Look up and down the Houston Astros roster and it’s difficult to imagine them getting any better. They’re on pace to win 105 games, which is four more than even last year. But it’s possible. Though their pitching staff is the best in the league and maybe one of the best ever, their offense has been more middling. And it may start at the top with George Springer.
So far Springer has registered 1.6 fWAR and a 113 wRC+ in 97 games. While being 13% better than league average is pretty good, it’s not quite what you’d expect from him. Last year he surged to a 140 wRC+ mark. Even if you account for regression, you don’t account for him being almost 30% less than the batter he was just a season ago.
Right now the projections love him. He’s pegged to account for at least 1.5 wins for the rest of the year, in less than 60 games, and a wRC+ of at least 128. And remember that as projection systems evaluate a player’s true underlying talent level at a given point in time, they’re also conservative in nature. You could somewhat reasonably argue, then, that Springer could possibly manage an even bigger rebound here as the season resumes.
But there’s a catch with projection systems. They might capture a player’s true talent level, but by nature they can’t capture all that goes into preparing for that player. Maybe based on George Springer’s past body of work, compared to players of his ilk and age, he really is a hitter who is at least 30% better than his peers right now. But based on how pitchers have attacked him this year, he hasn’t been, and there’s one reason that sticks out as to why.
Pitchers are locating their four-seamers to Springer differently this year. On the left, you see where they spotted the pitch to him in 2017, mostly outside. Springer is 6’3 and looks every bit of it in the box. He has an upright stance. When he gets ready to swing he becomes relatively compact. His arms move down while his hands load and he has a moderately pronounced leg kick. Given how he condenses himself, it’s possible pitchers felt there was an opportunity to attack away because of how it would take him more time to expend the energy to get there on their fastest pitch.
But if you look on the right side of the heat maps above, you’ll see the fastballs Springer swung at. He didn’t have difficulty getting to those pitches and you can see why for yourself if you get out of your seat and pretend to take a swing as you read this next part. (That’s what I did. It was fun!) Go ahead. Stare down Luis Severino or Jacob deGrom fearlessly as you ready yourself for what’s about to come. Make sure you’re in an upright stance. Slowly coil up as you get ready to take your cut. Follow through.
Notice where your arms and legs go? They explode out. They pretty much have to, right? Now imagine you’re a top tier athlete on a top team in the world, like George Springer is, and you can see how he’d shred fastballs on the outer half. He accumulated a 17.4 pitch value against four-seamers last season, which was good for 15th in all of the Majors.
So, the solution? Try to take advantage of the way Springer coils up. Bust him inside some more to keep his body and bat from exploding through the pitch. And so far this season, it’s working. He’s managed only a 6.9 pitch value against four-seamers so far. That’s still relatively nice, and top 40 in the Majors. His wOBA against four-seamers this year is still .381, but that’s down nearly 50 points from last year. In many ways he’s been perfectly cromulent, even if a far cry from the top six outfielder and top 20 hitter in all of baseball he was in 2017.
Pitch values come with caveats. They can be deceptive because on the surface they look like they report only on one specific pitch, but the value of each pitch is often heavily tied to how it’s sequenced with others. We don’t immediately know what set up the performance of the pitch we’re evaluating, and that’s a big deal. However, Springer has seen and offered at pretty much the same volume of four-seamers as just a season ago. Pitchers have merely changed where he’s seeing it.
If he’s still favoring swinging at the fastballs on the outer half, it’s probably because he knows he can crush them. Just last night, on June 21, poor Noe Ramirez served him a pitch right in his happy zone and the Angels paid dearly. The Astros are a smart club. Maybe they’ve tried or are brainstorming possible solutions to Springer getting crowded with heat. Maybe they’ haven’t and they’re just telling him to keep on keeping on because it’s not like he’s turned into a liability. But good gravy, imagine if he figures it out before October.
Pitch percentages and heat maps from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle