Let’s Look At Some Early-Season Plate Approach Changes

It is still early in the season, but one of the aspects of hitting that stabilizes relatively quickly is changes to approach. Swings are a more common occurrence, so the sample for these statistics grows faster than those that rely on an accumulation of plate appearances. So who seems to have made some changes in the early going?

To get an idea, I took all players who accumulated 250 plate appearances combined in the 2019 and ’20 seasons (I chose to group these seasons together because of the brevity of the pandemic-shortened campaign), then filtered by those who meet the qualified criteria in 2021. This leaves a sample of 159 hitters; each table includes the top and bottom ten players for each metric.

First, here are the largest changes in swing rate from the past two seasons compared to 2021:

Swing Rate Changes
Name Team Swing% Swing% Previous Swing% Change
Willy Adames TBR 57.8 46.7 11.1
Starlin Castro WSN 59.9 49.0 10.9
Josh Naylor CLE 55.9 45.6 10.3
Joey Votto CIN 48.8 39.7 9.1
Didi Gregorius PHI 63.3 54.4 8.9
Carlos Santana KCR 47.3 38.4 8.9
Christian Walker ARI 58.2 49.6 8.6
Nick Castellanos CIN 62.5 54.0 8.5
Dominic Smith NYM 58.5 50.2 8.3
Shohei Ohtani LAA 56.0 47.9 8.1
J.T. Realmuto PHI 41.6 49.4 -7.8
Ian Happ CHC 39.0 46.8 -7.8
Marwin Gonzalez BOS 39.9 47.7 -7.8
Manny Machado SDP 38.6 46.7 -8.1
Gregory Polanco PIT 42.7 50.9 -8.2
Eugenio Suárez CIN 35.1 43.8 -8.7
Jonathan Schoop DET 48.6 57.9 -9.3
Francisco Lindor NYM 39.6 50.3 -10.7
Willson Contreras CHC 37.3 49.1 -11.8
Colin Moran PIT 39.7 52.3 -12.6

One of the more notable and probably less expected names near the top is Votto, who is usually one of the more selective swingers in MLB but upped his swing rate to roughly league average. Back in February, he talked to MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon about being more aggressive to help him tap into his power more. So far, so good: Though Votto’s walk rate has declined significantly, his strikeout rate is almost 10 percentage points lower than the league average, and he is hitting the ball with more authority, with career-best hard-hit and barrel rates (49.0 and 13.7%, respectively).

Neither Castellanos nor Gregorius have ever been Votto-level patient, but both are taking their normal aggression to another level. But while Castellanos has been scorching the ball, Gregorius has a lot of blue ink on his Baseball Savant page. On top of that, his already weak walk rate (a career 5.9%) is currently down at 3.4, while his strikeout rate has ballooned to 22.0% — almost double last year’s mark. That doesn’t seem like a path to success for the veteran shortstop.

On the other side of things, Francisco Lindor has dropped his swing rate over 11 points and is offering at just shy of 40% of the pitches he has seen. The Mets have had a bumpy start to the year, losing their first series of the year due to a COVID outbreak in the Nationals’ clubhouse as well as multiple games to weather-induced cancellations. I wouldn’t put too much stock into this change: It’s just as likely a slow start thanks to the schedule as anything else, and a .200 BABIP is playing a big role there, too.

Next, let’s look at chase rates:

Chase Rate Changes
Name Team O-Swing% O-Swing% Previous O-Swing% Change
Cavan Biggio TOR 25.0 13.6 11.4
Willy Adames TBR 35.3 24.4 10.9
Nick Castellanos CIN 47.1 37.2 9.9
Carlos Santana KCR 26.5 16.8 9.7
Paul Goldschmidt STL 35.6 26.7 8.9
Nick Solak TEX 32.1 24.0 8.1
Franmil Reyes CLE 36.6 28.6 8.0
Rhys Hoskins PHI 28.3 20.9 7.4
Joey Wendle TBR 42.7 35.8 6.9
J.P. Crawford SEA 27.6 21.0 6.6
Yandy Díaz TBR 10.8 20.2 -9.4
Anthony Rizzo CHC 21.6 31.0 -9.4
Chris Taylor LAD 13.8 23.6 -9.8
Nelson Cruz MIN 17.1 27.3 -10.2
Wil Myers SDP 15.1 25.4 -10.3
Colin Moran PIT 25.0 35.4 -10.4
Nolan Arenado STL 22.7 33.3 -10.6
Victor Robles WSN 16.9 28.6 -11.7
Willson Contreras CHC 20.6 33.5 -12.9
Evan Longoria SFG 14.3 29.4 -15.1

