When you think of some of the best third basemen in the game today you think of such players as Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Matt Carpenter, Nolan Arenado, or maybe even a veteran like Evan Longoria. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call any of these players elite, which just goes to show how strong third base has become over the last couple years. Well the rich are getting richer, because it is time to add one more name to this list—Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Jake Lamb.
The Diamondbacks have been rather disappointing overall, but Lamb has excelled. Sure it might be a bold to label a hitter who has never accumulated over 400 plate appearances in one season elite, but Lamb is a more than deserving candidate—and someone our own Randy Holt warned us about earlier this year.
In his second full season, we are starting to see Lamb's bat flourish, as he sports an outstanding .293/.371/.625 slash line over 318 trips to the plate. Of course, his slash line is just scratching the surface of how well he has hit. Lamb has been one of the best in the National League in 2016, and his overall offensive production ranks behind only Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter. He hasn’t just been one of the best third baseman at the dish this season, he has been one of the best overall hitters in baseball.
Pinning down the cause for his breakout isn’t too difficult, especially when your power output has spiked to rival that of David Ortiz. As it stands right now, Lamb leads all of the National League in slugging percentage—and by a healthy margin. Slugging isn’t the best indicator of power, but in this case it does well to show that he has generally turned himself into one of the best power hitters in the league. If isolated power is more your thing (it is for me) than his blistering .332 ISO might impress you even more, as that number would be the third highest batting average(!!) in the National League.
Using the minor leagues as a point of reference for just how much his power has improved this season, Lamb owned an already-strong .231 ISO in 936 plate appearances. He has always had a good deal of power, but how has he been able to fully tap into it more than ever before this season? Well, Lamb made some mechanical adjustments that have helped him garner power from pitches thrown to him on the inner portion of the plate, in addition to greatly increasing his use of the right side of the field.
Let’s first look at his mechanical adjustments, as to better understand how he changed in that aspect. Beginning with his swing, Lamb adjusted his swing path in order to make it less choppy, and more like teammate A.J. Pollock. Here is what Lamb had to say about it in an interview with Arizona Central reporter Nick Piecoro back in March:
"I felt like I was pretty steep last year, kind of chopping at the ball," Lamb said. "There were just so many times where I got my pitch to hit, took a swing at it and I would just miss it on a fly out to the warning track or something. With a steep swing you have to have perfect timing. You still want good timing, but this swing allows you a bigger margin for error."
(…)"If your timing is late, then none of it works," Lamb said. "The hands can’t work; it’ll cut your swing off. But if you’re early, you’re allowed to, I call it, make some athletic moves. I can sync into my legs. I can go down and get balls."
The next thing Lamb did was add a more pronounced leg kick. This is something A.J. Pollock did last season, as well, and it aided his power output. Ryan Wolfson of the Sports Quotient discusses it well here, and uses some videos to highlight the difference as Lamb’s career has progressed. What it boils down to is that using a leg kick can help a hitters’ timing by allowing them to keep their weight back a bit longer, thus giving them a greater ability to put said weight toward harder contact. In a way, this new leg kick does well to slow things down and counterbalance his swing adjustment that gets the bat to the zone quicker.
The final adjustment Lamb made, which could probably be tacked on to the initial swing adjustment, was also noticed by Wolfson. As he writes, "Lamb no longer finishes with his bat up and body stiff but instead finishes with a fluid motion that uses his whole body." As a result of following through with his swing, Lamb is now able to release all of his power. If not all, more than he had been able to in the past.
Putting all that together, by using a leg kick to keep his weight back before his swing Lamb is able to transfer more power into a swing that stays in the zone longer and, upon contact, he is now able to exert more power by using his whole body all the way through the swing. In addition, starting his hands lower allows Lamb to get more lift on the baseball. In other words, this is the mechanical reason behind his power surge, and the application had immediate results.
It was intended to be more of a line-drive swing, but the power added by his lower half has propelled some of the towering shots we have seen from him this season. Before the start of play Thursday, Lamb has struck for 20 homers this season and his average exit velocity has been up about 3 mph overall when compared to 2015 while showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. Exit velo not your thing? How about Lamb’s hard-hit rate which, according to FanGraphs, has improved from 36.3 percent last season to 42.9 percent this season—the fourth-highest such total in the NL. Another way to put it is that Lamb has gone from above average to elite in terms of hitting the ball hard, and that seems to mirror his overall success.
