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Cavan Biggio should swing more with two strikes

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The difference between eye and approach — he’s taking too many called strike threes

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes it seems like Cavan Biggio knows the strike zone better than the umpires:

For good measure, a few more:

You get the idea. Those are the 10 most recent of 24 videos available from MLB Film Room of Biggio getting punched out on pitches Statcast identifies as out of the strike zone. Interestingly, of the seven in 2020, none occurred within the first month of the season, with a pair of clusters in early and late September.

Like Jose Bautista before him (and Joey Votto), Biggio might be one of the biggest beneficiaries of an automated strike zone when the day comes comes. But until that day, batters must optimize outcomes on the world as it is.

While the above focusses on calls where he got hosed, more broadly Biggio strikes out looking a lot. Thus far in his career, Biggio has struck out 184 times in 695 plate appearances, a 26.5% rate that’s slightly above the MLB average of about 23% for non-pitchers in 2019-20. 72 of those have been looking, or 39%, which is well above the league average of 23%. Despite not debuting until late-May that ranks Biggio fourth across MLB players in 2019-20.

Or to put it a little differently in percentage point terms, Biggio strikes out looking 10.4% and swinging 16.1% of the time. Across MLB, strikeouts looking were about 5.2% and swinging just under 18% of all PA. So Biggio is actually a little better than average at avoiding swinging strikeouts, but strikes out looking twice as often. He’s already been really good, but paring back those called strike threes sticks out as an opportunity to be even a little productive with an improvement in underlying fundamental skill level.

It’s particularly curious for someone reputed to have a good eye. In fact, even if all those 24 calls above went the other way (without accounting for favourable calls that saved any), he’d still have a higher rate of strikeouts looking than league average. To me, that’s suggestive of a suboptimal approach, in this case being too passive/taking too many pitches. Holding all else equal, could Biggio’s approach be optimized? Or his his vaunted eye for the strike zone overrated in the first place?

I pulled Biggio’s pitch-by-pitch data from Statcast and ran it through a tool I use to compare pitch level outcomes for batters compared to MLB average (essentially, Markov chain analysis). One minor caveat is that my league data is a few years out of date now, but that shouldn’t be a big issue. Strikeouts have risen a few percentage points since then, but that’s mostly driven by more swing-and-miss, which isn’t the focus here.

At the highest level, there is one clear overriding factor about Biggio at the plate: whereas MLB batters swing about 46% of the time, Biggio has swung at just 36% of pitches he’s seen. While his penchant for working the count should come as no surprise, the magnitude perhaps is, a full 10 percentage points less often or 22% less on a relative basis. By comparison, another famously selective hitter in Bautista swung about 39% of the time in his heyday.

Another topline number stands out. It’s imperfect for various reasons, but the best way to measure a batter’s eye is to look at the ratio of balls to called strikes they take. Overall, on the other 54% of pitches MLB batters take, they take strikes about one third of the time (so the 54% total breaks down to 36% balls/18% strikes). This varies a lot situationally, so it’s usually good to drill down deeper, but directionally it gives an idea.

Biggio is taking a lot more pitches, but are they generally good takes? His called strike rate is just under 33%, so a hair better than but basically MLB average. His 64% takes break down to 43% balls and 21% strikes, or 7% and 3% more than MLB average at the margin. That’s a decent tradeoff, but it’s also not elite. Again, comparing to Bautista, his rate of called strikes was just above 30%, taking balls 42% of the time and strikes about 18.5% — so his 6% more balls came at the expense of almost no more strikes taken. That’s an elite eye.

As briefly referenced above, situations really matter for this analysis. Early or ahead in the count, batters can afford to be selective, but later or behind in the count they’re generally more protective. Let’s look at the same data, broken down by situation:

biggio approach

With no strikes (so first pitch or ahead in the count), it’s the same trend as the overall numbers. Biggio swings about 8% less, with a similar called strike rate. It’s fine, he’s not creating a ton of value, but it’s not hurting him either. Likewise, it’s basically the same story with two strikes. The difference is batters just swing more and consequently take less strikes; they can’t be quite as choosey as they were with no strikes.

But focus on two strikes. Generally in a defensive position, batters swing a lot more at 61% of the time, or 15% more than overall. When they do take a pitch, about 12% are called strikes. Combining those, batters take called third strikes on about 4.5% of the pitches two strike pitches they see.

Biggio however still swings less than half the time, only increasing his swing rate by 12% such that it’s 13% less than the MLB average. Even more significantly, he’s taking a lot of called strikes at 16%, 4% more than average—and on the marginal difference, it would even be higher. That means he’s taking called strikes on about 8% of all pitches with two strikes. This is a problem, and the main reason for all these punchouts (some will flow just from being more patient/passive and working deeper counts generally).

Again, the comparison to Bautista is very instructive. He too was very selective, swinging well less than league average—but notably, at 16% more than overall, in proportional. Even better, the pitches he did take showed a discriminating eye, with 8% called strikes below the league average rate. Even though he took more pitches, he was called out less than league average (under 4% of all pitches).

This shows the distinction between having a great eye for the strike zone compared to one’s approach at the plate. Biggio has a decent, but not elite eye at the plate. It’s his approach that really sets him apart, as he’s very, very patient. His career thus far shows that generally it works quite well: clearly he’s comfortable and can handle working deep counts, perhaps or likely enabling him to hunt pitches optimal for doing damage on balls in play.

But there’s a fine line between between being selective and being passive, and with tw strikes he’s almost certainly on the wrong side of the line. If instead Biggio swung 9% less than MLB average (52%) and had the league called third strike rate (12%)—that is, exactly what he’s able to do with one or two strikes—then he’d have had 21 fewer strikeouts looking. His career strikeout rate would be 3% lower at 23.5%, leaving a little more room for good outcomes.