Ability to Control the Strike Zone
It shouldn’t be a secret to anyone that Mark Teixeira has an excellent control of the strike zone. Merely looking at his walk and strikeout rates would give you an excellent indication of his abilities in this regard. Still, it’s worth taking a more detailed look.*
* O-swing – percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside of the strike zone; Z-swing – percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside of the strike zone; O-contact – percentage of times a batter makes contact at a ball when swinging at pitches thrown outside of the strike zone; Z-Contact – percentage of times a batter makes contact at a ball when swinging at pitches thrown within the strike zone
The main thing that jumps out at me is the stark difference in Teixeira’s O-swing and O-contact rates between 2009 and 2010. Typically, when a hitter starts swinging at more pitches outside of the zone, it’s for one of two reasons: (1) he’s cheating by starting his swing a little earlier in order to compensate for his slower bat speed, or (2) he’s making a concerted attempt to be more aggressive at the plate. Let’s take a look at each scenario.
Last month, I touched upon the subject of slowing bat speed in an article I wrote for Fire Brand of the American League titled, “Should the Red Sox sit Ortiz Against Lefties.” Here’s what I had to say about bat speed.
“So what happened to Ortiz’s plate discipline? In all likelihood, a combination of age related regression and slowing bat speed are the primary culprits. Typically, a left-handed hitter facing a right-handed pitcher will pick up the ball coming out of his hand a little more quickly than when he’s facing a pitcher of the same handedness. This gives the hitter a little more time to not only recognize the pitch, but also decide whether not he should swing. Against a left-handed pitcher, that hitter picks up the ball a fraction of a second later and therefore, has less time with which to make the same decision. When it comes to younger hitters, their platoon splits aren’t as dramatic because the player’s bat speed and natural abilities are able to compensate. With an older player like Ortiz, his slowed bat speed keeps him from making the necessary adjustments. So what does he do? He cheats by starting his swing a little earlier. In most cases, this leads not only to higher contact rates with pitches out of the zone (O-Swing and O-Contact), but also higher strikeout and lower walk rates. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what’s happening with Ortiz.”
Let me start out by saying that this is an imperfect analogy. I realize that Ortiz is a pure lefty, while Teixeira hits switch. As a result, Teixeira, except under the rarest of circumstances, would not be expected to hit against a like-handed pitcher. Still, the analogy works in a round-about sort of way.
As a switch hitter, Teixeira is put in a favorable platoon situation for every plate appearance; therefore, he’s always afforded that additional fraction of a second in which to decide whether or not he should swing at a particular pitch. While a fraction of a second might seem like an insignificant amount of time to people like you and me; to a major league quality hitter, it’s crucial. During that fraction of a second, a hitter is allowed the opportunity to make significant adjustments that could affect the entire plate appearance. Considering what we know, a player would need his bat speed to slow considerably in order to be cheating on pitches in which he has a platoon advantage. In such a case, he would noticeably produce not only greater strikeout totals, but also fewer walks, line drives, and extra base hits as a result. Upon reviewing Teixeira’s statistics, we find that he did not experience any significant regression that would be considered outside of his statistical norms. Therefore, we can probably discount slowing bat speed and age related regression as a reason for his down season.
In our second scenario, I mentioned that the increase in Teixeira’s O-Swing rate could be the result of a concerted attempt to be more aggressive at the plate. While it certainly appears Teixeira took a more aggressive approach to hitting, this phenomenon does not appear to be unique to just him. Upon reviewing the major league plate discipline data, I found that hitters, in general, were far more aggressive in 2010 than they had been in years past. As a result, even with Teixeira swinging at more pitches outside of the zone (26.5%), he’s still doing so at a rate that’s significantly below the league average (29.3%).
Outside of an elevated O-Swing and O-Contact rates, Teixeira was nearly the same player in 2010 as he had been in his previous three seasons—at least in terms of plate discipline. While he’s swinging at more pitches, he’s also making contact at greater rates, and racking up fewer swinging strikes (or whiffs). All-in-all, there’s a lot of reasons to like his prospects going forward.
Batted Ball Rates
Perhaps the most compelling argument for Teixeira returning to form in 2011 lays within his batted ball distribution rates. To start, let’s take a look at his batted ball chart.
