October 04, 2010

The age old question ...

When the Toronto Blue Jays exceed my expectations -- I had them good for 82 wins -- you know they've had a successful season. Just like that, the offseason is upon us, but what a season it was. I could go on and on: Jose Bautista's meaningful at-bats, and his assault on Toronto's, and baseball's, record books; the promising development of Toronto's top-four starting pitchers, with Kyle Drabek set to join them in 2011; the triumphant return of Vernon Wells; more, and quite possibly for the last time, yeomen's work from Scott Downs; home run after home run after home run after home run after home run; and, finally, Cito Gaston's farewell.

The polarizing Mike Wilner may have put it best, though:

"It was a tremendously fun year. We got to see one of the greatest games ever pitched, we got to see the greatest offensive season a Blue Jay has ever had, we got to see the greatest major-league debut any hitter has ever had, we got to see the Jays tie one league record with six doubles in an inning and another with six homers in a loss and we got to bite our fingernails as a Blue Jay starting pitcher took a no-hitter into the 7th inning an astounding FIVE times! Heck, we even got to go through the Nick Green era - remember that?"

I don't remember the Nick Green era, which is probably for the best. But Wilner's right: it was definitely a fun summer. And it wasn't supposed to be. That was the best part.

Let's not kid ourselves, though. It wasn't all double rainbows. Aaron Hill and Adam Lind did their best to kill my baseball buzz for six months, and before we look forward, we'll look back.

What comes first: patience at the plate, or confidence at the plate? Does confidence breed patience? Or is it the other way around? Without confidence, is patience in the batter's box impossible? Without patience, is confidence, and success, impossible? What the hell am I talking about here? What I'm trying to figure out is: How do two young, promising hitters go from being so successful to -- for one season at least -- below average Major League hitters?

To FanGraphs, yo. Let's start with Hill, and some of his year-over-year numbers, after he unfathomably spent most of 2010 flirting with the goddamn Mendoza Line.

O-Swing% -- the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone:

2010: 31.3%
2009: 26.5%

A five percent increase in Hill swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. The money stat? Perhaps. 

Z-Swing% -- the percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone:

2010: 72.1%
2009: 74.2%

So, Hill swung at fewer pitches inside the strike zone, and more pitches outside the strike zone, compared to 2009, his breakout season. This season, he looked lost. From the get go. More often than not. These numbers make sense.

Swing% -- the total percentage of pitches a batter swings at:

2010: 50.7%
2009: 51.1%

A negligible difference. Does it come down to confidence, and approach? Swinging at the wrong pitches?

O-Contact% -- the percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown outside the strike zone:

2010: 70.9%
2009: 60.8%

A huge 10% increase here year-over-year. Not only was Hill swinging at more baseballs thrown outside the strike zone, he was hitting more of them. And unless you're Vladimir Guerrero, more often than not, those are outs.

Z-Contact% -- the percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown inside the strike zone:

2010: 90.9%
2009: 91.4%

Again, year-over-year, that's hardly a noteworthy difference. So, is this a good time to bring in baseball's luck factor, and Hill's feeble .196 2010 BABIP? I would think so.

Contact% -- the total percentage of contact made when swinging at all pitches:

2010: 84.5%
2009: 83.8%

Hill's career Contact% average is 84.5%.

Zone% -- the percentage of pitches seen inside the strike zone:

2010: 47.6%
2009: 51.7%

Does a confident and patient hitter take more pitches in the strike zone? I'm so confused.

Let's take at look Hill's left/right splits:

2010 vs. LHP (120 ABs): .125/.226/.225, .124 BABIP, .206 wOBA, 22 wRC+
2009 vs. LHP: (171 ABs): .298/.335/.561, .290 BABIP, .379 wOBA, 134 wRC+

2010 vs. RHP (408 ABs): .228/.285/.444, .217 BABIP, .318 wOBA, 98 wRC+
2009 vs. RHP (511 ABs): .282/.328/.478, .287 BABIP, .348 wOBA, 114 wRC+

Hill didn't have a clue versus left-handed pitching this season, after owning southpaws in 2009. Against right-handed pitching, I don't see why Hill can't be expected to put up his 2009 numbers every year. Slightly above average numbers against RHP, and above average against LHP is what Hill certainly seems capable of.

