The All-Adjustment Team: Shortstop

It’s a little unfair to put Elvis Andrus on the All-Adjustment Team this year because the adjustments that he made in order to remake his offensive game were actually made late last season. In the final two months of the 2016 season, the Rangers shortstop suddenly began doing something offensively that he hadn’t done thus far in his nine year career: hit for power.

Prior to August, 2016, Andrus was a more or less a slap hitting shortstop who could execute a hit-and-run, lay down a bunt, or steal a base if needed.Then something happened. Andrus began swinging the bat with a noticeably new intention. Overnight, Andrus made a decision to throw away his former hitting philosophy and completely reversed his offensive identity,

Below is a tidy chart that illustrates just how stark the difference is between the hitter Andrus was before he altered his swing to the hitter he is today. This chart shows Andrus isolated slugging percentage from year-to-year as well as his Hard% (hard contact rate)

Year Isolated Slugging (ISO%) Hard%
2014 .069 20.4%
2015 .099 27.1%
Post-Adjustment (August 1st, 2016 → Present) .170 30.1%

As you can see, the hitter that Andrus was prior to August of last season is markedly different than the much more powerful hitter he is today.

So how did Andrus so suddenly go from a guy that routinely put up home run totals in the single digits to doubling his previous season high in the span of one season? The answer is simple, but also may seem counter intuitive. Andrus is hitting for more power because he stopped caring about plate discipline.

The formerly defensively-focused shortstop has not only experienced a decline in his BB% while striking out at a career high clip, he has also declined significantly in nearly every other metric that measures plate discipline.

Time Period O-Swing% Swing% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
Career 24.5% 40.2% 92.7% 86.3% 5.5%
3 Yr. Avg. (Pre-Adjustment) 24.2% 39.7% 92.6% 86.3% 5.4%
Post-Adjustment 32.2% 45.8% 89.9% 82.3% 8.2%

There are two main takeaways from the information presented in the table above. The first is that Andrus is walking up to the plate and hacking with the reckless abandon of his fellow countrymen Pablo Sandoval and Salvador Perez, the second is that as a result of his new free swinging tendencies, he is whiffing much more frequently than ever before.

While these two trends would normally spell trouble for a hitter, Andrus is using this approach to punish the ball like he never has before. Andrus is swinging at worse pitches, but making better contact. In order to find out how this is possible, let’s dig deeper into how Andrus has curiously benefitted from this adjustment.

The most likely explanation for why Andrus is experiencing a power surge is that he is simply generating more bat speed. But how does a nine year veteran who has never demonstrated enough power to be a viable home run threat suddenly activate his quick twitch muscles in order to increase the acceleration of his bat through the zone?

The answer to this question is two pronged. The primary reason Andrus has gained bat speed is that he has added a leg kick to his pre-pitch load. In previous seasons, Andrus used a typical short and soft toe tap to help time up the opposing pitcher.

giphy

While this rather simple pre-pitch step was perfect for an approach centered on contact, it was too conservative of a timing mechanism if Andrus ever wanted to reach his power potential. 

Around August of 2016, Andrus ditched his quiet foot tap in favor of a quasi-Jose Bautista leg kick. The results of this adjustment were immediate and significant as Andrus had an .899 OPS and a .503 SLG% over the final two months of the season, which were both career highs for any single month of his career.

By raising his left leg right as the pitcher is about to release the ball, his hips loosen, helping to create more torque. With more rotational force naturally comes greater bat speed and with greater bat speed comes more batted balls turning into hits rather than outs.

Below is a clip of Andrus and his new leg lift:

giphy1

As evidenced by his increase in Hard% and a slight uptick in average exit velocity, we know that Andrus is hitting the ball harder, but it doesn’t matter how hard he is hitting the ball if his contact skills are declining. With this logic, one could reasonably make the argument that the increase in batted ball quality is  offset by his rising strikeout rate, thus keeping his overall production stable. While this theory seems rational, the reality is that the increased quality of Andrus’ batted balls has a far greater positive impact on his overall offensive value than the negative value resulting from more strikeouts.

While normally better plate discipline leads to better quality of contact because it means hitters are swinging at their pitches more often, the adjustment that Andrus has made has produced results contrary to this conventional batted ball correlation.

The more I think about the unusual inverse relationship of Andrus contact quality and plate discipline statistics. the more I am starting to believe a theory that may reconcile this statistical paradox.

This theory is as follows: The Rangers shortstop has simply been swinging harder. As Andrus attempts to absolutely uncork on balls, he is accepting the risk of him whiffing entirely. If he does make contact though, the ball is probably going to come off the bat a lot faster and will travel a lot further.

The one area where Andrus new fundamentals have proven to have the largest impact is his ability to pull the ball with power. While Andrus has seen at least marginal increases in exit velocity regardless of batted ball direction, one look at his spray chart makes it clear that he does the most damage when he pulls the ball.

When Andrus hits the ball to centerfield or right field, he has a wRC+ of 99, which is roughly league average. However, when Andrus can get his hands inside the ball and pull it down the left field line, his wRC+ jumps all the way up to 188, close to twice the league average. 

Below is a spray chart of all of Andrus’ extra base hits so far this season:

Andrus EBH

With over a full year of this sustained power surge coupled with a concrete explanation for this sudden development leads me to believe that Andrus’ power is here to stay. Andrus has always been an above average regular due to his speed and defensive ability, but if he can sustain his offensive performance, he becomes an All-Star caliber shortstop.

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