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:
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.
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.
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