A-Rod swinging less, making contact more

Two days and two chats? How can that beeee?
RAB elsewhere on the internets
Photo credit: Duane Burleson/AP

It appears that a number of Yankees hitters have changed their approaches this season. A week ago I looked at the changes with Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner. They seem to be on opposite tracks. Gardner has become even more selective, while Swisher has shown a bit more aggression. Both have seen early returns. Alex Rodriguez has also changed his approach a bit, though the results haven’t quite been there for him yet. If he keeps this up, though, they very well might.

A quick look at A-Rod’s stats makes a few things clear. First, he’s striking out less — a lot less. From his cup of coffee in 1994 through 2009 his low water mark for strikeout percentage was 16.9 percent, achieved in 1997. That also happens to be the worst year of his career, 1995 notwithstanding. This year he has struck out in 14.9 percent of his at-bats, so something has changed, at least in the first 33 games.

A look at his discipline statistics makes the difference clear. His swing rate sits at an all-time low of 40.9 percent, while his contact rate is at an all-time high, by far, of 86.4 percent. His swinging strike rate is also way down, 5.7 percent. His previous low came last season, 9.1 percent. A couple of other all-time lows, though not by as drastic a percentage: pitches seen in the zone, 43.9 percent, and first-pitch strikes. 52.5 percent.

The decrease in swing percentage comes mostly on balls inside the strike zone. A-Rod has swung at just 63.7 percent of those pitches, whereas his previous career low came in 2007, 66.3 percent. On the flip side, he’s making plenty of contact with the pitches he does swing at inside the zone, 96.7 percent, more than 10 percentage points higher than any year of his career. He’s also making more contact with pitches outside the zone, an increase even over last year, which was the highest mark of his career.

Intuitively, I would think that these numbers forecast a high-power year for A-Rod. He’s being selective with pitches inside the zone, so presumably he’s only swinging at the ones he likes. On those pitches he’s making plenty of contact, too, so I’d guess that he’s hitting more line drives. Yet none of that is true. His line drive rate is nearly identical to last year. He’s hitting more ground balls, and hitting fewer balls in the air. Worst of all, he’s not hitting those balls in the air particularly well, as only three have left the park, or 8.1 percent of his fly balls. He hasn’t been below the 20 percent mark in HR/FB since 2004. His power is way down, too. A .174 ISO represents by far the lowest mark of his career.

This issue can go two ways. First, it could signal that this approach simply doesn’t work for A-Rod. He has been a certain type of hitter his entire career, and changing now doesn’t make much sense. If he’s going to have success, he’ll have to get back to that longer swing that leads to more strikeouts, but also leads to harder hit baseballs. Second, it could mean that he’s in an adjustment period. He’s in his mid-30s now, a time when many ballplayers start to decline. A change in approach might help stave off the normal effects of aging, allowing him to continue playing until a much later age. Both of these cases have merit, and I’m not at all sure which case this is. It could be something completely different, too, I suppose.

Encouragingly, A-Rod’s defense has improved according to both major defensive metrics. John Dewan’s +/- system has A-Rod at 4 defensive runs saved, third among his peers, while UZR has him at 1.6, fourth among AL third basemen. He’s still hitting well compared to other AL third basemen, ranking third in wOBA. Nos. 2 and 4, Alberto Callaspo and Jose Bautista, don’t figure to be around for long, either. Also, while he’s not hitting home runs at nearly the pace he has in years past, he is actually slapping his share of doubles. He has eight already, after hitting just 17 all of last year. Even if he doesn’t get to the 30 homer mark this season, a 35-40 doubles season will certainly add to his value.

The most important thing about all this data is that it’s tough to make much of it. We’re dealing with 121 PA here, so it’s not a huge sample. Yet these are the results. This is what he has done so far. It might be coincidental, but with numbers this far off from his career marks make me wonder whether the change is deliberate. He raves about his work with Kevin Long, so I can definitely understand if they changed his approach this year. If they have made some adjustments, it’s too early to write them off. If they haven’t made adjustments, I really wonder why his plate discipline numbers have changed so drastically.

It’s been a tough year so far without A-Rod producing his normal power numbers out of the No. 4 spot. Remember, though, that at this point last year, heading into Game 34, that A-Rod had played in just five contests and was hitting .188. Once he heats up — and I have nothing but confidence that he will — we could be in for an experience similar to last year. I’d take his 2009 numbers any time.

