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Matt Kemp’s Fastball Struggles Revisited

A few months ago, I posted in the Community Research Blog on Matt Kemp‘s struggles against fastballs this past season, highlighting how he whiffed on more fastballs in 2010 compared to that of 2009, particularly high fastballs as well as fastballs down the middle of the plate. I showed that he displayed a lower contact percentage on fastballs down the middle in 2010 as opposed to 2009, and I posited that, since his whiffing behavior was season-long, his 2010 offensive struggles may have been due to a change in swinging mechanics, or worse, a season-long injury kept hidden from the media.

In light of the Kemp/Rihanna breakup, I thought I’d take another look at Kemp’s 2010 offensive struggles again (he struggled in the outfield too, but that’s for another day). As a recap, Kemp went from .297/.352/.490 in 2009 to .249/.310/.450 in 2010, highlighted by an increase in strikeout rate from 22.9% to 28.2%. Some of that was due to struggles against fastballs. Take a look at Kemp’s swinging strike percentage (per pitch as opposed to per swing) against fastball height (I looked at only four-seam fastballs):

The lines represent the top (right on the graph) and bottom (left) of the rulebook strike zone while the grey line shows the league average. In 2009, Kemp whiffed on slightly more fastballs than the average hitter no matter the pitch height. But in 2010, Kemp swung and missed at many more fastballs, particularly high fastballs in the zone. Here’s a look at Kemp’s contact percentage per pitch against fastball height:

This shows how the 2009 Kemp made what appears to be more solid contact on high fastballs in the zone while maintaining a league average contact percentage on down-the-middle and low fastballs. However, the 2010 Kemp dropped below average in making contact against fastballs that were located within the strike zone.

So it looks like Kemp has not been able to catch up with high fastballs, the type of pitches he used to crush before. I was curious to see how Kemp performed differently based on a fastball’s speed. Here’s Kemp’s swinging strike percentage against fastball speed:

95+ mph fastballs resulted in similar whiffing behavior, but Kemp’s whiffs against lower-90s fastballs dramatically increased in the past year, nearly doubling that of the average hitter. It’s not that Kemp is missing a lot of plus-plus heat — he’s consistently whiffed on 20% of 98 mph fastballs throughout his career. He’s missing average fastball speeds as well. Finally, let’s look at Kemp’s contact percentage against fastball speed:

Similarly, Kemp’s contact percentage curve is completely submerged below both his 2009 contact percentage curve and the league average curve. He’s actually made less contact on 90-92 mph fastballs than on mid-90s fastballs, though I wouldn’t read too much into that without knowing the sample by pitch speed. (On a side note, it’s interesting to see how contact percentage is not particularly dependent on fastball speed on average, but this graph ignores fastball movement and the solidity of contact made.)

A quick look at Kemp’s plate discipline statistics tells us that Kemp actually swung the bat less in 2010 compared to 2009, so his high swinging strike percentages regardless of the location and speed of the opposing fastball are not overstated (here’s Kemp’s swing percentage against fastball height and fastball speed).

In the most recent Hardball Times Baseball Annual, Jeremy Greenhouse’s excellent piece titled “Scouting by Numbers” found that “pitchers cannot survive throwing 90 mph fastballs up in the zone.” In 2010, those pitchers did not have to worry about Matthew Ryan Kemp. Kemp is going to have a long season in 2011 if he doesn’t figure out how to perform better against low-90s and/or high fastballs the way he used to. Either that or he’ll have to get over Rihanna.