Who’s Afraid of Colby Rasmus?

Though 2016 has been disappointing so far for the Houston Astros as a club, continued contributions from the core of their offense is promising. Although the bats of some veterans like Carlos Gomez and Luis Valbuena have fallen completely flat, the performance of Colby Rasmus in particular, has been been one of a handful of bright spots.

1024x1024Rasmus, who has matched Jose Altuve’s .311 AVG, leads the Astros with a 224 wRC+. Although Rasmus’ .346 BABIP is much higher than his career .299 average, he has posted high marks before: in 2010 at .354 and in 2013 at .356. But those figures didn’t translate into .300+ batting averages; in fact, Rasmus hit .276 in both 2010 and 2013. What separates 2016 from those years, (and every other year), for Colby Rasmus, is pitchers’ lack of aggressiveness.

Throughout his career, Rasmus has managed a 9.0% BB%, hovering around league average each year since his debut (2009). But in 2016, Rasmus has walked at an astonishing 23.3% rate! Opponents, despite increasing familiarity with Rasmus, a certified “all-or-nothing” hitter, have basically pitched him the same way since for years.

Being aggressive within the strike zone lets hitters get themselves out, but for a pitcher, it is hard to take advantage of a hitter’s weakness from behind in the count. Thus far in 2016, pitchers have been ahead of Rasmus with a first-pitch strike just 51.7% of the time. Compared to a career rate of 61.6%, and marks around 63% the last two years, this is a feeble effort.

101115-MLB-Astros-Colby-Rasmus-pi-ssm.vresize.1200.675.high.27The fact that Rasmus’ Zone% is in line with recent years, (and exactly the same as 2014), leads me to believe pitchers have compensated by giving Rasmus more strikes later in at-bats.  Throwing strikes isn’t inherently bad, of course, but it becomes a problem when you’re forced to throw strikes in hitters’ counts.

To his credit, Rasmus hasn’t swung himself out of many at-bats, but it’s still unclear whether Rasmus’ remarkably improved walk rate is due more to improved plate discipline, or ineffective pitching. I don’t expect him to start this many at-bats 1-0 as the season wears on, so how Rasmus handles fighting from behind in the count will be the key to his success in the future.

PITCHf/x Plate Discipline O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2015 29.0% 67.4% 46.1% 51.2% 80.4% 70.2% 13.7%
2016 25.6% 60.0% 38.6% 45.2% 88.3% 70.6% 11.0%
Career 30.9% 65.5% 46.6% 55.6% 85.4% 74.6% 11.8%

We can see that Rasmus has swung less frequently at both balls and strikes this year, which suggests something has changed, but I’m inclined to believe it isn’t Rasmus himself.

It appears the league got the memo that Rasmus can hit fastballs. Rasmus is a largely dead-pull hitter, go figure, but it has taken pitchers until this year to really lay off the 4-seamer. So far, Rasmus has seen 4-seam fastballs on just 26.9% of pitches this season, compared to 33.5% last year and a career mark of 34.8%.

Instead, pitchers have mostly opted for their curveballs, as perhaps they are trying to coax more groundouts and whiffs out of him. Curveballs, however, aren’t really a problem pitch for Rasmus. The zone breakdown of these curveballs shows fairly good location, but Rasmus hasn’t changed his habits.

colb 2

 

colb 3colb 4

(2015 on the left, 2016 on the right)

Tie in the fact that Rasmus has seen fewer 2-seamers, sliders, and changeups, and it’s not surprising that Rasmus hasn’t been caught napping by an increase in curveballs. Rasmus has been happy to take pitches, as pitchers work around their hard stuff, and instead wait for a pitch he can drive. And Rasmus really can drive the ball.

colb 5Rasmus is even more pull-happy than ever before, putting just 16.1% of his balls in play to the opposite field. But he has more than made up for that with a superb 51.6% Hard% (compared with a 35.6% career average). This proportion of hard contact can explain a small amount of the variability in BABIP (a weak correlation), but more importantly, it is indicative of Rasmus’ consistent quality contact.

Additionally, this nifty graph made by Reddit.com user Jacktheawesome suggests a strong relationship between Hard% and HR/FB rate, and lends some legitimacy to Rasmus’s power output (.347 ISO) this year.

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Rasmus’ 38.5% HR/FB is still not sustainable over the course of a full season, given that his current Hard% isn’t either, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see Rasmus tally homers on more than 20% of his fly balls for the first time this year. As long as pitchers keep giving Rasmus opportunities to wait on a pitch he can hit.

colby-rasmus-101015-ftr-gettyjpg_18realinua9xx1qswvhlro4rqmFalling behind in the count early, especially with breaking pitches, often pushes pitchers to come back with hard stuff to find the strike zone, and Rasmus has taken full advantage of that; he’s registering 3.74 runs above average against 4-seam fastballs, a career high, per Fangraphs PITCHf/x Pitch Values per 100 pitches.

While the fastballs Rasmus sees are no different from those of past years, getting them in hitters’ counts instead is all Rasmus has needed to capitalize on his raw power.

colb 7On 1-0 counts this season, Rasmus has posted a 159 wRC+ on just a .111 BABIP, due to a huge increase in walks and a consistent .500+ SLG. And as Rasmus gets deeper into hitters’ counts – he has only performed better. My assumption is that by trying to expose Rasmus’s flaws with more curveballs, pitchers have limited their options late in at-bats, handing Rasmus a distinct advantage when he’s not set down early.

Final Thoughts

It seems as though the game plan for attacking Colby Rasmus has changed, but pitchers aren’t reaping any kind of reward. By all accounts, Rasmus has been better than ever while hardly changing a thing. It’s exciting to envision season-long dominance, but the fact that he hasn’t changed much suggests that if pitchers ditch this new approach, we’ll get the same Colby Rasmus we have seen before.

Note: All statistics current through 4/22/16 

Statistics and charts provided by: Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Savant

Images thanks to: Sportingnews, Getty Images, scout.com, Fox Sports, Houston Chronicle

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