George Springer’s Not So Great, Still Very Good Year

George Springer
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of ways to look at the numbers George Springer put up in 2022. Here’s the simplest: He had an All-Star season, posting a 132 wRC+ and piling up 4.2 WAR. That’s excellent. On the other hand, you could argue that he has been slipping for a while now. His wRC+ has declined in three consecutive seasons, and now that Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho are both Blue Jays, his days as a center fielder are officially over.

Analyzing Springer is tricky because he’s always been a great hitter no matter what was going on under the hood. He reached his offensive peak in 2019, posting a 155 wRC+ with the help of a career-high 43.2% hard-hit rate. Then in 2020 and ’21, his hard-hit rate came back to earth a bit, his pull rate spiked, and he literally doubled his launch angle. Despite the drastic changes, his wRC+ fell by just over 10 points, dropping him from elite all the way down to very nearly elite.

George Springer Batted Ball Changes
Season GB/FB FB% LA HardHit% Pull% wRC+
2014–19 1.4 33.8% 9.4 40.2% 39.4% 133
2020–21 0.75 45.2% 18.8 41.6% 48.8% 141
2022 1.18 37.6% 13.9 41.9% 48.3% 132

In 2022, Springer’s underlying metrics changed drastically once again, and once again his wRC+ fell by around 10 points.

The other factor complicating things is injury. In 2022, Springer played in 133 games and made 583 plate appearances, then underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow after the season. If you watch clips from the past two years, you’ll notice a difference in his swing. He usually had a two-handed follow-through in 2021, but when he whiffed in ’22, he was more likely to let go of the bat with his right hand at the last moment, presumably to avoid aggravating the elbow. Here’s a swing from September where the discomfort is clear to see:

The elbow injury had been public knowledge since June, and it necessitated an IL stint and an anti-inflammatory injection in August. But I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that it was bothering Springer even earlier; he was utilizing the last-second one-handed follow-through as early as April.

That’s one factor affecting Springer’s performance in 2022. I’m certainly open to the possibility that it was a major one, but there were some other significant developments. Even though he was solid against fastballs overall, the bulk of his troubles in 2022 came against high velocity. In 2020 and ’21, his wOBA on pitches at or above 95 mph was .447; that number was .354 in ’22. For their part, opposing pitchers have been trying to blow the ball by him for a few years now.

Percentage of Pitches 95 mph or Faster
Season Springer MLB Difference
2017 10.9 12.5 -1.6
2018 11.4 12.4 -1
2019 11.9 12.9 -1
2020 16.3 13.1 3.2
2021 17.8 15.1 2.7
2022 21.2 15.9 5.3
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Springer also radically changed his approach in 2022. Take a look at his plate discipline numbers compared to both 2021 and his career average. He set career highs in swing percentage across the board, but the column on the far right stands out:

George Springer Plate Discipline
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Shadow Swing%
2021 27.1% 71.6% 45.7% 49.1%
2022 30.1% 78.9% 50.8% 57.8%
Career 25.8% 72.7% 46.3% 49.4%

Pitches in the shadow zone (that is to say the edges of the strike zone) were the real driver behind Springer’s increased swing rate. In fact, they accounted for 80% of his year-over-year jump in overall swing rate.

All things being equal, hitting more pitches in the shadow zone isn’t a great idea. Those are pitcher’s pitches. Over the course of his career, Springer has a .345 wOBACON on pitches in the shadow zone, as opposed to .480 on all other pitches. But there are still ways to make it work.

Nathaniel Lowe, whom I wrote about a few weeks ago, was the only player who saw as many pitches as Springer and had a bigger jump in his shadow zone swing percentage. His aggressiveness paid off because it came along with a tighter launch angle as well as an increased exit velocity and pull percentage on fly balls and line drives.

Springer’s story isn’t quite the same. Even though his walk rate fell less than Lowe’s and his strikeout rate fell more, he didn’t make the most of all those extra balls in play. His hard-hit rate improved slightly, but his average exit velocity fell, and his barrel rate dropped nearly 50% from his 2021 campaign.