Two days and two chats? How can that beeee?
RAB elsewhere on the internets
  • Rose

    It appears that a number of Yankees hitters have changed their approaches this season.


    You win the World Series hitting a certain way…and change it for what reason? I could understand if it were one person but everybody seems to be hitting differently.

    Jeter’s new approach was clearly a bad idea.

    • http://twitter.com/riddering Riddering

      Winning a World Series–or even winning the division–doesn’t mean the team was perfect throughout the lineup. Swisher and Cano both struggled in the WS, worked on making adjustments, and have been hitting very well so far in 2010.

      I don’t remember talk of Jeter making changes to his approach, however.

    • Chris

      Is there any evidence that these changes are caused by anything more than small sample sizes?

      The only stats that we would expect to be stable after this few PA are swing % (which is basically at his career average 41.6% vs 43.8%) and contact rate (which is up – 86% vs 75.5%).


      • Mike HC

        Even if it is a small sample size, it still explains what has actually happened so far, not necessarily a prediction of what is about to happen.

        • Jose

          No it doesn’t necessarily accurately describe what has happened so far. When you have a sample size that isn’t large enough, if you look at stats that haven’t stabilized, they could just be statistical anomalies and not represent a change in approach. The sample size is too small to say anything about so far or a prediction.

          • Mike HC

            The whole small sample size thing gets confused sometimes. Yes it could be anomaly. That is not the point. The point is that in the beginning of this year, A-Rod has had a different approach at the plate. Whether it is conscious, or based on how he is pitched, is meaningless. It is simply what has already happened.

            The SSS argument comes into play if the other person claims you can read something into the analysis. He isn’t. Just saying it is something to watch.

            • Mike HC

              I should clarify that.

              … A-Rod has had a different approach at the plate than his career averages.

              • Jose

                “it could signal that this approach simply doesn’t work for A-Rod.”

                This what I have a problem with. I completely understand that sample sizes sometimes get confused. I am not confusing them. You cannot look at this small a sample and equate the results with his “new approach”. There is not enough data where you can try and link his approach and the results. Joe is suggesting already that the approach may not be working. You cannot make that judgment with this sample size.

                I don’t understand what you are saying with “It is simply what has already happened.”

                • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

                  It has already happened, as in, A-Rod has swung at way fewer pitches and has made contact with way more. It might be an aberration, but that’s one hell of an aberration, considering the vast, vast difference between this year’s numbers and his career marks. Hell, even the difference between last year and this year is stark.

                  • Jose

                    Gotcha. I see where you are coming from with the size of the aberration being a factor. Chances of regression to the mean are much more difficult when you start with a sample of about 150 PA drastically different from that career mean. Thanks for explaining your thought process.

          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

            Look at the numbers, though. A lot of them are way, way off of his normal percentages.

            • http://twitter.com/riddering Riddering

              Yeah, they are striking. It’s what makes the difference for this post between SSS alert and a genuine discussion point in seeing what changes might be taking place.

            • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUvg7Empjfg Captain Jack

              Are we still talking about Jeter’s numbers in regards to Rose’s comment or Alex?

            • Jose

              I do agree that there is probably something behind those contact rates and swinging percentages. Those have stabilized. The problem I have is with the HR/FB rate. Isn’t it still too early to say anything about that? Even if it is way off career percentages?

              • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

                It’s too early to use his current mark as an indicator of what he’ll do for the rest of the season, yes. But too early to say that maybe his swing and contact rates have affected it? I’m not saying they have had an effect, but I’m saying there might be a connection.

                • Jose

                  Thanks for the answer. I misinterpreted and assumed you were saying there definitively was a connection. It is a food for thought type presentation of data.

                  • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

                    There’s so little that’s black and white in baseball that I try not to draw any sweeping conclusions. I just try to find data that might suggest a connection.

      • ledavidisrael

        Swing rates and contact rates have stabilized.

        and iso deff hasn’t….. So no reason to worry

  • Mike HC

    The approach a hitter takes at the plate is not in a vacuum though. It also depends on how the opposing pitcher is pitching you. Like your Nick Johnson analysis earlier in the year. He did not change his approach, but maybe he should have. Pitchers were throwing him first pitch strikes at a rate he has never seen. Maybe he should have swung at those first pitches, because he didn’t get anything to hit for the rest of the at bat.

    I have not done any research on this, but maybe opposing pitchers are adjusting to the Yanks hitters. Maybe they are giving Jeter better pitches to hit on the first pitch than usual, hence him swinging more.

