Thursday, January 3, 2013

2012 Statistical Trends: Curtis Granderson's Strikeouts

(An all too common occurrence.  Courtesy of Ron Antonelli/Daily News)

It's been a bit of a roller coaster experience for Curtis Granderson since joining the Yankees before the 2010 season.  What started off as high levels of excitement and anticipation about acquiring an All Star-caliber player in his prime quickly turned to disappointment based on underwhelming performance, then right back to excitement after a big rebound year in 2011.  C-Grand set the bar high for himself in 2012, and made plenty of comments prior to the season about wanting to exceed that bar and taking the necessary steps to do so.

Unfortunately the season didn't play out that way, as Granderson's numbers across the board took a big hit from their 2011 levels and dropped down to, and in some cases below, the levels from his disappointing 2010.  At the forefront of this regression was a jump in C-Grand's strikeouts, which reached a career worst and Yankee all-time record in 2012, and hastened his transition from a well-rounded offensive threat to an extreme Three True Outcomes hitter.

As I mentioned, C-Grand's strikeout numbers in 2012 were not pretty.  A 28.5% K rate and 195 total strikeouts are never numbers you want to see from a major run producer in your lineup, even if he's putting up power numbers like Curtis did, and represented the third straight year of increased Ks since Curtis put on a Yankee uniform.  Even more troubling than the totals is the fact that his monthly K splits trended upward as the season went on, from the mid-20s in the first half of the year to 34.0% in July, 27.9% in August, and 31.6% in September/October.  Add in 16 strikeouts in 33 postseason plate appearances and something was not only wrong but getting worse with Curtis' swing and/or approach as the season progressed.

Granderson pledged to work on his swing and approach after 2011 to further tighten up his new mechanics.  Whatever work Curtis did do before 2012 didn't return any dividends, as he experienced major shifts in both his PITCHf/x Swing and Contact rates, with the swing rates going up across the board while the contact rates went down.  Of particular concern were the big drop-offs in Z-Contact (80.9%, down from a career average in the high 80s) and Contact (71.9%, down from a career average in the high 70s).  When paired with Curtis' 11.8% Swinging Strike rate, his highest since 2006, and the resulting career low .260 BABIP, it's clear that he was swinging and missing at too many pitches in 2012.

Checking the PITCHf/x Pitch Value ratings for Granderson in 2012, the general theme was that he was most productive against fastballs, especially the 4-seamer, and less effective against offspeed pitches, registering at below-average against the curveball and changeup and just average against the slider.  According to Texas Leaguers, those 3 pitches made up 41.7% of all the pitches C-Grand saw this past season, and not surprisingly he registered his 3 highest Whiff rates on those 3 pitches (12.3% vs. the curve, 16.9% vs. the change, and 18.0% vs. the slider).  Curtis has always had the tendency of chasing pitches out of the zone, but that tendency appears to be increasing with his new swing and appears to be something opposing pitchers have picked up on.

That overall swinging strike plot for the season shows a general tendency for pitchers to throw the slider in the lower half of the strike zone, with a noticeable tendency for it to be out of the strike zone and a strong tendency to be on the outside corner to the lefty-swinging Granderson.  The plot and location tendencies tighten up even more on the changeup:

The book on C-Grand now is that you can get him to chase low and away, and based on these pitch location plots it doesn't seem as though Curtis is doing anything to counter that.  Sure, some of these pitches were put in play and a few of them even went over the fence, but based on his overall whiff rates and previously-mentioned contact and K rates, more of them are being hacked at and missed.  Even more unsettling is the trend that Curtis' swing-and-miss rates on these offspeed pitches as the season progressed, which mirrored the upward trend of his overall K rate.  Pitchers made the adjustment to throw Curtis more pitches down and away, especially with 2 strikes, and Curtis never made an adjustment to that strategy to lay off those pitches and take them for balls.
Not to pile on, but these trends were all magnified against left-handed pitching.  After making great strides against southpaws in 2011, C-Grand put up a ghastly 32.0% K rate against them in 247 PA in 2012.  His 14 HR against them were valuable, but the lack of other offensive contributions against lefties was as noticeable as Curtis' flat out inability to not swing and miss at a slider:
I don't care who you are, that's just ugly.  Curtis saw 249 sliders from left-handed pitchers in 2012, swung at 41.8% of them, and missed 21.3%.  And based on that swing plot, the overwhelming majority of those pitches were not good pitches to hit.  Most of them weren't even close.  When you're missing more than half the pitches you're swinging at, in any scenario, that's no bueno.  And based on that plot it's pretty easy to see why Curtis was missing.  What's not easy is trying to figure out why he kept swinging.
I know it seems like I've done a complete 180 on Curtis in the last year, but that's not entirely the case.  His 43 HR were incredibly valuable and wildly impressive this season, especially considering all the pitches he swung at and missed.  And even in a new statistical age, driving in and scoring over 100 runs for a second consecutive season is nothing to be ashamed of.  The problem is that Curtis' shift to a heavy TTO hitter this season did result in an overall decrease in his offensive value, and when paired with his declining defensive ratings resulted in a sub-3.0 fWAR season for the first time since the Yankees traded for him and only the second time in his career.  The plain fact of the matter is that Curtis' increasing strikeouts are hindering his offensive output potential, and a continuation of his free-swinging ways should lead to further decline as he starts to lose bat speed.
It's almost a sure thing that the Yankees aren't going to bring him back after the 2013 season, but if he doesn't want to cost himself free agent dollars on the open market it would really help Curtis to shore up his approach and be more selective at the plate.
(Stats and splits courtesy of Texas Leaguers and FanGraphs.  Strike plots also courtesy of TL)

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