MLB: Sophomore Slumps

Rookie surprises and sensations are frequently some of the most exciting story-lines of any season. 2015’s first-year class was among the best – if not, the best – collection of rookies ever. It proved to be quite a spectacle, as pre-season favorites for Rookie of the Year got off to hot starts while dark horse candidates consistently proved their worth under the radar.

After hardware is handed out, buzz starts to shift toward next year’s rookies, and we’re left to wonder which first-year studs are for real. The concept of a “sophomore slump” in MLB has been around forever, though it’s important to remember that not every player succumbs to the slump.

Of baseball’s rising sophomores, here are my picks of players who will regress, progress, and stay put:

Please note: fWARe is equal to 2015 fWAR extrapolated to 2016 projected PA or IP

Regressing 

Delino DeShields, CF (Texas Rangers)

2015 fWAR: 1.3

2015 fWARe: 1.6

2016 projected fWAR: 1.0

Delino DeShields came through for the Rangers as a Rule 5 draft pick from the Astros in 2015, but his success story outshined his actual production. DeShields has great speed, but poor instincts limited his range in center field and he wasn’t too much better in left field.

Kansas City Royals v Texas RangersDeShields maintained his minor league BB% and K% in the majors, but his 94 wRC+ was still underwhelming, and his .334 BABIP translated to just a .261 average. His xBABIP (using the formula from this article) of .315 is even more worrying going into 2016.

If DeShields regresses toward a .240 batting average, even his on-base skills may not keep him from moving down in the order or eventually being benched. What could save DeShields is a shift in batted ball profile. In 2015, he hit much like Jose Altuve, but he may want to consider an approach akin to Dee Gordon’s.

Let’s compare the three:

2015 LD% GB% FB% AVG on LD AVG on GB AVG on FB wRC+ on FB AVG
Delino DeShields 19.0% 47.4% 33.7% .607 .331 .168 39 .261
Jose Altuve 18.1% 46.7% 35.2% .673 .336 .196 87 .313
Dee Gordon 21.5% 59.8% 18.7% .748 .316 .170 47 .333

Altuve gets away with hitting more fly balls because he drives the ball well in addition to hitting for contact, but DeShields’ raw power never materialized in games. This means DeShields’ fly balls went for naught, his average dropped, and his OBP was dragged down. With all else equal, hitting more liners and ground balls should reverse that trend.

If his speed can better translate into range in center field, DeShields could still be a decent everyday option. However, his perception and role as an everyday player should be held to scrutiny. DeShields has many tools, but he could quickly become a detriment at the top on the lineup if his bat suppresses his OBP much further.

Hunter Strickland, RP (San Francisco Giants)

2015 fWAR: 0.8

2015 fWARe: 0.9

2016 projected fWAR: 1.0

After the Pirates converted him into a reliever in AA in 2012, Strickland stumbled a bit, but saw an increase in strikeouts as well an improvement in the rest of his numbers not long after. He continued that role in the Giants’ system in 2013 before settling into a bullpen-role in 2015.

Strickland’s 8.77 K/9 against just a 1.75 BB/9 was pretty impressive, but maybe less so when we consider his fastball touches 100 mph. Strickland’s curveball evidently touched almost 96 mph last year, although it averaged “only” 85 mph (per Fangraphs).

strickland_r7z4hic2_ard86t1xFangraphs’ PITCHf/x velocity leaders had Strickland’s 4-seam fastball 8th, surrounded by flamethrowers like Ken Giles, Jumbo Diaz, Pedro Baez, and Dellin Bentances. But of these five pitchers, Strickland had easily the lowest strikeout rate because his secondary pitch (curveball) just doesn’t stack up.

Giles, Diaz, and Baez all have wipe-out sliders that generate a greater than a 30% K%, and Betances has a ridiculous curveball that netted a 55% K%. Though Strickland’s fastball has a 31.6% K%, his curveball settled at just 16.7%. He also occasionally mixed in 2-seamers and changeups that sat at 7.7% and 0%, respectively.

Strickland’s fastball has some tail, but its vertical movement (about 7.2 inches) is lackluster compared to other fastballs of similar velocity. The lack of “hop” on his 4-seamer is slightly concerning, but a 16.0% SwStr% is undeniably good. One great pitch can’t carry a pitcher every outing though, so Strickland’s curveball must improve.

