Jake Lamb’s Revamped Swing Made Him an All-Star (Snub)

It’s important to note, considering the title of this post, that Jake Lamb is presently not a member of the National League All-Star team. It’s certainly not for lack of production. Lamb’s played enough to qualify for the batting title, and his 3.5 Wins Above Replacement rank 13th among all position players, right alongside All-Star third basemen Nolan Arenado and Matt Carpenter, the latter of whom recently switched back to second base. Of the 12 players above Lamb on the WAR leaderboard, 11 are All-Stars. (Sorry, Brandon Crawford.) So are the next eight after him. Chalk it up to a deep third-base pool in the National League, and a lack of name recognition for Lamb.

As long as he continues hitting the way he’s been, Lamb’s name will become known. Entering the All-Star break, he’s been one of baseball’s 10 best hitters. With 20 homers, 19 doubles and a league-leading seven triples, he’s been the best power hitter in the National League, and the best non-David Ortiz-division power hitter in all of baseball. Yep — Lamb’s .325 isolated slugging percentage easily topples the first-half marks set by prolific sluggers like Mark Trumbo, Kris Bryant and Josh Donaldson. This coming from a guy who last year was known for his defense.

For Lamb, this was all part of the plan. Of course, “be one of the best players in the sport” would be an ideal plan for anyone, but Lamb specifically entered the season looking to add more power. Inspired by Jose Bautista and teammate A.J. Pollock, Lamb re-tooled his swing in the offseason in an effort to create more authority on contact.

Going back to an excellent Spring Training article by the Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro, Lamb had this to say about the past and present of his swing:

“I felt like I was pretty steep last year, kind of chopping at the ball,” Lamb said. “There were just so many times where I got my pitch to hit, took a swing at it and I would just miss it on a fly out to the warning track or something. With a steep swing you have to have perfect timing. You still want good timing, but this swing allows you a bigger margin for error.”

Lamb implemented the change in time for Spring Training, and the results were immediate. Using work done by The Economist’s Dan Rosenheck, I called Lamb’s spring the “most encouraging of any batter in baseball” back in April, based on his strikeout, walk, and most importantly, power numbers. Not everyone mentioned in that post has gone to have a good first half, but for Lamb, the breakout began long before the regular season.

Those swing changes? They couldn’t be much more obvious. Here’s a mammoth dinger Lamb clobbered off Johnny Cueto a couple weeks back:

Granted, that was a fastball right down the middle, but Lamb did with it what great power hitters do. And here’s Lamb doing something decidedly different against an identical pitch a year ago:

Did you see it?

Here, here’s the starting point:

LambHands

Look at Lamb’s hands. Look how much lower they’re starting, relative to last year. This helps Lamb’s swing be less “steep,” as he called it in the previously published quote, and it helps keep the bat in the zone for a longer period of time. That’s the bit he got from Pollock — curbing his habit of chopping down at the ball.

Here’s the bit he picked up from watching Bautista, with the image capped at the pitcher’s release point:

LambKick

See the leg kick? That’s momentum to generate power before the pitch is even thrown. Much like when Bautista added his leg kick and became an elite power hitter by going so often to the pull side, Lamb’s developed a knack for turning on the ball, too. In Bautista’s breakout, he went from pulling 36% of batted balls to pulling 51%. Lamb’s gone from pulling 39% to 50%, the largest increase of any hitter from last year to this one:

LambPull

Plenty of hitters attempt adjustments like this — adding leg kicks or toe taps, changing the starting hand position or swing path — but not all of them take. Not everyone’s comfortable with a leg kick or a lower starting position, so they struggle and revert. Lamb’s simply found the swing that’s made him comfortable, the swing that’s allowing him to succeed.

In case you think the power numbers on their own are fluky, as home runs figures are sometimes prone to be, there’s more underlying evidence — beyond the swing change — that supports Lamb’s power breakout as legitimate, statistically speaking.

How about simply batted-ball distance? Lamb’s not hitting any more fly balls this year, but he’s hitting far better fly balls.

