Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Analyzing The Yankees' Early Contact Rates

With the regular season still just three weeks old, offensive sample sizes are still too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.  For a player like Robinson Cano, we can safely assume that his hot start isn't due to BABIP luck and that he'll continue to rake moving forward, but for guys like Lyle Overbay, Francisco Cervelli, and Vernon Wells those assumptions aren't as concrete.  Their tripleslashs right now paint a positive picture, but a more accurate representation of how good they've been can be found in their early contact rates.  Regardless of sample size, contact rates tell the real, simple story of just how well a player is swinging the bat at any given time, regardless of whether those swings result in hits and RBI.  What do the contact rates for some of the Yankee hitters through the first three weeks of the season tell us about them?  Good question.

Cano- 24.6% LD, 50.8% GB, 24.6% FB in 82 PA

As great as Robbie has been early on, this contact split suggests he could be even better.  His LD rate is right in line with where he was last year and over his career average of 20.5%, but his GB rate is a bit higher than we've seen from him in the past few years and his FB rate is well below his career average of 31.1%.  Cano hasn't gotten a ton of balls in the air by his standards, but he's made the most out of the ones he has with his 6 HR.  In his efforts to hit the ball the other way with more authority, Robbie has sacrificed some of his solid contact to the pull side.  That should start to even out and help him continue his hot start as pitchers re-adjust to a more balanced pitching approach against him.

Cervelli- 30.8% LD, 28.2% GB, 41.0% FB in 54 PA

Frankie is smacking the crap out of the ball and he's doing it at a rate well over where his career averages sit.  His career LD rate is 20.2%, and that's factoring in this season's above-average rate, while his career GB rate is over 45%.  History suggests that we'll see Frankie's splits start to come back to their averages, as he's never been know to be a hitter capable of stinging the ball like this.  His healthy BB rate and .297 BABIP, on the other hand, suggest that there's still opportunity for Cervelli to be productive offensively even as his LD rate comes down.

Travis Hafner- 24.2% LD, 30.3% GB, 45.5% FB in 55 PA

Nothing to see here.  Just Travis Hafner doing Travis Hafner stuff circa 2005-2006, the two best years of his career.  Both Hafner's GB and FB rates are out of whack with his career averages, and his spotty injury history alone would be reason to expect them to normalize out in addition to a decrease in line drives as his body starts to ache and break down.  But there's something to be said for a veteran like Hafner with a good hitting eye making an adjustment to playing in a park that suits his power swing, and Hafner's improved plate coverage gives reason to expect that he can maintain a contact split similar to this current one as long as he stays healthy.

Ichiro Suzuki- 14.6% LD, 54.2% GB, 31.3% FB in 61 PA

It's been an ugly start for Ichiro, and his contact splits make it easy to see why.  He's hitting groundballs at about the same clip he always has (55.6% career), but he's taken a big dip in line drives and supplemented it with more balls in the air, an ugly 20.0% of which have been infield flies.  While Ichiro's BABIP is criminally low at .208, his weak LD rate makes it difficult to say that BABIP is misleading.  It's also difficult to say definitively if his slow start is attributable to bad luck or diminished skill/bat speed, but a quick check of his spray chart, low Z-swing rate (53.9%), and career worst 7.0% SwStr rate certainly makes it look like he's off on his approach at the plate.

Wells- 16.1% LD, 37.5% GB, 46.4% FB in 75 PA

Wells' contact case might be the most interesting of all.  His current split isn't that far off from his career breakdown (17.9% LD, 41.3% GB, 40.8% FB), his LD rate isn't significantly better than any rate he's posted in the previous four years, his BABIP, while higher than it's been in the recent past, is perfectly average at .294, and yet Wells has been hands down one of the most productive offensive players on the team.  That's not to say Wells is automatically doomed to turn back into the replacement-level pumpkin he's been the last two years.  The reported changes to his swing have resulted in better contact to all fields, and if he can maintain his early patience and improved selectivity at the plate there's reason to expect he can continue to produce.

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