The Highly Unlikely Dangerous Diamondback

The Diamondbacks are way out in first place in the National League West, and while the biggest story might arguably be the early struggles of the Dodgers, Arizona has issued an immediate reminder that last year this club just won 93 games. J.D. Martinez is gone, playing now in Boston. Steven Souza Jr. is on the disabled list. Jake Lamb is also on the disabled list. But the Diamondbacks have still thrived, not even needing that many surprises. Patrick Corbin is one — his development has been an encouraging turn. And then there’s the matter of the shortstop. The no-hit glove guy who had to fight for a job.

Before the year, for the Effectively Wild podcast, Ben Lindbergh and I ran our annual season-preview series. When it came time to talk about the Diamondbacks, we chatted with guest Nick Piecoro. Piecoro expressed what I found to be a surprising amount of optimism about Nick Ahmed. Ahmed had never before hit well in the majors, and his peripheral skills didn’t suggest a strong offensive foundation. How many no-hit shortstops figure it out at 28? Ahmed was never a threat. Suffice to say Piecoro caught me off guard.

And now here we are, and as early as it is, Ahmed owns a three-digit wRC+. By itself, that’s not much. Roughly half of all batters will have a three-digit wRC+. But you have to remember where Ahmed is coming from. You have to remember his record.

Ahmed debuted in the majors in 2014. Through last season, he’d come to the plate 1,020 times. To show for all those opportunities, he had a career wRC+ of 58. Over the four seasons, there were 444 different players who batted at least 500 times, and Ahmed was the sixth-worst hitter. He shares a dugout with one of the only worse hitters, in Jeff Mathis. At this writing, Ahmed’s wRC+ stands at 116, which happens to be exactly double his previous mark. Don’t know much about Nick Ahmed? Imagine Jeff Mathis with a wRC+ of 116. It’s basically the same idea.

Ahmed doesn’t have some brand new, exaggerated leg kick. He’s not a huge exit-velocity guy — his peak contact is fairly ordinary. It’s true that, this season, Ahmed has hit for more power than usual. It’s also true that, this season, Ahmed has hit more batted balls in the air than usual. Like anyone, Ahmed has put in some work to further polish his swing. But the way I see it, there’s one big adjustment here. And it’s something Ahmed has already advertised.

Following are two heat maps from Baseball Savant. These simply reflect pitches Ahmed has swung at.

The most important takeaway is that, in 2018, Ahmed is hardly swinging at pitches down. Pitches down in the zone, and pitches down out of the zone. Ahmed talked about this, for a Piecoro article in early April. An excerpt:

When it comes to the former, he is trying to reign in his approach, trying not to offer at the specific pitches – sinkers down and in, breaking balls down and away – that lead to weak ground balls. Instead, he’s focusing the pitches on which he can do damage.

“I think that’s what the best hitters do in our game,” Ahmed said. “They know what pitch they’re looking to hit and hit hard and they swing at that pitch and try not to swing at the other ones. I think in the past I’ve probably not locked in a specific zone as much as I should and chased more of the pitchers’ pitches, either on the corners or down and out of the zone.”

Using the tools at Baseball Savant, I narrowed down to what I’ll refer to as low pitches. Facing those low pitches, here are Ahmed’s year-to-year major-league swing rates:

  • 2014: 37%
  • 2015: 36%
  • 2016: 36%
  • 2017: 40%
  • 2018: 15%

There’s truly no mistaking that. From last year to this one, Ahmed has dropped his low-pitch swing rate by nearly 26 percentage points. Just how dramatic a change is that? Here are the ten biggest such drops:

Low-Pitch Swing Tendencies
Player 2017 Rate 2018 Rate Change
Nick Ahmed 40% 15% -26%
Evan Gattis 32% 18% -15%
Dexter Fowler 29% 14% -14%
Jay Bruce 32% 18% -14%
Francisco Cervelli 30% 16% -14%
Bryce Harper 33% 20% -14%
Justin Bour 34% 21% -13%
Lorenzo Cain 31% 18% -13%
Alex Bregman 25% 12% -13%
Didi Gregorius 38% 26% -12%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Last season, Ahmed’s low-pitch swing rate ranked in the highest 12% of all hitters. So far this season, it ranks in the lowest 5% of all hitters. This is something Ahmed has implemented almost instantly, which seems to reflect a discerning batter’s eye. Ahmed is seeing the pitches he doesn’t like out of the hand, and now, for the most part, he’s spitting on them. This is reminiscent of one of Aaron Hicks‘ big 2017 adjustments, and it’s also an interesting change in an era in which more pitchers are trying to avoid throwing low sinkers to begin with. Ahmed wants to swing at pitches up. That’s where he finds his pop and line drives. For one month, at least, he has clearly been successful.

Against the Nationals on Sunday, Ahmed finished 3-for-4. None of the hits were super exciting, but you could see Ahmed’s approach in action. In the third, he worked a 2-and-1 count and singled against an elevated changeup. In the sixth, he worked the count full and doubled against an elevated fastball. In the eighth, he took a low sinker for a strike, then hit a higher sinker for a single. The best version of Nick Ahmed doesn’t have Troutian-level skills, but he can hit the ball hard enough to be fine. The key is always limiting the bad contact. If Ahmed keeps laying off pitches he can’t hit hard, then only the better contact should remain.

The Diamondbacks certainly aren’t asking for much. Ahmed is still a defense-first player, and as a shortstop with plus range, the offensive bar isn’t very high. If Ahmed can finish with even a league-average batting line, he would end up being a quality regular. There’s no doubt that Ahmed’s approach has worked so far. What remains to be seen is the extent to which this is exploitable, since Ahmed has publicly shared what he’s doing. It’s easy to imagine opponents coming after him with sinker after sinker, and changeup after changeup. Ahmed might then get himself into problems. But if he stays within himself and waits pitchers out for something a little higher — mistakes do get made, and they’re made all the time. If nothing else, in 2018, Nick Ahmed has succeeded in making himself a hitter you have to think about facing.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

in the advanced metrics for baseball writer productivity jeff is at a 320 wRC+

6 years ago
Reply to  awy

Maybe higher.

Volume and value.

6 years ago
Reply to  awy

Do you think he is due some regression due to small sample size so far or do you think he has made some sustainable adjustments and this is him now reaching his ceiling?

6 years ago
Reply to  dustin0224

he’s had a long run of 250 wrc+ seasons. this latest bump might just be a bit of short term burst of energy. a full season of above 300 wrc+ productiok would be asking too much, even for the troutian jeff.