Category: Room for Improvement Page 1 of 2

Room for Improvement: Jordan Montgomery

In one important way, 2020 was a runaway success for Jordan Montgomery. After pitching just 31.1 innings between 2018-2019 thanks to Tommy John Surgery, Monty got back on the bump in 2020 and threw 44 innings for the Yankees across ten starts.

Despite an ugly 5.11 ERA, he managed some great peripherals: 3.87 FIP (85 FIP-); 24.4% K; 4.7% BB; 42.9% GB. According to Statcast, he was in the 95th and 88th percentiles, respectively, for exit velocity (84.6) and hard contact rate (29.9) against.

Even that ERA is perhaps a touch misleading. He had two really awful starts: a 4 inning, 5 run clunker against the Phillies in August and a 0.2 inning, 4 run nightmare of a start against Tampa in September.

Health alone would’ve made 2020 successful for Montgomery, but there were also results that made it so as well. Like everyone, though, he could still stand to improve in 2021, specifically in two areas: line drives and length.

Room for Improvement: Gio Urshela

I’m pretty glad that for my first post at Views, Gio Urshela was still available for a post in the room for improvement series. As one of my favorites players in the team, my instant reaction was: “Amazing, I’ll take that one!”, only to see in the process of research that Gio practically improved in most aspects of his game in the 2020 season. Let’s see how we can do this!

Gio Urshela is one of the most amazing and unexpected stories of current baseball players. He went from an all-glove-no-bat fringe utility player to an amazing hitter, whose glove is now suspect according to certain advanced defensive stats. Since 2019, Gio is the fourth-best hitter in the absolutely stacked third base position. His 132 wRC+ lags only behind Alex Bregman* (you know I’m going to doubt that value), Anthony Rendon, and Justin Turner. And that value is also better than superstars like Manny Machado and Matt Chapman.

In terms of WAR, he is lower in the third base leaderboard because of his relatively small number of plate appearances  (650 since 2019). However, if we take the value on a rate basis (dividing his WAR number by his PA and multiplying by 600 for a “regular season proxy”), he is the ninth-best third basemen in MLB with a 4.34 WAR/600PA, higher again than Manny Machado’s 3.67 value for example.

So…If Gio puts a full healthy season he is going to be amazing. That’s his room for improvement right? Problem solved!

Just kidding! Let’s look under the hood to see if there is anything he can do to improve his play.

Room For Improvement: DJ LeMahieu

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Let’s start with the obvious – DJ LeMahieu has proven himself through his two years with the Yankees as a hyper-elite player. In 195 games since he was signed to a two-year, $24 million dollar contract in early 2019, “The Machine” has put up a 145 OPS+ (raw OPS of .922), including a .364 batting average in the shortened 2020 season, which earned him the second outright batting title of his career.  He finished fourth in American League MVP voting in 2019 and third in 2020.  He’s put up a total of 8.5 fWAR in his Yankees career, averaging slightly under 7.1 fWAR per 162 games. Further, LeMahieu possesses a versatility that is usually reserved for journeyman backups with a fraction of his resume, playing first, second, and third base proficiently.

It is therefore difficult to conclude that LeMahieu, freshly signed to a 6-year, $90 million deal that will keep him in pinstripes through his age-37 season, has a whole lot of “room for improvement” going into 2021.  The key for him is avoiding regression, and retaining the incredible contact and all-field skill that has defined his Yankees career thus far.

Room for Improvement: Luke Voit

Luke Voit had a career year in 2020, as we all know. (This is part of the reason why many wanted to trade him; it is why I was against that idea outright.) This can make it somewhat challenging to identify a way for him to tangibly improve in 2021. However, this turned out to be fairly easy: Voit, despite his incredible season, actually took a significant step back with his plate discipline.

Here is a handy visualization that gets directly to the point:

Pretty clear decline there, sinking to levels not seen since his August 2018 breakout in New York. Unsurprisingly, there was a correlated increase in Voit’s chase rate over the same period – which, combined, drove his on-base percentage down to a fairly pedestrian .338. I put together this chart that shows the three figures from 2017-20, with league averages in parentheses:

OBPWalk RateChase RatePA
2018.39810.6% (8.5%)27.5% (30.9%)161
2019.37813.9% (8.5%)26.6% (31.6%)510
2020.3387.30% (9.2%)33.3% (30.6%)234
Career.36310.9% (8.5%)28.9% (~30%)1,029

There are a few obvious takeaways from this. First, Voit has always drawn walks at a rate higher than league average. (That is also visible in the Statcast chart above.) Second, he has been above average at laying off pitches outside of the zone. This is a fairly straightforward relationship, so no surprises here, and it clearly correlates with his robust on-base percentages. Finally, this changed significantly in 2020.

Room for Improvement: Aaron Judge

In terms of true talent, there are few players better than Aaron Judge. When he is on the field, he produces and produces big time. Since 2017 when he became a full time player, he’s 8th in the Majors in fWAR (18.9) despite being 96th (!!!) in plate appearances in that same time frame. 8th in fWAR! 96th in PA! That’s absurd! Anyway, it’s clear that health has been an issue for Judge. Since playing 155 games in 2017, when he was definitely hurt at the end of the year, he’s never played in more than 115 games, and just 28 in pandemic ball in 2020. So, like we said for Giancarlo Stanton, just being healthy could be his improvement. But that’s boring and a bit of a cop out, so let’s take a look at something else.

In 2017, Judge had an 18.7% walk rate. In 2018: 15.3. 2019: 14.3. 2020: 8.8%. Now, the normal pandemic baseball caveats, apply, but that’s a big plunge in a downward trend. Obviously, Judge was still productive even with a lower walk rate. He still managed a .369 OBP and had a towering .297 ISO (.521 SLG), to help make up a .375/139 wOBA/wRC+ combo. So what caused the lower walk rate? It’s kind of hard to tell, actually.

The first thing we’d want to look at is if he was striking out more, robbing himself of opportunities for walks. That’s out the door because his strikeout rate fell in 2020. His whiff rate also fell. He chased 1.2% more pitches outside of the zone, but that didn’t seem to be too detrimental, considering the drop in strikeouts. Judge even saw fewer first pitch strikes by 6% and swung at the first pitch 7.5% less often.

The “culprit,” if we can call it that, might in his contact rate. While his chase contact rate was essentially identical to 2019’s, his 2020 in-zone contact rate jumped up to a career high 80%, a high by almost a full 4% (2017, 76.8). So perhaps more contact on those pitches led to shorter at bats and fewer walks? Even that feels like a stretch.

One more angle I noticed was that the number of pitches he saw on the edge of the zone eked up to 42.7%, a full 1.1% higher than last year (full is doing lot of work there). Maybe some of those edge pitches are ones he’s making chase contact with, leading to fewer walks? Still not feeling very definitive.

Looking at his pitches faced data, one last thing jumped out and that was his performance against cutters. In 2019, he had a 33.3% whiff rate and 32.1% strikeout rate on the pitch, which he saw 7.1% of the time. In 2020, he saw the pitch less often–6.2%–but with more swing and miss: 36.4 whiff rate, 37.5 k-rate. Maybe these cutters, which tend to run out of the zone, that he was able to do damage on in 2019 (.438 wOBA) are ones that he missed in 2020 (.088 wOBA). But the 2020 sample is obviously quite small, so be mindful of that caveat.

It seems like Aaron Judge’s drop in walk rate can be explained by marginal differences and just some random baseball flukiness, highlighted more by the small sample of pandemic baseball. Regardless of the cause, I expect Judge’s walk rate to (all) rise in 2021 and for him to keep on raking. Hopefully, it’s for 150+ games.

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