Motter with Intent
The other day, I wrote about Leonys Martin’s struggles, and how he’s hitting the ball hard into the ground, and softly in the air, a combination that produces…well, 2017 Leonys Martin. Anyway, Jake Mailhot at Lookout Landing wrote about Taylor Motter’s success at doing the opposite. It’s great, and you should read it. Today, he followed up with a post about Motter and his approach: Motter’s focused on pitches on the inner half, and he’s had great success in doing so. The theory is that Motter’s focused on inside pitches (particularly fastballs) and he’s aggressive with them when they show up. I wanted to piggy-back on that a bit by making a point that may be too obvious to even mention.
There are many numbers-focused baseball posts that make you see the game in a different way; that make you think about the game differently. Other research may add depth and nuance to a simple, commonly-understood phenomenon. This is a different kind of article. This is about stating the obvious, with numbers. I’m not sure that’s what you’re here to read about, and I’m not sure this is helpful to write, but…uh, here goes. Taylor Motter is having success in the majors this year because he is swinging the bat really, really hard. I know: it’s not earth shattering. But the more I look into it, the more I think what’s changed about Motter isn’t the kind of pitches he likes, improved selectivity, or anything like that. It’s about selling out contact for power, and reaping the rewards (and paying the price) for that trade.
Coming up, Motter was a player known for his speed and defensive utility, but it wasn’t until a breakout 2015 that he had much of a profile as a hitter. He wasn’t in the Rays top 20 prospects in 2015, but landed on the back end of the list in 2016 thanks to a power surge in AA/AAA. Still, the thing that drew your eye – heh – was his strike zone discipline. He drew walks and posted low strikeout totals, and coupled with some gap power, that was enough to get himself on the radar despite his advanced age (for a prospect). He was added to the 40-man before 2016 and came up to Tampa in May of that year. It…it didn’t go well. He didn’t make it to 100 plate appearances, and while he drew a fair number of walks, he simply didn’t hit enough to warrant keeping around. A .217 BABIP didn’t help, of course, but if you look at his Statcast numbers, it almost seemed earned.
He had a good swing plane, with a launch angle over 13 degrees. The problem was that there simply wasn’t anything behind it. There were 455 players in the league who hit at least 50 balls in play last year, and Motter’s exit velocity ranked 397th. If you are in a statistical tie in an offensive metric with Ketel Marte in 2016…you’re…you’re gonna want to NOT be near Ketel Marte. Using exit velocity, Statcast actually tracks a measure of batspeed – estimated swing speed. By THAT measure, Marte edges past Motter, who’s hanging out with the Billys (Burns and Hamilton).
What about inside pitches? Last year, Motter clearly liked to swing at them, as Mailhot shows in his post. The problem was that he couldn’t DO anything against them. Motter hit 13 inside fastballs, with a below-average exit velocity of 88 MPH. He put 20 inside pitches in play, of any pitch type. He went 3 for 20 on those contacts, going .167 with a slugging percentage of .250. He’s slugging .714 on such pitches this year, for the record. Motter’s the same guy against outside pitches this year, but he looks unrecognizable on inside pitches. Here’s a table of his exit velo and launch angles on inside/outside pitches in 2016 and 2017:
|Inside, 2016||Inside, 2017||Outside, 2016||Outside, 2017|
Ok, let’s say you’re Taylor Motter, and you’ve just been promoted, and now you get to face incredible pitching for the first time (MORE incredible than the pretty-incredible you’re used to). It’s confusing – you don’t know the pitchers, the stadia are different, there are many, many cameras – and you want to focus on your own strengths. What would Motter have offered up as his biggest strength in 2016? I have no idea; I don’t know the man. But my guess is that he was trying to focus on contact and strike zone discipline. He set out to control the zone, and he did! That’s great! He was also a terrible hitter. Baseball is hard, and even when you succeed at something, it’s frequently not enough to make you useful (Blake Beavan: great control).
This year, Taylor Motter seems to have made a very different decision. Instead of trying to be a useful utility man by avoiding Ks and drawing the occasional walk, Motter is trying to hit dingers. Again, it’s kind of difficult to talk about this without spouting truisms or seeming to just state the obvious, but I think this is the result of a very conscious change, and not just “getting good pitches to hit” or whatever cliche you like. Motter isn’t just swinging at inside pitches – he’s always done that. He’s trying to obliterate them, and that seems very new. Motter’s estimated swing speed this year ranks *7th* out of 337 batters with at least 10 balls in play. He’s a touch behind Miguel Sano and Miguel Cabrera, but ahead of Nelson Cruz, Khris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton. The samples for Motter are miniscule in both years, but going from ~ the worst to ~ the best seems like the result of a fairly big change.
This change comes at a cost. Motter’s contact rate is down substantially in the early going, and it’s down on pitches within the strike zone. If you’re going to survive with so-so contact rates *within* the zone, you better hit the ball extremely hard. Motter does, so I guess it all works out. His K rate is up, as you’d expect, but to date, Motter’s been disciplined in his out-of-zone swing rate. That’s important, because as Mailhot mentions, pitchers are going to start to make adjustments, and his K rate may go up from here. That’s all speculative. ALL OF THIS is speculative. But I want to underscore just how remarkable it is; if this is at all right, it’s the product of a very gutsy decision. Motter knew his K rate could translate more or less, and I’m sure someone pointed out that the exact same approach plus a regressed BABIP would produce a decent line for a utility man. Motter took what was behind door #2 instead.
Why? Let’s heap more speculation on to the pile of speculation we’ve already made. Motter played for the Rays from mid May to the end of June in 2016. At that time, he had a teammate with a nearly identical launch angle, who was succeeding because he swung the shit out of the bat. This produced a K rate that many thought would doom him. His OBP was pretty terrible, frankly. But dingers. Man, the dingers. I’m talking about former Mariner Brad Miller, who hit 8 HRs and knocked 19 extra-base hits in May/June of 2016, on his way to a 30-HR season. Interestingly, Miller always swung hard – his breakout wasn’t the result of a wholesale change in approach. But I wonder what Motter thought as he looked at a guy with a very similar swing path – a guy who didn’t seem to mind striking out, but was going to punish the ball when he made contact.
Motter seems to have that approach now. It speaks to something that I mentioned as a side note in this post about Mike Zunino last year: intent. Motter’s a different hitter this year for a number of reasons, including all the ones Mailhot mentions and all of the ones Daniel Rathman mentioned at BP. He’s quicker to the ball thanks to lower hands at the beginning of his swing. But all of this seems to miss the forest for the trees. The massive difference in results (not just HRs, but exit velocity, swing speed, all of it) has to be the product of an intent to swing *hard*. I don’t think Motter had that last year, and I’m pretty sure he does this year. We’ll see what happens going forward, and we may see some ugly stretches of strikeouts, but that shift in mindset has been incredibly important thus far.