May 23, 2013
Munenori Kawasaki Tries to Survive
Last season, according to Baseball Prospectus 2013, Munenori Kawasaki was “unspeakably bad.” I’ll speak a bit about how bad he was anyway: Kawasaki hit .192/.257/.202. He had one extra-base hit (a double) in 115 plate appearances. And he was released by the Mariners, a team whose shortstops were hitting .160/.233/.188 this season heading into Wednesday night.
Kawasaki’s .187 TAv in 2012 was the 16th lowest of anyone with at least 100 plate appearances. You can’t be that bad and keep playing; most of the 15 hitters who finished with lower TAvs have since retired or been busted back to the minors. Clearly, what Kawasaki was doing wasn’t working. So this season, he’s done something different.
The average batter last season swung at 46 percent of the pitches he saw. Kawasaki swung at 48.1 percent. He hit .455 in his first trip to big-league spring training, and for a while, every swing must have seemed like a chance to make the Mariners happy and his idol, Ichiro, proud. But once the regular season started, it became clear that when Kawasaki swung, the results stunk. So he developed an adaptive avoidance response, much like you or I might after being burned by a hot stove or eating something that makes us sick. If swinging led to putting the ball in play, and putting the ball in play almost always led to an out, then the solution was simple: stop swinging.
Here’s a list of the hitters whose swing rates—one of the quickest stats to stabilize—have declined the most relative to 2012 (min. 400 pitches in each season).
Going into last night’s game, Kawasaki’s 37.5 percent swing rate was the 12th lowest in baseball. His 18.5 percent swing rate on pitches outside of the strike zone ranked seventh-lowest. And he was hitting .237/.351/.303, which translated to a .249 TAv. AL shortstops, as a group, had managed a .247 TAv. As strange as Kawasaki’s line looked, his new, ultra-passive approach was working, in a way.
But Kawasaki’s adequate production depended almost entirely on the respectable OBP bookended by his other microscopic slash stats. And he owed that OBP almost entirely to the extra walks he’d earned by not swinging. Before last night, Kawasaki had walked in 14.9 percent of his plate appearances, more than twice as often as he did last season. That rate was one of the top 20 in baseball, a near match for those of Prince Fielder (.238 ISO), David Wright (.203 ISO), and Carlos Santana (.246 ISO). And that’s where all of this stops adding up.
There’s a strong negative correlation between power and percentage of pitches seen inside the strike zone. The more capable you are of punishing pitchers, the more they’ll avoid throwing you pitches over the plate (and vice versa). Kawasaki has yet to hit a fly ball anywhere close to a warning track, so pitchers aren’t at all afraid of him. And in the absence of intimidation, not swinging gets you only so far. We’ve seen similarly ultra-selective hitters succeed before—Luis Castillo and Brett Gardner come to mind—but neither was (or is) nearly as bad with the bat as Kawasaki has been.
Pitchers won’t continue to walk an extreme slap hitter who rarely swings as often as they do respected sluggers. Instead, they’ll make their own adjustment and throw even more pitches inside the zone, forcing Kawasaki to put the ball in play or strike out looking. At this point, Kawasaki isn’t much more intimidating than the typical pitcher at the plate. Some pitchers see well over 60 percent strikes, so there's room for his zone rate to rise.
Look at the names above Kawasaki’s on the zone rate leaderboard from last season. Chone Figgins. Omar Vizquel. Mike Nickeas. Tyler Pastornicky. Seeing that many pitches inside the zone is often a sign that a hitter isn’t long for the league. The same goes for Kawasaki. His descending swing rate has temporarily reduced the symptoms of a complete lack of power, but it’s done nothing to address the real problem.
Which is sort of a shame, since Kawasaki is really fun to have around (especially if you don’t have to root for Toronto). Gather ye GIFs while ye may.