Upon reviewing the data, you’ll probably notice a few interesting trends. One, outside of Teixeira’s 2008 season in which he uncharacteristically hit more ground balls than fly balls; his batted ball distribution rates have remained fairly static over the past four seasons. Two, despite his consistent batted ball patterns, his BABIP stumbled to an abnormally low (career BABIP is .303) .268 in 2010. In theory, when a player produces similar batted ball rates from season-to-season, he should (and I stress should) produce similar BABIPs. As we all know, this doesn’t always happen. Batted balls are largely impacted by factors outside of a batter’s control like luck, defensive positioning, the range/skill of the fielders behind the pitcher, park effects, etc. As a result, over period of 600 plate appearances, a player can get incredibly lucky on balls in play, while others can be chronically unlucky. Furthermore, while a hitter has the ability to influence the manner in which he hits the ball (ground ball, fly ball, line drive, etc.); he can’t will the ball to be hit out of the reach of a fielder. To put it simply, if hitters had that ability, we’d be seeing significantly higher scoring games with much greater frequency.
A common misconception among baseball fans is that, over the course of a season, luck will eventually play itself out. Unfortunately, that’s not true. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that 500-700 plate appearances is enough for a player’s batting average (or OBP, SLG, etc.) to become a reliable measure of performance. In reality, a player needs to rack up around 1500 to 2000 (or three seasons worth) plate appearances for batting average to become reliable; hence the reason statistics like batting average and BABIP have much poorer year-to-year correlations than most batted ball rates.*
* Year-to-year correlations for the following statistics: batting average – 0.37; ground ball percentage – 0.75; outfield fly ball percentage – 0.70; infield fly ball percentage – 0.62; and line drive percentage – 0.24.
So how did luck play a role in Teixeira’s performance in 2010? According to the data in the chart below, its role was pretty significant.
This chart explains a lot in terms of understanding why Teixeira performed in the manner he did. For starters, it appears he performed below the expected norms in each batted ball category; this is especially true with regards to ground balls where his BABIP was 54 points below the expectation. While the exact reasons for this phenomenon is unclear, the most likely explanation is that Teixeira was just plain unlucky. It happens, and sometimes there’s not a good explanation for it.
Still, I can’t help but notice that as a result of circumstance, Teixeira accumulated 18 fewer hits than we’d normally expect based on the established league norms. Over the course of a baseball season, 18 hits average out to be approximately one hit every nine games. While that might not seem like it would have much of an affect on his overall performance line, it does. For just a moment, let’s suspend reality, dip into the theoretical, and assume that Teixeira performed as expected. Rather than accumulating 18 outs, let’s assume that he, instead, accumulates 18 singles. How would his triple slash line appear then? Instead of posting a decent (albeit unspectacular) .256/.365/.481 triple slash line, Teixeira would have theoretically produced an All-Star quality .286/.381/.511 line—and that’s with us assuming each of those 18 hits to be singles. Add in a couple of doubles, and perhaps a home run or two, and we’re looking at an even better triple slash line. Given his recent performance and historical batted ball trends, his theoretical line appears to be a far better representation of his true talent level than his actual line indicates.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the “weak contact” counter-hypothesis. This alternative stems from our discussion on Teixeira’s recent tendency to swing at pitches thrown outside of the zone. Typically, when a hitter swings at a pitch thrown outside of the strike zone, he’s swinging at a “pitcher’s pitch.” While a hitter will still make solid contact on some of these pitches, more often than not, he’ll make weaker contact than what’s preferred. As a result, weak contact often results in (but does not guarantee) an out. In fact, weaker-type contact includes hits categorized as bloopers and choppers, which commonly fall in for hits.
Furthermore, without being able to measure not only the force, but also the velocity in which a ball is hit, the term “weak contact” is fairly subjective and open to interpretation. While we have data for weak fly balls (i.e. pop-ups), the data for breaking down ground balls in to “weak”, “medium”, and “hard” categories (along with the corresponding BABIP data) either don’t exist at the moment, or are not readily available. That said, it’s only a matter of time before such information does become available. With the advent of Field f/x, we’ll likely see a lot of new data coming out that changes our perception of the game. Until then, we have to go with the data we have at our disposal. That data indicates that Teixeira was unlucky.
Despite seeing a drop off in Teixeira’s 2010 primary statistics, his secondary performance measures indicate a return to form in 2011. Well, at least superficially. As I mentioned previously, Teixeira was nearly the same player last season as he had been in his previous three seasons. You just had to look beyond the raw numbers to see it.
In terms of Teixeira projections, I found Marcel’s projection (.273/.368/.496, .374 wOBA, 38 HR, 96 RBI) to be overly conservative, and Bill James’s projection (.282/.383/.532, .393 wOBA, 36 HR, 120 RBI) to be slightly bullish. Therefore, I’d like to go record with my own projection for Mark Teixeira: .276/.384/.517, .390 wOBA, 40 2B, 34 HR, 115 RBI, +2.5 UZR, and 5.5 WAR. Teixeira‘s position among the top five first baseman in baseball (along with Pujols, Cabrera, Votto, and Gonzalez) is firmly secure.