    With A-Rod, I think it has more to do with himself. I think he is just being more selective regardless of how the pitcher is approaching him.

  • WhizzoTheWize

    Whizzo approves of ARod’s more selective approach.

    If for no other reason, it remind’s Whizzo of his own transition from man-about-town to only-dates-super-models.

    BE WARNED HOWEVER: Whizzo’s home-run rate has also suffered under this approach.

    • Jose

      Whizzo is my hero.

    • Andy in Sunny Daytona

      Love the Whizzo.

    • Mike HC

      Yea, solid comment.

    • DF

      Golf clap.

  • http://deleted How Ya Doin

    Any thoughts as to whether his lack of power has to do with that knee issue he was dealing with earlier? Maybe he can’t drive off of it as well as he used to?

  • Andy in Sunny Daytona

    Joe, Is that photo from this year? Because if it is, I thought that i read somewhere that he was working with K Long to lesson the length he picks his leg up. If that is the case, according to this picture, that’s a big negative that it’s woking.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      I actually thought about that last week. Looked at some video of this season vs. the playoffs last year, and he was getting his front foot down at the same time, so I didn’t go any further with it. I thought maybe he was getting it down too early or too late or something.

      • Andy in Sunny Daytona

        I wonder if something else it out of whack, timing wise? He’s hitting a ton of pop-ups, which leads me to think (and
        I’m just relating this to a golf swing) that his weight shift is all wrong.

        • ROBTEN

          Observation warning: The timing issue would correlate with the fact that he also seems to be out in front of off-speed pitches.

          Of course, this is purely observational and could be completely wrong. Is there a way to access ARod’s spray chart for this season?

          • ROBTEN

            Well, just looking quickly at what numbers I can find at the moment…

            According to B-R.com, for his career:

            Pulled-RHB .494/.491/.911/1.401
            Up Mdle-RHB .338/.335/.636/.970
            Opp Fld-RHB .318/.312/.653/.965

            with a 2:3:1 ratio (keeping in mind that B-R.com has roughly 500 unaccounted for PA)

            This season he’s:

            Pulled-RHB .406/.406/.656/1.063
            Up Mdle-RHB .292/.284/.462/.745
            Opp Fld-RHB .200/.182/.400/.582

            with a 3:6:1 ratio.

            So, if I am looking at this correctly, it does seem that he’s pulling the ball more than previous seasons, which could point to a timing issue. He’s also having a bit of bad luck all around, but especially with going to the opposite field as his career BABIP to opposite field is .249 and this season it is .182

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

      Pic is from Game 2 of Wednesday doubleheader.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUvg7Empjfg Captain Jack

    I’m pretty sure that by the end of the season everyone will regress to their usual career performances, for better or worse; yeah Swisher probably won’t hit .300 and keep his isolated rates and AJ Burnett probably won’t be (good) CMW with better walk and K-rates. However, Jeter will probably regress to his usual O-zone swing percentages and regain his plate discipline and some of his power. Nick Johnson will start hitting again, but you all knew that.

  • rek4gehrig

    Thanks. I noticed there was something different with Arod but couldnt quite put my finger on what was it was. At least this makes sense

  • Rod

    Could this be the start of a transition to the Barry Bonds approach? No, I don’t mean PEDs, I mean becoming incredibly selective and making tons of contact. Hopefully the power reappears but a much more relaxed approach where A-Rod doesn’t attempt to press in every at bat would be great way to tackle his remaining career.

  • dkidd

    is it a coincidence that a-rods worst (full) year was also his lowest strike-out %?

    i trust that kevin long tailors his work to the individual player’s personality. he must know that a-rod is prone to over-thinking. i can’t imagine he’s trying to turn a hall-of-famer into a less aggressive hitter

    if i was kevin long, my mantra for alex would be “trust your talent. stop trying to out-guess the pitcher. see the ball, hit the ball”

  • YankFanDave

    Great piece Joe. Is there any evidence that he is swinging more often at inside pitches? Just eyeballing it, he seems to have come into this season ready to handle the inside pitch that has caused him difficulty in the past. He is making contact on those pitches, rather than taking them as in the past, but he can’t get good wood on them and, therefore, is hitting more grounders up the left field line.

  • http://www.yankeeist.com Larry Koestler

    Great post, Joe. I took a look at this on Yankeeist the other day, and it feels like A-Rod is on the cusp of going on a tear. He pretty much has to — as TYU also noted earlier today, Alex’s 7.7% HR/FB ratio is comically low.