But, again, luck. Hill's .286 BABIP in 2009 was below average, but 36 home runs certainly helped in putting up a .357 wOBA, and 119 wRC+. This season, as mentioned, Hill's BABIP checked in at a putrid .196. His fly ball rate jumped to 54.2%, compared to 41% in 2009. Yet he still finished with 26 home runs. My question: How do we account for the increased fly ball rate? 

Below is how Hill's season began in 2010. Remember, he hit the disabled list two games into the campaign.

April 2010 (37 ABs): .162/.311/.297, .179 BABIP, .277 wOBA, 90 wRC+
May 2010 (114 ABs): .184/.273/.395, .161 BABIP, .298 wOBA, 85 wRC+

And here are Hill's numbers over the first two months of 2009:

April 2009 (104 ABs): .365/.412/.567, .384 BABIP, .419 wOBA, 161 wRC+
May 2009 (127 ABs): .307/.331/.480, .314 BABIP, .352 wOBA, 116 wRC+

Polar opposite starts to Hill's seasons. In 2009, he could do no wrong, as evidenced by his .384 BABIP. It certainly did even out, and by year's end it was below the league average. So, my question is, how much value do you put into a hot start? After two months of hitting the cover off the ball in April and May 2009, Hill's confidence had to have been sky-high. And after his pathetic, and unlucky, first two months of the 2010 season, Hill probably never felt worse about his hitting prospects. Not to mention the injury.

Did pitchers figure Aaron Hill out? Or was he unable to work through the cobwebs in his own head? How much of a hitter's success at the plate comes from being "locked in"? From a hot start, and not holding the bat too tight, and not trying to do too much? What comes first? Patience or confidence?

Do you know? Are you as confused as I am? Help a brother out.

Either way, we're going to find out next season. Personally, I can't wait. Toronto's first Spring Training game is only five months away.

I'll tackle Adam Lind in another post. My head hurts, yo.

Reuters, via daylife, hooked up the image of one frustrated Aaron Hill.


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Holy crap! I wrote like a thousand word ocmment and stupid Internet Explorer ralphed it with a service not available message. GRRRR

Anyway, I am dumbfounded (let's try this again) by your post. BABIP has always bothered me. If BABIP should be around.300 and anything over or under is either good luck or bad luck, how do you account for Tony Gwynn (for example) who had such a high BABIP his entire career. What he THAT lucky? Conversely, Greg Maddux had a low BABIP against for most of his career. Was he that lucky? Doesn't seem so.

But your post struck a nerve. What if BABIP is influenced by contact outside of the strike zone? What if Austin Jackson's .400 BABIP was helped by his strikeout rate meaning he rarely hit balls out of the strike zone he swung at? So he only hit balls in the zone meaning good contact?

You and I could become famous if we can figure out a new stat called BABIP Zone or something which takes into account contact percentage outside the strike zone! Brilliant! eyeb! You are a genius!

Steve G. said...

@ William - Generally, if I'm remembering Baseball Prospectus correctly, BABIP does tend to float higher for guys with speed, or guys with incredible bat control like Ichiro and Tony Gwynn and Boggs and Brett.

However, I don't really think that Hill would count as one of those guys. I think he bounces back from this year, which wasn't really that valuable despite all the home runs. He also plays second base, so the standard for his bat there is lower than if he was a corner infielder or in the outfield. I'd rather roll the dice again with Hill than putting up with some guy with no chance of having a decent offensive year (the Rey Sanchezs and John MacDonalds of the world).

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Good comeback comment, Steve.

Navin Vaswani (@eyebleaf) said...

William, It's taken me long enough to wrap my head around BABIP, I can't even begin to think about developing a new stat. And I think Steve is right about guys like Ichiro and Boggs; the standard averages don't apply to them. They aren't mere mortals. And I'd agree with Steve again, Hill's definitely not one of those guys.

Steve, you make an interesting point about Hill being a 2Bman. He's told the Jays he's open to a move to 3B.

What I'd really love to do is sit down and talk to Hill, and show him the numbers, and ask him how much weight he puts into a hot start. Did he find himself more patient at the plate in 2009 first, or more confident, first? In 2010, did he feel like he couldn't be patient? Clearly he wasn't confident.

Mattt said...

Great post. If Hill and Lind do return to normal then I'm seriously excited for 2011. Thanks for another great season. I'll keep visiting as this promises to be a fun offseason as well.

Navin Vaswani (@eyebleaf) said...

Mattt, if Lind and Hill return to form, Wells and Bautista will likely shit the bed. That's just the way it goes around here.

And, no, thank you for always stopping by and commenting. It's most appreciated.