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Astros: What to expect when you're Matt Dominguez

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No position player in the major leagues had a worse season than Astros' 3B Matt Dominguez. Why? With his youth and talent, minor adjustments to his plate approach could salvage his career and re-position him as an everyday player on the next good Astros team

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

During the 2014 season, Houston's Matt Dominguez ranked last among regular third baseman in the Major Leagues by almost every offensive statistical measure.  After appearing in 157 of the Astros' 162 regular-season games, Dominguez' batting line of .215/.256/.330 indicate results almost unbearably poor.  Publicly-available advanced statistics rate him at 37% less effective than a league-average offensive producer, ranked 145th out of 146 qualified batters (wRC+) in front of only Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart.  However, considering both offense and defense, Dominguez was the last-ranked qualified batter in all of MLB by bWAR.  Even more discouraging, all of Dominguez' numbers have slipped from year-to-year -- from an above-average contributor in 2012 down to 2014 levels. What do the Houston Astros do with Matt Dominguez, and how can he reverse his performance trend?

The problem is defined, but the answer is elusive and dependent on the coaching staff's ability to help Dominguez adjust.  Barely 25 years old at seasons' close, Dominguez is still young enough to be considered a true prospect if he were still at the Triple-A level.  Despite his over three years of Major League service time, Dominguez is still one of the youngest regular players in baseball.  An easy argument is that the Marlins rushed him to the Majors on the purported strength of his glove but before his bat was ready, and that the Astros kept him there because of a lack of other viable third base options.  MLB history is littered with players called up too quickly who then struggled to adjust.

What the Stats Say

Dominguez, being of Molina-esque foot fleetness, can hardly be expected to sustain a high Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) because he cannot beat out shallow liners or ground balls through sheer will.  For 2014, Dominguez' BABIP was .244 while his xBABIP was .290.  A batter's expected-BABIP (xBABIP) has been shown to be a useful tool for predicting his regression to a sustainable level of play in successive seasons. His slightly-below-league-average xBABIP makes sense for a player who isn't a runner, but when compared to his actual BABIP, one can conclude that Dominguez has been a victim of crummy luck on balls in play.  This is a simplistic explanation though, because he's sustained an incredibly low BABIP for a majority of his career. The claim, "He'll be better next year when his luck turns," cannot be made with any real confidence, though it is still a strong possibility.

Nothing in Dominguez' batted ball profile suggests any weirdness in the way his balls-in-play are dropping.  He doesn't have a high line drive rate, but it's only slightly lower in 2014 than his career rate.  His GB/FB rate was nearly 1:1.  He's not popping up with an unusual frequency or hitting balls into the dirt at an alarming rate.

But before ball-in-play data can become relevant, Dominguez must actually put the ball in play, and this is where some issues can be identified.  Dominguez' problem doesn't seem to be what happens to the ball when he makes contact, but rather whether he makes contact, and which pitches he makes contact with.

Dominguez' Contact rate, which is a stat that should stabilize pretty quickly, has declined dramatically - from 88% in 2012 to 83% in 2013 and 79% in 2014.  This suggests that pitchers have "figured him out" and either Dominguez cannot or has not been able to adjust.  His contact woes aren't just because he's swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone (he isn't, noticeably), or that he's taking good pitches (his Z-Swing% is actually way up from 2012).  But for some reason, his swinging strike rate has increased from 5% in 2012 to 10% in 2014. Pitchers are just plain beating him in the strike zone.

The following graph, from Brooks' Baseball, shows Dominguez' Whiff% against pitch types over the past three seasons.

DominguezWhiffRates

Dominguez Year-by-Year Whiff Rate (www.brooksbaseball.net)

Dominguez has the most trouble with off-speed and breaking pitches, but that can almost be dismissed as typical of a  young hitter adjusting to major league breaking pitches.  He'll get better at handling those as he sees more of them, or at least, that's a reasonable expectation for a 25-year-old major-league-quality talent.  However, it is troubling that Dominguez' whiff rate has increased by 6% on hard pitches over the past three seasons.  Any one or all of a few possibilities could explain this:

  • Dominguez suddenly can't "catch up" to major league fastballs or is having trouble identifying them
  • Dominguez' bat control has worsened during his time in the majors

What Pitch F/X says

If Dominguez is unable to catch up to major league fastballs, then a majority of those hard pitches that he does make contact with should be to the opposite field - a late swing should drive a high percentage of his balls in play to right field, rather than to his pull side.  His spray chart does not support that hypothesis - he appears to be adept at using all portions of the field, even on hard-thrown pitches.

