The Miami Marlins came out very poorly early on in the 2015 season, particularly on offense. It was difficult to watch the Fish struggle through plate appearances against the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays and only just recently break out of their weeklong slump. However, as we all know, it is early in the year, and making judgments on players this early is a fool's errand. Very few stats are the least bit predictive of a player's performance a week and a half into their year.
There are some numbers, however, that can give some indication as to a change in a player's habits or the way that a player is approached. Strikeouts and walks "stabilize" or become 50 percent predictive of future performance at around 60 to 100 plate appearances and 120 to 160 chances respectively. Prior studies have shown that plate discipline numbers, particularly swing rates, can be reliable indicators of future performance as early as 50 plate appearances into a season! Swing rates are almost an inherent part of a player's game, so quintessential to their identity that it is almost immediately telling about a player's approach.
Knowing that, I glanced over at FanGraphs' Pitch F/X plate discipline numbers for the Marlins and spotted some interesting trends in swing rates that may portend good or bad things going forward.
Stanton is Waiting
Giancarlo Stanton swung at just 44 percent of pitches last season, just like he has been throughout his career. This year, however, he has at least started off making a conscious effort to swing less, particularly against bad pitches out of the zone. His early swing rate is down to 36 percent this year, putting at around the 12th lowest swing rate in the league. For a guy who seemingly gets nothing to hit, having received only 41 percent of pitches in the strike zone in the last two years, this seems like a positive move. This would be especially true if Stanton continues to remain as selective as he has been thus far, with just an 18 percent swing rate at pitches out of the strike zone. That kind of selectively is currently sitting next to known, successful patient hitters like Matt Carpenter and Joey Votto.
Of course, that selectivity is not a guarantee at this stage of the season, but it is a nice thing to see early on. If he can turn on a few more pitches in the zone, Stanton may be in for a great year at the plate.
Gordon Still Hacking
Dee Gordon's early success at the plate has been nice to see for Marlins fans, especially those who doubted him after the controversial Los Angeles Dodgers trade. His lack of strikeouts in particular has been a nice touch to see. However, the early lack of strikeouts seems to have little to do with Gordon having found a new plate approach. If you will recall, Gordon's modus operandi at the plate in recent years has consisted of a lack of discernment between balls and strikes; he posted a poor swing rate out of the zone and a small swing rate in the strike zone, leading to acceptable overall swing rates but poor plate recognition.
Gordon's early success has seemingly tempted him to swing more early on, as evidenced by his 52 percent swing rate. But as far as recognition is concerned, it does not look like he is spotting pitches a whole lot better. His current swing rate in the strike zone is at 64 percent, which is the best in his career, but he is also hacking at about 40 percent of pitches out of the zone. This seems to indicate more swings without necessarily teasing out at what pitches he would be best served swinging. His current career-high contact rate (93 percent) would have to stick around for me to feel confident in his smaller whiff rate.
Salty's Strike Zone
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is rightfully getting a lot of flak for striking out 11 times in 25 plate appearances, and there is always the remote possibility that a guy prone to strikeouts at almost age 30 might completely lose the ability to make contact with the ball. However, at least in terms of his swing rates, he appears to be doing the job he has always done, and in fact he may be discerning the strike zone even better as of right now. Saltalamacchia has put up a 78 percent swing rate on pitches in the zone but an 18 percent rate on pitches out of the strike zone. As a result, his current 45 percent swing rate is the lowest he has posted, and it matches with the current approach to avoid the strike zone (45 percent zone rate) against him.
Salty has severe contact issues right now, and obviously those need to be resolved before he can ever recover. But if you presume he is not going to keep making contact on just 59 percent of his swings, you should see better results going forward. "If" is still a looming word in that sentence, however.
Color commentator Tommy Hutton made the comment that Michael Morse has plate discipline akin to Christian Yelich's. Cue Morse swinging at 54 percent of pitches seen, including 42 percent of them out of the zone. The running joke, which is more on Hutton than it is on Morse, continues. Morse is who he is, and he always will be a remorseless hacker, but Marlins fans and coaches probably all knew that. The only person who did not get that memo was apparently Tommy.