If we look at Strickland’s curveball’s movement on Fangraphs, it drops about an inch and a half, excluding the effect of gravity, and breaks horizontally just 4 inches – much like a slider. Brooks Baseball shows about the same vertical and horizontal movement, and in fact classifies it as slider. It may be that despite its velocity, Strickland’s breaking ball might be too much of an “in-between” pitch to be as effective as a more natural slider or curveball.

Strickland is a candidate for the Giants’ closer role relatively soon, but if his fastball command is off, he’ll have little to rescue him when the pressure’s on.

Progressing

Kris Bryant, 3B (Chicago Cubs)

2015 fWAR: 1.3

2015 fWARe: 1.6

2016 projected fWAR: 1.0

The reigning NL Rookie of the Year should enjoy another productive season in 2016, but despite a hefty 6.5 fWAR in 2015, Bryant’s problems making contact should tamper some expectations. Take a look at some of Bryant’s PITCH f/x plate discipline data compared to the league average:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2015 League AVG 30.8% 64.6% 46.9% 63.3% 87.3% 79.0% 47.6% 9.8%
Kris Bryant 29.1% 73.8% 48.9% 43.8% 77.5% 66.4% 44.4% 16.5%

While not swinging too much more than your average player, Bryant made nearly 13% less contact than the league average. This struggle to make contact also shows in a very worrying 16.5% SwStr%. Meanwhile, an xBABIP of .317 suggests a steep decline in BABIP from .378, which would drag his .275 average way down. But how far will Bryant actually regress?

Bryant1280_yxm3oyt8_cgh73zyjWe can’t just look to his high BABIP and struggle with making contact and say Bryant won’t be just as valuable. There is plenty to be impressed with. His average exit velocity on flies and liners was sandwiched right in-between Joey Votto and Jose Abreu.

Not only was Bryant an expert at making hard contact with the ball, his RngR (range runs above average) at third base was fourth; to only Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, and Manny Machado. Not to mention, of all qualified batters, nobody in the MLB did more damage on curveballs than Kris Bryant.

Look at a spray chart of Bryant’s damage on cureveballs:

bryant 1.jpg

Two homers to right, center, and left field and a lack of balls on the infield really show Bryant’s ability to square up curveballs. Other spray charts aren’t as clear, so let’s look pitch values to get a sense of Bryant’s ability against other pitches.

(note, Pitch Values are per-100 pitches)

Pitch Values wFA/C wFT/C wFC/C wFS/C wSI/C wSL/C wCU/C wKC/C wCH/C
2015 League AVG 0.14 0.32 -0.26 -0.26 0.17 -0.44 0.04 -0.24 0.00
Kris Bryant 1.49 0.70 -2.66 1.19 0.70 0.34 4.69 0.31 1.70

Bryant appears to handle fastballs well, although not cutters. In addition, Bryant has mastered offspeed and breaking pitches, especially curveballs. Clearly, Bryant has the makings of an advanced hitter, and this has already translated into consistent game power, in spite of a low contact rate.

Speaking of a low contact rate, is that what’s fueling his high BABIP?

Batted Ball Profile LD% GB% FB% Pull% Center% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2015 3B AVG 21.0% 43.1% 35.9% 39.9% 34.7% 25.4% 17.5% 52.4% 30.1%
Kris Bryant 20.5% 34.2% 45.2% 41.6% 34.5% 23.8% 14.8% 47.7% 37.5%

If Bryant doesn’t make a lot of contact, but hits the ball hard when he does, it may go without saying that the balls he puts in play are more likely to land for hits. In theory, Bryant has traded softer contact for whiffs, a likely out for another pitch.

To me, this sounds like textbook “selling out” for power when the swing isn’t cut down on 2-strikes, but I don’t want to imply that he was trying to do too much. It’s possible this is just the hitter Bryant is, someone who can outperform his xBABIP by a good margin.

One last thing that could work in his favor is his spot in the lineup. He mostly hit 3rd in 2015, but his K% steadily dropped as he moved from 2nd in the order to 5th. With RF Jason Heyward added to the roster, and slugger C/LF Kyle Schwarber up for a full season, I think Bryant should see most of his ABs coming from the 4th or 5th spot where he presumably is most comfortable.

Noah Syndergaard, SP (New York Mets)

2015 fWAR: 3.1

2015 fWARe: 3.6

2016 projected fWAR: 4.0

Noah Syndergaard produced a great rookie campaign with frequent flashes of absolute dominance. His 9.96 K/9 ranked 7th, and his 1.86 BB/9 ranked 17th among starters with at least 150 IP. Of pitchers from the same group with at least 9 K/9, Syndergaard’s BB/9 ranked 7th behind Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber.

