Changing Approaches: Youkilis, Young, and Seager

It’s still April and the samples are still small, but we’re over 10 percent of the way into the 2013 season and a few statistics are beginning to stabilize. Approach-related statistics in particular are starting to reach the point where the regression can be a little less aggressive. Swing rate begins to tell a bit of a story after just 50 plate appearances, for instance.

It’s a pretty intuitive result — the batter’s choice to swing is less dependent on pitcher quality and independent of fielder quality. By now, qualified players are in the 75-100 plate appearance range, and so we can get an idea of who is making a big change to their approach this year.

Observe, the players with a change in swing rate of five percentage points (either increased or decreased) or more through Wednesday’s action:

Graphic made with Tableau Public

In a few cases (Alfonso Soriano, A.J. Ellis), we see players moving further towards an extreme they already represented. In others, though, we have what seems like a radical shift in plate approach. Dave Cameron already covered one of these cases in Adam Dunn, who has become much more aggressive this year. I’d like to highlight a trio of third basemen from this list that I think deserves some extra attention.

Kevin Youkilis

Youkilis tops this list, and he’s probably the most notable given the sabermetric narrative created for him going back to Moneyball. With the Red Sox, Youkilis swung at over 40 percent of pitches seen just once, back in 2008, the first of three All-Star seasons. Youkilis set a career low 10 percent walk rate (tied in 2012) but hit .312/.390/.569 (146 wRC+) largely thanks to 29 home runs.

Even with a seven point jump in swing rate, Youkilis’s 44.8 percent swing rate in 2012 is just under the league average. Still, it’s a significant difference for a player known for taking pitch after pitch. The difference is almost entirely on pitches in the zone — his in-zone swing rate is up an even eight points — and the results have been mixed. He’s already faced an 0-2 count 10 times against just 23 last season, and his 25 percent strikeout rate would be a career high by nearly four points and his walk rate is down to a hardly godlike 4.4 percent On the other hand, his results on contact have been excellent, as he is enjoying a .164 ISO and a .357 BABIP.

Something will have to give. Youkilis is making pitchers pay when they challenge him over the plate, but quick pitchers’ counts are hurting his ability to reach base and make contact. Perhaps he’ll keep hitting pitches left in the zone and force pitchers to nibble a bit more. If not, he may have to take a few tougher strikes on the outside part of the plate and wait, as he usually has, for the pitch he likes.

Michael Young

The two prominent veteran third baseman changing teams this offseason have redone their approach in opposite directions so far. Young’s swing rate is below the league average for the first time since 2003 and down over eight points from his disastrous 2012 season. A .383 BABIP has Young hitting .316/.381/.408. What happens when the hits stop falling in?

Updated projection systems are significantly more confident in Young’s on-base ability — ZiPS has bumped his rest-of-season projection to .335 from .319 preseason; Steamer has gone from .333 to .345. The question is what happens when pitchers begin attacking the zone again. Young has seen just 47.8 percent of pitches in the strike zone according to PITCHf/x, four points below his career rate. Will there be an adjustment? If Young sees more pitches in the strike zone, it could mean more power even as his walks and singles decline — assuming, of course, he can keep his patient streak up long enough to force pitchers to adjust.

Kyle Seager

Seager is on a 14-game hitting streak dating back to April 11 after starting the season just 6-for-39 in his first nine games. A 3-for-4 night with his third home run Thursday pushed Seager’s line to .306/.379/.529. Just one of the marked differences has been Seager’s swing rate, down from 41 percent in 43 before plate appearances to 34 percent in 52 after plate appearances.

The difference within the streak isn’t about walk rate — Seager has six walks in the streak against four previous, a negligible contrast. It’s about seeing hitters’ counts. Seager reached just six hitters’ counts in his first 43 plate appearances against 14 through the streak so far. Seager has raked with the pitcher’s back against the wall, too — he has eight hits and three walks in those 14 plate appearances, including two of his three home runs.

Seager was something of a free swinger over his first two seasons, at 48 percent. It served him well last year as he put together a 108 wRC+ — he makes good enough contact to handle a few unadvisable swings here and there. Seager was already taking fewer pitches than normal at the start of the year and his walk rate has ballooned to 11 percent from 7.1 percent in 2012. The power and contact was already there; by tightening up at the plate, he can use those skills to an even greater impact, as he’s shown over the last couple weeks.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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10 years ago

This is a terrific article. Could you update this one in 100-150 PAs or so to see who’s sticking with the new approach, who’s dropped the act, and who’s joined the ranks of swing-rate-changers? Obviously swing rates stabilize pretty early in the season, but I’m still interested to find if this is true for people who have made a remarkable change–but also I’m interested to see what the results are once pitchers make adjustments.