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The Blue Jays Have Invested in Improving Contact

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MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Oakland Athletics Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

I wrote a piece back during the off season about how Rowdy Tellez transformed his contact rate between 2019 and 2020, thus unlocking his huge power potential. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how Teoscar Hernandez was doing the same in 2020. While working on the Hernandez article, I noticed three other Blue Jays who had undergone a significant change in their in-zone contact rates over stretches of multiple years. That seemed pretty unusual, so I wanted to highlight the three players I hadn’t previously written about and try to think through what the presence of so many guys making changes to one of the harder to change skills in baseball might tell us about the team’s approach.

The Other Three Contact Improvers

Randal Grichuk

The first player, surprisingly to me, is Randal Grichuk. Through Sunday’s games, 328 players had taken at least 100 PAs during the 2021 season. Grichuk’s 91.9% contact rate on pitches inside the zone ranks 22nd, in the 94th percentile. He’s comfortably the best on the Blue Jays at making contact with strikes, although Joe Panik is better at getting the bat on the ball outside the zone and so edges him on overall contact rate. In my mind, Grichuk is still the free swinging, all or nothing slugger who struck out in more than 30% of his PAs with the Cardinals. He began to cut his strikeouts immediately upon arriving in Toronto, though, to roughly 26% in 2018 and 2019, and then to a better than average 22% in 2020 and so far in 2021. From a front office point of view, he represents a shrewd buy-low on a player who has turned out to be able to overcome one of his major early career weaknesses.

Plots of Randal Grichuk’s contact rates in various areas of the strike zone over the past four years

The graphs above show Grichuk’s contact in different areas of the zone over the past four years. He began as a low ball hitter, and especially a low and inside hitter, in 2018. In 2019 his coverage improved to essentially all areas of the plate. He fell back a bit in 2020, missing a bit more up and shifting his focus form pitches down and in to down and away. 2021 is similar in pattern to 2020, although he’s making more contact in all parts of the zone. He’s nearly unbeatable in the middle third of the plate vertically, and he can reach almost anything down and away as well. He has a minor hole up and in, but it’s still better than his weakest zone in any previous year. Overall, he looks like the same general type of hitter he was four years ago, but a bit better at getting the bat on the ball in all areas of the strike zone.

Interestingly, this change hasn’t translated into improved production yet. Grichuk has gotten more aggressive over the past few years coinciding with his change in contact rates, going from swinging at 50.6% of the pitches he saw in his debut with the Jays to 54.1% this year, which has eaten into his already tiny walk rate. His power production has also slipped a little, with his isolated power falling from .257 to .199. His 15.8 degree launch angle is within a half degree of his career average, and his hard hit rate is actually a career best 45%, so it’s not clear that he’s just cutting down his swing to sell out for contact or anything, but it does suggest that at least in his case there may be a trade-off between power and contact that isn’t a slam dunk net improvement.

George Springer

The second player I want to discuss is George Springer. Springer had some contact issues as a prospect, although his combination of power, plate discipline and defence allowed him to be a consensus top 20 prospect heading into his rookie season anyway. During his debut, he posted genuinely a genuinely abysmal 68.7% contact rate inside the zone, the worst in the league by a healthy margin and bad enough to endanger his long term future in spite of all the things he did well at the plate. He addressed that problem by raising his contact rate inside the zone by at least 5 percentage points three seasons in a row, reaching a near league average 84.3% by 2017, a level he’s stayed close to since. The Blue Jays front office and coaching staff can’t take direct credit, but current bench coach Dave Hudgens was the Astros’ hitting coach from 2015 through 2018. That Springer was the player they decided to hand the franchise’s first nine figure contract, though, shows that his skill set is one the front office has a lot of faith in.

Plots showing George Springer’s contact rate by area of the strike zone from 2015 through 2018

The StatCast data powering these graphs only goes back as far as 2015, so I can’t show the rookie season, but these graphs from 2015 through 2018 illustrate most of Springer’s evolution. Like Grichuk, he started out as a low ball hitter who could be beaten up in the zone. In 2015, he made contact on fewer than half of pitches in the top third. He wasn’t great lower down, either, not managing a league average contact rate (about 85%) in any sector. In 2016, he got stronger down while at least partially filling the hole at the top of the zone, and in 2017 he built further on that development, posting above average contact numbers down and in and improving to respectable on pitches up and middle or in. He’s remained a similar hitter since, beatable up and away but with solid to good contact ability everywhere else in the zone.

Bo Bichette

Rounding out the trio is Bo Bichette. That he would improve in this area is probably less surprising than the other two, or probably than Hernandez or Tellez. After all, he debuted as a 21 year old, a year and a half younger than Grichuk when he debuted and actually about four months younger than Springer was the day he was drafted. He was further from a finished product when he arrived in the majors than any of the others on this list, so taking a step forward in his contact ability at the age most good prospects are taking their first shot at AA makes some sense.

Plots showing Bo Bichette’s contact rate in different areas of the strike zone in the 2019, 2020, and 2021 seasons

The samples here are smaller, give that Bichette got only 211 PA in his rookie season. 2021 will end up being his first full season. Given that, the changes he’s exhibited should be assessed with a degree of caution. His overall pattern is similar to Springer and Grichuk, though. As a rookie, he had some difficulty with pitches on the top corners, and was better down and in than middle or away. In 2020, he mad a lot of contact basically everywhere in the zone, except the bottom corner away. He’s regressed a bit in 2021, but still makes tons of contact on the inner and middle thirds of the plate. He’s somewhat vulnerable away, but has no major holes in his swing like he did in 2019.

