Note: There’s a lot more to this that will be rolling in as the weeks progress. I concentrated on pitch counts here but pitch recognition is big part of what I address in the following column as well. I’m working on it.
Let’s consider these two things: 1. Major League Baseball as currently constructed has the most thorough and arduous culling process of all the major sports. It’s rare that a teenager or a player in his early 20’s becomes a consistent and reliable contributor for his team. There’s a mountain of developmental hurdles in each players’ path as they climb the minors en route to the show. There are bad major leaguers but there are no bad baseball players at the highest level. 2. As an extension of 1, the average major league hitter can hit the baseball hard under the right circumstances.
Starlin Castro is having a bounce back season at the age of 24. As of writing he has a .285/.334/.430 slash line and is on pace to set a career high in walks later this month. In the eye test he also appears to be hitting the ball with more authority as he’s been driving the ball into the gaps with more regularity.
On the surface Anthony Rizzo had a poor season in 2013. He slashed .233/.323/.419 and he struggled mightily against LHP to the tune of a .182 average and a .625 OPS. He’s turned that around in 2014. Rizzo has emerged as one of the best hitters in the National League, punishing rigties and lefties alike (he’s slashing .309/.411/.528 against lefties this year) en route to an All Star selection.
Like the average major leaguer both hitters have the ability to hit the ball hard. Rizzo has more power in his game but Castro can put a charge into the ball as well. Both players have seen an increase in their line drive percentage this year but that begs a few different questions I will attempt to answer here.
The culling process I described in the first paragraph doesn’t ever stop. Major League pitching will constantly adjust to a hitter’s approach in an attempt to exploit any kind of weakness a player has. The scouting is much better at the highest level as well so pitchers will find what hitters do poorly. The end game becomes one about execution. It’s one thing to know what sequence will work, it’s another one to execute it consistently.
This type of adjustment works both ways, so when a young player readjusts to what the league is doing to them it’s something to be excited about. Let’s focus on Rizzo here first since his readjustment has been the easiest to see with the naked eye.
If I were to ask you what Rizzo is doing differently in 2014 the likely answer most people would come up with is an ability to hit left handed pitching. That’s a big part of it, but let’s focus in on the how. In 2013 Rizzo had a plate appearance end after a 1-1 count 64 times. He hit .172 with a .250 SLG in those plate appearances.
Here is where pitchers attacked Rizzo in 2013:
So far in 2014 Rizzo has seen a plate appearance end on a 1-1 count 37 times. He’s hitting .250 with a .444 SLG in those plate appearances. Here is where pitchers are attacking Rizzo in 2014:
In 2013 pitchers were comfortable attacking Rizzo inside and out. There was a skew down and away from Rizzo but pitchers felt comfortable busting him inside as well. The main difference in the zone profiles is what Rizzo is swinging at.
Let’s compare those zone charts again, but let’s look at swing rate. Here’s 2013:
Rizzo has a specific spot away from his inner half that he was fond of in 2013, but what’s more interesting are the inside pitches that he swung at. Of the 41 pitches Rizzo saw in off the plate in 1-1 counts Rizzo swung at 22 of them. Let’s take a look at 2014:
We have anecdotal and statistical evidence that documents how Rizzo has scooted closer to the plate. Rizzo has been hit by 12 pitches in 2014 which is double his career high of 6 that he set last year. If we expand out our zone profile and look at the pitches Rizzo swings at we see another marked difference. Here he is in 2013:
And here he is in 2014:
Pitchers are weary of pitching Rizzo in for fear of hitting him. You can see a marked difference high and tight where Rizzo has drastically cut down on the pitches he's swinging at that are off the plate. It’s shrunk the zone in a tangible way, enabling Rizzo to key in on specific parts of the zone and simplifying the decision making process when at bat. This magnifies itself in the 1-1 count where the complexion of an at bat can dramatically change with one pitch. The end results have been stark. Rizzo is hitting .282/.380/.508 after 1-1 counts in 2014. Compare that to the .216/.296/.376 line he put up after 1-1 counts in 2013 and there’s a big time difference for his improvement.
Castro’s case is a bit different. He was an experiment in player development in 2013 as the Cubs tried to alter Castro’s approach to increase his walks workload. It had disastrous results. We can hypothesize that Castro was more passive at the plate in 2013 and has gained selective aggressiveness in 2014.
If we look at his 2013 season by pitch count data and contrast that to his 2014 season it’s difficult to pick up where he’s made improvements. The line that jumped at me the most, however, was what he’s done in counts that have zero balls.
In 2013 Castro hit .241/.256/.337 in 204 plate appearances that ended with zero balls. In 2014 his slash is .350/.359/.531 in 145 plate appearances. Castro is particularly handling 0-2 counts better; in 2013 Castro hit .116 in 69 Plate Appearances in 0-2 counts. In 2014 he’s hitting .231 with a .410 SLG in 40 plate appearances in 0-2 counts
Castro has made an adjustment on pitches down and away from him and it’s starker than Rizzo’s. In 2013 Castro was vulnerable to low and outside pitches. Here’s what he did low and away in 2013:
And here’s what he’s doing low and away in 2014.
It’s not a good zone for him, it’s clearly the hole in his plate coverage and it still exists today. The difference now is that he’s not swinging at the junke away from his happy zone. Here’s Castro’s swing tendencies (with zero balls) in 2013:
You’ll notice a bloc of 25%+ numbers down and away, particularly in the areas where he hit .217, .091, and .119 in 2013 respectively. Here’s his swing tendencies in zero ball counts in 2014.
Castro is still swing prone in the sector just below the strike zone away but the 25% and 30% swing rates down and away from 2013 are replaced by 6% and 10% swing rates. Essentially Castro has become more selective this year, specifically in counts where he is working with zero balls.
Selectivity can manifest itself in many different ways, it doesn’t always boil down to walks. It would appear that Castro has an improved understanding of not just the strikezone, but his personal hitting zone and is refining his approach to mitigate what pitchers are trying to do to him. To return to the original hypothesis, it’s not fair to say Castro has been more aggressive in this counts, perhaps the way to phrase this is that Castro has replaced passiveness with selectivity.
Hard hit ball data provides us a quick reference tool for which we can say x is happening with this degree of regularity. Perhaps from here on out we should shift our focus to what players are doing to get into favorable situations. Again, given the right circumstances major league hitters (with rare exception) can hit the ball very hard; it’s part of the culling process. Castro can do it and Rizzo can do it. The key differences for both of them in 2014 has been pitch selectivity.