Of the top 30 in K/9, only James Shields, Ian Kennedy, and Michael Pineda had a higher HR/FB rate than Syndergaard’s 14.3%. Though this looks troublesome for Syndergaard, this percentage was weighed down by an inconsistent sinker that ran an ugly 24% HR/FB rate.

NoahSyndergaard1280_6k04in5t_ptcxuieyHitters swung through Syndergaard’s sinker less than the 4-seam fastball, and made contact with it more often, especially when it was thrown inside the zone. It’s interesting though that Syndergaard’s 4-seam and cutter had about same average velocity. I have to assume Syndergaard’s command is unrefined, and just a 3.8% BB% on the pitch with a 24% HR/FB suggest he’s missing well inside the strike zone.

If we look a Home/Road spilts, it seems batters have no chance against Syndergaard in New York, but on the road, it seems that LHB have him figured out.

LHB took Syndergaard for a .358 wOBA, compared to a home wOBA (against both RHB and LHB) of .239. Since I assume his sinker is the biggest issue here, as it has the highest wRC+ of all his pitches, I went ahead and generated Home and Road heatmaps for it against LHB from Baseball Savant:

Home vs. LHB

synd1.jpg

Road vs. LHB

synd 2.jpg

The pitch is again mostly kept on the outside part of the plate, but a good portion of sinkers ended up inside or down the middle; two areas mostly missing in the Home heatmap. A couple event pie charts show the effect of this inconsistency.

Home vs. LHB

synd 4.jpg

 

Road vs. LHB

synd 3.jpg

During away games, batters took fewer called strikes while hitting more foul balls with a similar whiff rate against Syndergaard. This indicates that LHB were simply swinging more often on the road than in New York. Given that they saw Syndergaard’s sinkers predominately on the outer part of the plate in New York, this isn’t a surprise.

Syndergaard also toyed with a slider to try to improve his curveball, but after a dismal August, he began mixing them in with purpose:

synd 5.jpg

From this graph, we also see that Syndergaard increasingly relied on his sinker and changeup, while moving away from the 4-seam fastball. I think the sinker and changeup can play well off each other, but Syndergaard’s sinker just isn’t quite as good as his fastball.

Notably, this steep decrease in 4-seam usage coincided with his worst month by ERA, August. But Syndergaard rebounded nicely in his last four starts with the addition of a slider.

This slider, a second devastating breaking ball (18.8% SwStr%) to pair with his curve (18.4% SwStr%), could give him a nice boost in 2016 and allow him to replicate 2015 without much trouble. That said, improving the command of his sinker to LHB, especially on the road, could place Syndergaard among the game’s elite starting pitchers.

Staying Put

Francisco Lindor, SS (Cleveland Indians)

2015 fWAR: 4.6

2015 fWARe: 6.8

2016 projected fWAR: 3.7

Francisco Lindor was incredibly impressive during his debut. Lindor combined his usual phenomenal defense and contact hitting with more power than he’s ever shown (.169 ISO), which vaulted him near the top of many “Best Shortstop” lists coming into 2016. We might expect the power to decrease given that his 13% HR/FB rate was much higher than the SS average of 7.7%, but Lindor was able to limit the amount of balls he put in the air in 2015.

GB/FB LD% GB% FB% HR/FB Soft% Medium% Hard%
2015 SS AVG 1.48 20.3% 47.6% 32.1% 7.7% 19.7% 55.0% 25.4%
Francisco Lindor 1.77 20.6% 50.8% 28.7% 13.0% 19.1% 55.7% 25.2%

Less frequent fly balls should minimize the effect of a decrease in HR/FB rate, but these factors, along with a 20+% LD%, suggest Lindor is really more likely to spray line drives and grounders than put the ball over the fence. As far as in-game power, Lindor may not be a true slugger at shortstop.

lindor1280_3wgyzg0r_l4ob5c0yEven though Lindor’s HR-power probably won’t show up in the same way this season, don’t expect Lindor’s productivity at the plate to diminish too much. With an average exit velocity around 89 mph, around names like Ben Zobrist and Jonathan Lucroy, I would presume these home runs may turn to extra base hits rather than outs.

If Lindor is able to mitigate the damage by trading some HRs for XBHs, this exchange should buoy the consequence of fewer home runs. So don’t expect Lindor’s WAR to slip too much.