What Does All This Tell Us About the Blue Jays?

It’s remarkable to have five players who have made such dramatic contact improvements on the same roster. To illustrate, I looked at how often players improve on their zone contact rate by comparing either their rookie level or their level when public pitch tracking began, in 2008, to the best season they’ve posted in the PitchFX era.

Contact tends to be a skill that peaks early in players’ careers, and there has also bee a general league-wide increase in swings and misses, so we’d expect that significant improvements would be uncommon. As it turns out, that’s mostly what the data shows. 926 players had at least two seasons over 125 PA in the data. There’s a degree of randomness in the results, as with any stat, and 43% of players had a season with a zone contact rate at least two percentage points better than in their debut. Big improvements were rare, though, with only 15% of hitters ever showing an improvement of at least five percentage points. Only 64 (7%) have ever posted an improvement as large as Hernandez’s 6.7% between his rookie season and 2021. Only 53 (5.7%) can match Tellez’s 7.2% improvement from 2019 to 2021. Bichette’s 8.7% improvement from 2019 to 2020 makes the top 20, Grichuk’s 10.7% from his rookies season to 2021 is ninth, and Springer’s 16% from 2014 to 2020 represents the single largest improvement in the sample.

A graph showing season by season trends in zone contact rate for all players in the sample. The Blue Jays discussed in this article are highlighted

The graph above visualizes the contact data. You can see the general downward trend over time, and if you pick out some individual lines to follow, most are flat-ish and trending down over time. I’ve highlighted the five blue Jays who have made significant contact improvements.

The Jays acquired these five players in different ways. Bichette and Tellez were significant draft picks developed inside the organization, Hernandez was traded for as a prospect just of his first cup of coffee in the majors, Grichuk was a veteran picked up cheap from an organization that doesn’t seem to have had much faith in him, and Springer was the biggest blockbuster signing in franchise history. That all of them are on the roster right now, though, suggests that there may be some kind of deliberate strategy at play here.

One obvious commonality is that all five have seen most or all of their gains occur with teams where Dave Hudgens was on the coaching staff (although Grichuk appears to have begun the process before Hudgens arrived in Toronto in 2019). It’s possible that what we’re seeing here is that Hudgens is a truly great hitting coach, and that he can help at least some of his players make rare improvements. It could also be that the acquisition of all of these players, and Hudgens’ hiring as a coach, are all part of some broad organizational philosophy of hitting development. Maybe there are characteristics of these players’ swings, or of their mental makeup, that the front office has identified as predictive of the ability to make this kind of improvement.

Whatever the organizational factors behind the development and acquisition of these players, they don’t seem to apply to the rest of the team. The graph below is the same as the previous one, except it highlights the rest of the Blue Jays’ regular hitters. Some of the Jays’ players have improved and broken out in other ways, but just in terms of contact ability it doesn’t seem like whatever Springer, Grichuk, Tellez, Bichette and Hernandez’ secret is is universally applicable. As an example, the other big free agent signing of the winter, Marcus Semien, is having a great year but doing so in spite of the worst zone contact rate of his career. Vladimir Guerrero jr., who came up through the system at almost exactly the same time as Bichette, has broken out in every other way imaginable this year but is actually swinging and missing a bit more than in the past.

A graph similar to the previous one, but with the other Blue Jays regular hitters highlighted. They have mostly followed more typical downward trajectories.

Another important point is that while improving contact should in general be a good thing, it’s not unambiguous that it has helped all of these hitters. Tellez’s 2020 breakout coincided with his contact improvement, but although he’s carried the contact ability into 2021 the results have not followed. Hernandez broke out the year before he improved his contact, and although he’s remained very good this season his results have taken a step back. As previously mentioned, Grichuk seems to have kept his production pretty flat over the years while making the change. Springer did improve, going from a 129 wRC+ in his debut to posting results in the 140s or 150s most years since he reached his current level of contact ability. Bichette has seen his results taper off, although that likely has to do with luck as his 142 rookie wRC+ far outstripped his expected results based on quality of contact, and those underlying stats suggest that he has in fact become a better hitter, producing both more contact over all and a higher proportion of hard contact. The overall conclusion here, I think, is that improving in-zone contact is probably valuable if it doesn’t come at the cost of quality when contact is made but at the individual player level the trade off may not be simple.

One question all this raises, to me, is whether part of the logic of extending Grichuk and of signing Springer rests on a theory that the adjustments they’ve made will be predictive of aging well. Strikeout rate typically decreases slightly for very young players, but starting at age 25 it typically rises fairly quickly and consistently. That Springer and Grichuk improved and maintained those gains through their mid and late 20s means they’ve already defied typical aging curves. Whether they will continue to do so remains to be seen. Holding onto your skills into your 30s is of limited value if your leg muscles keep imploding. It seems reasonable, though, that if you had to bet on players aging well the ones who have already shown an ability to adapt and adjust in rare ways would the ones you’d want to pick.

Beyond the fact that something is pretty clearly going on here, I don’t think any firm conclusions can be reached. Future trends might tell us more over time. Will we see more prospects improve their contact skills in the seasons after they graduate from the farm system? Will future trade acquisitions and free agent signings make improvements once they arrive in Toronto, or will the front office target players who have already made those changes? Will the overall production of these players rise, and will they age better than expected? It’s something that I think is definitely worth keeping an eye on, and might eventually tell us some interesting things about player skill development and the front office’s strategy.