Archive for May, 2010

The Braves’ Leadoff Situation

I decided to do a little research after watching the Braves lose to the Mets last night in a game in which the Braves’ offense had a) four extra-base hits to the Mets’ two; b) four singles to the Mets’ three; c) four walks to the Mets’ three; and d) five strikeouts to the Mets’ seven.  After grounding into three more double plays, the Braves are now second in the Majors in GIDP with 36 on the year.  One of the culprits was Yunel Escobar, who I seem to recall GIDP-ing an awful lot.  So I looked into it.

I was right.  After I read that Escobar grounded into 21 double plays in 2009 and 24 in 2008, which was the highest total in the N.L. for those two years, I decided to examine the batted ball data on Fangraphs, and my findings were telling (click on the link and then click on GB% to sort by that).  In 2009 Yunel was one of the most prolific groundball hitters in all of baseball.  More than 50% of his balls in play were on the ground, good for 23rd in all of MLB.  And he hit the ball on the ground at an even higher rate in 2008.

Here’s the interesting thing: If you look at the folks ahead of him on this list, every single one of them are top-of-the-order hitters for their teams.  In fact most of them are leadoff men.  It makes sense for Scott PodsednikJacoby Ellsbury, Michael BournElvis AndrusDenard Span, Emilio Bonifacio, or Carl Crawford to hit the ball on the ground because of their speed.  Not only are they attempting to get infield hits, but also if there is a man on base in front of them, there’s very little danger in them grounding into a double play.  Bonifacio, for example, only grounded into 5 DP’s all year last year in 509 plate appearances, despite a high GB%.  But Yunel Escobar is no burner, and he’s also batting with men on base a whole lot more than those guys due to his position in the batting order.

Yunel has been very successful at the plate the last two years (especially last year), and he may yet improve in his age 27 season.  There’s no need to try to change his swing or his approach at the plate just because of the GIDPs.  That kind of tinkering is almost always counter-productive.  OK, so he hits a ton of groundballs and gets on base a lot, without much power.  Perfect, let’s hit him leadoff!  Those are precisely the qualities we look for in a leadoff man.  If he repeats his .377 OBP from last year while grounding into 25 DP’s and hitting in the 6 or 7 hole in the lineup, it’s such a total waste.  The kid has major on-base skills, but not run-producer skills (career slugging%: .416).  So, he should hit at the top of the lineup where he’ll get more plate appearances, where him getting on base is a bigger asset, and where he’s less likely to bat with as many runners on base and thus less likely to GIDP.  It’s a win-win-win.

If that isn’t a strong enough case to move Escobar up in the batting order in Atlanta, then add this: Nate McLouth has hit .237/.342/.386 in 514 plate appearances as a Brave.  And Jordan Schafer, who is the long-term solution in center field for Atlanta barring a major trade, is currently regaining his form in AAA as he comes back from wrist surgery, and isn’t ready to play every day in the big leagues, much less to hit leadoff.  Regardless of what the Braves do with CF as the year goes on, it doesn’t appear that their CF will be their leadoff man.  So based on that and the aforementioned batted ball data, why not try their shortstop?

Nick Markakis’ Lack Of Power

Nick Markakis has just two home runs thus far this season, and is on pace to hit just 9 on the year. I think it’s relatively clear now that Nick isn’t really a power hitter – he’ll get his share of homers but is more of a doubles hitter who is content taking outside pitches to left-field. “His share” though, has been quite low in 2010. I’m not saying I’m worried yet – the season is long and the ZiPS updated projections still has him finishing with 17 homers (only one less than last year) – but it is a bit curious.

One of the more obvious aspects of home run hitting is that it’s much easier when you pull the ball. Here’s a nice graph from an article by Mike Fast at The Hardball Times:

So where is Nick hitting the ball? Here’s all balls in play by year and field:

2006 31.4% 34.0% 34.7%
2007 33.6% 38.0% 28.4%
2008 29.4% 36.4% 34.2%
2009 32.3% 32.1% 35.6%
2010 31.6% 46.2% 22.2%

He’s always been a guy who uses the whole field, but so far this year he’s not turning on as many pitches. And just the flyballs:

2006 46.0% 34.7% 19.4%
2007 46.7% 35.7% 17.6%
2008 47.2% 37.7% 15.1%
2009 41.8% 33.3% 24.9%
2010 37.5% 50.0% 12.5%

Last year Nick hit a much higher proportion of flyballs to right-field, which helps explain why almost all of his home runs (14 of 18) were to right. This year, not only is Markakis not pulling flyballs but he’s also not hitting as many to the opposite field. Center-field is the deepest part of any park, and a full half of Nick’s flyballs are going out there. No wonder they’re not finding seats.

I’m not really sure why that’s happening – likely mostly normal variation – but Nick is getting a lot more fastballs and he’s done a pretty terrible job of getting around on that the pitch so far.

Compare these three spray charts on fastballs going back the last three years (courtesy of Texas Leaguers):




Right-field on that last one is pretty barren. I thought that maybe Nick hasn’t been able to catch up to a good fastball, but his contact rate against heaters at 94 mph or above has actually gone up the last three years; from 71% to 85% to 93%. Perhaps he’s more content to just make contact than to try to drive the ball. The spray charts for all pitches tell a similar tail; not all that many balls being driven to the “warning track”, or to right-field.

Nick’s 5% HR/FB rate is well below his career mark of 10.6%, as well as last year’s career low of 8.6%. I’m not might sure exactly how much we can expect that rate to go up this season, but I do think it’s clear that if Markakis doesn’t start pulling the ball in the air at least a little more often his power numbers won’t be particularly impressive at the end of the year.

FanGraphs Community Blog

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