Omar Infante hit his fifth home run last night in the 5-1 loss to the New York Mets. In comparison, he hit seven all of last season and only had one season with more than 10 homers. If you are a Marlins fan, you have to be intrigued by Infante's sudden power surge and wonder if he can continue doing such a thing. With the rest of the Marlins struggling so badly right now, Marlins fans are looking for some positive news about Infante going into the rest of the season.
Well, I cannot say that Infante will keep raking as he is now, but I did want to to research if there was anything different being done to achieve these surprising results. Some of it was obvious given the power surge; he has hit homers in 18.2 percent of fly balls (career 5.2 percent HR/FB rate) and he is hitting a lot of fly balls (53.7 percent rate thus far). Those things are alarming only because they are anomalous and likely to regress a good deal over the course of the season.
But one thing I thought was really interesting is detailed here. Check out Infante's plate discipline numbers via Pitch F/X.
What jumps out at you here? Infante's numbers in terms of number of pitches he has swung at and contact rate are basically in line with his career marks. His selectivity however? It has been a complete turnaround.For years, Infante had basically been the same type of hitter; he was a contact-type guy who went after a lot of different pitches, good or bad, and depended on his contact rates to get him base hits. He was not highly aggressive with his swings at the plate, but he was not particularly selective either; in fact, he was at or around the league average for swing rate overall as well as in or out of the strike zone. What is interesting about this season is that he has completely flipped the switch on his selective approach; he is swinging more at pitches in the zone and has really cut down on his pitches out of the zone.
When you think about it logically, you would absolutely want hitters to do something like this, provided you do not know the counts with which they are dealing. A ball in play on average is worth more than a strike, and if Infante really has become selective enough to take more balls out of the zone and wait on "his pitch," then he is also cutting down a bit on strikes due to swings and misses on balls out of the zone. The turnaround between a ball and a strike in a 0-0 count, for example, is 0.07 runs. Consider that the average Infante ball in play (including home runs) has been worth almost 0.17 runs for his career. With this configuration, Infante is passing up on more strikes that have negative values ranging from -0.04 to -0.35 runs and putting more of those in play, while at the same time sacrificing a few balls in play and a lot more strikes and taking more sure-fire balls worth between 0.03 and 0.28 runs by taking more pitches out of the zone.
This is especially useful to the Marlins given the fact that pitches are pounding the zone generally against Infante. Because he is a light hitter, pitchers are more aggressive and make him beat them. Infante's more aggressive in-zone plan plays decently with this pitching approach, as he puts more balls in play in this fashion than he typically would have. Infante sees 53 percent of pitches in the zone from opposing pitchers since 2009, and that ranks as the 25th highest amount of strikes a player received from pitchers, behind a slew of other equally weak contact hitters. In this light, Infante swinging and making good contact on more strikes is a positive overall result.
Has that affected his power? I cannot say that, but it is certainly a possibility. I can tell you that, as a result of this approach, Infante has struck out in only 6.7 percent of plate appearances thus far while walking in only 2.2 percent of appearances. This is an obvious result of making more contact on pitches, but given that Infante never drew a lot of walks or strikeouts with his approach before, moving away from drawing either is not a bad thing; Infante's average non-ball in play result was worth -0.1 runs for his career, so the benefit of putting the ball in play for him is worth almost 0.3 runs, or about the value above average of a walk.
Can he continue this? Well, according to the old research by Pizza Cutter, these sort of statistics become about 50 percent "predictive" of future performance in around 75-100 PA, so one would expect that Infante could continue this sort of performance. We should expect some regression, but the approach is an improvement given his ability to make contact, provided it does not change the quality of contact. So far this season, the quality of his contact has been very strong, as evidenced by the home runs and the .402 ISO, so as of now we cannot complain. Whether it continues remains to be seen.