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April 18, 2013

Five to Watch

Contact Watch!

by Bret Sayre

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There are very few things that we know for sure this early in the season. And it’s for that reason that we need to be cognizant of markers that are approaching in the near future and keep an eye out for them. One of the big ones I like to look at throughout April is a player’s developing contact rate. As we know, contact rate does not stabilize until around 150 plate appearances, but we’re nearly halfway there. Today, I’m going to look at five hitters who have put up surprising contact rates, either on the high side or low side. If these players continue on a path to stabilization at these rates, they could be looking at potentially significant changes in their value.

And since I’m feeling particularly optimistic, we’ll start with the players who could see their values rise for this reason:

Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels

Just from looking at his overall fantasy line, it might be tempting to say that this season looks to be a continuation of Pujols’ decline. However, if you peel back the curtain, there are actually some very heartening things going on behind the scenes. There has been a lot made, and rightly so, about how Pujols has become less discerning at the plate—potentially causing him to go from the otherworldly hitter he was to the merely pretty great hitter that he's been over the past two seasons. When Sam Miller looked at Pujols last season through the lens of his plate-discipline statistics, there was certainly some cause for concern. However, if it was appropriate to dock him for that last April, it may be time to start thinking about praising him for a possible improvement now.

So far, in 63 plate appearances, Pujols has accumulated 11 walks versus only three strikeouts. But while these numbers have not come close to stabilizing yet (still a small sample), swing rate takes only around 50 plate appearances to become useful. So far in 2013, Pujols has a swing rate of 42.6 percent, which is back below his career average, and a step in the right direction after increases in every year since 2007. His swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone has also been on a perilous climb since 2007, and similarly, it has taken a huge step in the right direction. His 27.1 percent rate so far in 2013 is well below his 36.4 percent rate from 2012 and would be his lowest since 2009, which, not coincidentally, was the year he last won the MVP award.

Austin Jackson, OF, Tigers

If I had written this column a year ago today, Jackson likely would have been on it as well, but he’s taken his game to a whole new level so far in 2013. Through 67 plate appearances, Jackson has a strikeout rate that is nearly one-third of his 2012 clip, which in turn was nearly 20 percent lower than his 2011 mark. And, unlike with Pujols, this is clearly coming through in his raw stats, as Jackson is hitting a cool .393 with 19 runs scored in just 13 games.

Taking a deeper look at Jackson’s plate-discipline stats, one number jumps way off the page. Here are his contact rates by year, in chronological order since his rookie season of 2010: 79.5 percent, 77.4 percent, 80.4 percent, 92.3 percent. No, that’s not a typo. Jackson is making contact at an incredible rate this season compared to his career, and as we know with the help of Russell Carleton, contact rate stabilizes by 100 plate appearances, and potentially in as few as 70. With Jackson already at 67, this may be a sign of great things to come from him this season in the batting-average department (which would trickle down to his run and stolen-base production as well).

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Dodgers

Maybe there’s just something in the water with first basemen in Los Angeles. Adrian Gonzalez is off to a nice start this year, hitting .393 with two homers and 11 RBI through 14 games. These numbers are buoyed by a return to some of his old patterns, as well as some potentially new tricks. The biggest new trick is cutting his strikeouts by more than 50 percent. So far in 2013, Gonzalez has struck out 10.3 percent of the time, which could indicate a significant improvement over his 17.6 percent career rate.

However, the really interesting aspect of his plate-discipline numbers is what happens when he is more discerning at the plate, but makes higher contact when he swings. In his heyday with the Padres, Gonzalez had a 47.9 percent swing rate, but that number jumped to over 50 percent between 2011 and 2012. So far this year, his swing rate is back down to 47.9 percent. Meanwhile, his contact rate has increased every season since 2007, sitting at 77.2 percent with the Padres and having jumped up to 81.8 percent in 2011, 83.4 percent in 2012 and 83.7 percent so far in 2013. The intersection of these two skills could prove exciting—and even more so if it’s no coincidence that Gonzalez’s power decline and swing-rate increase happened in tandem.

Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers

Unfortunately, now we’ve moved into the “not-so-promising” portion of the post. Weeks has gotten off to a cold start in 2013, hitting just .204 with one homer and one steal through 12 games. A quick scan of those numbers may lead you to believe he’s just been unlucky on balls in play, but that’s simply not the case. Weeks has struck out in an alarming 33.9 percent of his 56 plate appearances, which is even more concerning when you see that his previous career high in K% was his 25.0 percent mark from last season.

Taking a deeper dive, there are a few troubling numbers that could spell a prolonged lull if they linger. When hitters are in slumps, the most common rate to see take a temporary plunge is their contact rate outside the strike zone, but Weeks’ 64.7 percent figure in this area would be a new career high by a substantial amount. On the other hand, his 71.7 percent contact rate from pitches thrown inside the strike zone is extremely troubling, given that he’s been between 82-86 percent for every season of his career thus far. This leads to other problems, like a 12.2 percent swinging -trike rate, which would also be a career high. It’s not time to start throwing Weeks out with the bathwater, but it is appropriate to put him on downgrade notice.

Drew Stubbs, OF, Indians

This one is a follow-up, as Stubbs was on one of my Five To Watch lists from spring training. There was talk about some statistical regression, which could help his value going forward, and some believed he should get considerable playing time even with the Michael Bourn signing. But the note that I wanted to follow up with once the season started was about a mechanical change he was making. Here’s what I said back in mid-February:

“And, while it still falls under the curiosity category at this point, the stories of Stubbs working on adding a toe tap instead of his high leg kick this winter, in order to reduce strikeouts, are encouraging. Of course, if I had a dollar for every one of those stories that actually led to on-field success, I’d want to cash them in for hundreds.”

Checking back in on Stubbs after a small April sample, I’m not particularly impressed with how things are going. Through his first 44 plate appearances, Stubbs has a 36.4 percent strikeout rate, which would be more than five percentage points higher than his previous career high. And this is backed by some pretty scary plate discipline metrics: a 65.4 percent contact rate (73.0 percent career), a 69.4 percent contact rate in the strike zone (81.2 percent career) and a 12.0 percent swinging-strike rate (11.2 percent career). Of course, he has had fewer plate appearances than any of the other players on this list, but this just has the stink of an experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bret's other articles. You can contact Bret by clicking here

Related Content:  Plate Discipline

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