Let’s look at Lindor’s PITCH f/x plate discipline compared to the average SS:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2015 SS Average 32.1% 64.5% 47.9% 67.1% 88.7% 81.3% 48.7% 8.9%
Francisco Lindor 31.9% 69.4% 50.0% 68.9% 90.2% 83.1% 48.3% 8.6%

Obviously, Lindor can put the bat on the ball very well. This ability was reflected in his .348 BABIP, which translated to a .318 xBABIP. A player of Lindor’s profile and pedigree should be able to turn a .318 BABIP into about a .280-.290 batting average with some ease. But while we expect him the take a step back offensively over a full season in 2016, he could make up a lot of the difference with his glove.

Coming into the 2015 season, Lindor was a known defensive commodity at shortstop, but his 10.5 UZR (18.9 UZR/150) was was so good, it was actually hindered by routine plays. An unspectacular -0.1 ErrR (error runs above average) due to a 96.6% fielding percentage on routine plays downplayed how good Lindor’s glove may actually be.

Of players with at least 850 innings at SS, Lindor’s ErrR ranked just 16th out of 25, but his RngR was 2nd to only Nick Ahmed. Lindor also led shortstop’s in UZR/150 by 1.2 runs. Given his reputation, I think Lindor can be expected to improve his routine fielding% and continue to show elite range.

A 128 wRC+ will be difficult to repeat over a full season; only Carlos Correa and Jung-Ho Kang posted higher rates in 2015 out of SS with at least 400 PA. But Lindor handles fastballs very well and doesn’t whiff very often. If he can avoid being exploited by sliders (-1.26 wSL/C) and curves (-1.42 wCU/C), Lindor could be the game’s best shortstop a decent margin in 2016.

Nate Karns, SP (Seattle Mariners)

2015 fWAR: 1.5

2015 fWARe: 1.1

2016 projected fWAR: 1.1

Nate Karns compliments a hard fastball with one of the fastest curveballs from any starting pitcher. The rest of his arsenal is relatively weak, but his changeup has been improving and should be the difference maker in his bid for a spot in the rotation to open the season.

03032016-MarinersPadres_0303_012Karns’ fastball is fairly straight, but it has a good bit of zip on it, (10.46 inches of vertical movement per Brooks Baseball). His sinker has some arm-side run and drops just enough (9.78 inches vertical movement) to make it an effective pitch.

The curveball is Karns’s true calling card though, and it really is a beautiful pitch. It creates good depth with some slurve-like action, but it’s most notable feature is an 81 mph average velocity. From this Eno Sarris article, we see that fast curveballs, especially with good downward movement, generally result in a lot of whiffs. For Karns, this has held true, as he posted an 8.88 K/9 over 147 innings last year with the aid of a 33.7% K% on his curveball.

Karns’ changeup moves within about an inch of the sinker laterally, but comes in about 7 mph slower and with 5 inches more drop. Karns, according to Sarris, added “almost two inches of drop” to his changeup as the season progressed. Sarris notes that this is from developing comfortability, but Karns’ other pitches also had a little more drop as we got deeper into the season:

karns

I’m not convinced Karns’ changeup was actually significantly different, but it is likely that comfort was a factor. Around June, Karns began to throw the changeup more often, leaving the sinker behind, and subsequently, Karns generated more whiffs per swing on his fastball and curve:

karns2

If he can supplant someone in the rotation for most of the season, Karns could again provide good value over roughly 150 innings, racking up about a strikeout per inning with around a 3.75 ERA. Durability is a concern though. Rays’ manager Kevin Cash often kept his starters on a quick hook in 2015, but Karns’ stamina is still questionable.

Strikeouts and walks often run Karns’s pitch count up, and a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder doesn’t bode well for long-term health, although the good news is that Karns is roughly 6 years removed from the surgery. Karns completed the 7th inning just 3 times, and the 6th inning only 8 additional times, in 27 starts in 2015.

Nate Karns is certainly talented enough to deserve a role on the team.

Considering his age (28 years old), injury history (torn labrum among minor injuries), repertoire, and his long look in 2015, there just doesn’t look to be more upside as a starter. For the same reasons, it doesn’t make much sense to just stash Karns in the minors until a roster spot opens up.

One of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, or Nate Karns will be the odd man out of the rotation come opening day, but Walker is all but guaranteed the spot behind Wade Miley, barring a horrendous spring training. A strong spring showing could net Karns the 5th spot out of the gate, allowing the Mariners to get the best out of him before he’s likely to wear down while going easy on the more recently injury-prone James Paxton.

Statistics provided by: FanGraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net, baseballsavant.com, and Highcharts

Images thanks to: MLB.com, the Seattle Times, BrooksBaseball.net, and baseballsavant.com

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