When Willson Contreras hit a couple deep, hard liners last night around 300 feet or so, I thought to myself, “Well, that was good to see at least.”
And then I thought, “Wait. Why does that feel good? Has it really been *that* rare for Contreras to hit the ball hard and deep this year?”
Well, yeah. Some baseline numbers compared to last year:
- SLG – down 87 points
- ISO – down 73 points
- HR – he has just 4 of them
- Hard Contact – down 6.2 percentage points
- Soft Contact – up 3.1 percentage points
- HR/FB Rate – DOWN 19.7 PERCENTAGE POINTS
OK. I have to stop on that one. Because holy crap.
First of all, Contreras admittedly had an absurdly high HR/FB rate in his first two season in the big leagues, up near 25%. League average is around 12 to 14%, and, for the most part, players regress toward that number. Some guys, however, simply hit the ball hard enough and at the right angle frequently enough that they do sustain an above-league-average HR/FB rate (think Giancarlo Stanton, for example, who is at an absurd 26.9% for his career).
This year, Contreras is all the way down to just 6.2%. That’s the 24th lowest mark in all of baseball from a guy who was in the top 20 the last couple years. Even if you don’t buy that he’s a true 25% guy (fair, in my opinion), there’s no way he should be that far below league average. So what the heck is going on?
To be sure, some of this is bad luck. When you see super-duper extremes like this for a guy who isn’t otherwise totally broken at the plate, you simply know that there’s bad luck involved. It happens.
But it’s not all bad luck. Consider for a moment those contact rate numbers up there, and add them in your internal calculator to these changes:
- Fly Ball Rate: up 6.8 percentage points
- Infield Fly Ball Rate: up 2.4 percentage points
- Line Drive Rate: down 4.1 percentage points
Even without digging any further, you start to get a pretty clear picture: Contreras has worked to hit fewer ground balls (that’s good!), but he’s not hitting the ball nearly as hard as he has in the past (that’s bad!), so his increase in fly balls has actually made him a less powerful hitter.
I could tell you that Contreras’s average launch angle has increased by nearly three degrees over the past two years, but that won’t tell you all that much, because that could actually be a good thing if it was the right angle and the right kind of contact.
So instead, I’ll show you his charts from Statcast on launch angle, and I be you can pretty easily spot the problem.
First, from 2017:
And now, here in 2018:
As you can see, Contreras has “improved” his launch angle, but not because the main thrust of his contact has all shifted up by a few degrees. Instead, it’s because there’s a huge chunk of contact now in the 30 degrees and higher section, where you will absolutely not see any quality production (much less homers) unless it stays in the low 30s and you absolutely hammer it. Last year, he barely had any contact above 30 degrees.
So, then, you combine this shift to a more fly ball approach with less hard contact, and boom, you’ve got an easy recipe for far less slugging.
The Cubs and Contreras no doubt know about this issue, and will continue to adjust, just as they did last year when Contreras was hitting too many balls on the ground (and then had a huge second half). The good news is that I didn’t see anything obvious in his zone numbers to suggest this is all because he’s swinging at a stuff he shouldn’t be, or is suddenly being fooled more. Contreras is still taking his walks, and is striking out less than ever.
It looks a lot more like there is a mechanical/timing tweak that has produced more fly balls, and it just needs to be reeled back in a bit.
Well, and also, Contreras needs to hit the ball harder. That part, I suppose, is a little less easily addressed, though it could be tied in with the team-wide shift toward more contact, which could be coming at the expense of power.