Are The Rays Swinging Harder?
The Rays are known as one of the most sophisticated organizations in the MLB, mostly thanks to an advanced analytics department. They have been first adopters of some of the now prevalent advanced baseball strategies today. They perennially are winners with annually low payrolls.
The Rays sometimes blow me away with the strategies discovered and implemented by their analytics departments. One of the most fascinating strategies they implemented at the beginning of last year was getting their pitchers to throw fastballs with more rise high in the zone, causing pitchers like Drew Smyly and Matt Moore to make drastic improvements in their results. Now I believe they are having their hitters implement a new strategy.
I cannot be positive they are telling their hitters to swing harder, but there is some evidence to lead me to believe this is true.
The Rays strikeout a lot. Almost all their players have strikeout rates above their ZiPS and Steamer projections and currently have one of the highest strikeout rates in baseball. A strikeout is the worst outcome possible for a hitter, so at first glance the Rays appear to have a lot of hitters who have gotten a whole lot worse. It’s clear looking at the data this isn’t just variance. Across the board for the Rays, the contact rates of their hitters have been much worse this season than the previous, an average decline of about 5%.
There are a few possibilities that come to mind that could explain the decreased contact rates. The first one is luck. It is possible most of the Rays contact rates have decreased because of chance alone. This is certainly possible, but also unlikely. The 5% decrease in team contact rate is by far the highest margin in the league.
Because of the degree of the contact rate change, it’s unlikely that the Ray’s worse contact rates are happening purely by chance. That leaves two possibilities in my mind. One possibility is the Rays have advised some or all of their hitters to take more of an uppercut swing. A steeper or uppercut attack angle of the bat theoretically should lead to less contact, so this is a possible explanation. If this were true, we would expect the Rays to have more flyballs from their hitters. And they do. Their flyball rate is up about 3% from last year
But the increase in fb rate is only the 6th highest in the league, and can mostly be accounted for by the addition of extreme flyball hitter Steve Pearce and the loss of extreme groundball hitter John Jaso. I’m also skeptical that a team would try to drastically change all their players swing planes. I can’t rule out this possibility though.
That leaves us with the explanation I believe to be true: The Rays have adopted a grip it and rip it mindset. The Rays currently have the highest ISO in baseball, meaning they hit for power better than every other MLB club, a 30% improvement year to year. They also have a large increase in hard contact percentage across the board, an average of about 5% per player, by far the highest increase in the league.
Hitting for power and hitting the ball hard are not unrelated. With MLB Statcast data, we can now see their is a clear and strong relationship between hitting for the ball well and hitting the ball hard. The harder you swing, the harder the ball will be hit. That is if you make contact at all.
If contact wasn’t an issue, swinging hard would be a no brainer. But there is a tradeoff here. While a home run is the best outcome for a hitter, the strikeout is the worst. If you hit the ball in play, you can advance runners and get on base. With a strikeout, neither of those things will happen.
But is the increased power really worth increased strikeouts? The Royals would beg to differ. They won the World Series last year with historically good contact and strikeout rates. However, no one would argue that hitting was the biggest reason for the Royals success. On the contrary, it was really their bullpen and defense that carried them to a championship.
I can only imagine that the Rays have done the math and have decided: Yes, it’s worth the trade off. Hitting the ball high and hard is good, and the Rays are doing that better than practically everyone else in the majors. Yes they are getting less contact, but the Rays do not have an abundance of talent in the batting department, so given their results I would have to say this change in approach has been a success.
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