The Jean Jean Hit Machine Is Running on Fumes
The Marlins were the subject of jokes aplenty this winter after they added two established second basemen, Luis Arraez and Jean Segura, to a roster that already featured multiple capable keystone defenders. Yet all jokes aside, Kim Ng’s unconventional method of roster construction has worked out quite well thus far. Arraez leads all primary second basemen with a 151 wRC+, and his defense is tolerable as long as he keeps hitting. Meanwhile, Jazz Chisholm Jr., though currently on the IL, has adjusted well to center field, and Jon Berti and Joey Wendle have been an excellent defensive tandem at shortstop.
However, the second baseman the Marlins signed to play third is struggling terribly. Segura is slashing .200/.268/.236 (the rare .200/.200/.200 batting line, also known as a Paul Janish), and he is one of only five qualified hitters without a home run (an achievement known as a Reggie Willits). His 43 wRC+ ranks last in baseball, as does his .231 wOBA and .504 OPS. The only qualified hitter with a lower WAR is José Abreu, who has had an additional five games in which to be dreadful. Segura’s only saving grace is that he has hit well in 15 high-leverage plate appearances (.385 AVG, 134 wRC+), but even so, his -1.31 WPA is the worst in the National League.
The last qualified batter to finish with a wRC+ below 45 was Clint Barmes, who posted a 38 wRC+ in 2006. Since then, only five other players have even finished below 50; typically, hitters either improve as the year goes on, or they don’t get enough playing time to qualify. As for the handful who lasted a full season with such a feeble bat, the only one to have been an above-average hitter throughout the rest of his career was Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles. His 46 wRC+ in 2017 was a huge step down from his career 117 wRC+ to that point.
So which will it be for Segura: Will he improve, will he be forced into a bench role, or is he doomed to become the next Davis? Thankfully for the widely beloved infielder, the first of those outcomes seems the most likely. His .298 xwOBA is his worst since 2015, but it’s nearly 70 points higher than his actual wOBA and only five points lower than his xwOBA in 2022. Moreover, this is the first season in his career that Segura isn’t outperforming his xwOBA. Over the past six years, he has consistently outperformed his xwOBA by about 15 points each season. If his wOBA was currently 15 points higher than his xwOBA, it would match the NL average at third base.
Indeed, Segura seems to be a victim of circumstance in 2023. He typically runs a BABIP 5-10% better than league average, but this year his .243 BABIP is one of the lowest in the game. It’s hard to believe that number won’t regress to the mean; Segura hasn’t gotten much slower, and he still sprays groundballs in all directions. Furthermore, while he has yet to hit a home run, he has hit 23 fly balls. With a league-average HR/FB rate (or his own average from the past three years — the number is the same), he would have hit three long balls by now. Per Statcast, he would have at least one home run in 26 of 30 stadiums, two home runs in 17 of 30, and three home runs if he played all his games at Wrigley or American Family Field. All in all, four of his balls in the air would have gone out at least a couple of ballparks. Just look at how close some of his fly balls got to the seats:
If Segura had a league-average BABIP (presuming all extra hits were singles) and a league-average HR/FB rate, his slash line would rise from Janish territory to a serviceable .257/.319/.343. That’s nothing to be proud of, but it’s not too far off from his preseason ZiPS projection of .271/.329/.387. More to the point, those numbers certainly wouldn’t warrant an article about what went wrong. Thus, I’m not overly concerned about Segura just yet. He seems to be on the decline, but his skills haven’t fallen off a cliff the way his 43 wRC+ would suggest. Still, while I have you here, let’s take a closer look at what’s gone wrong for the man once known as Jean, Jean, the Hit Machine.
The biggest thing missing from Segura’s game right now is power. Even with those extra home runs and a league-average BABIP, his .343 slugging percentage and .086 ISO would represent a sizable drop-off from his past production and would rank among the worst in the game. Yet strangely enough, his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate have barely changed. His average launch angle is down, but his sweet-spot percentage (batted balls with a launch angle between 8-32 degrees) has fallen less than one percent from last year and only 2.4% from his career average.