Biggest Gainers in Average Air Ball Distance, 2015-16
Name 2015 Dist. 2016 Dist. Change
Jake Lamb 283.1 323.0 39.9
Matt Holliday 277.3 317.2 39.9
Kevin Pillar 269.6 296.5 26.8
Troy Tulowitzki 294.1 318.8 24.7
George Springer 291.5 315.1 23.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
-Minimum 50 batted balls each season

Lamb’s picked up nearly 40 feet of distance on his batted balls hit into the air, tied with Matt Holliday for the largest increase in the game. With an average of 323 feet, Lamb’s average distance on air balls ranks fourth among 268 batters who’ve recorded at least 50 batted balls in the air, behind only Giancarlo Stanton, Byung-ho Park and Mike Napoli.

Exit velocity tells a similar story. Lamb’s picked up 6 mph on average from last year — only Holliday’s seen a bigger gain — and his 97.7-mph average on air balls ranks fifth behind only Nelson Cruz, Chris Carter, Khris Davis, and Holliday. Put exit velocity and average distance together, and Lamb’s air balls are being struck with as much authority as anyone in the game. The home runs, then, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

In that Arizona Republic story from the spring, independent hitting coach Bob Tewksbary, who helped Josh Donaldson re-tool his swing, is quoted as saying “There’s a huge movement now that is changing guy’s careers.” Pollock says this kind of swing change has “become more and more widespread the last couple of years.” Donaldson did it. Bautista did it. Matt Carpenter and J.D. Martinez did it. Jake Lamb might just be the latest example.

Thanks to Jonah Pemstein for research assistance.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

17 Comments
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johnforthegiants
6 years ago

He’s a great young hitter but he has to figure out how to hit LHPs better. He’s only hitting .200 and slugging .450 against lefties this year. In the game Saturday he came up with men in scoring position in the 5th and 7th, Bochy brought in Lopez just to pitch to him and then Osich just to pitch to him, and he got out weakly both times. On the other hand, he did break up Bumgarner’s no-hitter.

Francis C.member
6 years ago

Yes, but it would be nice for him to get consistent AB’s against LHP so he can improve this aspect of his game, and not get benched for Brandon Drury or pinch hit for by Rickie Weeks.

johnforthegiants
6 years ago
Reply to  Francis C.

They did start him against Bumgarner and he got the only hit.

dchamp27
6 years ago
Reply to  Francis C.

they don’t have to bat him cleanup against lefties until he improves. just keep his bat in the lineup is all

edit: oops meant for commenter below, dk how to delete these

CJ03
6 years ago

He has a WRC+ of 100 against LHP, despite a BABIP of only .200. I think he’s doing just fine.

johnforthegiants
6 years ago
Reply to  CJ03

If the Dbacks are happy with having a wRC+ 100 cleanup hitter, fine, but it sure looked like a problem on Saturday. It also meant they could pitch around Goldschmidt.

dchamp27
6 years ago

they don’t have to bat him cleanup against lefties until he improves. just keep his bat in the lineup is all

Lunch Anglemember
6 years ago

That .250 ISO tho! Yeah lefties are still a problem for him, but he’s got a 100 wrc+ against them this year, which is palatable. He’s striking out way less against lefties than he has in the past.

Moranall
6 years ago

He’s got a 13.9% BB% and a .250 ISO against LHP. The only thing that’s slacking his is BABIP, which will likely regress upwards.

Considering he’s only got 145 PA in his career against LHP, those are some pretty impressive numbers. And they’ll likely go up from here.

johnforthegiants
6 years ago
Reply to  Moranall

Vs. lefties his LD% is 15.9%, his Hard% is 29.6%, whereas vs. righties it’s 21.7% and 45.2%. 15.9% and 29.6% aren’t such imposing numbers. Obviously the BABIP should be higher than .200 but that’s still a huge different from his BIP stats vs. RHPs. He should get better if he’s given more chance to hit vs. lefties.

Moranall
6 years ago

Right… those numbers are confirming why his BABIP is so low. Lamb is already showing great discipline/approach against LHP and still hits for power when he does make good contact. That’s why so many people have high hopes for Lamb improving against LHP.