February 8, 2013 at 2:17 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves
In the first of this year’s “plate approach series” we’ll look at brand new Brave, Justin Upton. In many ways Upton’s approach is kind of boring in that it’s not quirky at all. It’s a very solid approach, aimed at making pitchers give in to him, waiting for pitches in his wheel-house and then crushing them. But anyway, let’s just jump right into the graphs (note: all charts are generated for full career numbers, as these sorts of charts are best over really large samples):
First, we’ll start with his swing rate on 0-0 counts. In many ways this is THE defining count for a player’s overall approach, as how they approach 0-0 counts changes the entire rest of the at bat, as they’re either in the drivers seat with a favorable count, or at a disadvantage in a pitcher’s count. On the one hand, you certainly don’t want to get yourself out by making weak contact on a ball outside the zone, or even a pitcher’s pitch inside the zone. However, you also don’t want to bypass meatballs that you could likely crush while simultaneously giving the pitcher a sense that the first pitch is a ‘free strike’ for him. You need to make the pitcher afraid to throw you a get over strike, but also not get yourself out with weak contact.
Here is Justin’s swing rate graph in 0-0 counts:
and for a point of comparison, here’s a league average swing rate chart for 0-0 counts:
Basically Justin is looking for fastballs and hangers up and slightly in. Translation, he’s cherry-picking pitches he can crush. This translates to Justin having a .351 batting average and .601 slugging percentage, with a 5.2 homerun % on 0-0 counts. While Justin’s outside the strike zone chase % is league average for 0-0 counts, if you take out pitches slightly above the strike zone, where he actually still hits the ball very well, he has one of the lower chase rates. That means that he typically won’t swing at a pitch in a 0-0 count that he’s likely to make weak contact on. You may not see him swing at a pitch low and away on a 0-0 count ALL SEASON LONG.
Next, let’s try to understand how pitchers pitch Justin in 0-0 counts. First, let’s look at location:
Here is where pitchers pitch Justin in 0-0 counts:
And here is League Average for right handed hitters:
First look and they seem roughly similar. However, you will notice that the league average hitter does get more pitches over the heart of the plate. Essentially this is simply a reflection of pitchers being rightfully afraid to come over the plate to Justin Upton in early counts, especially inside or up. Essentially, the pitcher’s strategy is to try to paint one on the black low and away to Justin. Which is obviously common sense, but I think it is instructive to see how much more careful they are to Justin than a league average type hitter. To look at the raw numbers, pitchers throw Justin a strike on the first pitch 57% of the time, compared to a league average of 60% of the time. While this may not sound like a huge difference, it is relatively large, as it’s enough to mean that Justin is in the 77th percentile for fewest strikes seen in 0-0 counts.
Now, lets look at release velocity, to get a rough feel for pitch type:
and here’s a league average RHB:
The biggest thing to notice is the 1 MPH difference in the low and away portion. While this may not sound huge, it does mean that Justin is seeing significantly more changeups low and away than an average hitter. He is in the 85th percentile for most off-speed pitches seen in 0-0 counts. in other areas, velocity is nearly the same, or just slightly lower, indicating that he does see more off-speed stuff across the board, but its especially prevalent low and away.
Now let’s look at how Justin handles those pitches a bit more, first with contact rate:
league average RHB:
The thing to note is his extremely high contact rate on pitches inside compared to a league average. What this tells you is that he’s even more mentally selective in 0-0 counts than even the swing rate chart above would indicate. What this is telling you is that when Justin swings in 0-0 counts he’s almost always looking for the ball to be middle-in, and that when he swings at pitches outside of that zone, it’s more that he was fooled on the pitch than that he actually intended to swing there. On balls middle-in, Justin locks in and almost never misses the pitch in 0-0 counts. He’s definitely looking for a specific pitch in those counts.
Next let’s look at his in-play ISO in 0-0 counts:
League Average RHB:
Keep in mind here that a league average ISO is around .150, so any of the black to dark blue area is actually pretty good. It’s a little odd that Justin has such large red areas low and away. However, because Justin swings and makes contact in those areas so rarely, it’s partly a function of small sample size. One further point to make is that it also seems that while Justin TENDS to lay off these sorts of pitches, he occasionally goes to the plate looking for them, hoping that he will catch a pitcher trying to get a ‘lazy’ outer half first pitch strike, and he then punishes the pitch. So, part of those outside red areas are simply a function of Justin very selectively looking for them at times, to prevent pitchers from believing that anything over the outer half is a free strike. He’s basically saying “sure, I won’t swing at those pitches most of the time early in counts, but if you get lazy, you’re playing roulette out there, you better not only hit the outside, but it better be a good pitch or it way well get deposited into the seats.”
So, in summation for 0-0 counts, basically we should expect to see a lot of Justin taking changeups low and away. We should expect the occasional pitcher to challenge him middle in (either by idiotic choice or mistake), and we should expect Justin to handle such pitches very effectively. Further, we should occasionally expect Justin to cherry pick pitches low and away early in counts and punish them, if a pitcher has shown that he’s just going to live out there early in the count.
Next, we will look at three categories of counts: Hitters counts (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1), pitchers counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2) and neutral counts (1-1, 2-1, 3-2). While 0-0 counts have a robust sample size, due to every at bat having one, the other counts need to be grouped to have an effectively large enough sample to make graph analysis such as this effective. Further, it saves us from doing this for all of the 12 possible pitch counts.
