I ?m going to talk about three players today. One is an MVP candidate for a division leading team. The other two are Pirates. One should be a power hitter but hasn ?t been this year. The other might be showing he has a little more pop in his bat than previously believed because he ?s starting to do what the MVP candidate does best.
Player A: Josh Bell. Bell has been a little more patient at the plate and seen his OBP go up this season, but it has come with a huge drop in power, hitting only eight home runs with a slugging percentage sub-.400 at the time of this post ?s publication. Going by wRC+, his bat is still a tad better than league average (104), which is just a hair worse than what it was in 2016 (112) and 2017 (108), but between his bad glove and poor base running, he ?s played like a replacement level player (0.1 fWAR).
Some of his power shortage may be due to bad luck. Statcast keeps track of a batted ball ?s ?home run probability, ? and Nate Werner of Pirates Breakdown ran those totals through an additive model to come up with what he called ?Probability Estimated Home Run ? totals, or PEHR for short. He published a piece on the Pirates ? PEHR two weeks ago (and I brought him on my podcast to talk about it further), and he ran some updated figures on Aug. 24 for this post. In case you are curious about the legitimacy of the model, on the update Friday, there had been 4,407 home runs league wide and 4,407 PEHRs. It might not be exactly perfect on a microscale, but it ?s great in a macro sense.
Bell is the unluckiest batter on the Pirates, with 11.4 PEHRs compared to eight real home runs. That would still be a noticeable drop in homers from last year, but the difference between what he ?s hit and what he was ?projected ? to hit could have added 14 total bases to his season total, or roughly 35 points to his slugging percentage. However, Werner pointed out to me that Bell actually did much better than his PEHR last season, projecting for only 21.8 while actually hitting 26 dingers. So over the last two years, he ?s hit 34 homers with 34.2 PEHRs. It evened out.
But there may be a way for a player to consistently beat their PEHR. The largest outlier in Werner ?s model has 37 home runs this year, but only 25.1 PEHRs (as of Friday). He is ?
Player B: Jose Ramirez. Ramirez never profiled as a home run hitter — and he certainly doesn’t look like one, standing at only 5’9″ with some baby fat on him — but he ?s turned into a switch-hitting Pablo Sanchez in 2018. He ?s somehow in the top five in baseball in home runs, OBP, slugging percentage and wRC+, and he just may set the record for most WAR as a third baseman in a season. How?
If you read Travis Sawchik ?s introductory story to 538, you may know the answer. Ramirez is not only one of the best fly ball hitters in baseball, but he ?s one of the best at pulling his fly balls. Why does that matter? A pulled fly ball is four times as likely to be a home run compared to a straightaway fly ball, and more than seven times as likely as a ball hit to the opposite field.
Out of the 127 fly balls Ramirez has hit this year, he has pulled 55 — the most in baseball. Those pulled flies have resulted in 30 home runs, which is also the most in baseball. Among the leaders in pulled home runs are MVP candidates Matt Carpenter and Mookie Betts, God ?s gift to baseball Mike Trout, soon-to-be billionaire Manny Machado and even Big Greg Polanco, just to name a few. Getting the ball in the air is only half the battle. Pulling it is the other half.
Let ?s go back to Bell and compare his L/R fly ball profiles the last two years.
Fourteen of Bell ?s home runs last year came on pulled fly balls. He ?s only pulled 14 fly balls this season. Of those 14, only four have cleared the fence. Again, part of the problem is he puts too many balls on the ground — he has the fourth worst ground ball percentage among qualified first basemen, behind Ian Desmond, Eric Hosmer and Joe Mauer, all of whom are having poor seasons — but when he does get it in the air, it goes to the opposite field too often.
The best way to pull a ball is to start your swing earlier. I ?ve already written about how frustrating it is to try to break down Bell ?s swing because he keeps changing his mechanics, but I like this angle from a fly out in June. Let ?s examine it. He ?s not generating any speed from the lower half of his body. His front leg goes from an open stance to a closed with a mini leg-kick, but his swing is almost complete by the time he tries to get any drive from his back leg. He may have “bat speed,” but it takes a long time to get through the zone.
Meanwhile, we have several great looks of Ramirez ?s swing on this pulled homer. Bell is relying on his upper body, while Ramirez uses his lower body to generate his power.
Ramirez was able to stay back on the pitch and still attack it. This is the difference between lifting and launching a fly ball.
Two players down, one to go. Let ?s wrap this post up with…
Player C: Adam Frazier. Frazier has been a stereotypical slap hitter throughout most of his major league career. He’s caught fire in August, ranking in the top five in the NL in wRC+ (175) and OPS (1.042). He ?s homered four times this month too, which is a bit of a shock for a guy who had only 11 career dingers in 786 PAs entering this month. He never had more than two in a month before now.
Frazier is hitting it in the air more, and he ?s done it by lowering his hands. He made the change during his last trip down to AAA Indianapolis. Here he is back in April.
Now here ?s his most recent home run. It ?s an offspeed pitch in the same part of the zone, but he ?s able to keep his back from breaking too far and drives a home run to right. Better timing with his swing made that possible.
You knew this was coming: finally, this is Frazier ?s fly ball profile this month vs. the rest of his career.
Yes, this is an incredibly small sample size, but Frazier might be trending the right way. He has never pulled fly balls with this frequency before, and they are flying out of the park. He’s making pitchers pay for mistakes. I don’t think any of us would believe it if we weren’t seeing it.
The 5 ?10 ? slap hitting Frazier has pulled as many home runs this month as Bell has this season. Bell looks like a power hitter, but if he can ?t start pulling his fly balls, he may never become one. Frazier doesn ?t look like a power hitter, but there might be a little bit of Jose Ramirez in him.