FanGraphs’ new graph functions are great at telling some interesting stories about players. It shows how pitchers and hitters are reacting to each other in real time. The three Miami Marlins outfielders have all had interesting seasons for various reasons, and it is intriguing to see just how pitchers decided to attack them as a result of recent data. Giancarlo Stanton, the team’s star, hit a nearly two-month rut of which he is just starting to break out. Christian Yelich has cooled off after a flaming hot start; he is hitting a nice but still less impressive .300/.362/.457 with a surprisingly low 8.1 percent walk rate since April ended. Meanwhile, Marcell Ozuna went on a well-timed tear to compensate for these troubles and has continued being on fire since then.
How have teams changed their attitudes for these players? How have these three Marlins adjusted as a result? Let’s look at these three under the view of plate discipline statistics, most notably swing rate, contact rate, and zone rate (percentage of pitches seen inside the strike zone).
It does not take a genius to figure out just about when Stanton started hitting his career-worst slide. From around the 37th game of the season to the 60th, his contact rate starting dipping bad enough that he had a stretch during which he was barely making contact on more than 50 percent of those pitches he saw. It probably is not a coincidence that Stanton began swinging more during that lowest of times than at any point in the season. He was struggling so much, with Marlins fans breathing down his neck, that he may have begun pressing, thus making a bad situation potentially worse.
Right around the 50th game of the year, Stanton’s swing rate began to drift downward towards the 40 percent mark. Perhaps he pressed less, perhaps this was a conscious effort, but it was also a smart move, because teams were throwing him strikes at low rates when he was swinging at everything. Once pitchers began offering more often in the zone, Stanton began to capitalize and bring his contact rates up. With that, the ebb and flow of strikes thrown and swings taken has swung in the opposite direction again, as Stanton is now taking more swings with pitchers offering in the zone to try and compensate. The opponents are just beginning now to re-respect Stanton’s great power and the zone rate is dipping once more. It is a constant cat-and-mouse game with Stanton’s strike zone right now.
Remember earlier in the season when Christian Yelich was developing a style in which he selectively stopped swinging at pitches, particularly out of the strike zone? That trend was continuing for a while, but it looks like it has normalized with Yelich adapting to ptichers changing their approach. At one point, they had thrown fewer than 40 percent of their pitches in a 15-game sample in the strike zone, leading to the lowest swing rate Yelich put up this season. Then, as that number began climbing and pitchers started attacking the zone, it necessitated Yelich swinging at more balls.
Unfortunately, his swing rates in and out of the strike zone have disproportionately changed since that time period.
He has swung at pitches in the zone at about a normal rate, the sort of vacillation you could expect to see with pitcher approach changes or with the rigors of a full season. But that once-spectacular discipline outside the strike zone that enamored us early in the year has steadily disappeared. In the last 15 games, Yelich has swung at around 65 percent of pitches in the zone but a whopping 27 percent of them out of the strike zone. That is not the discipline we expected, and it is probably part of the reason why he has only walked 8.1 percent of the time since April. He is losing the discipline he showed off this year and starting to play like he did last season, when he walked in only nine percent of plate appearances.
You can almost see just exactly when Ozuna starts raking for the Marlins, thus garnering the respect of pitchers everywhere. The newly-minted National League All-Star outfielder (and starter!) started going on a tear in May, and just about then you can see the slow decline down to the pits of zone rate, culminating around game 50. At that time, pitchers had decided to start throwing fewer than 40 percent of their pitches in the zone against a red-hot Ozuna.
The odd thing is that at that time, Ozuna was swinging at his highest rates. He was offering at around 40 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, a seemingly guaranteed way to end your streak. Yet at that time going forward, somehow Ozuna’s contact rate grew. It peaked at around game 60 and maintained a decent plateau around 82 percent despite the fact that pitchers were clearly avoiding him for some time. In June, Ozuna made contact on 64 percent of pitches out of the zone and a whopping 91 percent of them in the strike zone with pitchers only throwing in the zone 43 percent of the time. Ozuna’s approach has not always made sense for his resurgence, but whatever he is doing is working so far. With his less impressive start to July, however, Ozuna appears to have toned down his swing rate to finally begin compensating. We will see if that trend continues.
Each Marlins outfielder has had an interesting year in terms of discipline at the plate. Each one is beginning to formulate their gameplans against pitchers and continue to hone their approaches at the plate as they enter a new chapter in their careers.