Several times on this blog, we’ve engaged in debates over the meaning behind batting average for balls in play. While we can draw a consensus as to how it relates to pitchers, far too often, the statistic is misrepresented as meaning the same thing for batters.

Lazy analysis treats a high or low BABIP as a sign that a hitter experienced a lot of good luck or bad luck. While certainly randomness plays a factor in the success and failings of a plate appearance, one cannot look at BABIP alone as a means of deciphering the influence of luck on a batter.

As our friend Jon Hale once wrote:

It would be like saying that a spike or fall in batting average has to be luck, because for hitters, BABIP is just the same damn thing with K’s and HR’s removed from the equation (really two of the last things you want to exclude when trying to decode if a streak or slump or bad year is due to something tangible). While it is true that if a player has an extremely uncharacteristic BABIP over a period of time, those results should be taken with a grain of salt, you could just as easily say that about batting average because they’re practically the same damn stat. Obviously, nobody would call every .200 hitter a victim of luck — all that’s really going on here is that if you don’t hit somewhere in the realm of league average, you’re not going to get major league at-bats for long.

This type of examination of BABIP is of particular interest when discussing Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Colby Rasmus. For the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010, Rasmus had the third highest wOBA in all of baseball among center fielders, behind only Josh Hamilton and Carlos Gonzalez. Ditto for OPS. Then, in 2011, he collected the second worst wOBA among qualified center fielders in the league, trailing only the disastrous season of Alex Rios.

So, what caused the change?

Calling for the most attention from his list of numbers over the last two seasons is a BABIP that went from .354 in 2010 to .267 in 2011. That’s an incredibly sharp decline from one season to another, but as we discussed above, it’s not to be dismissed as merely the result of random occurrences.

The further into the numbers we look, the more we see that a reduced BABIP wasn’t causing Rasmus’ terrible season as much as it was a symptom of his bad year. Ultimately, two major factors were leading to a lower batting average for balls in play: 1) He’s getting fooled by change ups low and away far more often than last season (10.1% whiff rate on change ups in 2010 compared to a 18.1% whiff rate on change ups in 2011); and 2) he didn’t hit the ball as often the opposite way.

Let’s begin looking at these two factors by comparing how Rasmus handled the 316 change ups that were thrown his way in 2010 to the 232 that he saw in 2011.

Exhibit 1A is a chart of the change ups that he swung at in 2010 (49.1%):

Exhibit 1B is a chart of the change ups that he swung at in 2011 (57.8%):

As might be expected from swinging at 8.7% more change ups, Rasmus also drastically increased his whiff rate on the pitch, as I mentioned earlier. Overall, his plate discipline numbers weren’t nearly as bad, as his whiff rate went from 10.9% in 2010 to 11.0% in 2011. Rasmus was swinging at 48.2% of the pitches he saw in 2011, compared to 45% in 2010, but making contact with 76.8% of the pitches he swung at in 2011, compared to 75.8% in 2011. In other words, he was making more contact, but in a less efficient manner last season, which saw him reduce both his walk and strike out rate in equal numbers.

By swinging at more pitches, Rasmus traded strike outs from the prior season with poor contact. Unfortunately, he also traded some of his walks for poor contact, reducing his line drive and fly ball rate while increasing his ground ball rate and most disappointingly, his infield fly ball rate as well. His 15.5% infield fly ball rate was the seventeenth worst out of 145 qualified batters.

However, nothing really shows how Rasmus’ poor decision making led to poor contact quite like the difference in the change ups he took in 2010 versus 2011.

Exhibit 2A is a chart of the change ups that he took in 2010:

Notice the large amount of change ups he took for strikes in 2010, and then, Exhibit 2B is a chart of the change ups that he took in 2011:

While the differences between a proper strike zone and a realistic strike zone can seem rather large for a left handed hitter, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Rasmus was willing to bypass change ups to get to a pitch he could drive in 2010, compared to 2011 when he attempted to make contact on far more pitches anywhere near the zone.

This wasn’t caused simply by Rasmus seeing more change ups with two strikes either. Rasmus was making a conscious effort to swing at pitches that typically don’t result in the best contact on counts when he simply didn’t have to make those swings. This would certainly lead to whiffs, as well as bad contact when it was eventually made, but it doesn’t end there.

Let’s take a look at where the batted balls from Rasmus were actually going.

Exhibit 3A is a spray chart from 2010:

To be compared with Exhibit 3B, a spray chart from 2011:

Notice not only the lack of base hits to left field, but also the power to center field and right center field that Rasmus seems to exhibit in 2010, only for it to disappear in 2011. This sudden change has resulted in something of a damaged reputation for the 25 year old.

Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus recently spoke to eight baseball executives about unsigned Cuban prospect Yoenis Cespedes, comparing the free agent to five different young outfielders. Six of the eight front office types believed that Cespedes had a brighter future in the league than Rasmus.

While the reasoning behind such stances could be laughable – “There’s something about the J.D. Drew way he goes about things.” – it was ESPN’s Keith Law who provided the best insight as to why consensus wouldn’t be more favourable to Rasmus, a year removed from being one of the best players at his position, when he described the left handed hitting center fielder as thus:

Lot of work to do there on his mechanics, especially his lower half. Tools and approach are still there for stardom.

Admittedly I’m not a scout, but comparing video and pictures of Rasmus batting in 2010 to his plate appearances in 2011 reveals a noticeable change in his swing, wherein his upper body seems to be ahead of his lower body as he shifts weight. Typically, the transfer of weight into a swing should result in the batter revealing the bottom of the foot on his back leg straight behind him as he makes contact.

This is a picture of Rasmus just after the moment of contact:

His legs seem very close together, and his back hip hasn’t rotated into his movement in a way that would maximize the speed and power of his swing.

Compare this to the moment of contact from the previous year when he starts his at bat with a far more open stance that forces him to transfer his weight:

While still not ideal, at least we can see that his momentum has transfered enough so that there’s far less weight on his back foot as his bat makes contact with the ball (remembering the difference in camera angles between these two shots).

Perhaps this explains the weak contact that’s resulted in less hits when Rasmus went the other way in 2011 versus 201o. While the center fielder may be strong enough to power base hits and home runs into right field with his arms alone, when going the other way, he’s rendered incapable without his entire body moving into it.

As we see, not only is there a cause for the decrease in BABIP that extends beyond mere random occurrences, but those causes can be complicated. It’s pure speculation, but I wonder if Rasmus had been getting frustrated with the lack of results due to his upper body being ahead of his lower body, which has in turn led to poor plate discipline, most notably when facing change ups. Throw in an injury that could’ve been hindering his flow at the plate, and it’s easy to understand why not only a change of scenery, but a fresh start on a new team in a new season could revive Rasmus back from his recent struggles and into once again becoming one of the elite performers at his position.

Of course, this is the positive view. One might also recall the problems that erupted between Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Rasmus when it came to his approach at the plate, and perhaps it’s the more “J.D. Drew aspects” of his personality that get in the way of his receiving instruction. This might lead one to believe that the revival that Toronto Blue Jays fans hope for might not be as easy to come by.

Like many members of his team’s roster, Rasmus is something of a question mark. I’ve written in the past about the upcoming year being one of discovery for the Blue Jays, and that’s probably best represented by Rasmus. If he pans out like in the positive scenario given above, it will be a major step forward for the team. If he doesn’t, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Toronto possibly move toward a different direction ahead of 2013. This will be a very interesting season for Rasmus, and one that should be thrilling to watch.

Update: For people who like potentially good news, here’s a video of Rasmus taking batting practice late in the year during his rehab stint at New Hampshire from reader Sami. Notice the bottom of his back foot being revealed as he makes contact.

Comments (41)

  1. This was excellent. One of your best pieces!

  2. “For the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010, Rasmus had the third highest wOBA in all of baseball among center fielders, behind only Josh Hamilton and Carlos Gomez.”

    I think you mean Carlos Gonzalez.

  3. *Slow clap*
    Well done Parkes, well done.

  4. Wonder if we could trade him for Bumgarner…

  5. Excellent work. I agree with BVH

  6. I this it would be interesting to look at the R-squared values of the change-ups swung at data in relation to say, distance from the centre of the strike zone because I don’t think you’re going to see an awful lot of differences.

    I agree with the overall sentiment of the piece, I just think that part of the data is a little tailored towards your conclusion.

  7. Pretty much nailed it. You should give Rasmus Sr. a call, get Jr. back on the right track.

  8. I’m still deciding if this is good news or bad news. I’m glad we don’t have to rely on a purely luck-driven .354 babip, but on the other hand I can’t get those “he doesn’t take instruction” rumours out of my head. Not that we really know for sure if there’s anything to them, but still…
    Great piece though. This exemplifies to me what statistical analysis is capable of.

    • I’ve always wondered too how bad luck correlates to players getting frustrated and changing things in their swing. If they sense they’re having a bad run and try to change something in their approach and it just makes it worse….

    • Definitely. Well said.

      I think whether it’s good news or bad news depends on what the Blue Jays and, more importantly, Rasmus decides to do with it.

      I’m sure the Jays are aware of this but will their solution work and will Rasmus even be able or willing to implement it?

