The San Diego Padres didn’t play on Monday, which means the San Diego Padres didn’t win on Monday. We currently live in a world in which this is an infrequent occurrence. We currently live in a world in which the Padres, Orioles, and A’s keep on winning, and the Red Sox have one of their worst rosters people can remember. In some ways this was a gradual shift and in other ways this was rather sudden. Anyhow, the Padres have been amazing, and one of the players allowing them to be amazing has been Cameron Maybin.
Last offseason, it wouldn’t have seemed weird to know that Maybin would help the Padres down the stretch in 2012. Two offseasons ago, sure, for two reasons, but last offseason, Maybin was coming off a year in which he seemed to put his skills together. Maybin was 24 years old in 2011, and for three years in a row he had been a Baseball America top-10 prospect. Last year was a career year and the Padres rewarded Maybin for his development with a five-year contract. It seemed like he was becoming the player he was supposed to be.
But after Maybin figured it out in 2011, he lost it again to begin 2012. Maybin was left in the position of having to figure it out again.
Full disclosure: some of what’s to come, I’ve already written about elsewhere. This piece is a follow-up to that one. We’re going to talk about a small mechanical change that Maybin made between games on July 1 and July 2. Through July 1, Maybin was absolutely miserable. He owned a .570 OPS, a year after posting a .716 OPS. A .716 OPS is hardly remarkable on its own, but Maybin did that playing every day, and playing half the days in Petco Park. He was worth nearly five wins over replacement. Now, here’s Maybin swinging on July 1. Watch his front foot.
Here’s Maybin swinging on July 2. Again, watch his front foot.
On July 1, Maybin finished 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. On July 2, Maybin finished 2-for-4 with a double and what was at that point baseball’s longest home run of the season. The Padres’ announcers talked about the little tweak that Maybin had made, and clearly it paid immediate dividends. If Maybin was looking for a reason to stick with his adjustment, he got one right away. It took no time at all for Maybin to feel encouraged.
For Maybin, it was all about timing. The idea was that, by changing and reducing his stride, he could feel more in control, and get a better look at the pitches on the way. Slumping players frequently make tweaks, and sometimes they do something and sometimes they do nothing. The evidence suggests that Maybin’s tweak has done something.
Here’s Maybin from a recent highlight. He’s stuck with his adjustment.
The splits are pretty dramatic:
We’re talking about an OPS gain of more than 200 points, and an Isolated-Power gain of nearly 50 percent. A lot of that might be explained by the increase in BABIP, but the BABIP also suggests better contact. One figured the slumping Maybin was going to regress to a higher level of performance, but this is exceeding simple regression.
This table might be more telling, depending on your opinion of what is and isn’t more telling:
Since making a change, Maybin has increased his contact, he’s dropped his strikeouts, and he’s become more aggressive on pitches in the strike zone, which I suppose might have to do with the tweak and might not. Maybin’s still a groundball hitter, but the numbers he’s lost in the grounder category have been redistributed into the line-drive category. Maybin has changed as a hitter — not completely, but in part, and for the better.
It’s absolutely fascinating that Maybin has essentially been able to do this on the fly, changing between two games, because we’re talking about undoing years and years and years of muscle memory. Here’s the first Maybin highlight available on MLB.com, from 2008 when Maybin was a Marlin:
Maybin always lifted his foot, until he didn’t anymore. Muscle memory is what makes tweaks to pitching mechanics so difficult to stick with. Your body will naturally do what’s familiar, and it takes a while to change what the body thinks is familiar. Imagine switching two keys on your keyboard. Not just the key labels, but also the functions. Imagine swapping the E and the M. Imagine doing that and trying to type. You’d screw up over and over, then you’d have to consciously focus on pressing the right keys. It would take a long time before you were familiar with the new keyboard on autopilot. You’d be re-wiring your brain.
Maybin re-wired his brain, and in his own words, it hasn’t been easy, because why would it be easy?
Maintaining the change, however, has been a chore for Maybin, who had used that high leg kick in his stance for as long as he can remember. At times, he admits that he’s fighting some old muscle memory in his at-bats.
“It’s tough,” Maybin said. “I’m a pretty good athlete and I’ve been able to make the adjustment, … but sometimes my body still wants to do it. It wants to get up there.”
Maybin says he’s seeing the ball better now, and the statistical evidence backs him up. It’s nothing short of astonishing that he’s been able to fold this in and stick with it day to day. It helps that he’s been getting more positive results, which serve as encouragement.
What’s also interesting is what Maybin was, and what he appears to be turning into. For one thing, recall that Maybin had his breakout 2011 while still using the high foot lift. He had success over a full season with that approach and now he’s finding success only after changing that approach. That might seem odd, but baseball’s hardly static. Players are always adjusting to players, so players are always having to adjust back.
And Maybin was never a contact hitter before. Last year he made contact with less than 74 percent of his swings. Even first-half, slumping 2012 Maybin posted a contact rate of 79 percent. Since July 2 it’s gone up to 83 percent. Early on, Maybin was getting his bat on the ball more often; now he’s getting the bat on the ball and hitting it with authority even more often. Maybin isn’t turning back into the guy that he was in 2011. He’s turning into a different guy who’s also successful.
I of course have to note that we can’t prove causation, and that this could all be due to a coincidence, or something else. I also have to note that the sample sizes are small and we don’t know how much is signal and how much is noise. What it certainly looks like, though, is that Cameron Maybin made a little adjustment, and it’s helped him out in a big way. Adjustments don’t always work this well, but Maybin’s has apparently worked exactly this well. In 2011, Cameron Maybin figured out how to succeed over a full season. In 2012, Cameron Maybin seems to have figured out how to succeed all over again.
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