Wednesday, June 3, 2015

J-Hay, Rejuvenated

I've written a lot about Andrew McCutchen's slow start this year. And, as I've noted, he turned things around in May:
April 72 12 14 2 1 2 13 0 1 9 15 .194 .302 .333 .636 81
May 106 16 35 10 0 5 17 3 1 14 15 .330 .419 .566 .985 175

(Recall that OPS+ is on base plus slugging, adjusted for ballpark, scaled to 100. So McCutchen's OPS+ of 81 in April means he was 19% worse than the league average, while his 175 in May means he was 75% better.)

I haven't obsessed as much about his teammate, Josh Harrison, who had an even worse April, as measured by OPS:
April 80 11 17 6 0 2 5 0 1 2 16 .213 .250 .363 .613 72
May 102 15 31 7 0 2 13 4 2 4 11 .304 .333 .431 .765 114

It's hard to get as alarmed about a bad month from Josh Harrison as a bad month from McCutchen. McCutchen is one of the game's top players, arguably the best all-around talent in the National League, finishing in the top three in the MVP vote each of the past three seasons. The Pirates are paying him $10 million this year, a contract widely viewed as one of the greatest bargains in baseball, to be their fixture in center field.

Harrison, by contrast, was, until last year, a utility player, bouncing between the majors and minors, never coming close to a minimal on base percentage of .300. Then, last year, he suddenly became one of the team's top hitters. Here's his career batting record, through last season:
2011 65 195 21 53 13 2 1 16 4 1 3 24 .272 .281 .374 .656 83
2012 104 249 34 58 9 5 3 16 7 3 10 37 .233 .279 .345 .624 73
2013 60 88 10 22 1 2 3 14 2 0 2 10 .250 .290 .409 .699 96
2014  143 520 77 164 38 7 13 52 18 7 22 81 .315 .347 .490 .837 132
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 6/2/2015.

He signed a contract in April that pays him $2.8 million this year, rising to $10.25 million in 2018 and, at the Pirates' option, $10.5 million in 2019 and $11.5 million in 2020. The contract is viewed as a risk on the Pirates' part, given his lack of performance until 2014.

So, what's going on with Harrison this year? Did he just have a bad April, or is there something going on that's new? I'll try to answer that by answering three other questions.

1. Is he being pitched differently?

For purposes of these analyses, I'm going to look at three periods: Harrison's breakout 2014, April 2015, and May 2015.

First, repertoire: Have pitchers discovered certain pitches are more or less effective against Harrison, resulting in a change in the pitches he's seen?

Four-seam Two-seam Slider Curve Change Cutter Other
2014 36% 20% 17% 10% 8% 8% 2%
April 15 32% 21% 21% 8% 10% 7% 0%
May 15 38% 19% 19% 8% 8% 8% 1%

I wouldn't read much into what we're seeing here. Compared to 2014, he's seeing a few more sliders, and does struggle against the pitch, whiffing on 17% of the sliders he faced in 2014 and 18% in April and May this year, slugging just .330 when he made contact in 2014 and .323 in April and May this year. But we're not talking big numbers: the increase from 17% sliders in 2014 to 21% in April is equal to 12 pitches, or fewer than one per game. Yes, there's a weakness, but pitchers aren't exploiting it a lot.

How about where they're pitching him? The next table is going to show where pitches to Harrison went. Some definitions: In Zone means in the strike zone, Out Zone means outside the strike zone. Inside means any pitch, strike or ball, on the inner third of the plate, while Outside is the outer third of the plate. Similarly, Low means a pitch in the lower third of Harrison's strike zone or below, and High is a pitch in or above the upper third of his strike zone or above.

In Zone Out Zone Inside Outside Low High
2014 41% 59% 30% 47% 47% 28%
April 15 41% 59% 33% 57% 48% 26%
May 15 39% 61% 28% 49% 42% 32%

The book on Harrison, as you can see, is down and away - the plurality of the pitches he sees are outside and low. Pitchers are throwing more pitches to him outside the strike zone than they did in 2014.

2. Is he swinging differently?

Harrison's a free swinger. In 2014, he swung at 52% of the pitches he saw: 66% of the pitches in the strike zone and 38% of pitches outside the zone. The major league averages last year were 46%, 63%, and 30%, respectively. He gets away with it because he's good at making contact. Last year he whiffed on 13% of his swings in the strike zone, the same as the league average. He missed on 30% of this swings outside the zone, well below the league average of 37%. This year, he's been even better, whiffing on just 12% of pitches in the strike zone and 26% outside the zone. He struck out in 15% of his plate appearances last year; that's dropped to 13% this year. So if anything, he appears to be more disciplined this year.

But during April, he whiffed on 29% of his swings outside the the strike zone. That's dropped to 22% in May. That's a key difference. You know how I said the strategy with Harrison is to pitch low and away?  In May, he whiffed on 36% of swings outside the strike zone low and outside, a big improvement from 45% in April. He's curbed his aggressiveness, and that's helped. 

3. Is he hitting differently?

Was he hitting everything on the ground in April, and is hitting balls in the air more in May? Nope: Of his batted balls, 37% were grounders in 2014, 39% in April, and 41% in May. He's hitting more on the ground.

Was he making weak contact at the beginning of the year, and now hitting with more authority? Nope again: FanGraphs classified (based on batted ball velocity off the bat) 15% of his contact as soft and 32% as hard in 2014, 17% soft and 30% hard in April, and 22% soft/28% hard in May. He's hitting the ball less hard.

How about where the ball's getting hit? Ah, now there's a change. In 2014, he pulled (hit to left field) 45% of batted balls. That dropped to 38% in April and 28% in May. This is a big change. In 2014, Harrison pulled batted the 9th most frequently among 65 National League batting qualifiers. This year, he's pulled the 12th least frequently among 79 qualifiers. He's hit to the opposite (right) field the fifth most frequently in the league this year; he went the other way the 24th least often last year.

So what does it all mean? There seem to be a couple big-picture trends going on. First, pitchers, realizing that he's vulnerable to the slider, are throwing Harrison a few more sliders. At the same time, Harrison's been changing his approach at the plate, going from a pull hitter to using the whole field. Given this, it looks as if April may have been a transition month, rather than a harbinger of troubles to come. That being said, note that his rebound in May was still below his All-Star production of last year. We may not see that level again. But the .300/.339/.418 slash line he's put up since April is plenty good enough.

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