I’m here today to tell you about a player who has been hitting the ball tremendously hard of late. That’s nothing new — it’s a common genre of FanGraphs article. You know the deal, because I’ve written plenty of them this year already. Josh Bell is great now, Pete Alonso only hits lasers, Niko Goodrum can apparently hit, etcetera. Inevitably, these stories catch players near a performance peak. That’s just the nature of the beast; when you look for noteworthy and exceptional performances to write about, there’s very likely some luck involved, even if the underlying statistics look good.
The ideal form of this type of article finds something that’s truly different about the player, something other than mere batted ball luck. Josh Bell’s simplified stance, for example, really is different. Even so, baseball is a game with a lot of inherent luck to it, and if you single someone out for doing tremendously well, there was probably some luck involved. Today, though, we’re going to subvert the genre. Today, let’s look at a player who is, per the trope, hitting the ball harder than ever and turning fly balls into home runs at the highest rate of his career. There’s a twist, though: Wil Myers is doing all that, but he’s also having his worst season in five years. That sounds like something worth writing about.
Myers has always had power. He’s had a 30 home run season and a 28 home run season despite playing in a home park that suppresses home runs. Despite that, 2019 is seeing the highest HR/FB% of his career. (All stats are through Tuesday’s action.) His exit velocity on line drives and fly balls is in the 97th percentile of hitters with 50 air balls this year, tied with teammate Franmil Reyes. He doesn’t fare quite as well in terms of barrels per ball hit in the air, as he’s been a bit inconsistent, but he’s still in the top 20% of baseball. There are no two ways about it; Wil Myers is hitting baseballs as hard as he ever has.
So, what have the offensive rewards of Myers’ bruising new power been? He’s batting .218/.314/.399, good for a 91 wRC+. His batting average is the lowest of his career, and his OBP and slugging percentage are higher only than his disastrous 2014 Rays campaign. That batting average is especially jarring when you consider that it’s not BABIP-driven; he’s batting .316 on balls in play, higher than his career average and significantly higher than his Depth Charts projections. High BABIP and low batting average? Strikeouts have to be the culprit here, and my goodness, Myers has struck out a lot this year — 35.6%, to be exact.
That strikeout rate is, of course, awful. It’s the highest rate among qualified hitters this year. Pre-breakout Joey Gallo is the only hitter who has ever put up a strikeout rate that high and been an above-average hitter, and while Myers has power, he doesn’t have that kind of power. The strikeouts, then, are a problem. Time to figure out what’s causing all those strikeouts, I guess.
You know what leads to strikeouts? Getting in 0-1 counts. Myers’ 64.8% first-strike percentage isn’t great — it’s the 15th-highest in baseball. League average is 61%, so it’s not untenably high or anything (Javy Baez is mashing despite a 68.3% first strike rate), but it’s certainly not ideal. It’s hard to call that the only problem, however; Myers had a similarly elevated first-strike percentage last year and struck out only 27% of the time. We can do better.
What about swinging too often at pitches outside of the strike zone? That’s the most obvious way to goose strikeouts. Myers wasn’t great at this to start with — he chased an above-average number of pitches in 2018, the highest rate of his career. Have we found his Achilles’ heel? No such luck. In fact, Myers has gotten better by quite a bit when it comes to avoiding chases. His O-Swing% has declined by 6.2% this year, going from comfortably worse than average to comfortably better than average. That’s not how this is supposed to work.
We’re clearly going to have to work harder to find out what’s going on. Luckily for me (and my sanity), though, we don’t have to work that much harder. Myers’ swinging strike rate has spiked to 13.8% this year, the highest of his career. That might explain the strikeouts, but it’s also going to require some unpacking. No one with a lower chase rate than Myers has a higher swinging strike rate — it seems nearly impossible to swing at so few bad pitches and whiff so often.
What’s the problem with Wil Myers’ plate approach? It boils down to contact. To maintain a high swinging strike rate while not swinging at pitches outside the zone, you need to miss pitches in the zone quite often. Myers’ contact rate on pitches in the strike zone is 77%, fourth-lowest in the majors. That’s a huge outlier for him, the worst rate of his career by a mile. If we can figure out what’s going on there, maybe we can figure out what’s going on with Myers.
To start, let’s take a look at Myers’ swing rates as a member of the Padres:
The biggest change he’s made in 2019 is swinging at fewer fastballs. That’s not a promising change, though it’s not as bad as it sounds. Most of the fastballs he’s laying off are hard to hit anyway. Let’s break those swing rates down further by zones, both traditional and using Baseball Savant’s Attack Zones:
|Year||In Zone||Out of Zone||Heart||Shadow||Chase||Waste|
Well, now this is downright confusing. This actually looks good! Myers is right in line with his career norms in terms of attacking pitches over the heart of the plate, and he’s dramatically cut down on his swings at bad fastballs. If you didn’t know he had the highest strikeout rate in the majors, you could almost believe I was presenting the story of Wil Myers’ hitting makeover: stop swinging at bad fastballs, and riches will follow. But as I’ve mentioned, and you’ve no doubt noticed, Myers is having his worst season as a Padre, not his best.
