2017 has been a banner season for middling veteran hitters breaking out into big-time offensive forces. Rosters across Major League Baseball are dotted with veterans who have made a tweak here or an adjustment there and launched into performances way above and beyond what their track records suggested was possible.
It’s enough to make one wonder: where are these breakouts coming from? After all, if all these veteran hitters were just a tweak or two away from stardom, surely they would have made the adjustments sooner.
But perhaps the answer lies not in the player, but in the circumstances surrounding him. Perhaps someone — say, a teammate — made a suggestion that helped the middling veteran become way less middling. After all, who better to suggest an adjustment than a fellow hitter who has gone through the same process himself?
It is with that completely serious sentiment in mind that the Teammate Mentor Theory (TMT) was born. The theory of course, is that a significant number of these middling veteran breakouts can be traced back to a teammate who is very knowledgeable about the art of hitting or who has gone through a transformation himself. And, as with any scientific theory, the next step in the process is to test it.
In order to complete this very scientific study, I used the analytically rigorous method of sorting players by wRC+ and using my own judgment to select the ones that jumped out as most surprising. Then I looked to see if the player’s improvement could be tracked back to a teammate that is known as a hitting expert or has made similar adjustments himself. Like I said, very scientific.
Anyway, on to the list….
Middling Veteran Number One: Ryan Zimmerman (67 wRC+ in 2016, 189 in 2017)
Possible teammate mentor: Daniel Murphy
Zimmerman and Murphy together are one of the catalysts of the TMT. We know Murphy retooled his swing a couple seasons ago when he was still with the Mets. We know Murphy is a big believer in sabermetric and Statcast data and has shared that information with Zimmerman.
But we also know that Zimmerman later tried to shut down the idea he was incorporating sabermetric and Statcast principles such as consciously trying to lift the ball more often. We also know that, while Zimmerman was for a time a middling veteran, he was an excellent hitter prior to his middling-ness, and that he personally credits his improved health for his improved performance.
So which is it? Well, looking at Zimmerman’s batted ball distribution, his fly-ball rate has remained the same during his transition from middling back to mighty.
2014: 35.4 percent
2015: 35.0 percent
2016: 34.7 percent
2017: 35.4 percent
The bigger change has come in Zimmerman’s line drive percentage, currently at 22.9 percent, well above his career average of 19.0 percent. The most important change of all, however, comes from Zimmerman’s hard hit rate, which is back above 40 percent for the first time since 2013.
Daniel Murphy is a fantastic hitter and good TMT mentor candidate. But it’s hard to give him too much credit for Zimmerman simply hitting the ball harder because he’s no longer playing through pain.
Middling Veteran Number Two: Yonder Alonso (88 wRC+ in 2016, 174 in 2017)
Possible teammate mentor: None
Alonso is the poster boy for the fly-ball revolution. Alonso is currently running a 51.9 percent fly-ball rate, one of the highest figures in baseball and well above his career average of 34.0 percent. Alonso also said before the season that he intended to “punish the ball” more, which he’s certainly been able to do, boosting his hard contact rate from 32.3 percent in 2016 to 38.2 percent in 2017.
So we know Alonso wanted to make two adjustments: focus more on hitting the ball hard and hitting the ball in the air. The problem is, for the purposes of this study, there’s no teammate of Alonso to connect to the changes. Khris Davis hits the ball hard and in the air, but I doubt anyone other than Davis himself could apply those herky-jerky swing mechanics and be successful. Jed Lowrie could be another candidate, as he’s been able to draw decent power numbers out of his smaller build throughout his career. But Lowrie never made the type of wholesale changes Alonso had to make, so he isn’t a great TMT mentor candidate either.
But perhaps with Alonso we need to look outside the Athletics organization to find his TMT mentor. Maybe Alonso was mentored not by his Oakland Athletics teammates, but by one of his friends from the University of Miami, like, say, brother-in-law Manny Machado?
Is there any evidence this study can point to make the TMT connection between the two? Well, Machado, like Alonso, seems to be aboard the fly-ball brigade:
2014: 30.9 percent fly-ball rate
2015: 38.5 percent
2016: 42.7 percent
2017: 45.0 percent
Maybe now we’re on to something. But even so, it’s hard to see a 30-year-old veteran taking cues from 24-year-old who, as great as he may be, is still trying to make his own way in the league. It’s possible, but not necessarily likely.
Verdict: Negative as to his A’s teammates, inconclusive as to Manny Machado.
Middling Veteran Numbers Three Through Five: Zack Cozart (91 wRC+ in 2016, 154 in 2017), Eugenio Suarez (93 and 124), and Scott Schebler (101 and 125)
Possible teammate mentor: Joey Votto
Votto, like Murphy, is a sabermetric darling. Not only is he an excellent hitter, he’s also a flowing resource of knowledge on all things hitting. From choking up to fly balls to plate patience, there doesn’t seem to be a aspect of hitting that Votto couldn’t pontificate about for hours on end. If there is any credence to the TMT, Votto is the guy to prove it.
So what can we make of Votto’s three potential pupils? Cozart is the biggest outlier in the group, yet he might be the one representing the biggest hole in the TMT. Cozart hasn’t seen much of a change in his batted ball distribution; his 1.05 groundball-to-fly-ball ratio is right in line with what he’s done since 2014. Nor is he hitting the ball harder; his hard contact rate is actually down from last season.
He’s walking more this season, which, as we learned from Yonder Alonso, could be evidence of an intentional change in approach, which we can also arbitrarily trace back to Votto. What we can’t trace back to Votto, however, is Cozart’s 100-point jump in BABIP, a jump that’s happened without any noticeable change in his batted balls.
Suarez, like Cozart, has not made any appreciable changes in his profile to account for boost in production outside of increasing his walk rate, adding roughly 30 points of BABIP, and boosting his homerun-to-fly-ball rate by six percent. Suarez is actually hitting more groundballs this year (45.9 percent, up from 40.5 percent last year), relying on a homerun-per-fly-ball jump to prop up his power numbers. It’s worth noting that, if we want to try as hard as possible to link Suarez’s performance back to Votto, that Votto wouldn’t necessarily advocate for every hitter to increase his fly-ball rate. Votto himself said not too long ago that fly balls aren’t for everyone.
Suarez has decent speed (11 stolen bases last season), so maybe, after conversing with Votto, he decided a more groundball- and line drive-focused approach would boost his production. After all, a good way to boost BABIP is by hitting more balls on the ground. So while at first glance it’s difficult to see Votto’s influence on Suarez, perhaps there’s more here than meets the eye.
Scott Schebler looks much the same player he was last season except that his BABIP is way down (.312 to .245) and his ISO is way up (.167 to .293). But unlike Cozart and Suarez, it’s not hard to see why. Schebler has gone from an extreme groundballer to more of a fly-ball hitter (29.1 percent fly-balls to 40.7% fly-balls) and he’s boosted his hard hit rate by roughly seven percentage points.
More hard contact and more fly balls without a jump in strikeout rate is a good recipe for success. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that Schebler got said recipe from someone or somewhere other than Votto. But this article wouldn’t be much fun if the TMT was waived away by something silly like “probability”.
Verdict: No on Cozart, Maybe on Suarez, Yes on Schebler
All stats current as of June 14, 2017.
Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.