The Struggles of Jurickson Profar

As the Padres were transitioning from upstart to powerhouse over the offseason, they signed Jurickson Profar to a three year deal. It was a relatively quiet move for a team that did some big things over the winter, but a three year deal for a fourth outfielder, or super-utility man, is bold. It was a signing that signified the importance of depth for a team competing in the same division as the godfather of depth, the Dodgers. Profar, a former number one overall prospect, spent the early days of his career suffering through shoulder injuries and poor performance before finally breaking out in 2018 as an average hitter who can play everywhere competently. His 2020 was spent doing just that for the Padres as he covered five different positions, played nearly everyday and put up a career high 111 wRC+. That’s how you get yourself a three year deal without being the prototypical everyday starter.

Turns out the Padres were right to spend a little money on depth. Like seemingly every team, they’ve had a lot of injuries. Profar has played five different positions this season and is fifth on the Padres in plate appearances. That’s really the only part of the signing that has gone to plan, however, as the performance in those plate appearances has really cratered. In a lot of ways, he’s back to his pre-2018 breakout. He’s hitting the ball more softly and his fly balls aren’t leaving the yard.

The 2021 Slump
Season PA wRC+ Barrel% Avg. EV WAR/600 PA
2018-2020 1314 101 4.8% 87.0 2.51
2021 244 74 1.2% 85.1 -1.48

Even at his best, Profar wasn’t one to roast the ball. His career best exit velocity in 2018 was only good for the 25th percentile. This season, he’s down to the second percentile. Profar became an average hitter by hitting a decent number of line drives and pulled fly balls while also having a well above average strikeout rate. We’ll touch on the plate discipline a bit later but it’s been the fly balls that are the big issue for him.

Profar doesn’t have the power to take on the deep part of the yard. From 2018-20, he pulled 29.4% of his fly balls, which led to a healthy (and about league average) home run to fly ball rate of 13.8%. So far this season, he is only pulling 18.9% of his fly balls and his home run to fly ball rate has collapsed to 1.6%. That low rate is not just from a lack of pulled fly balls; his fly balls have less mustard on them anyway. We see that in his lowly exit velocity numbers, which have translated to his average fly ball carrying 30 feet less this season.

Much of that has come from simply not squaring up the ball. In Profar’s case, he’s swinging under the ball a lot; he is sporting an absurdly high 24.6% infield fly ball rate. That’s 5% higher than anyone else in baseball and would be good for the fourth highest popup rate this century. Popups are the worst type of contact for a player like Profar to make. Not that there is any player out there feasting on popups — they have a .021 league-wide wOBA — but at least when Joey Gallo hits one you are often treated to a popup dance and you know he likely just missed hitting a moonshot. Lately for Profar, a popup is him just missing a routine fly ball.

You can see his frustration after those swings. Focusing on the locations of the pitches will tell you why. Those aren’t exactly the kind of pitches begging to be popped up as many are right in the middle of the plate. This season Profar has been getting a whole lot of pitches like that and he’s not doing a lot with them. The following show the pitch location heat maps for Profar in each of the last four seasons.

Pitchers are attacking him in the heart of the zone like never before. His 2021 heat map is much more concentrated right in the center of the zone. In years past, he was seeing a more varied assortment of locations throughout the strike zone and beyond. To put some numbers on those heat maps, this year he is seeing 27.9% of pitches inside the heart of the zone, as Baseball Savant classifies it. That’s up from 25.6% over the last three seasons. It might not seem like a lot, but a couple extra pitches in the heart of the zone per series will add up when you are damaging those pitches. Profar isn’t, so he is getting more of them. Check out his results on pitches in the heart of the zone.

Pitches in the Heart of the Zone
Season Pitch% wOBA Avg. EV Launch Angle
2018-2020 25.60% 0.334 89.6 15
2021 27.90% 0.242 85.8 18
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Losing four miles per hour on your exit velocity on pitches in this location is pretty jarring to see. Baseball Savant even provides run values for how a hitter is performing in certain locations. Profar is the second worst in all of baseball on pitches in the heart of the zone this year, at -17 runs, trailing only Marwin Gonzalez. Baseball is a humbling sport and I can’t imagine a more lonely and disheartening feeling than being a big leaguer in the prime of your career and finding yourself in the midst of a three month slump where pitchers are challenging you in the heart of the zone and you can’t beat them. If you take the heart of the zone and isolate it down into only the very dead center (where only about 7% of pitches end up and the league average wOBA is .390), you’ll find that Profar has only a .228 wOBA in this location.

Popup rate and contact quality aside, you don’t have to look far to find some sort of a silver lining for what Profar is going through. I hinted at it earlier: it’s his plate discipline. Even though he’s seeing more pitches in the strike zone than in years past, he has still significantly improved his walk rate.

Plate Discipline
Season BB% K% O-Swing% Zone% SwStr%
2018-2020 8.9% 14.5% 31.3% 42.0% 8.5%
2021 12.7% 16.4% 26.6% 44.5% 7.4%

Somehow in the midst of a bad slump Profar is still laying off pitches out of the strike zone at a much better rate than during his peak years. We’ve seen it all too often before that when a hitter starts slumping his plate discipline starts creaking and leaking and the next thing you know he has slumps growing on top of slumps. The numbers have continued to look rough in June, as Profar has a 33 wRC+ and a .112 wOBA on pitches in the heart, yet through it all he has an impressive 14.3 BB% this month.

All of this is to say, Profar is not a lost cause. He has an 85th percentile walk rate and an 83rd percentile strikeout rate. You really don’t have to hit the ball that well to be a valuable hitter with those plate discipline numbers. ZiPS still projects him to be a league average hitter moving forward and given his role, that is really all the Padres need. Lately, as the Padres have healed and Profar’s struggles have continued, he’s started to lose playing time. The Padres have won seven straight games and Profar has started just two of them, including no starts in their recent sweep of the Dodgers. I can’t see this lack of playing time continuing for long; injuries keep piling up across baseball and there is a lot of season left. Profar is almost assuredly going to be taking a lot of big at-bats in the second half of this season. Even after winning seven straight games, the Padres are four and a half games out of first place in the NL West; it turns out the Giants were also building some sort of depth machine this offseason. Our Playoff Odds currently have all three of these teams with over an 80% chance to make the playoffs, meaning that every little bit of value could be the difference between winning the division outright or facing a winner-take-all game on the road. Getting Profar on track could be that little bit of value the Padres need.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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10 months ago

I have a feeling something is going on with him physically. He’s never been a big power guy but this is outlier bad for him