One Dodgers rookie stopped swinging because he had to. Data says more MLB hitters should follow suit
PHOENIX. Miguel Vargas, a 23-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers rookie who is expected to take a berth at second base, has reached base in one-third of his 15 spring practice games. Okay, great, that .333 on-base percentage would have been well above the regular season average last season. It gets more (or less?) impressive when you find out that Vargas couldn’t and didn’t rock in his first 11 cymbal outings. And everyone knew it.
After hitting .300 or better in his last two minor league campaigns and jumping from High-A to Major, the Dodgers aren’t really worried about Vargas’ bat as he steps into a day to day role. More concerned about the defense because they are asking him to move to second base after he has played overwhelmingly at third going up the system. So when Vargas broke his little finger in early spring, the Dodgers decided that he would play to gain experience but refrain from swinging until his finger healed.
Meanwhile, Vargas said he was playing around with the physical solution in his mind. He looked for fields in certain places where he would or would not like to pull the trigger under normal circumstances. Having accumulated just 50 plate appearances for his cup of coffee in 2022 with a major league team, he still has a lot to learn.
“I’m dating a lot of guys that I’ll probably see in the regular season,” Vargas said. “Starting running into them during spring training is a great opportunity to get an idea of what they’re doing.”
By mentally cataloging pitchers’ smashing and tendencies, he triggered synapses that determined whether he would try to tie a line to the opposite field or turn on the ball for power without simply tensing his muscles.
“That’s what I’m focused on when I go there,” Vargas said Wednesday, recalling his statue-in-a-box days. “What is my approach to this pitcher?”
When he finally landed his first hit on Thursday, he connected, working off the double rule of his first hit and the fifth time he hit base. Four times pitchers have beaten Vargas even though they (presumably) knew he wasn’t going to pitch..
Sounds like a farce. And in many ways it is, but it unites adventures New York Mets pitcher Robert Gsellman, who was also banned from swinging in 2016, albeit less publicly, is in the annals of extreme examples that draw attention to the Openchinel’s analytical secret. One that, if taken care of, will fundamentally change the look of baseball: hitters might be better off swinging much, much less than they do now.
Hey dough dough! Take it, dough dough!
The latest research encouraging hitters to watch the field go by comes from Drew Haugen, an analyst at Down on the Farm. who set out to quantify wavering decisions. Traditionally, cymbal discipline has been measured in direct comparison to the strike zone. The speed of the chase tells us that Juan Soto only swung 19.9% of the fields he saw over the size of the zone, fields that should be balls, the best (lowest) in MLB. The speed of the zone swing tells us that Kyle Tucker, the star of the Houston Astros, is attacking fields that are 84% of the time in the lead in Major League Baseball.
However, not all potential strikes are the same. In fact, many of them are best left alone. With more detailed information about these results, Haugen created a swing decision run value (SwRV) to quantify this fundamental decision. While it shed light on a lot of interesting things about MLB hitters, it also turned out to be another big, flashy sign of how hitters, who have consistently fallen behind the eight in the recent evolution of the sport, can get some power back.
“Using SwRV data, only 33% of pitches had a higher context-independent expected swing mileage value compared to a double, while in reality the league swing ratio was much higher at 48%,” writes Haugen. “Even on the fields in the zone, you should not swing, because the called blow is not as harmful as a weak batted ball. Only 64% of pitches in the zone have a higher expected value on a swing than a pitch (again, regardless of context).
“Even with corners in the zone, it’s unlikely to hit the ball,” Haugen told Sportzshala Sports.
His analysis found that backswings on these fields in the zone “resulted in blows 17.8% of the time, foul balls 40.1% of the time, field trips 28.3% of the time, and base shots just 13.8% of the time.” % of cases.
When you start thinking about it, it makes more and more sense. They can be the pitcher’s pitches too hard to really do damage, even if they’re in the zone. They are very likely to cause a popup (automatic out) or a weak ground (something close to that).
Context-neutral is the key point here. Obviously, a walk doesn’t mean much when a player is in second place and two outs are in a tie. And not aiming for a 2-2 strike is not the best option. However, in the overall scheme of baseball strategy, the lessons from these numbers apply, and they are not new lessons.
Just last year, Ino Sarris took a deep dive into this subject, and Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball opined more bluntly: “Hitters shouldn’t swing.”
Obviously he didn’t mean it completely. If the attacker really dedicated himself to silence, this would be noticed and exploited. Kansas City Royals starter Zack Greinke, a wily future Hall of Famer, came closest to breaking the farce against Vargas by pumping fastballs down the center at a speed well below his typical speed.
In the last decade, only one qualified hitter has registered a swing ratio of 33% or lower, Matt Carpenter in 2014. He managed to run .375 percent on base despite minimal strength. Only 11 other seasons have seen this below 36%, with Juan Soto and Joe Mauer doing it twice each. However, applying this on a larger scale would require attackers with less discerning eye and less innate intimidation to deliberately throw their bats over their shoulders.
What will happen next is hard to say. Haugen cited Soto and Miles Straw, a small fielder for the Cleveland Guardians, as examples of how difficult it is to paint with a wide brush. Both are extremely patient, but pitchers understandably treat them differently. They avoid the zone against Soto, even though he will probably take the balls and reach the base, because he is very dangerous when he swings. On the other hand, Stroh has played more fields in the zone in 2022 than any other hitter in baseball.
“But if the league as a whole reduces the swing rate by about 3-4%,” Haugen said, “the performance of hitters will increase,” even if pitchers don’t start throwing a much larger proportion of their pitches into the strike zone. .
The question is how this production will look like.
Optimized for winnings and fun
While Vargas’ walks were interesting as a novelty, playing with significantly fewer strikes could get boring very quickly. Maybe Soto, with his signature shuffling, will entertain the audience without buildup. But in most cases this is not true.
Anyone watching the game in 2023 will reckon with this underlying tension between best practices and the best TV product. Major League Baseball’s new rules—mostly pitching timer and infield offset limits—are a reaction to massive game changes that were reasonable for each team, but cumulatively lower the rankings for the sport.
As Sarris pointed out, recalibrating a hypothetical swing migration would be significantly more difficult. Putting a baseball on a watch is one thing; deciding that it is no longerone, two, three hits, you’re out.” most likely the bridge is too far away. Thankfully, this remains very hypothetical, despite numerous studies that suggest it may produce better results for hitters.
MLB batters in 2022 actually swung more often than they did in the previous 20 years. The last time forwards swung more frequently on fields in the zone was in 2002, the first swing data to appear on FanGraphs. If you dig deeper into these trends, the logic behind the work becomes pretty clear. Faced with more and more diabolical offers from pitchers’ ever-improving arsenals, hitters simply decided they needed more punches to really hit one.
Using Baseball Savant’s more detailed classification of the “heart” of the zone – the fields in the middle – we can see that these no doubt center fields cause more swings than since field tracking began in 2008.
However, they also create more odors despite their seemingly hit-and-miss location.
This is an enhanced modern field design movement in action. Yes, it might be better for a hitter to take a high fastball because a deeper count could force the pitcher to drop the ball lower or just give him another opportunity to make a mistake. But if you’re standing in a box facing, say, Spencer Strider, how sure are you that you will put good wood on this? How confident are you that he will offer another fastball?
This psychological dance still defeats the theoretically optimal passive aggression. Maybe it will always be like this. But, as Vargas learned this month, the same nasty things that keep hitters busy in the box also keep pitchers on the edge between control and out of control.
“Baseball is tough,” Vargas said. “For both hitters and pitchers.”