As you know, the M’s enter the final game of April with an 11-11 record, and they’ve done so without the benefit of Cliff Lee or home runs. All in all, that’s not bad.
Much has changed since last April, but looking at the overall numbers, you’d be hard-pressed to see it. For the 2009 season, the M’s made contact on 79.6% of their swings. So far in 2010, they’ve improved that mark to… 79.8%.(1)
For the 2009 season, the M’s were 0.18 runs below average per 100 fastballs – 5th worst in the majors. Thus far, the 2010 team has slumped to 0.72 runs below average per 100 fastballs, or 2nd worst in the majors. All in all, the M’s posted a .301 wOBA so far, as opposed to their .300 mark in April last season. Plus ca change…
This seems meaningless until you consider the moves the M’s made in the offseason. Amongst hitters with at least 50 PA in 2009, 8 of the bottom 10 in contact% haven’t played this year: Russ Branyan, Adrian Beltre, Bill Hall, Wlad Balentien and Ronny Cedeno have moved to other teams while Saunders, Carp, Hannahan and Langerhans all play in Tacoma.
The M’s acquired Kotchman and Figgins who were solidly above average in contact%, while Milton Bradley was quite close (above average in some years, below in others). So why hasn’t the M’s contact% gone up? I have no idea, but the M’s are swinging and missing like crazy this year. Of the M’s hitters, only three have a lower whiff% in 2010 than they had in 2009. Those three are Ichiro, Matt Tuiasosopo and Rob Johnson. Tuiasosopo and Johnson had poor marks in 2009, and Tuiasosopo’s 30%+ mark in 2010 is still a cause for alarm. Ichiro is Ichiro, a player who seems to toy with sabmetricians with bizarre small-sample variations.
For the others, though, the difference is striking, particularly since contact rate is amongst the first statistics to stabilize. Milton Bradley’s whiff rate (the rate at which a batter swings and misses) is up over 30% from 2009, and well above his career average. Eric Byrnes, for all his faults as a hitter, always made contact… until this year. Franklin Gutierrez’s rate is slightly higher than 2009 or his career average, as is Jose Lopez’s, Jack Wilson’s, Casey Kotchman’s and the two-headed hugging machine at DH. The player with the biggest divergence from his average to date? Chone Figgins.(2) For the past several years, Figgins annoyingly made contact on 88-90% of his swings. This year, that’s down by 10 percentage points. I wouldn’t expect this to last, but it’s something to watch, and it’s about as weird as Kotchman’s improved fly-ball rate.
Whatever their projections about the offense, not many analysts would have thought the M’s would make contact at similar rates this year. The M’s quite clearly traded power potential for contact skills, as exemplified in the swaps of Branyan for Kotchman and Beltre for Figgins. While that swap hasn’t gotten the M’s what they wanted, it also hasn’t hurt the team that much (as seen in the similar wOBA figures).
Drilling deeper, the 2009 team struggled mightily against fastballs, according to Fangraphs linear weights by pitch type. Exit Wlad Balentien, Yuniesky Betancourt, Mike Saunders, Adrian Beltre, Endy Chavez and Kenji Johjima and you’d expect the team’s performance against non-bendy stuff to improve. Sure, Rob Johnson was still around, but he couldn’t possibly be as hopeless against FBs again, could he? In 2010, the M’s have actually fared worse against fastballs. Jose Lopez, Griffey/Sweeney, and Chone Figgins have both performed significantly worse against fastballs, and nobody’s annihilating fastballs the way Branyan did last year. The M’s best hitter against fastballs this year? Uh, Rob Johnson.
Pitch values are always of dubious value with full-season samples, as a player’s BABIP can contaminate the data. Cut the sample down to a month, and it’s of less use. But as with contact%, this offense is simply much, much better on paper than it’s shown to date. Many continue to point to a lack of power as a major problem, but the team would look a heck of a lot better with a BABIP that’s more in line with their abilities and contact rates that line up with career averages (except Sweeney and Griffey).
As is so often the case early in a season, the numbers will confirm whatever conclusion you wanted to come to. If you thought Kotchman was a bum, you’d say his ISO is flukish and he’s making contact less. If you thought Figgins got lucky in 2009 and the M’s bought high, you’re probably boring your friends with ‘proof.’ On the other hand, if you think the M’s offense has been remarkably unlucky, you’ll probably point to regression in the M’s HR/FB rate, their contact rate and their performance vs. Fastballs (especially since Brett Anderson won’t be throwing any FBs to the M’s in the near term). Essentially nothing that’s happened to date should markedly change our projections of the offense, but man, are small samples fun or what?
(1) – Yes, Jeff Sullivan and Matthew Carruth touched on this in their podcast. Dave Cameron’s been complaining that he and Jeff share a brain. I’m new here, but I’m already feeling that just being under the USSM aegis means you’re unwittingly tapped into the hive-mind. Hockey is suddenly more appealing to me than it’s been since 1994, and I think my knee acts up whenever thunderstorms hit North Carolina.
(2) – Most of us were fans of the Figgins pick-up, but you can’t help but notice that Figgins seems like a guy Bill Bavasi would just love. You know Figgins name was mentioned in the war room when Vidro was acquired. “He’s like Chone Figgins, only without the health, defense and overall value. But he’s *partially* like Chone Figgins! High five!” This highlights that whatever issues I and USSM may have had with Bavasi’s overall approach, the biggest problem was talent evaluation. I’ve got no problem with contact hitters per se, I have a problem with Jose Vidro, starting DH. I don’t have a problem with low-K, low-BB pitchers like Doug Fister, Cha-Seung Baek, or Sean White (yes, I said it) – I have a problem with Carlos Silva at 4/$48m.