Beating The “Book”


He has arrived! Ranger fans across the globe rejoiced last week as the news of Mike Olt’s call up began circulating across the various media outlets. The second of the POP Stars (Profar, Olt, Perez) to make his big league debut, Olt got his first start in the final game of the Angels series on Thursday and did not disappoint by lining a single to left in his first at bat. Fans cheered, mothers cried, fathers gave celebratory fist pumps into the air, and somewhere Jon Daniels gave Yoda a high five. But, what are the realistic expectations for the young budding superstar? What can Ranger fans expect to see from the power hitting righty from UCONN? All scouts and baseball people will agree that the most important factor a hitter has to make to transition to big league baseball is his ability to adjust. Adjustments come in many different forms: adjusting at the plate, adjusting to the schedule of a big leaguer, adjusting to the fame, the sightlines at the ballparks, etc. How quickly a hitter can adjust will often determine their future in this game. Will they be the next Albert Pujols, (who was obviously hitting baseballs at a high level in the womb) or will they be another highly touted prospect that fizzled at the big league level.

The pitcher and opposing manger are also making adjustments as they try to learn the weaknesses of this young hitter. Often you will see a rookie come out of the gate on fire and then cool off for a period as they struggle to adjust to what the opposing teams are throwing at them. Over time, teams will determine “the book” on certain hitters and that will become the blueprint to follow in getting that particular hitter out. This book will change from time to time depending on hot/ cold spells that all hitters go through, but early in a players career that book will go through the most significant changes. Finding the holes in a swing will determine what plan of attack pitchers will use, but what separates the can’t miss prospect who becomes an All-Star from the kid who never figures it out?

The 2012 season has seen an influx of young talent who appear to be the next wave of great MLB players, but has the sample size been enough for us to accurately determine if they will have staying power? I’ve picked several players who have been highly touted minor league prospects at some point in the last several years to examine their transition from year one to their sophomore season. Using Baseball
Prospectus author Kevin Goldstein’s Top 100 list, I started by looking at the top- hitting prospect from 2007-2010 to see how they did in their first big league season compared to their sophomore year. I used the basic offensive slash line to get a measurement of their success to avoid getting too deep into statistical gore. (All players used had a minimum of 100 AB’s in each rookie season and sophomore

Other than Alex Gordon, who actually had a better season statistically his second year, all of the other players on this graph saw a decline during their second season. These numbers don’t show us anything that common sense can’t tell us, but t is interesting to see how these hitters struggled to “adjust” early in their career. Their entire slash line dropped as pitchers started to figure these guys out, they started attacking their weaknesses and in turn the hitters struggled. But, how did the pitchers change their plan of attack? To show this, let’s look at the pitch type using the same players and the same two seasons. Using the pitch type frequency information from Fangraphs, I used only the big four pitches as my sample (Fastball, Slider, Curve, Change) so we can once again avoid the gore.
These numbers at first glance don’t seem to give us a trend into the pitch sequence used to attack these hitters, but if you look at them a little closer you will see that the lack of a trend is the most significant tell of all. Each hitter is different and each plan of attack is different as well. Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward were attacked with more fastballs while Jay Bruce and Matt Wieters were given a steady diet of change-ups and fewer fastballs. Once again these numbers don’t give us a significant trend because of the varied results, but what if we looked at a player who has been in the big leagues and has been established as a superstar?
Just like the budding young superstars in the previous example, these perennial All-Stars suffered sophomore slumps in nearly each of the three slash line categories. The difference of course is that these players have tremendous talent and the transition to the big league game came much easier to them. Albert Pujols has never had a batting average below .300 and Josh Hamilton looks like he is a man
among boys at times during his career. At the end of the day, if Player A and Player B both make similar adjustments at the plate the more talented player will emerge. Making adjustments alone, does not a hitter make.

Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have splashed on the scene this year and appear to be the real deal. Mike Trout did make appearances in 2011, we will look at 2012 statistics only because the sample size and consistent playing time yields a more accurate look at his true statistical value.

Needless to say, Trout has been on fire and has not shown any signs of letting up. The book on Mike Trout is still evolving and I am sure that it will either catch up to him and he will stabilize his numbers into that of a solid major league ballplayer, or else we are witnessing the next Hank Aaron.

Bryce Harper is the most decorated and hyped prospect arguably in the history of baseball. His splits this year are more on the norm of what you would expect from a rookie:
Unlike Trout, Harper has cooled off and his strikeout percentage has increased each month, leading to the assumption that pitchers have started to “figure him out”.

Looking at pitch location, sequencing charts, and other more valuable pieces of information I may have uncovered some important information in determining what causes the sophomore slump, but I wanted to get back to Mike Olt and his arrival to the show. With the increased technology and overflow of scouting reports in today’s game, the MLB clubs will have an idea already of the strengths and
weaknesses of Mike Olt (and all prospects for that matter). Mike Olt’s first two hits this season came off two fastballs (cutter from CJ and a sinker from Smith) and Olt is a good fastball hitter, but how will he adjust to the increased number of off-speed pitches he will see? More importantly, how will he adjust to the increased number of those off-speed pitches thrown in fastball counts? As most power hitters are, Olt will
have his share of swings and misses, but stabilizing those without going backwards offensively will be crucial for him. The book will come soon on Olt and his adjustment to that book will determine if he belongs in the same discussion as Mike Trout or if he will be mentioned along the likes of Jeff Kunkel and Oddibe McDowell. Regardless of how Mike Olt starts his big league career this season or next, be
careful to judge his long-term success based on those numbers. The cream will rise to the proverbial top, assuming he can beat the book.

Jeff Johnson

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