George Springer Hard-Hit Balls
Season wOBA LA FB% LD% GB% PU%
2021 .809 19 45% 33% 22% 1%
2022 .689 11.8 25% 32% 42% 1%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

When Springer hit the ball hard in 2022, he was more likely than ever before to hit it on the ground, where there is, famously, no slug.

While Lowe’s pull rate increased drastically, Springer’s was already sky high. He pulled the ball 48.3% of the time in 2022, down a bit from ’21 but still eighth-highest in the league. Unfortunately, his .425 wOBA and .385 xwOBA on pulled balls were both the lowest of his career. Launch angle was the culprit once again; the graphs below are for pulled balls in the last three years.

Even when Springer did get the ball in the air, the results were worse. In 2022, his fly balls averaged 91.4 mph and 311 feet. Both numbers are career lows, and his .574 xwOBA and .642 wOBA on fly balls and line drives were also the worst and second-worst of his career, respectively. Baseball Savant categorizes home runs as Doubters, Mostly Gone, and No Doubters. Springer’s No Doubter percentage was 24% in 2022; he’d never before been below 45%.

So those are the four big variables from 2022. First, Springer was dealing with a painful elbow injury for most of the year. Second, he struggled with velocity. Third, he swung a lot more, particularly at pitches on the edge of the zone. Fourth, he traded fly balls for groundballs. It’s certainly possible that his short 2020 and ’21 seasons were outliers, and it was only a matter of time until his launch angle fell back to his career norms. Or maybe he swung at so many more borderline pitches because he was cheating to catch up to fastballs and had to start his swing earlier.

It’s also possible that Springer changed his swing because defenses were shifting him so often. He saw the shift 59.5% of the time in 2022, a jump of nearly 25% from 2021. Knowing that, take a look at his spray charts:

Although Springer’s pull rate stayed sky high in 2022, he hit fewer balls to center and 5% more to right field. He wasn’t just getting jammed and hitting weak grounders to the right side; he was sending line drives out there, and his xwOBA on balls hit the opposite way was higher than it had been in 2021 and 2022.

I’d also be willing to believe that Springer’s elbow injury caused some or all of the other changes. There’s visual evidence that the injury was affecting his swing, and it’s definitely harder to take a close pitch when you’re uncomfortable in the box. Looking at our rolling 15-day averages, his groundball rate started rising not too long before his injury came to light.

I realize that for the last 1,000 words or so I’ve been talking about Springer’s 2022 performance like it was disastrous, but again, he put up a 132 wRC+, making him a top-30 hitter. Who wouldn’t want to be next to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on the leaderboards? Cutting your strikeout rate by nearly 6% can cover a multitude of sins, including a 74-point drop in wOBACON.

Regardless of whether his underlying numbers change again, a George Springer with two healthy elbows (or more realistically, a nagging injury that’s slightly more manageable) might go right back to putting up a 140 wRC+ in 2023. And if his fly balls don’t start traveling further again, the new, shorter power alleys at the Rogers Centre might keep his home run totals from dropping. Otherwise, maybe this is what Springer’s decline looks like: moving to a corner spot, DHing more often, and bleeding 8–12 points of wRC+ a year because he can’t quite catch up to the fastball or hit it as hard as he used to. That would still allow him to be a valuable player for the majority of his time with the Blue Jays, and it will hopefully result in a little less wear and tear on his body.

It’s a real shame that two of Springer’s best seasons were cut short; he was on pace for 5-WAR seasons in both 2020 and ’21. Although he’s had more than his fair share of injuries, he has still played enough to qualify for the batting title in seven of the last eight seasons, and since his rookie year in 2014, he’s 18th among all position players with 33 WAR.

The last time we saw Springer, he was being carted off the field after a terrifying collision during the AL Wild Card Series, sustaining a concussion and a sprained left shoulder. I would love to see him put together a healthy year. I’m not sure what the 2023 version of George Springer will look like, but there’s one thing that all the previous version have had in common: they could really hit.





Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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NATS Fanmember
1 month ago

very good article. thanks!