The Complete Reinvention of Elvis Andrus

Remember when we used to write for Fox? A few Septembers ago, I published an article for Fox, titled “The Attempted Reinvention of Elvis Andrus.” At that point, Andrus was not a very good hitter. What he was was a changing hitter, a hitter in progress. There was enough there to get my attention, although we hadn’t yet entered the era where people are constantly talking about swing-changers. Andrus, back then, was a curiosity.

After last night, he’s got three home runs in 2017. Another player with three home runs is Mike Trout. Andrus also has three doubles and a triple, so he’s slugging .800. Those numbers don’t really matter, but when you look at them, you also look at what Andrus pulled off a season ago. There’s no longer just an attempted reinvention. The reinvention is effectively complete. Elvis Andrus is somehow still just 28 years old, and now he’s an offensive threat.

Look at this Wednesday home run. It’s a terrible pitch, so it’s not like Andrus had to go and get anything, but you might be struck by how much Andrus looks like an actual power hitter. He looks like a guy who’s done this before.

There’s no eye-popping exit velocity, no 500-foot distance. Andrus isn’t capable of those home runs, and so he doesn’t hit them. But 500-foot homers don’t need to exist. Those last hundred feet seldom matter. Andrus has enough pop, and this homer here isn’t a wall-scraper. It’s a convincing visual as we walk back through Andrus’ history.

Andrus was a rookie when he was 20 years old, and given his age, he held his own. This is his ninth straight year of being a regular, so the Rangers have clearly been satisfied, but for a while Andrus was less of an acceptable hitter, and more of an acceptable hitter for a shortstop. And that’s okay, but through 2015, Andrus never once managed a three-digit wRC+. He was a slap- and ground-ball hitter, a guy who might be able to single and steal a base. Andrus used to bunt a lot. There were so many bunts.

It was during 2015 that Andrus started trying to make changes in earnest. He got the idea to try to drive the ball more, which is a good thing to try to do, and while Andrus was no stranger to making tweaks, what he was trying then was going to be laborious. It was going to require physical changes, as well as changes to Andrus’ batting approach. Andrus talked about embracing the changes a little before the 2015 All-Star break. His first half was a rather unpleasant one.

As a refresher, here’s Andrus right before going deep in Anaheim:

Here’s a screenshot from early in 2015:

The high leg kick is conspicuous. So, then, is the absence of the leg kick below. Andrus sometimes used to futz around with a leg kick, but it was never all that comfortable or consistent. It became a more consistent part of his mechanics in 2015’s later months, and it hasn’t gone away. It’s changed Andrus as a hitter, in combination with a different, more aggressive mentality.

The table below is striking. I’ve divided between June and July 2015, because that seems to be around when Andrus threw himself fully into this.

Elvis Andrus Through the Years
Split PA wRC+ ISO K-BB% GB% Pull% Hard%
2013 – June 2015 1709 77 0.068 7% 56% 35% 23%
July 2015 – Present 935 107 0.140 4% 47% 45% 29%

Andrus the bad hitter has become Andrus the above-average hitter. Since the start of July in 2015, Andrus has posted a higher wRC+ than Brandon Crawford, Albert Pujols, and Anthony Rendon. His power has gone up, and, unsurprisingly, that’s linked to dramatic changes in pull and grounder rates. Most impressively, Andrus hasn’t had to sacrifice anything in the way of contact. His discipline peripherals have actually improved, which usually isn’t the way things go when a hitter tries more often to go deep.

To convert those numbers to a visual, here are Andrus’ side-by-side percentile rankings, among all hitters with at least 500 trips to the plate.

By wRC+, he’s improved by 43 percentage points. By ISO, 25 points. His K-BB% has somehow gotten better at the same time, by 13 points, and his grounder ranking has gotten less extreme by another 25 points. By far the biggest change here is in relative pull rate. Andrus used to be part of the lower fifth of all hitters. Now he’s part of the upper fifth of all hitters. That speaks to how this isn’t just a mechanical thing — Andrus is thinking about left and left-center, and then he’s going on the attack. It hasn’t made him *great*, but he’s plenty good enough.

