Gregory Polanco and Brad Miller Whiff Differently

Gregory Polanco had Greg Holland in a bind. Leading off the ninth inning in a one-run game, he worked the count to 3-1. Holland isn’t exactly a control artist, and none of his first four pitches had been in the zone — Polanco could sit dead red and only engage with a pitch he could pummel. He got it — middle-middle no less — and took a mighty cut:

Whoops! That wasn’t what Polanco was aiming for, and Holland got away with one. He finished Polanco off with a 3-2 slider below the zone, and the Pirates went down in order.

Everyone misses a cookie once in a while. Polanco, however, is making a habit of it this year. Here he is against Carlos Carrasco (see what I did there?) in August:

All told, Polanco has taken a swing at 26 pitches in the white hot center of the strike zone this year. He’s come up empty on 12 of them. That’s the worst rate in the majors this year — unsurprisingly — and the second-worst whiff rate on middle-middle pitches since the beginning of the pitch tracking era in 2008. Among batters who took at least 25 cuts at down-the-middle pitches, only Kyle Parker (in 2015) did worse. You haven’t heard of Kyle Parker, because, well, he swung and missed at too many pitches.

While you might be surprised by that particular Polanco fact, it’s no secret that he’s having a down year. He’s batting .135/.190/.294 and striking out in more than 40% of his at-bats. Have a synonym for futile? It probably applies to Polanco’s 2020. It would almost be a surprise if he weren’t having a tough time with easy pitches, though maybe not to this extent.

A great, huge pile of missed pitches explains Polanco’s downturn this season. He’s posting career-worst whiff rates in every category you can imagine:

Polanco’s Whiff Rates by Year
Year Zone Whiff% O-Zone Whiff% Heart Whiff% Shadow Whiff% Chase Whiff% FB Whiff% Brk Whiff% Offspd Whiff%
2015 10.8% 29.5% 9.5% 19.9% 40.7% 15.2% 33.5% 21.2%
2016 8.5% 33.2% 11.7% 18.9% 44.5% 18.2% 28.5% 22.5%
2017 8.2% 32.9% 9.5% 19.9% 44.6% 13.0% 31.0% 26.7%
2018 13.9% 34.5% 16.2% 23.4% 53.6% 20.7% 30.9% 27.7%
2019 18.0% 45.1% 19.3% 30.6% 67.5% 28.1% 38.9% 38.3%
2020 29.8% 59.9% 34.3% 44.1% 76.5% 43.2% 52.2% 50.0%

If you’re looking for an underlying cause for this performance, you can’t turn to the numbers. They all say the same thing — Polanco isn’t a major-league caliber hitter right now. You didn’t need a grid of statistics to tell you that; the 41% strikeout rate and 26 wRC+ make it clear. Those numbers can’t tell you what has changed since 2018, though.

In his last full year, he was a productive hitter — .254/.340/.499 in nearly 600 plate appearances. On September 7, however, he injured his knee and shoulder sliding into second base. He had shoulder surgery shortly after, and was never quite right in 2019, playing through injury the whole time. He ended up having further surgery on the shoulder, and only completed his rehab from it this January.

It hasn’t been all gravy since then, either. Polanco tested positive for COVID-19 and missed most of training camp and the start of the regular season. He collided with teammate Phillip Evans and suffered bruised ribs. He’s very much still playing himself into game shape, and it shows. His swing — which you can see above — looks less natural and comfortable than it did in 2018, even when he was missing a fastball down the middle:

So that’s it, right? Gregory Polanco is missing meatballs at an unheard of rate, and we can all go about our Fridays knowing that it’s probably due to injury? Well, we’re only about 500 words into this article, so let’s dig a little further down on the list of highest whiff rates on middle-middle pitches. Number three — number three among all batters with at least 25 such swings in one season since 2008 — is Brad Miller in 2020.

Now that we’re already into the meat of the article, I’ll skip the wordy setup. Here’s Miller coming up empty on a juicy changeup:

Want a fastball? Here he is letting Brandon Woodruff off the hook:

What’s the deal with Miller? Is he a shell of his former self, playing over his depth in the majors? Nope — naturally, he’s having his best offensive season yet, hitting a delectable .266/.387/.522 with his lowest strikeout rate in four years. Uh, this one’s going to require some further explanation.

Miller has played in the majors since 2013, but he’s not the same player he was when he first arrived. He started his professional career in the Mariners’ system, and he absolutely crushed minor league pitching until he forced his way to the majors. When he was there, however, the massive confines of Safeco Park killed his power production, and to my eye, led him to focus more on contact at the expense of power.

Starting in 2016, when he joined the Rays, he appears to have made a calculated decision: swing harder to do more damage on contact, accepting that you’ll miss more often as a natural consequence. It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops — a down, injury-riddled 2017 cost him his everyday role — but regardless, that’s who Miller is now, and maybe who he always was before a brief detour in Seattle.

If you’re in the business of taking big hacks, it pays to be selective. There are two reasons for this. First, if you’re trying to do your damage on balls in play, you’re going to want good ones to hit. That sounds reductive, and it is, but swinging at a bad pitch is a double whammy; either you miss for a strike, or you make less-than-optimal contact.

Second, pitchers will, naturally enough, try to stay away from you if you’re successfully generating power. Fewer pitches to hit means that swinging gets worse in general, because you’ll see fewer pitches in the strike zone. That’s absolutely been the case with Miller this year; he’s never seen a lower percentage of pitches in the strike zone.

When he does see a pitch he’s hunting, Miller unleashes a hellacious swing. When he swings at a pitch in the strike zone with fewer than two strikes (when he can wait for something he wants instead of work defensively), he’s running a 34.3% whiff rate, the highest of his career. He’s also running his highest barrel rate when he connects. It’s feast or famine:

Zone Swing Metrics (<2 Strikes)
Year Z-Swing% Z-Whiff% Hard Hit% Barrel%
2013 70.0% 11.8%
2014 69.8% 14.1%
2015 64.5% 19.0% 45.7% 5.4%
2016 64.7% 22.1% 47.0% 11.2%
2017 66.0% 29.1% 35.7% 6.3%
2018 63.0% 24.2% 58.9% 14.4%
2019 67.5% 25.0% 50.8% 16.4%
2020 55.3% 34.3% 56.1% 19.5%

Why is Miller’s whiff rate so high on pitches down the middle? Because he’s trying to blast them into outer space. Strikes that aren’t third strikes aren’t the end of the world, and barrels are worth their weight in wOBA. Even with his sketchy contact abilities, the tradeoff makes sense.

Why did I specify fewer than two strikes? When he reaches two strikes, he changes approaches:

Zone Swing Metrics (Two Strikes)
Year Z-Swing% Z-Whiff% Hard Hit% Barrel%
2013 92.2% 8.5%
2014 87.3% 10.9%
2015 85.0% 17.7% 43.0% 3.8%
2016 85.9% 18.5% 43.6% 11.9%
2017 81.9% 25.2% 56.5% 6.5%
2018 81.9% 26.0% 44.4% 8.3%
2019 79.4% 24.1% 56.0% 12.0%
2020 79.0% 22.4% 35.0% 10.0%

Switching approaches based on count is hardly a groundbreaking strategy, but Miller’s power swing is particularly suited for it. It’s really powerful when it connects, but not particularly likely to. In all non-two-strike situations (sorry for the word soup), a strike costs a batter roughly 75 points of wOBA (something like 0.06 runs, if you’re more of a run value type) in a neutral context. With two strikes, that’s more like 250 points of wOBA or 0.23 runs.

In other words, whiffing has triple the cost with two strikes as compared to earlier in the count. Barrels are worth a little bit more with two strikes — because average outcomes with two strikes are worse than in other counts — but not by enough to offset the increased cost of missing. It’s not a coincidence that only two of Miller’s middle-middle whiffs have come with two strikes, and both were pitches he was fooled on — a slider and a cutter.

That’s not to say that Miller’s miss-heavy tendencies are good. Ask him if he’d like to finish the season with the third-highest rate of swinging through meatballs, and the answer is obvious. It’s simply an acceptable tradeoff he’s willing to make in pursuit of extra bags.

Polanco and Miller share a spot on an ignominious list, but they got there differently. For Polanco, it’s a sign that he hasn’t yet recovered. For Miller, it’s a byproduct of his approach. This extremely specific statistic tells us two wildly different things about players who look almost exactly the same through its narrow lens. Let that be a reminder — baseball statistics are great, but they need context. Otherwise, you’re going to struggle to separate the injured from the All-Stars.

All stats are through games played on September 16.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Lunch Anglemember
3 years ago

Neat! I’d love to hear Miller being asked about his approach, to see how intentional this is. Laurila?

Kyle Sharamitaromember
3 years ago
Reply to  Lunch Angle

This may just be anecdotal, but Miller has discussed with the STL media about how, since it’s a short season, he’s just going to continue to “let it rip.”

As a person that’s seen a good amount of his ABs, I’ll say that it has appeared as though he’s making a noticeable change in approach with two strikes.

His power this year to center and to left center Has been extraordinary, and I wonder if the confidence of knowing he doesn’t need to pull it for power gives him extra confidence to be a little more patient with two strikes?