Kelly Johnson, the surprise team leader in OBP
As Tom noted yesterday, around 10% of the season is in the books. That means that a lot can still happen, but we can now start looking at some early trends that could indicate a hitter has made changes.
Yunel Escobar: at .231/.274/.295, his slash line is way down from last year. He has made up for it with great defense, but is there cause for concern? A big thing for Escobar is his eye and patience at the plate, but this year he has swung at 47% of the pitches thrown to him, up from 40.1% last year. Escobar is still showing a great eye at the plate, as most of his extra swings have been on pitches in the zone, and he's still making contact at a very good rate. The problem has been the quality of the contact made, as he has pounded the ball into the ground 65% of the time, up from 57%, and his line drive rate has dropped. So far, Escobar has hit fastballs well, but struggled with sliders. Escobar has been a very complete hitter over his career though, so I do not expect that to continue.
Kelly Johnson: at .246/.395/.459, Kelly has without a doubt (in my mind at least) been the most valuable position player on the team so far, as he has also provided good defense at second base. Kelly has still struggled mightily to make contact, at exactly the same rate as last year, when he struck out an amazing 26.6% of the time. He has, however, taken the art of drawing walks to a new level by swinging at only 40% of the pitches thrown to him, and when he has swung, it has been mostly at strikes. One possible problem is that he has hit a lot more popups and groundballs than in previous years, which explain the low BABIP. Kelly has so far hit sliders and fastballs well, though he has hit fastballs, cutters and changeups well over his career, with sliders his main weakness.
Jose Bautista: few fans would have been expecting Jose to hit only .200/.359/.367 in the first 10% of the season, but alas, he has. While Jose is still not swinging often, his pitch selection has taken a turn for the worse, with 6% more swings on stuff out of the zone, and 5% less swings on pitches in the zone. He has made just as much contact with pitches as last year, but this year the contact has been made more on pitches outside the zone, and that is, of course, not good at all. Jose has cut down on the popups a tiny bit, but at the cost of less flyballs. If Jose's going to profit from his amazing power, he needs to hit the ball in the air more. So far, Jose has killed sliders, but been totally fooled by changeups and he's not hit fastballs that well, either.
Adam Lind: Adam's .211/.286/.351 line doesn't exactly scream "power hitting first baseman", but it hides a very much improved approach from the struggling first sacker. His swing% is down from 50% to 41.5%, and his contact rate is up by as much as 10%! His problem so far has been generating power with this new approach, and a greatly increased groundball rate has been a major culprit. Adam's still hitting a bunch of line drives, but it's still not translating into a decent BABIP. With the rest of the team also hitting more grounders, that's possibly simply a result of the pitchers the team has faced. But to be an acceptable first baseman with the bat, the balls he does hit in the air need to go farther than they have so far. Lind has been great with breaking stuff this year, but fastballs remain a weakness of his (2009 was the exception), and pitchers have been throwing more of those fastballs than last year.
Edwin Encarnacion: the positive surprise along with Kelly Johnson, EE has hit .286/.329/.543. Despite the obvious positives of the power numbers combined with a high average, there is also some cause for concern. The good news is that EE has, again, improved his patience at the plate. The bad news is that EE has made less contact by about 3-4 percentage points, and has hit an incredibly high amount of popups. He has hit even more flyballs than in the past, so at least he hasn't suffered from the same problems as most of the hitters on the team. EE's always handled changeups well, and has done even more so this year. Fastballs and sliders aren't his specialty usually, but so far EE has handled them well.
Brett Lawrie: yeah, .294/.338/.412 isn't what we had in mind for the "future Hall of Famer", but it isn't bad, especially combined with his glove. Lawrie's been laying off a lot of pitches in the zone, while laying off pitches out of the zone at a rate that is just about average. In other words, his eye at the plate hasn't been good. He has improved the amount of contact he makes, though, towards an acceptable level for a guy with medium power. Which is nice, because we expect Lawrie to have more power than that. For Brett, groundballs have been a problem, he's hitting about 20% less flyballs than last year (which was a small sample, of course), and that isn't good for someone with his power. Lawrie has been great against fastballs so far in his young career, but pitchers are throwing him a lot of offspeed stuff, which he'll now try to learn to hit as he adjusts to the highest level of baseball.
Colby Rasmus: with a .242/.294/.452 line, Rasmus doesn't look to have hit that well, but anyone who's watched his batted balls knows he's been unlucky so far. Rasmus' plate discipline has not improved, however, as he's taken more swings, with almost all of the extra swings at pitches out of the zone. His contact rate is about the same as it was last year, and while not Kelly Johnson style bad, he does need to keep hitting for power to make up for the strikeouts that will continue to come. Colby's batted ball types are very positive, with a very healthy 24.5% line drives, a low groundball rate as is usual for him, but also a greatly reduced popup rate. Hey, who knew the Jays could fix a hitter's popup problems, right? Colby is a fastball/changeup hitter, but he's been adequate against his breaking ball nemeses this year. He hasn't hit fastballs well, but changeups haven't been fooling Colby so far.
Eric Thames: after last game, Thames' line of .273/.327/.386 doesn't look that awful anymore. Unfortunately, his defense still does, and Eric hasn't hit nearly enough to be a good DH. There is some reason for optimism, however, as Thames has greatly improved his discipline this year. It hasn't led to a good OBP so far, but that might come. His contact rate has actually decreased to below Colby's, and as we know Eric hasn't hit for the power to justify that kind of swings-and-misses rate yet. His line drives are way down and his groundballs are up, which isn't good news for the future of 'Eric Thames, power hitter'. Strangely, whereas Thames was good against changeups last year, they have been his main enemy this year, hitting breaking balls most adequately instead. Small sample size applies, of course, and it could be a while before we know where his weaknesses truly lie.
J.P. Arencibia: he of the .200/.245/.300 line, Arencibia has looked a bit improved behind the plate, but much less so in the batter's box. Believe it or not, Arencibia's actually made contact more and swung less this season. Unfortunately, the pitches he has taken this year have often been strikes, which explains the almost 30% strikeouts for him at this part of the season. Arencibia's greatest asset, his power, has not been put to good use because he has hit 15% more grounders than last season. At least he's not hitting infield flies anymore, so there's that. While Arencibia saw most of his production at the plate come off fastballs last year, he's not hit them at all this year, and pitchers have even increased the number of fastballs they've thrown him by 6%. Is Arencibia noticeably sitting offspeed? Is his bat speed lacking? Or is it just a small sample fluke?
There are positive signs here, but things are not going as planned for the Jays' hitters at the moment. They've struggled hitting balls in the air, and they've taken a lot of strikes they probably should've hammered. The new collective approach seems like it has potential for Thames and Lind, and it's already working for Kelly Johnson, but Bautista, Lawrie and Arencibia need to crush first pitch meatballs in addition to being selective at the plate. They've let too many strikes sail by. Oh, and EE, try not hit to many popups, okay?