Revisiting How Devin Mesoraco Got Good by Jeff Sullivan January 26, 2015 The Reds have officially given four years and at least $28 million to Devin Mesoraco. The contract buys out what would’ve been Mesoraco’s first year of free agency, and this is a contract that would’ve looked a little weird to an observer a year ago. Through 2013, in the majors, Mesoraco owned a 70 wRC+, and against same-handed pitchers, it was a lowly 53. Before last season, Mesoraco was pretty much all potential. And then he tapped into that potential. He wound up with a 147 wRC+. Against righties, 145. It’s not exactly new news that Mesoraco enjoyed a breakout season, and I’ve even written about this before, back in August. Everything from then remains valid, but I wanted to revisit Mesoraco’s season, to show in greater detail where he made adjustments, and where those adjustments paid off. Though Mesoraco’s remains far from a household name, he just completed one of the great breakout seasons of our time. There are enough clues in Mesoraco’s player page. The offensive numbers soared above the track record. Mesoraco’s contact rate dropped, yet his fly-ball rate increased. There are the hallmarks of a guy who was simply swinging harder, swinging more for the fences, but there’s also a clue in a column few people ever look at. Through Mesoraco’s first three years in the majors, he saw nearly 2,200 pitches, and he got drilled just once. Last year, he saw a little north of 1,700 pitches, and he got drilled a dozen times. On a rate basis, that’s a fifteen-fold increase. That indicates something; images can prove it. Mesoraco from 2013: Mesoraco from 2014: You see a little more lean in the upper body, in the second picture. You definitely see a tighter swing. But first, look at the feet, and their position in the box. Last season, Mesoraco moved from the middle. Which helps to explain the increase in pitches that hit him — when you move your body closer to the plate, you move within the splash zone, so to speak. Mesoraco started hugging the plate. His hands might sometimes swing through the strike zone. Your first thought, when a guy moves closer, is that he’s trying to better cover the outer half. Then you figure, the guy will also have a corresponding vulnerability against pitches inside. That’s the other, bigger part of this. When Mesoraco moved closer to the plate, it might’ve signaled to opposing pitchers that he could be retired on pitches in. But along with his movement, Mesoraco folded in significant changes in swing and approach. He started hunting more selectively. He made his swing shorter, and he helped generate more force by adjusting his front-foot step. While Mesoraco moved closer to the plate, he also made his swing sufficiently quicker that he was able to punish pitches near to the body. Which is how you end up with images like this, courtesy of Baseball Savant: In 2013, Mesoraco showed very little power against pitches in. In 2014, a whole new area of the strike zone is occupied by symbols. You might prefer this .gif of run values by pitch location. These are against righties, only, and this is a comparison between 2011-2013 and 2014. It’s pretty obvious where the power came from. Previously, against pitches over the outer third or beyond, Mesoraco hit 47% groundballs. Last year, against those same pitches, he also hit 47% groundballs. But! Against pitches over the middle or further in, before 2014, Mesoraco hit 43% groundballs. Last year, that rate plummeted to 28%. His slugging percentage against such pitches skyrocketed from .469 to .662. He doubled his home-run rate against those pitches. Mesoraco hit 22 of his 25 home runs to the pull-side area, and his wRC+ to the opposite field was a downright hilarious -17, but it wasn’t a massive vulnerability for him because he stood so close to the plate. He was able to cover most areas, and he was able to pull even pitches away without rolling over on them. The outer third still wasn’t a strength for Mesoraco as a hitter, but pitchers knew even a pitch to the outer edge might get drilled to left-center. It’s not easy to pitch to a guy with power who crowds the plate and who can also turn on almost anything in. Additionally, it’s worth touching on the details of Mesoraco’s reduced contact rate. Within the strike zone, Mesoraco’s contact rate hardly dropped. Elsewhere, though, it dropped almost 20 percentage points. Which meant there were more swings and misses at balls, but also fewer balls put in play off bad pitches out of the zone. With a tighter, quicker swing, Mesoraco wasn’t reaching so far, and though that meant reduced contact, he didn’t struggle so much to make contact against the pitches worth making contact with. This is presumably good news for a BABIP that used to sit around .250. As you know, when a player has a breakout, the league responds to the breakout. Pitchers just pitched differently to Michael Brantley. They pitched differently to J.D. Martinez. And they pitched differently to Mesoraco. In the first half, he slugged .609. In the second half, he slugged .446. His wRC+ dropped 50 points, to a second-half mark of 121. But, think about that: that’s a 121 wRC+ from a regular catcher. He even closed strong, at 146 in September. Mesoraco, going forward, probably isn’t going to be one of the very greatest hitters in the game, but at this point there’s little reason to think he’ll be average, or worse. He changed himself, and when pitchers caught on to the changes, he remained a quality threat. When you close a hole, oftentimes another one opens. In the second half, last year, Mesoraco saw more fastballs than he saw in the first. Earlier in his career, he slugged .510 against pitches in the upper third, or beyond. Last year, that dropped to .217. It looks like Mesoraco’s one real weakness might be fastballs in the zone up and away. Which makes sense when you’re talking about a pull hitter with fly-ball tendencies. But, that doesn’t allow for much wiggle room. Mesoraco doesn’t chase out of the zone very often. If a high fastball drifts in, Mesoraco can pummel it. So, basically, Devin Mesoraco has made himself rather unpleasant, as an opponent in the box. The Reds weren’t counting on the magnitude of Mesoraco’s breakout. That took everyone by surprise, even those who knew there was untapped offensive potential remaining somewhere in there. Now, though, you can count the Reds among the believers. Enemy pitchers would be wise to be believers, too. Devin Mesoraco doesn’t have many weaknesses left. He seems to have a whole lot of strengths.