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Christian Yelich and the sophomore slump, part 2

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This week we will explore why certain players are seemingly immune to regression in their sophomore seasons as well as determining whether or not rebounding from poor performance is possible and likely.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Greetings all! I apologize for my absence last week, but I am now proud to say that I have officially finished working towards my BA in Psychology. I graduate in a couple of weeks! But enough about that! We continue on to more important topics.

In Part I of this series I posited that Christian Yelich's early struggles at the plate could be evidence of the "Sophomore Slump". I recognize that this is not a huge leap to make given that some form of regression is expected to take place on some level. Additionally, the notion of small sample sizes and the clear presence of an injury make his slow start understandable. That being said, the uniqueness of the situation (being that Yelich was one of a handful of players to be rewarded a contract after just one full season) gives credence to being slightly concerned about his early struggles.

Upon exploration we discovered that out of the handful of young players that qualified for comparison, only three either repeated performance or improved in the first year of their newly minted contracts. Those players were Ryan Braun (2007-2008), Nomar Garciaparra (1997-1998), and Grady Sizemore (2005-2006). This led us to ask the question of "Why?". What allowed these three players to repeat their performance? After much deliberation I decided to explore two possible variables, though I recognize there to be many. The first could be defined as an internal variable: plate approach. While the other could be defined as an external variable: team performance and roster construction

Plate Approach

The following are FanGraph's Plate Discipline metrics for both Ryan Braun and Grady Sizemore (plate discipline metrics were ushered in with the dawn of Pitch F/X.). If you are unfamiliar with what these are and how they are calculated, you can find many interesting articles here and here:

Name Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr% LD% GB% FB%
Ryan Braun 2007 30.60% 71.40% 52.00% 55.70% 84.30% 76.30% 52.50% 60.60% 12.10% 16.30% 38.80% 44.90%
AVERAGE 2007 25.00% 66.60% 45.90% 60.80% 88.20% 80.80% 50.30% 58.70% 8.60%
Ryan Braun 2008 34.30% 67.60% 51.20% 60.00% 88.60% 79.20% 50.80% 61.20% 10.50% 17.30% 38.70% 44.10%
AVERAGE 2008 25.40% 65.40% 45.90% 61.70% 87.90% 80.80% 51.10% 58.60% 8.60%
Name Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr% LD% GB% FB%
Grady Sizemore 2005 16.70% 65.60% 43.80% 49.50% 89.50% 82.70% 55.40% 55.50% 7.60% 24.50% 44.50% 31.00%
AVERAGE 2005 20.30% 68.00% 46.00% 51.80% 88.30% 80.80% 53.80% 59.10% 8.70%
Grady Sizemore 2006 18.30% 65.20% 43.90% 56.10% 88.10% 82.00% 54.50% 58.60% 7.80% 19.80% 33.30% 46.90%
AVERAGE 2006 23.50% 66.60% 46.10% 57.40% 88.50% 81.00% 52.60% 58.80% 8.50%

As you can see there is very little difference in their approach to the plate from year-to-year (at least according to these particular metrics.) What is clear is the difference in approach between the two players. Braun, being the slugger that he is, shows a higher propensity to swing but a lower contact rate while Sizemore, having been used primarily as a leadoff man, demonstrates a lower overall Swing% but a higher overall Contact%.

Although these numbers are revealing, they don't quite demonstrate a high correlation for the repeated performance. Plate approach, while important, doesn't appear to be the sole distinguishing factor between success and failure in the sophomore season, as many of the players who suffered from the slump also demonstrated a similar approach at the plate.

Team Performance and Roster Construction

Everyone knows that overall team performance is determined by individual prowess. What people don't often realize is that the relationship is often circular. It is true that the team, as a whole, benefits from individual accomplishments. In turn that same player benefits on an individual level when the team performs better. An example of this would be the concept of lineup protection. The one trait found in all three players that "beat the slump" was that their team ranked within the top eight in almost every offensive category in both the platform year (season before contract extended) as well as the contract year (first year of contract). In the case of Ryan Braun, having a powerful lineup of Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks allowed for Ryan Braun to continually see "good pitches to hit" as pitchers would rather try their luck pitching to Braun than pitching to proven commodities like Fielder and Rickie Weeks. The same could be said for both Grady Sizemore (who benefited from Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez) and Nomar Garciaparra (who benefitted from John Valentin and Mo Vaughn) though they both batted leadoff which automatically provides them with good pitches to hit as well as incentivizing the notion of a patient approach at the plate.

Curiously enough, the teams of players that regressed often ranked in the bottom half of all offensive statistic categories. In the case of Brian McCann, the Braves overall offensive output fell greatly,  as many key contributors failed to produce a similar offensive output from the previous season.