Even more unusual, Segura is actually making less contact classified as “poor” by Baseball Savant. In 2022, 67.3% of his batted balls were categorized as either “weak,” “topped,” or “under.” This year, that number is down to 63.2%. The problem, however, is that he isn’t barreling the ball either; his barrel rate is down to 2.4%. That means more of his contact has fallen into the “flare/burner” and “solid” buckets. Those are both fine forms of contact, but flares and burners rarely lead to extra base hits, and the power potential of solid contact pales in comparison to the power potential of the barrel.
The fact that Segura’s hard-hit rate and sweet-spot percentage haven’t changed very much indicates that he is still capable of hitting the ball hard and at the optimal angle, but his low barrel rate tells us he just hasn’t been doing both at the same time. It’s hard to know what to make of this information. On the one hand, it means the skills are still there; on the other, it suggests he isn’t timing up pitches as well as he used to.
As I compare numbers from the past two years, it’s worth keeping in mind that Segura’s decline didn’t come out of nowhere this season. Instead, his power began to disappear partway through the 2022 campaign. At the time, many people attributed the problem to the broken finger he suffered at the end of May. On a bunt attempt gone wrong, Segura broke his right index finger and spent the next two months recovering. The difference between his power numbers pre- and post-injury was stark; his ISO dropped from .132 to .091, while his average exit velocity fell by more than 4 mph.
However, if you look a little closer at the highs and lows of Segura’s 2022 season, you’ll see his power actually started to fall off a few weeks before the injury. From Opening Day through May 14, Segura had a .200 ISO and a 92.8-mph average EV. More than half his balls in play were classified as hard-hit. Then, starting May 15, he went into a massive slump. Over his next 16 games, he had only one extra-base hit. His ISO was .016 and his average exit velocity fell to 84.9 mph. His hard-hit rate dropped in half, and he was driving far more balls straight into the dirt.
As Robert Orr wrote for Baseball Prospectus last May, Segura found success early in the season by swinging at more fastballs and fewer offspeed pitches. This approach worked at first, but the downside was clear: He was more vulnerable against breaking balls. As Orr explained, “By jumping the harder stuff, Segura must commit to swinging earlier and swing harder than he has in the past to catch up to the higher velocity.” In other words, by hunting fastballs, he was more likely to get fooled by pitches with less speed and more movement.
As it happened, Segura’s swing rate against breaking balls rose throughout the month, sitting just below 60% from May 15-31. This was a problem for a couple of reasons. For one, breaking balls induce more whiffs, and Segura needs to put the ball in play to succeed. To make matters worse, even when he wasn’t whiffing, his quality of contact was poor – perhaps that’s what happens when you’re hoping for a fastball and you just barely manage to make contact with a breaking pitch instead. He was hitting breaking balls with less authority, and he was sending most of them into the ground. When he did manage to hit one a little higher, the results were just as bad – he didn’t pull a single breaking ball in the air over the final two weeks of the month.
Unfortunately, Segura’s struggles against breaking balls have continued in 2023. He swings at more breaking balls than any other pitch, and so far he has a .160 wOBA, a .217 xwOBA, and a 28% whiff rate for his trouble. When breaking pitches are in the zone, he almost always makes contact but doesn’t do much damage. When they’re outside the zone, he’s been swinging and missing more than ever. Breaking pitches have broken the hit machine, and serious repairs are in order.
Jean Segura has made a career out of making solid contact, and making solid contact with everything. As his low strikeout rate will attest, he’s still got some of the best bat-to-ball skills in game. The “solid” part, however, needs some work. If he’s going to improve his numbers (beyond the expected regression), he needs to adjust his approach against sliders and curves.
Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgenstenmlb.
Wow, that spray chart is fascinating. Why would the left fielder even stand out there?