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

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