Colby Rasmus is amazing. Still just 26, and an elite-level talent, Rasmus is presently slugging .536. He’s a center fielder who clubs like a DH, and his slugging percentage is beating those of Albert Pujols and Anthony Rizzo. Rasmus owns a 135 wRC+, which was Joe Morgan‘s career wRC+. It’s a better wRC+ than those being posted by Carlos Beltran, Andrew McCutchen, and Michael Morse. Rasmus is finally coming into his own, and he’s looking like the superstar the Blue Jays have wanted him to become.
Colby Rasmus is a nightmare. For every seven plate appearances, he’s struck out three times, whiffing more often than batters have whiffed against Max Scherzer. His on-base percentage is being supported by a lofty BABIP, and Rasmus has swung through the ball with nearly half of his swings. With nearly half of his swings! Rasmus’ approach has shown no signs of improvement, and it looks like he’s going to continue to be exploitable for as long as he’s a part of the game.
We have some plate-discipline data going back to 2002. Let’s split seasons and look at guys who batted at least 50 times, and then sort by contact rate in ascending order. The list:
- 2004 Jaret Wright, 47.5%
- 2011 Chris Capuano, 48.2%
- 2012 Josh Johnson, 48.3%
- 2005 Aaron Harang, 50.4%
- 2011 Matt Garza, 51.2%
- 2005 Chris Capuano, 52.3%
- 2003 Miguel Batista, 52.6%
- 2007 Matt Cain, 52.9%
- 2010 Jonathan Sanchez, 53.0%
- 2004 Doug Davis, 53.1%
- 2006 Clay Hensley, 53.5%
- 2011 Brandon Beachy, 53.6%
- 2004 Jose Acevedo, 53.6%
- 2013 Colby Rasmus, 53.9%
Well hold on a second. Let’s look at the same list, but this time let’s look only at non-pitchers.
- 2013 Colby Rasmus, 53.9%
- 2012 Carlos Peguero, 54.0%
At least in terms of recent baseball, no non-pitcher has swung and missed with Colby Rasmus’ frequency. Though batters are trending toward more and more strikeouts, the league average is about 80% contact. Rasmus’ rate is practically unheard of, and it’s not like a bunch of swings and misses are inconspicuous. Yet somehow, Rasmus has still produced in the early going, basically clubbing the ball whenever he’s struck it. We wrote a lot last season about how Josh Hamilton‘s year was essentially unprecedented in terms of productivity and discipline. Rasmus is even more extreme — not in swinging at balls out of the zone, but in hitting while missing. Rasmus’ player page is a three-week absurdity.
So what could be driving the sudden drop in contact? After all, we should believe more in plate-discipline stats than in plate-appearance-result stats. I think a good place to begin would be with this lede:
Colby Rasmus said last week he’d rather hit fastballs than breaking balls. Fastballs, Rasmus reasoned, are easier to handle than off-speed pitches even if they’re approaching 95 m.p.h.
“Definitely,” he said. “That doesn’t matter. I don’t usually mind it. I usually like it when guys throw hard. I’m a fastball hitter, so that’s the one I’ve got to look for.”
Something we make available here is PITCHf/x information. It’s on the player pages and it’s all over the leaderboards. Among this information is PITCHf/x pitch type, and while the algorithm is far from perfect, over big enough samples it gets the job done. I was curious about batter rates of fastballs seen, so I combined fastballs, two-seamers, sinkers, and cutters. The league average is about 61%, holding pretty steady over the past few years. Used to be that Rasmus was fed a slightly below-average rate of fastballs. As far as 2013 is concerned, you can go ahead and throw “slightly” in the garbage.
Last year, Rasmus saw 59% fastballs. This was pretty normal, for him. So far this year, he’s seen 47% fastballs. That’s not the lowest heater rate in baseball — Wilin Rosario has seen even fewer, and John Jaso‘s just about tied — but no one’s rate has seen a bigger drop between seasons. Here’s that leaderboard, in fastball-rate drop between 2012 and 2013:
Rasmus, also, has seen a decline in first-pitch fastballs, from about 66% to about 39%. Rasmus says he’s a fastball hitter. Rasmus hasn’t seen very many fastballs, relative to the usual. Relative even to himself, before.
You might think Rasmus is seeing a bunch of offspeed stuff specifically because he keeps striking out — deep counts mean fewer fastballs. However, this isn’t really the case. Rasmus has been ahead in the count for 17% of his pitches, compared to 16% a year ago. He’s been behind in the count for 35% of his pitches, compared to 37% a year ago. It’s not counts that are driving the fastball rate. It’s pitchers, catchers, and Rasmus that are driving the fastball rate.
Of course, because it’s still early, there are some potential biases at play. Maybe Rasmus hasn’t yet faced a representative sample of pitchers. At the other end of the scale, some Brewers have seen a lot more fastballs. Some Astros have seen a lot more fastballs. That should even out over time. But the Blue Jays, as a team, haven’t faced a particularly low fastball rate, so that doesn’t explain very much, if it explains anything. Again, Rasmus hasn’t been facing a bunch of breaking-ball pitchers — he’s been facing a bunch of pitchers who have thrown him a bunch of breaking balls.
So on one hand, Rasmus has produced. On the other, Rasmus has been a catastrophe, and it seems to have a lot to do with the pitch types he’s seen. All four of his home runs have been hit against heaters, and the offspeed stuff has been driving him insane, in between the base hits. Rasmus could, in theory, go the way of Josh Hamilton, sustaining a weird dichotomy all season long. But even Hamilton last year made a lot more contact than Rasmus has made so far, and Hamilton was hard to make sense of at the time. Right now, there’s little, if any reason to throw Colby Rasmus many fastballs. So Colby Rasmus should have to earn his subsequent fastballs. There are going to be adjustments made, here. If not, I have to imagine there’s going to be an adjustment to Colby Rasmus’ OPS.
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