      Interestingly here’s some footage of Rasmus doing BP during his late season rehab assignment with the Fischer Cats: http://youtu.be/hxgQ5wWQ_fU

      Small sample BUT… he seems to be alternating between going the opposite way and pulling the ball. I don’t know if that’s routine BP thing but perhaps someone with more of that knowledge can chime in.

  9. Well written Parkes, you’re a bloodhound at finding this stuff. I always though his stance looked a bit hobbled, but like you said, I’m not a scout.

    Would we be able to see this change as soon as spring training, or do you think the reports of him not working much in the off-season will delay this until late May-early June? He seems to have been very quiet this winter, something I’d take as a good sign that he’s been working hard. Curious to see if he stance is more open come March.

  10. Very nice piece. If anything I would say that by looking at the overall spray charts he went from a hitter that used all fields in 2010 to one that pretty much tried to pull the ball in 2011. It’s entirely possible that by pitching him away pitchers were more successful in inducing a lot more weak ground balls that he tried to pull and ended up rolling over on instead of just going with it. You can also see similar patterns in Adam Lind in the 09 vs 11 comparison. In 09 he had amazing power to all fields with the majority of his home runs being hit to left and center field. By comparison in 11 Lind only hit 4 homes to left and center.

    Good call on his lack of weight on his back foot. By staying back a bit longer he’d have more power and more time to go the other way.

    • I don’t think you’re right about that. I think Parkes hit the nail on the head with the change ups. Getting fooled on them, i.e. thinking they are fastballs, has made him get ahead of the ball and therefore pull it. But it’s not like Travis Snider or Aaron Hill whose hips would just flail open immediately in an attempt to pull the ball.

      • The spray charts speak for themselves imo regarding both Lind and Rasmus.

        As for Rasmus and change ups in 2010 he got 21 hits on 316 change ups or 6.6% of the pitches seen. In 2011 he got 13 hits on 232 change ups or 5.6% of the pitches seen. That 1% difference isn’t going to come close to accounting for the huge gap in BABIP by itself. A better argument for his problems with change ups would be the lack of power on those hits in 2011 (1 HR) vs 2010 (7 HR). That would speak far more to his timing and putting a good stroke on change ups rather than the trouble with change ups being the primary cause for his precipitous drop in BABIP.

        Rasmus did far worse against sliders in 2011 compared to 2010. He had 13 hits in 321 pitches in 2011 (4.0%) vs 21 hits in 340 pitches in 2010 (6.2%)

        • The charts aren’t suggesting that fewer hits from change ups resulted in the drop, they’re suggesting that he was swinging at change ups that he would’ve let pass the previous season, presumably waiting for a fastball to hit.

          • Even then he swung at 155 change ups in 2010 vs 134 in 2011. Even at the slightly higher swing rate in 2011 it doesn’t make enough of a statistical dent in the BABIP figure by itself. The lost opportunities of the fastballs your suggesting also wouldn’t account for this big of a drop.

            Considering he struck out less and hit less home runs in 2011 that’s going to have more of a dramatic effect on his BABIP number than anything else because of the way it’s calculated. He had 344 AB’s for BABIP purposes in 2011 vs 297 in 2010.

            So basically in 2011 he made more contact that he did in 2010 but the contact that he did make wasn’t as good. To me that speaks more to timing and not hitting the ball where it’s pitched than anything else.

  11. Yeah this is pretty wonderful Dustin. Great job. This ranks as some of the best statistical analysis of a baseball player’s struggles I’ve ever read.

    It’s also very honest of you to separate “the facts” from speculation, as you do. Not everyone does that but I appreciate that.

    Going forward I’d be curious to see more shots/video of 2010 Rasmus vs 2011 Rasmus and it’d be awesome get someone like Goldstein on the podcast breaking down his mechanical problems.

  12. You’ve managed to show that Rasmus’ timing was off in 2011 quite effectively. However, you completely ignored how pitchers adjusted to Rasmus in 2011.

    It’s pretty clear from Exhibit 1 that pitchers realized Rasmus would chase change-ups away. You would also have to know what the pitch count was for the change-ups that Rasmus took for strikes in both years. It is quite possible that pitchers were throwing Rasmus change-ups early in the count against Rasmus in 2010 and in 2011 they were throwing less. Pitches thrown later in the count are more likely to be swung at (especially if you’re sitting on a fastball) than those thrown in more hitter friendly strike counts.

    • No, I mentioned when the change ups were being thrown in the piece, and if you’re going to say that pitchers were throwing more change ups away, you have to look at both swings and takes. Am I missing something? Because I don’t see very much of a difference at all in location between years.

      • IMO the pitches that Rasmus took outside the strikezone in 2010 and 2011 were the exact same. As you stated it is quite clear he wasn’t taking as many change-ups for strikes in 2011. I still think this could be caused by pitchers attacking Rasmus late in the count with the change.

