a high level — he’s essentially attempting to rearrange the mosaic network that relays the signals from his brain to his swing. It also means he could be looking at the ball longer since he’s not used to seeing it in those places.

The result is a hitch in the 200 millisecond cycle where his brain processes a pitch and tells his body to swing, which may be causing, or at least contributing to, the struggles in which Albies finds himself swamped.

Ozzie Albies didn’t suddenly turn into a pumpkin after a flare of greatness. He’s too good for that. But he does need to adapt to a league that’s already adapted to him. His next step forward could take realizing his limits.

Pitch charts from Baseball Savant. All other data from FanGraphs. Gif made with Giphy. Feature image from Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images.