We’re getting into small-sample territory here, but consider this: Myers already has more swinging strikes against fastballs in 2019 than he did in 2018 in 70 fewer plate appearances. He’s whiffing on 28.3% of his swings against fastballs, a career high by a ton, which makes absolutely no sense when you compare it to where those swings occur. Think of it this way. The league as a whole whiffs on 16.5% of its swings against in-zone fastballs. Before this year, Myers was at 15.7% for his career. This year? He’s coming up empty on 25.7% of his swings.
Imagine how much harder baseball is when you get the best possible outcome — taking a swing at an opposing fastball in the strike zone — and still get only air a quarter of the time. When you’re producing contact that rarely, it’s hard to avoid a high strikeout rate. It’s not a matter of pitchers hitting their spots and forcing Myers to swing at tough pitches that just clip the corner of the zone, either. On middle-middle fastballs, Myers is whiffing on 32.4% of his swings, fifth-worst in baseball. Concentrating your swings on center-cut fastballs isn’t that helpful when you aren’t making contact with them.
It isn’t only fastball contact issues plaguing Myers. As it turns out, he’s having contact issues with breaking balls too. Breaking balls (for my purposes here, all curves, sliders, and cutters) are harder to hit than fastballs, of course, but that’s particularly true for Myers. He’s whiffed on 39% of his swings at them this year (34.2% for his career), against a league average of around 32%. It’s not just a question of swinging at pitches in bad locations — his zone whiff rate is 8.4% higher than league average, while his out-of-zone whiff rate is 7.3% higher than average.
None of this looks like it’s the result of a swing change. Myers has the same open stance he’s always adopted, the same high finish. He’s just missing more. There’s really no classic sabermetric explanation to go to, no appeal to sample size or to regression. How do you regress coming up empty on pipe-shot fastballs?
I have a theory. Not a great theory, mind you — we’re dealing with a lot of conflicting factors here — but a theory nonetheless.
It goes like this: Wil Myers is doing something different to hit the ball harder. That seems evident in the data — when he hits the ball the way he wants to (line drives and fly balls, excluding pop ups), he’s averaging a 98.1 mph exit velocity, up from a previous career average of 94.3 mph. That’s significant, both in the common language sense and the statistical sense (a one-sided t-test comparing all previous years’ air velocity and this year’s was significant at the 99% level). What if the thing he’s doing to hit the ball with more authority isn’t a swing or approach change? What if he’s simply swinging harder, taking his old swing at a higher effort level? That could definitely lead to a few more swings and misses.
This might be a somewhat hard effect to capture, but I tried a simplistic approach. I looked for hitters who increased their exit velocity on liners and fly balls by at least 2.5 mph year-over-year from 2017 to 2018. That group saw an average increase of 3.3 mph, and they were good — we’re talking standouts like Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts, and Javy Baez. They also saw an increase in whiffs per swing, though only by .6% on average. This fits with what’s happening to Myers in direction, if not magnitude. Of course, his cohort saw an average increase of 22 wRC+ from one year to the next, whereas Myers’ declined. If we limit it to batters whose swing-and-miss increased, that leaves us with a 1.7% whiff/swing increase and a 14-point wRC+ increase on average.
Okay, so we have a rough Myers cohort, albeit one that improved on average by trading contact for power. I wanted to see whether the power gains persisted while the contact normalized, so I looked at 2019 results for the same group. Across the entire group of EV-gainers, exit velocity and wRC+ gains fell back to the pack a little bit, while whiffs per swing didn’t change. The cohort who whiffed more in 2018 held their wRC+ gains, and their whiff rate remained unchanged. For the most part, then, people who changed their swings to add power at the expense of contact kept their new form. For most batters, that would be great. For Myers, though, it’s been a disaster.
At the end of the day, we can’t predict what will happen to Wil Myers. In one sense, he’s an analytical darling, putting more balls into the air with more conviction and reaping the home run rewards. In another sense, though, he’s a cautionary tale, someone who took all the lessons of exit velocity and turned them into a failure of a season. It’s nice, on occasion, to see these occasions where someone made all the changes you’re “supposed” to make and got nothing for it. Exit velocity and balls in the air aren’t the be-all, end-all solution to baseball, and Wil Myers is a banner case for why it’s more complex than that.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.