There are many potential reasons explaining how Braun, Sizemore and Garciaparra repeated their stellar rookie seasons. In fact, there are probably many more than I could possibly come up with on my own. I would imagine that much of their repeated success has to do with the ability to adjust. While their respective lineups helped take pressure off of the offensive workload, the ability to adjust to the leagues adjustments for the player in question is what often separates good players from great players.

So now that we've at least attempted to answer how those players beat the slump, it's imperative to turn our attention to those players that regressed in their sophomore seasons. Were they able to perform at a similar level as they once did? Or were their early brilliance the sign of a flash in the pan? To answer this question I was only able to pull up two examples from the list. This was partially caused by the fact that the majority of the players that struggled in their second season were just starting their third season (second season of the contract) making it impossible to see whether or not they improved after their sophomore season.

The players identified were Troy Tulowitzki and Brian McCann:

Name Season Team G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Troy Tulowitzki 2009 Rockies 151 628 32 101 92 20 11.60% 17.80% .256 .316 .297 .377 .552 .395 132 -1.2 23.6 9.7 5.4
Troy Tulowitzki 2010 Rockies 122 529 27 89 95 11 9.10% 14.70% .253 .327 .315 .381 .568 .406 140 -0.2 25.1 12.1 5.6
Troy Tulowitzki 2011 Rockies 143 606 30 81 105 9 9.70% 13.00% .242 .305 .302 .372 .544 .389 133 -4.4 18.6 13.9 5.4
Troy Tulowitzki 2012 Rockies 47 203 8 33 27 2 9.40% 9.40% .199 .284 .287 .360 .486 .364 113 0.3 3.4 1.3 1.2
Troy Tulowitzki 2013 Rockies 126 512 25 72 82 1 11.10% 16.60% .229 .334 .312 .391 .540 .400 141 -1.6 22.1 11.9 5.3
Troy Tulowitzki 2014 Rockies 91 375 21 71 52 1 13.30% 15.20% .263 .355 .340 .432 .603 .444 171 0.3 30.2 6.8 5.3
CAREER AVERAGE (POST-2008) 113 476 24 75 76 7 10.70% 14.45% .240 .320 .309 .386 .549 .400 138.3 -1.1 20.5 9.3 4.7
PLATFORM YEAR (2007) 155 682 24 104 99 7 8.40% 19.10% .189 .335 .291 .359 .479 .364 109 0.4 8.4 22.2 5.2

Name Season Team G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Brian McCann 2008 Braves 145 573 23 68 87 5 9.90% 11.20% .222 .306 .301 .373 .523 .386 135 -4.8 20.5 12.6 5.1
Brian McCann 2009 Braves 138 551 21 63 94 4 8.90% 15.10% .205 .297 .281 .349 .486 .359 119 -4.9 8.3 11.7 3.8
Brian McCann 2010 Braves 143 566 21 63 77 5 13.10% 17.30% .184 .297 .269 .375 .453 .362 123 -6.4 9.4 20.4 4.9
Brian McCann 2011 Braves 128 527 24 51 71 3 10.80% 16.90% .195 .287 .270 .351 .466 .350 122 -3.9 9.3 10.6 3.8
Brian McCann 2012 Braves 121 487 20 44 67 3 9.00% 15.60% .169 .234 .230 .300 .399 .300 87 -3.5 -11.1 10.4 1.5
Brian McCann 2013 Braves 102 402 20 43 57 0 9.70% 16.40% .205 .261 .256 .336 .461 .347 121 -3.9 5.8 7.7 2.7
Brian McCann 2014 Yankees 140 538 23 57 75 0 5.90% 14.30% .174 .231 .232 .286 .406 .306 92 -3.2 -7.9 11.5 2.3
CAREER AVERAGE (POST- 2007) 131 521 22 56 75 3 9.61% 15.26% .193 .273 .263 .339 .456 .344 114.1 -4.4 4.9 12.1 3.4
PLATFORM YEAR (2006) 130 492 24 61 93 2 8.30% 11.00% .240 .332 .333 .388 .572 .401 142 -7 19.9 7.7 4.3

As you can see their performances did rebound. In the case of Troy Tulowitzki it's important to note that his "sophomore slump" could very well have been due to his various injuries throughout the season; injuries that forced him to miss significant playing time.

So what does this all mean for the Miami Marlins and Christian Yelich? Well, every player is different and reacts differently to adversity. Given that Yelich, shortly after the publication of Part I of this series, went onto the DL with the injury to his back; we have yet to see him play at full strength and for a significant amount of time. The season is still very young. However, should Yelich return and fail to produce at the level he is accustomed, there is some solace in recognizing that adjustments and struggles are natural for a young player and there are many examples of players that struggled in their second season only to thrive once again in future seasons.