Can Rowdy Tellez Get More By Swinging Less?

Rowdy Tellez
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Rowdy Tellez has stopped swinging. Not entirely; he’s tied for ninth in the National League with 12 home runs and 20th with a .494 slugging percentage. But this year, the Brewers slugger has cut at just 35.3% of all pitches, the second-lowest rate in baseball after the famously choosy Juan Soto. It’s uncharacteristic of Tellez, representing an eight-point drop from last year and a 13.2-point drop from his 2021 campaign. The new approach has done wonders for his chase rate: his O-Swing%, which was 35.2% in 2021 and 31.0% in 2022, is now 33rd in the majors at 25.9%. And while he’s never been a terribly impatient hitter, cutting back on swings at bad pitches has meant a rising walk rate, which isn’t quite Soto-esque at 12.0% but is a marked improvement from his 7.1% rate two years ago. That alone will get you on base an extra 30 or so times over a full season.

Tellez started to change his approach last year, swinging at fewer and fewer pitches than he had through the first three-plus seasons of his career. For most of his time in Toronto, he offered at somewhere between 48% and 50% of pitches he saw, but right around the time he was dealt to Milwaukee in 2021, he got a fair bit more aggressive with pitches over the plate, cutting at 73.9% of strikes and just 34.5% of pitches outside the zone. Since then, the aggression at the plate has given way to radical levels of patience:

Now, stop me if you can guess what the problem with never swinging the bat is: he’s taking a lot more strikes. While everyone else in the league is swinging at a majority of the pitches they see in the zone, Tellez is offering at just 47.4%, nearly seven points lower than any of his contemporaries. If he keeps this up, he’ll be the first qualifier to swing at less than half of pitches in the zone since David Fletcher in 2019 and ’20. In the 22 seasons of our Z-Swing% data, his 47.4% rate would be second-lowest over a full season, beating only Brett Gardner’s 44.8% in 2010.

Single-Season Z-Swing% Under 50%, 2002-2023
Player Season Z-Swing%
1 Brett Gardner 2010 44.8%
2 Rowdy Tellez* 2023 47.4%
3 David Fletcher 2019 48.7%
4 Martin Prado 2012 48.9%
5 Luis Castillo 2009 49.1%
6 David Fletcher 2020 49.3%
7 Matt Carpenter 2014 49.4%
8 Reggie Willits 2007 49.9%
*Season in progress

As a result, over one out of every four pitches Tellez sees gets called for a strike, a rate nobody has matched over a full season since Fletcher. He’s benefitting from improved walk rates, but his strikeout rate, too, has gone up, from 20.2% last year to 23.9% in 2023. Despite a low swinging-strike rate, his CSW% — the rate of pitches that end up as called or swinging strikes — is seventh-highest in the majors at 32.4%.

The difference between patient hitters that produce like Soto or Mookie Betts and those that don’t is elite recognition of the strike zone and pitch selection. Tellez does not appear to have that in strong enough order to drive both his walk rate and strikeout rate down. So why isn’t he swinging? Let’s take a closer look at his 2022, using Statcast’s swing-take profile:

Last year, Tellez generated -14.4 runs of value on swings compared to 22.9 runs on taken pitches, good for a net positive run value of 8.5. A lot of this disparity was made up where we would expect it: in the chase and waste zones, where Tellez had an advantage of 32 runs on takes compared to -12 on swings. But he also got beat badly on swings in the shadow zone, to the tune of -11 runs compared to +3 on takes. Even if we limit his shadow swings to those that Gameday found would have been strikes, Tellez was well in the negative at -8; thanks to bad contact, that’s more damage on a per-pitch basis swinging at that subset of strikes than he did taking them. Only over the heart of the plate was he rewarded for swinging.

Last week, sabermetric pioneer and MLB data architect Tom Tango fired off a few tweets musing about just how difficult it is to be a net-positive hitter in the shadow zone, noting that just seven of 479 hitters since 2020 have managed to contribute positively on all pitches there. Of the 466 hitters with at least 250 takes in the shadow zone in that time, 205 have net-positive run values on those pitches, Tellez among them. Of the 491 with at least 250 swings at shadow pitches, just seven were in the black. In 2022, taken pitches on the edge of the zone were about neutral overall, the balls and strikes more or less evening out. Swung-at pitches on the edge of the zone were hugely advantageous for those throwing them, giving pitchers around three runs per 100 pitches.

League Run Values per 100 Pitches, 2022
Zone Swing% Swing Take
Heart 73% 0.43 -5.51
Shadow 54% -3.03 0.00
Chase 24% -7.40 0.99
Waste 6% -11.80 5.93
SOURCE: Statcast

So what good does all this trying to hit the ball do? Short of the ability to distinguish between strikes and balls on the edge at an elite level, a player might see all this evidence and aim to swing only at pitches in the heart of the zone — the only area in which Tellez’s swings, like many others, have had any broad success.

If this is Tellez’s approach, he’s done well to lay off pitches in the waste zone (down from 6% swings in 2022 to 4% in 2023), chase zone (23% to 19%), and most of all the shadow zone (51% to 38%); he’s also swinging at only 54% over the heart compared to 62% last year. Extreme as it seems, this may be close to an even trade; about a third of the way through, he’s been able to limit the damage on swings to -3.4 runs and accumulate 6.3 runs on takes, good for 2.9 runs overall. This amounts to .36 runs per 100 pitches, even with last year.

Rowdy Tellez’s 2023 Run Values
Zone Swing% Swing Take
Heart 54% 3.2 -6.4
Shadow 38% -5.2 0.7
Chase 19% -1.0 8.0
Waste 4% -0.4 4.1
SOURCE: Statcast

Pitchers seem to be taking some notice, though, and they’re coming into the zone at a 43.6% rate, more frequently than ever in Tellez’s career, and getting the advantage early more often with a 59.2% first-pitch strike rate, up over two points from last year. But this may be of less concern to Tellez than it would be to another hitter. Last year, he was 40% better than league average by OPS after a first-pitch strike and 22% better behind in the count in general. This year so far, he’s 62% better than league average after falling behind 0–1 and 24% better when the pitcher has the advantage. That’s not to say he’s a better hitter in those scenarios than when he is ahead, but he doesn’t seem to pay quite the same price for falling behind as some hitters do. Still, the more Tellez invites pitchers into the zone without punishing them for it, the more dangerous this approach is.

It is a radical experiment to cut your swing rate by eight percentage points, and exactly what it means for Tellez remains to be seen. So far, he’s getting on base more, but while his batting average and slugging percentage have also jumped up, his batted-ball peripherals suggest that might be thanks to some BABIP magic; he’s overperforming his expected stats after underperforming them in the last two seasons. His patience hasn’t led to more favorable pitches to hit; he isn’t hitting the ball as hard nor is he getting it in the air (where power-hitting first basemen make their money) as often as he did last year despite clearing the fence 12 times. For now, he looks to be about as valuable as he was last year, if not a little more so — a profound shift landing a player in a similar spot. But there’s time left for Tellez to find that happy medium that will allow him to keep his walk rate up without letting too many potential homers slip by him. Finding that improved balance could yield a serious return for the effort.

All stats as of the end of play on May 31.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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10 months ago

All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down?

10 months ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

After writing that, I thought

“Oh My, Rowdy Tellez Has Settled Down”

would have been an even better title joke.