In the off season, actually for my first ever post here at ON, I wrote about how Manny Machado‘s 2013 second half struggles lied in his inability to select pitches he could hit. Essentially, his innate ability to get bat to ball combined with a poor understanding of knowing which pitches he could drive led to him swinging and making contact on pitches he could not barrel up. This led to an increase in fly balls – especially infield fly balls – which indicate poor contact is being made. Machado was swinging at junk and this caused his batting average and extra base hit production to plummet in the second half of 2013.
Fast forward to now, and Manny has been hitting .301/.340/.494 for the last two months after a cold start coming off of his knee injury. He has a .193 ISO during that time period as well as a 24.3% line drive rate. Manny certainly has been barreling up the ball for the last two months and has been one of the only Orioles hitters doing so since the All Star break. Therefore, I wanted to see if Manny has changed his approach in any meaningful way and has learned to be selectively aggressive. Meaning, while he still is never going to be an on base machine, he can still be patient enough to wait on pitches he knows he can hit and hit well rather than making contact on pitches he cannot hit well.
Looking into his basic 2014 plate discipline numbers, interestingly, reveals little to no positive change from 2013. He is swinging more at pitches in the zone and out of the zone. He has an O-Swing% of 32.8%, a Z-Swing% of 68.6% and an overall swing% of 49.9% all of which are two to three percentage points higher than last year. Furthermore, he is making less contact on pitches in and out of the zone. His O-Contact% is 63.5% and his Z-Contact% is 85.4% alongside an overall contact% of 77.9% all of which are three to four points lower than last season. If Manny was swinging and barreling up better pitches to hit his swing rate may be the same, but he should not be swinging at pitches out of the zone more often. Furthermore, his contact rate would be higher especially on pitches in the zone, which it is not. Also, his swinging strike rate is up and his pitches seen in the zone are down. So, if those numbers are not showing why Manny is being more successful to date this year, then either there is another reason or it has simply been luck so far.
A quick look at some other figures tells a slightly different story. His walk rate is nearly two points higher to date this season and his pitches per plate appearance is up from 3.53 P/PA to 3.68 P/PA. While that may not seem like an astronomical increase, it is significant. Manny had 710 plate appearances last season, if he had this season’s rate of P/PA he would have seen 106.5 more pitches last year. Therefore, his increasing strike out rate is not surprising simply because he is seeing more pitches. He also is not striking out at an absurdly high rate to begin with, only slightly above 2014 league average. Basically, Machado is seeing more pitches this year than last, and this has led to a higher walk rate and a higher strike out rate. This, however, does not quite prove the theory of selective aggression that I am purporting.
Using heat maps, this theory can truly be put to the test. Manny may be swinging slightly more and making a little less contact, but what matters here is whether or not he is swinging at good pitches for him to hit, which his recent numbers and line drive rate would suggest he is doing. Below are two heat maps. One is of Manny’s 2013 season swing rates by pitch location, the whole season, and the second one is his 2014 season swing rates by pitch location to date.
Of note, Manny Machado thus far in 2014 has swung significantly less at pitches out of the zone that are down and away, down and in, and up and in. Also, he has focused on swinging at pitches that are middle in, middle, down, middle up, and even up and away. This allows him to extend his arms and drive the ball, especially the other way. In 2013, Manny focused much more on pitches in the middle of the plate and up and in. The swings at pitches that are up and in especially, and the other problem areas as well, zapped his ability to make solid contact and nosedived his 2013 offensive production.
Next up in this what is turning more and more into a slideshow are contact rate heat maps for 2013 (first picture) and to date in 2014 (second picture).
Manny seemed to make much more contact on pitches inside and outside the strike zone in 2013. In particular, he made contact at a much higher rate on pitches up and in, down and in, and up and away. These are pitches that Manny simply cannot drive well, which means that if he is making contact with these pitches they are most likely to be outs, which in turn led to his struggles in the second half of 2013. In 2014 his contact rates are much more concentrated within the strike zone and specifically middle in, down, and up. He is still making lots of contact on pitches too far up and away and down and away, but much lower than he was in 2014. This minimizes the bad contact and allows him to see more pitches that he can make hard contact on.
To bring it all home, below are two more heat maps. These heat maps are Manny’s batting average by pitch location again for the entirety of the 2013 season and the 2014 season to date. Again, the first one will be 2013 and the second one will be 2014.
These heat maps reveal more about how Manny’s approach at the plate has transformed. In 2013, the averages were decently high all around the plate and even out of the zone. However, this is not necessarily a great thing. Manny was swinging at pitches wherever they may be and his average was not great in many of those pitch locations. Fast forward to 2014, and the hitting zones are much more concentrated and with higher batting averages. The section that is middle in Manny is hitting .242 on pitches thrown to that location and is swinging 82% of the time at pitches in that location, tied for highest of any spot on his 2014 swing map. He is swinging and driving pitches that are middle in, up, and down. He can drive the ball by extending his arms on up and away pitches and he can pull his arms tight to either pull the middle pitches or inside out them to center field or right field. These are the pitch locations that Manny can hit and hit hard and he is swinging more at those pitches than he was in 2013.
The adjustments made to Machado’s plate discipline provide a selective aggression that make him a better batter. As stated before, he is unlikely to become an on base machine. But, Manny has shown that he can hit doubles and home runs. If he maintains a higher average and his selectively aggressive eye at the plate he can continue to be an all star level player for the Orioles. Time will tell how pitchers adjust and how Manny adjusts, but the developments this year over last provide a great picture into Manny’s ability to adapt and thrive.
(Heat Maps provided by Fangraphs.com)