First, let’s look at neutral counts (1-1, 2-1, 3-2):
Swing rate for Justin in neutral counts:
League average RHB in neutral counts:
The first thing to notice is that while Justin is more aggressive in 0-0 counts than a league average hitter, he’s less aggressive in neutral counts than a league average hitter. While an average player takes the vast majority of first pitch strikes, in many cases just giving the pitcher a free strike, Justin makes the pitcher earn it. Conversely, in neutral counts the league average batter will swing at a lot of pitches that he is likely to make weak contact on, while Justin is still looking for pitches he can drive. Again, the theme is making the pitcher earn his keep. While the pitcher doesn’t get a free strike in a 0-0 count merely by chunking the ball over the plate, he doesn’t get weak contact in neutral counts merely by getting it anywhere near the plate either.
In many circles, you’ll hear talk of either being a ‘patient hitter’ being a virtue, while in other circles the ‘aggressive hitter’ is better. What Justin shows is that neither view is really correct, a hitter must be both appropriately patient and aggressive, depending on the count and game situation.
For these neutral counts we are going to skip going over where and how pitchers pitch to Justin, because it would largely be rehashing themes from above. Pitchers tend to be more extreme to Justin with pretty much only fastballs up and only off speed down with Justin than they are to a league average batter, just further showing the theme of pitchers simply being more careful with their pitch selection with Justin than an average hitter.
Next, let’s look at neutral count contact rate for Justin (we won’t bother with league average contact rate here, since it is virtually indistinguishable from 0-0 league average contact rate)
The only thing to note here is that the contact rate is a little further spread out, though still skewing towards inside. Essentially this further reflects the observation from above that Justin is still pretty selective and looking for pitches to drive in neutral counts, though he does swing more than in 0-0 counts.
Finally, let’s see his in-play ISO, to get a sense for how hard he hits the ball in neutral counts:
League Average RHB:
The biggest thing to note here is that Justin does serious damage throughout the strike zone in neutral counts. Low and away is a bit of an area where pitchers can get weak contact, but that’s true for most any hitter. Pretty much the entire rest of the plate he has not only covered, but is primed to punish baseballs for entering. Yeah, he’s good, I suppose.
Next, let’s shift to pitchers’ counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2):
Justin’s Swing Rate in pitchers’ counts:
League Average RHB:
While obviously Justin swings at more pitches, because he is forced to, it’s worth noting that he’s still more selective than a league average RHB in these counts. Justin is in the 95th percentile for lowest swing percentage in pitchers counts. ie 95 out of 100 RHB’s swing more often in these counts than Justin does. However, he actually is right at league average in called strike percentage, ie he doesn’t actually take more called strikes in pitchers’ counts, despite swinging at FAR FEWER pitches in these counts. Justin is confident in his sense of the strike zone and while he’s a bit more defensive, he’s still looking for pitches he can drive.
Let’s now look at how successful he is at driving pitches in these counts:
Justin In-Play ISO in pitchers’ counts:
League Average RHB:
While most league average hitters can do a little bit of damage in these counts on balls right around the middle of the plate, we see Justin does serious damage to mistakes, even in pitchers counts. Further, when you combine this with the fact that Justin isn’t swinging at nearly as many pitchers’ pitches in these counts, we see that he’s making a lot more solid contact than your league average hitter. This leads Justin to a .325 slugging percent in pitchers’ counts, which is in the 71st percentile in such counts. So, even when he’s at a disadvantage, Justin is still a very dangerous hitter.
Finally, let’s see what Justin does in hitters’ counts (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1):
Justin’s swing rate in hitters’ counts:
League average RHB:
Similar to the 0-0 counts, we actually see that Justin is more aggressive in hitters’ counts than a league average player is. This discrepancy is compounded by the fact that Justin actually sees fewer strikes than a league average hitter in these counts. So, he swings a substantial amount more than an average hitter. However, this doesn’t lead to poor performance. On the contrary, Justin is in the 88th percentile in wOBA in hitters counts. Echoing his approach in 0-0 counts, Justin is aware that you can’t give pitchers a free strike, even in hitters’s counts. He looks for pitches and seeks to destroy them. Let’s see just how badly with the in play ISO graph:
Well, I had to enter in the raw numbers here, because Justin basically broke the graph, since a .400 ISO is so high that the graph stops registering differences above that. In hitters’ counts Justin had ISOs over .800. An .800+ in play ISO is absurd. This is why in hitters counts Justin is in the 88th percentile in wOBA, 85th percentile in homerun rate, 90th percentile in slugging percentage, 87th percentile in batting average, 65th percentile in walk rate, and 82nd percentile in OBP.
Justin Upton is good at hitting baseballs very hard. And he’s at an age where he should, somehow, continue to get better at that skill. He’s very good in all counts.
Particularly of note is how Justin approaches counts a bit backwards, being more aggressive in counts where an average hitter takes a lot of strikes, and more patient in counts where average hitters get themselves out very often with weak contact. This is how truly elite hitters like Chipper Jones often did it, and while Justin’s approach isn’t quite as refined as Chipper’s was, it is very much on the way to getting there if he shows solid growth, and Justin has even better power than Chipper did.
This guy could be scary good over the next 3 years, and it’s going to be fun to watch.