It would be hard for him to sustain the type of average exit velocity we’ve seen him put out lately, but it is quite apparent that the adjustments Lamb has made in order to get a more power have worked. That being said, this new mechanics have also aided Lamb in terms of attacking the zone. His ability to blister baseballs thrown to him on the inner portion of the plate has played a key role in unlocking his power.
Using FanGraphs’ heatmaps, prior to this season you can see that most of the power Lamb generated came from the heart of the plate:
That has changed in 2016:
It is easier for a hitter to generate power on inside pitches, and Lamb’s quicker hands that come with his new swing help exploit this. When you think of notorious ways a hitter can increase their pop, this is one. Not all hitters have success on these type of pitches, and even some that do don’t have the power output Lamb has had this season. That being said, it speaks to how well his adjustments have helped him to tap into previously-dormant strength.
Another way hitters tap into more power would be to pull the ball more often. It is one of the ways batters can capitalize on inside pitches, but in general hitters are able hit the ball harder to their pull field. You know who is pulling the ball more than ever before? Jake Lamb.
Although a hitter typically finds more power in hitting to their pull field, sometimes over reliance can have a negative effect—having to deal with over-shifting the primary reason. For Lamb, however, this is not the case. In addition to pulling the ball at a high rate, he is also matching it with elite production. Elite production, which can be seen in his outstanding .563 ISO and 266 wRC+, both of which are good enough to rank top-5 in all of the National League.
Over at FanGraphs in early April, Lamb spoke with David Laurila about how his plan is to hit that ball as hard as he can at the center fielder. The goal, Lamb says, is to line out to the center fielder. If late, it would allow him to hit the ball over the shortstop. If early, it would allow him to hit the ball to the right-center gap. His plan at the plate, he describes, is to go gap to gap because he doesn’t want to get too reliant on right- or left-center. It seems odd that a player who described his approach at the plate as gap to gap saw has pulled the ball more than half of the time, the third-highest rate in all of the National League, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That being said, the problem here is…not really a problem at all.
Teams are aware how much he has favored one portion of the field this season, and opponents have shifted against him heavily. According to FanGraphs, Lamb has faced at least some variation of a shift in 110 plate appearances—just over one-third of all his trips to the plate. The great thing about Lamb is, however, that he has remained largely unaffected by the increased shifting. He sports a .336 BABIP and .241 ISO in defiance of the shift, while continuing to pull the ball around half of the time (for a visual representation, here is Lamb recording a triple and completely disregarding the shift all at once).
While it's difficult to account for confidence being a major factor in Lamb's change at the plate, his comments with Laurila allude to his desire to be a gap to gap hitter. His in-game on-field production is a player with one of the highest pull rates in the league, so perhaps it isn't unreasonable to think that Lamb's ability to realize his strength at the Major League level gave him the confidence necessary to play to that strength as much as possible via right field, irrespective of an overshift. Though we don't know if he will always beat the shift, a .380 wOBA speaks to how well he has been able to thus far, and is one of the reasons why he has safely been able to change his approach at the plate.
Although Lamb has modeled many of his adjustments after that of teammate A.J. Pollock, he has been able to far exceed any ‘Pollock 2.0’ labels. Not only has Pollock never pulled the ball at a rate like this, he was never able to exhume the power hitter Lamb has. Although, even without all of Lamb’s mechanical changes, maybe we could have seen this breakout last season if not for a foot injury in April that robbed him of a month and a half. Upon his return, he was never quite the same hitter, so seeing Lamb return to full health plays a crucial role, as well.
This season we are seeing the results of a healthy and mechanically-adjusted Jake Lamb. Pulling the ball (while also thwarting the shift) has allowed him to unleash a great deal of his power, as has his ability to crush pitches on the inner portion of the plate. Lamb is hitting the ball well, and it is reasonable to believe pitchers will adjust to him the deeper into 2016 we go. However, right now that doesn’t matter. Let’s enjoy the present in which Jake Lamb is very good. You can see that in some of his towering homeruns, or you can see that in how well he stacks up—and exceeds, in some cases—to the others that currently man the hot corner. So get out there and tell your family, friends, dog, mailman, co-worker at the water cooler, etc. the great news. Tell them that we are seeing the emergence of yet another young, elite, power-hitting third baseman. Then tell them they should definitely #VoteLamb!
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a soon-to-undergo Tommy John pitcher for Howard Payne University. There he is a Junior majoring in Business Management with a minor in Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com