        Also look at the graphs you created. The change-up down in the zone right over the plate is non-existant in 2011. The pitchers have moved this pitch down outside the zone (which you can see Colby was chasing) or further towards the outside corner of the plate.

        • I think that has more to do with seeing 84 fewer change ups in 2011, than it is evidence of a change in approach by pitchers. I didn’t include the numbers for each count, but I added them up and the differences in percentage of two strike change ups between the two years was negligible.

          • I guess that does make sense. Thanks for going back and checking! Very interesting article indeed.

            With the data points you have is it possible to calculate Rasmus’ O-Swing % for just change-ups? I was surprised to see that his contact numbers were relatively similar in 2010 and 2011.

  13. Great job, can you do a similar analysis of Adam Lind?

  14. Here’s a remarkable candid, four minute-long interview with Colby filmed during his stint with the Fisher Cats: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DuVgteS5jpE&feature=related

    Not to over-analyze, but he seems mentally exhausted. He speaks about how the game has “worn on him,” and how being back in double-A is “a breath of fresh air.” I’ve been skeptical of detractors citing his so-called make-up issues, but he really does seem to struggle with the spotlight.

    • Love the piece and everything I’m going to say is pretty much irrelevant to the main article.

      Whatever physical/mental approach issues he had, you gotta imagine that getting dumped by Tony LaRussa messed with his mind an absolute fuckton. Imagine being 24ish and having your boss and motherfucking legend basically shit on you in public (and one can only assume Tony wasn’t kinder in private).

      Now it’s one thing if like me you worked some b.s. job at that point in your life and I can imagine it’s something entirely different if you’ve followed a career progression like Rasmus (whole life kinda dedicated towards a single purpose). That legend’s dismissal of you would be crushing even if you had that brashness that makes you want to say you don’t care. I know I wouldn’t handle that well now, not many would, but in my early 20′s? That shit would’ve melted every ounce of confidence I had.

      I think the video above shows a kid just starting to come to grips with it and he’s still totally unsure whether he wants any part of this career anymore. Of course he wants the money and to play ball, but the actual life of being an MLB everydayer doesn’t seem, like he’s sold on at all. He’s trying to say the right things, but he’s not buying it.

      His swing is a problem, but more than anything I think Colby needed a summer of beers and bjs down home where he got to be a rich young 20 something. Sure, do some work, keep in shape, but live a bit ’cause he was no way in a position to improve as a ballplayer last year.

      I have never in my life cared about a player interview, but I’ll admit I’ll be very curious to see what he says in his first interview in ST.

  15. daps for this one bro. you def put your work in. hopefully Colby turns it around next season, either way I’ve got 3-4x more confidence in him that I do Rios hahaha

  16. Very nice work. It’s possible that not mashing fastballs that he should have contributed both to him not being able to take changeups that were down the middle (because he’s already behind in the count) and swinging at bad ones, but not by anywhere near that much…think you nailed it.

  17. Key thing here as you mention him trading K’s and walks for soft contact is how it shows up in the spray chart. You can see a hell of a lot of pop ups to left field and rolled over GB’s to the right side. I think his injuries/being traded/mentally drained effected his play more than anything. He was still putting the ball in play, but his timing was off and that’s what killed him. If he can get right this spring he’ll start raking again. His balance is there, heads still and when pause the video of him taking BP, just look at the torque this guy gets on the bat.

  18. “It’s not about the quantity. Otherwise, I would’ve just written out the numbers. The graphs show that he took very few change ups that were strikes.”

    Aren’t those the pitches you’d like for him to swing at? Considering he hit nearly one third of his home runs the year before off of change ups you’d think that would be a good game plan wouldn’t you?

    • I’d rather him be more selective at the plate, like he was in 2010.

      • What’s your definition of being selective? He seemed to cut down his K rate quite nicely in nearly the same number of AB’s as 2010. I guess that’s the heart of the issue for me here. The charts don’t show the context of the change up’s he swung at or took and what the results where based on location like they do for pitchers at Brooks Baseball when a pitcher gives up a hit..

        One thing I do see from the pitch taken chart on the change ups in 2011 is the near absence of any pitches taken except for the outside part of the plate which ideally you’d want him to do if his goal is to turn on and drive the ball. It also tends to reinforce my belief that he was more intent on pulling than going the other way when he was pitched there.

        Anyway I appreciate all the work you did on the piece. It’s a good reminder of what a great tool it is when you’re confused about why a player in in the dumps all of a sudden.

        • not the ‘why’, the ‘how’ maybe. If you knew the ‘why’, you’d be Cito Gaston.

  19. Sometimes you really are one of the best baseball writers around. Top notch.

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