July 16, 2012
Painting the Black
The Rewritable Alex Rios
Every year, Baseball Prospectus releases a PECOTA projection for Alex Rios, and every year Rios makes us wonder why we bother by missing the mark on the forecast one way or the other. Rios’ volatility is as dizzying as it is bewildering.
The trend dates back to 2008. Rios had made back-to-back All-Star Game appearances, and the Jays had no reason to believe those would be the last. Toronto wanted to secure Rios and his intriguing blend of power and speed, and so they nailed down a contract extension— the damage: seven years and more than $69 million. Rios played well enough through the season’s end to bring his three-year line to .296/.347/.489. Over the time, his seasonal averages included 19 home runs, 41 doubles, and 21 stolen bases.
Rios’ performances began vacillating in 2009. Although Rios still had a .265 True Average (TAv), the Jays placed him on revocable waivers; hoping against logic that a team would claim Rios and his potential liability of a contract. The White Sox answered the call and the Jays allowed them to imbibe the deal. Even now, almost three full years later, Rios has two more seasons and $25 million guaranteed remaining. A somber realization when his numbers since 2009 are examined (.253/.299/.401 and averages of 17 home runs, 27 doubles, and 23 stolen bases).
There is good news for the White Sox, however. Rios is in the midst of another weird season. This time, he is putting together a banner year. His .312 TAv would be the best of his career, and ranks sixth amongst right fielders. Meanwhile, Rios’ 39 extra-base hits are more than he had all of last season, in 200 fewer plate appearances.
Rios’ Scattershot Performances and Year-to-Year Delta, 2008-12
Fluctuations are a normal part of statistics. In Rios’ case, the extremity is what raises eyebrows. His numbers dribble from stellar to replacement-level on an annual basis. Such variance lends itself to conjecture—just as Bret Saberhagen’s affection for odd-numbered years did. Are Rios’ struggles the product of physical ailments, of mental instability, of wavering confidence? Less opaque than the causes for Rios’ issues are the solutions put forth this season through his batting stance:
The changes begin at the base. Rios’ front foot is now closer to the plate and to his back foot than in previous years. Moving up the body, Rios no longer flexes his knees as much. Rather, he is in an upright position now. Rios has changed his bat positioning as well. No longer does his pre-bat waggle look as if he were holding the knob between his legs. Now Rios almost looks like a muted Gary Sheffield. Rios is still using a similar trigger by digging his front foot’s toes into the ground, leaving his heel to hover before striding. The stride looks the same, too. But there do appear to be other differences: like the distance his hands move up as he goes into the load phase of his swing. Rios also appears taller throughout his swing, or, at least, more balanced from head-to-toe.
Rios and hitting coach Jeff Manto made some serious reconstructions this offseason. If you didn’t know any better, you’d almost think Rios is a different hitter entirely. Yet, despite the obvious differences, Rios nor Manto seem too interested in crediting the changes as the catalyst:
"To tell you the truth, I'm just focusing on my approach,'' Rios said. "I'm not looking at my mechanics. I don't even want to think about mechanics, or how I'm standing or anything. I don't want to get in that hole again.
Typically, a baseball player’s approach is tied to his walks and strikeouts. To say that a batter has a good approach means that he walks plenty, or at least swings at strikes and takes balls. Rios is striking out more often per walk (3.0) than he has in any season since 2008, because his walk rate is a career-worst 4.3 percent. But Rios isn’t hacking. His first-pitch swing rate has remained static. What has changed—and has changed for the better—is Rios’ contact rate. After setting a career-high last season (at 85 percent), Rios is at it again by making contact 87 percent of the time. Entering 2011, Rios had a career 82 percent contact rate, so these are notable upticks.
Rios’ Fastball Whiff Rate, 2010-12
The cause for the increase stems from an increased ability to make contact with fastballs and inside pitches. Those are seemingly byproducts of a shortened swing. If the answer is so simple then why is Rios reluctant to talk about it? It could be that Rios is tricking himself into thinking only about the aspect he can control; this way he doesn’t overthink his mechanics, thus complicating matters and slowing down his reaction time. It could also be that Rios’ issues have been mental. There’s no way of knowing, and that makes Rios’ successes this season all the more compelling.