These days everyone’s looking for new-age-y Statcast evidence, so I can tell you this much: In 2015, Andrus ranked in the 36th percentile in average exit velocity. That, obviously, combines his first three months and his last three months. In 2016, Andrus ranked in the 56th percentile in average exit velocity. He was right there tied with Jose Altuve, Mike Napoli, and Aledmys Diaz, so there’s enough strength there to be threatening. Andrus is never going to top any of these Statcast leaderboards, but you don’t need to be particularly strong to justify a more air-based approach. There has to be a cutoff somewhere, maybe around the Ben Revere level, but Andrus is above it, a better hitter than ever because he’s trying to muscle up.

For all I know, Andrus is still improving. Relatively speaking, this adjusted approach is fairly new to him. Maybe he’s still getting accustomed to the ins and outs of being a hitter worth worrying about. Yet if Andrus is simply what he is, it’s still been a remarkable surge, and the planned reinvention has been a runaway success. Andrus isn’t just an acceptable hitter for a shortstop. He’s an acceptable hitter, period. And that still undersells him. He’s a better hitter now than most other hitters.

We hoped you liked reading The Complete Reinvention of Elvis Andrus by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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DBA455
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DBA455

No arguing that since the start of 2016 he’s had better outcomes.

But is mid 2015 the right point to flag the change for any reason other than his comments?

IE, in the second half of ’15 he was still a lousy hitter (.269/.316/.384).

Although I guess there was an ISO step up from a .080ish guy to a .115 guy at least.

charliehustle
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charliehustle

There was a clear distinction to those who watched him play.

DBA455
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DBA455

Also interesting to note that he’s swinging more this year (low 50s swing %, up from ~40% career to date) – and also making MORE contact.

IE, contact rate up to the low 90s from the mid to high 80s; swinging strike rate down modestly from the low 5s to the mid 4s. [And he was already approaching elite in each category; I’d set the cutoffs at around >85% and <6% as pretty noteworthy]

36 PAs admittedly a ridiculously minuscule basis on which to judge anything, but so far it seems consistent with the thesis of a player with a changed approach and the skills to pull it off.

Oh, and this isn't necessarily just plate discipline paired with a handful of fluke doubles or just-enough HRs either – hard hit % up to 40% after a career in the 20s.

So in conclusion:
A. It's still April and this is noise and
B. I love the Statcast era that even makes this train of thought possible.

DBA455
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DBA455

For giggles, since Opening Day last year, here are all the players in baseball with (a) 85% or better Contact (b) 7% or less swinging strikes and (c) .150 or better ISO.

All arbitrary cut-offs that I made up just to talk more about Elvis Andrus. Anyway, it’s a fun list.

Name Contact% SwStr% ISO
Daniel Murphy 88.7% 5.2% 0.250
Mookie Betts 87.5% 5.1% 0.209
Ian Kinsler 85.3% 6.6% 0.199
Jose Altuve 85.6% 6.9% 0.184
Albert Pujols 85.3% 6.7% 0.183
Ben Zobrist 88.1% 4.2% 0.176
Melky Cabrera 87.7% 6.0% 0.158
Elvis Andrus 85.4% 6.3% 0.156
Jose Ramirez 88.8% 4.9% 0.151
Buster Posey 87.0% 6.0% 0.150

I think Rangers fans would be delighted for Elvis to be a watered-down version of Altuve.

Hell, even “Melky Cabrera at SS” plays perfectly well assuming last year’s defense wasn’t the new norm.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

What surprised me the most about this article was how good Andrus’s (Andrus’?) batting line was last year. His wRC+ was 112 last year! If that’s what the Rangers are buying and his defense bounces back, I agree that Rangers fans should be delighted.

dl80
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dl80

I don’t know that an 88 wRC+ is “lousy.” Not great, below average, yes. But not terrible, especially since he was still an elite defender. In fact, an 88 wRC+ over a full season would have been his third best of his career up to that point. Plus, a .286 second half BABIP may have been slightly unlucky (though it’s hard to say how much since he was starting to hit more flyballs).

And since that July 2015 point, he’s had a 108 wRC+, which is a huge improvement for him.

The real question now is whether last year’s awful defensive numbers were real or not. If they were, he’s an average player overall, in the vein of a Brad Miller-lite (with better defense but worse offense). Pretty good hitter, below average defense. I’d be concerned that perhaps he bulked up some and lost some flexibility.

If last year’s were a fluke, he could be a 4-WAR+ guy going forward.