Corey Patterson has always been thought of as a guy with tremendous potential. From 1999 to 2001, Baseball America ranked him as the 16th, 3rd, and 2nd best prospect in baseball respectively. The physical talents were obvious; terrific athleticism, quick bat, legitimate home run power, and serious speed from a guy playing a premium defensive position well. However, Patterson struggled to refine his approach at the plate, and by repeatedly chasing pitches out of the strike zone, he made himself a fairly easy out for opposing pitchers. If you can’t make contact, it is tough to be an offensive asset. For seven years, Patterson simply didn’t hit the ball often enough to live up to his natural talent, which led to him being bounced out of both Chicago and Baltimore and finding himself as an unwanted free agent this winter.
After an offseason of rejection, the Cincinnati Reds offered him a minor league contract on March 3rd, giving him a chance to fight for a roster spot in spring training. After they decided to send Jay Bruce to Triple-A to start the year, Patterson found himself with a regular job, and with the way his 2008 season has started (.57 WPA/LI and the Reds best hitter to date), he may just have found a home where he can remind people of the player they thought he would be.
It all starts with his strikeout rate. Look at the graph of his contact ability throughout his career.
During his time in Chicago, he was a strikeout machine. As you can see, this is something he’s clearly worked on improving, as the line from his 2005 to 2008 strikeout rate shows a huge decline. So far this year, he’s struck out two times in 46 plate appearances. That’s pretty remarkable for a guy with a career K% of 22.7%. His current K% of 4.8% puts him in a group with noted contact kings Casey Kotchman and Placido Polanco. When you look at the pitch data summary from his Baseball-Reference page, you can see the difference. Even though he’s seeing less strikes than in any other season, he’s only swinging at 72% of those pitches in the strike zone, compared to a career average of 81%.
By being more selective in which pitches to swing at, Patterson has managed to put himself in positions to hit pitches he can do something with, and that’s been manifest in his performance. Of his 11 hits, five are doubles and four are home runs, giving him a .405 Isolated Slugging Percentage that ranks fifth in all of baseball. Patterson’s early season performance isn’t going to be sustained at this level (a 7% swinging strike rate is impossible to keep up), but there are legitimate reasons to believe that he’s adopted a new approach at the plate, and his continued contact ability could be just the ticket to stardom that people have been projecting on Patterson for most of this decade.