Biggio’s excellent plate approach is well-documented. His batted-ball data is less impressive, as his hard-hit and barrel rates are mostly static from last year. It seems he may be trading some patience in pursuit of gains on balls in play, but the only visible differences so far are a big jump in strikeout rate (23.0% last year to 32.7 this season) and more fly balls in lieu of line drives.

Crawford is another passive hitter who is trading in some of his plate discipline equity. Like Biggio, it hasn’t amounted to much, as he’s got a meager 75 wRC+ and .266 wOBA so far. It does continue a trend over the last two-plus seasons in which he’s both walking and striking out less and making more contact; the next step will be adding more power, if possible. Given his lack of production at the plate in his young career, making a concerted effort to get the bat off the shoulder is worth a shot. (It’s also worth pointing out that Crawford has made a change to his hand position in his stance; they now start even with his head after previously starting at the height of his shoulders.)

I am not going to show the in-zone swing changers on their own but in conjunction with chase rate deviations. I defined positive change percentage as the difference between in-zone swing rate change and chase rate change. Hitters who are swinging at more pitches in the zone and chasing pitches less are going to place at the top of this list. Correspondingly, hitters who swing at pitches less in the zone and chase more are going to show the biggest negative figures.

Positive Swing Change Rate
Name Team O-Swing% Change Z-Swing% Change Positive Change%
Pete Alonso NYM -7.6 11.9 19.5
Gary Sánchez NYY -9.1 8.3 17.4
Evan Longoria SFG -15.1 0.6 15.7
Dansby Swanson ATL -6.7 8.4 15.1
Nelson Cruz MIN -10.2 4.7 14.9
Javier Baez CHC -6.5 7.7 14.2
Bryce Harper PHI -8.6 5.5 14.1
Wil Myers SDP -10.3 3.4 13.7
Yandy Diaz TBR -9.4 4.2 13.6
Mookie Betts LAD -2.4 10.6 13.0
David Dahl TEX 5.4 -4.2 -9.6
Jose Iglesias LAA 6.0 -3.9 -9.9
J.T. Realmuto PHI -3.3 -13.3 -10.0
Cavan Biggio TOR 11.4 0.8 -10.6
Paul Goldschmidt STL 8.9 -2.0 -10.9
Brandon Lowe TBR 2.6 -8.4 -11.0
Jose Abreu CHW 0.8 -10.2 -11.0
Jonathan Schoop DET -5.3 -16.7 -11.4
Francisco Lindor NYM -5.2 -16.7 -11.5
Austin Riley ATL 0.9 -13.1 -14.0

Alonso finds himself at the top here (with the Mets’ early-season caveat aside). He has taken massive strides in both improving his chase rate and zone swing rate, though that has yet to translate into positive results, as his strikeout rate has jumped and his walk rate has fallen (though his hard-hit rate is an astronomical 73.1%). Devan Fink wrote about Sánchez’s batted-ball misfortune a little over a week ago and how it’s bound for regression, but he seems to have an improved approach. That jibes with Mike Petriello’s piece at MLB.com investigating his lack of strikeouts and how Sánchez is making much better swing decisions.

I would also like to point out that notable free-swingers Myers and Báez look good by this measure. Kevin Goldstein pointed out Báez’s concerning strikeout and walk rates last week, and I agree that the phenomenon is concerning early on, but if Báez maintains some of these positive gains in swing decision-making, maybe he can start reversing that ugly trend.

Plate discipline is not the be-all and end-all of production; we still must consider batted-ball performance. And in the end, we are still talking about anywhere between 40 and 70 plate appearances for qualified hitters. But the data provided can be early clues on whom may be in for surprisingly productive or disappointing seasons.

Carmen is a part-time contributor to FanGraphs. An engineer by education and trade, he spends too much of his free time thinking about baseball.

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We will continue to see Baez tested in the zone as it is apparent he is struggling with fastballs in the zone.