DominguezSprayChart

Dominguez' 2014 Spray Chart (www.brooksbaseball.net)

Again, we see little evidence that Dominguez has any particular issues with balls in play, other than the above-mentioned low BABIP, which should rise due to normal statistical correction.  However, opposing pitching coaches have noticed Dominguez' troubles with hard fastballs, no matter what may be causing them, and have planned for it.  According to Brooks Baseball's Dominguez player card, we see more evidence that the trouble is in the swing, not the contact:

"Against All Fastballs (1,398 seen), he has had a very poor eye (0.77 d'; 66% swing rate at pitches in the zone vs. 36% swing rate at pitches out of the zone) and an aggressive approach at the plate (-0.02 c) with a league average likelihood to swing and miss (17% whiff/swing)."

Traditionally, young hitters struggle with breaking pitches.  But with Dominguez, it seems opponents have quickly identified that his issue is with the fastball.  Since 2012, opposing pitchers have increased the number of fastballs seen by Dominguez by 10%!

2012:  47% fastballs seen
2013:  57% fastballs seen
2014:  57% fastballs seen

Pitchers are pounding Dominguez with the fastball low and away, but that's an area he infrequently swings at (comparatively), even on pitches in the zone.  But when he does swing at those pitches, he makes terrible contact.  When he actually makes contact, his Isolated power on those pitches is nearly zero -- he's hitting most of those pitches into outs instead of opposite-field singles or doubles.

DomgineuzChart1

Dominguez Charts2

What the video says

While this author is no expert on swing mechanics, video shows that Dominguez swing is messy, with a lot of moving parts that decrease his chance of adjusting to pitches of different speeds and breaks.

The first GIF shows Dominguez whiffing on a pitch in late September 2014.  The bat waggle before the pitch is fine - a lot of batters do that to remind their muscles of the bat's balance.

2014WhiffGif

Dominguez Whiffs in 2014

The bothersome parts have to do with physics.  Try throwing a football at a stationary target.  Then try throwing a football at a moving target.  Next, throw the football at the moving target while you are running.  Finally, throw a football at a moving target while you are running and while you are jumping up and down and the target is also jumping up and down.  The precision and accuracy of the throw will diminish with each successive addition of movement.  That's because the thrower's body is not at rest, and so it becomes difficult to throw with precision.  The moving target makes it difficult to hit it accurately.  Put together, there are enough different variations in target motion and body balance to make a significant difference.

Dominguez' batting stance while trying to hit a variable-speed pitch that breaks in an unknown direction is like the football-throwing analogy.  As the pitcher releases the ball, Dominguez pre-loads by waving the bat forward over the plate (to the left in the GIF) while simultaneously crouching from a bolt-upright stance into a more traditional one.  While in the middle of the crouching motion, he whips the bat backwards behind his shoulder as the pitch begins its break.  Finally he unloads on the ball, after having moved around so much that it's hard to understand how he retains any of whatever balance he started with in the upright position.  Because of the added motion of the forward-direction "pre-swing" and crouching while the baseball is in mid-flight, there are at least two unnecessary moving parts that can be seen in this GIF that will affect Dominguez' ability to adjust to the speed and break of the pitch and control the bat with precision.

Dominguez also shows poor balance on this swing - something he displays in all the other 2014 plate appearances examined for this article.  His center of gravity is forward, above his front leg, at the conclusion of the swing instead of back or balanced, as batters are taught.  This overbalances him slightly, and he ends up leaning over the plate, looking wobbly and out of control.

For comparison, here is an excellent hitter from the same game, against the same pitcher.  Jose Altuve is balanced in this gif and has no unnecessary motions in his swing.  He remains with his weight back, his hands close to his body, and his swing plane level.  This economy of swing contributes to Altuve's elite bat control and contact abilities.

2014AltuveGif

Altuve's Swing in 2014

Video of Dominguez in 2012 looks better than it does in 2014, though he still has some seemingly unnecessary motion in his swing.  This next GIF was taken from a slow-mo replay of a 2012 home run.  He still has the forward-moving 'pre-load' to his swing (for lack of a better term), but the crouch from upright (not shown) happens beforehand, so that these extra motions happen in series instead of in tandem.  Both motions are still unnecessary to generate precision bat control and bat speed needed to power out a home run, but they seem under stricter control.

Dominguez2012Gif

Dominguez 2012 Swing

One noticeable difference between the 2014 GIF and the 2012, is that two seasons ago, Dominguez' body during and after the swing is balanced in the center instead of rocking forward onto his front foot, as in 2014.  Any hitting coach worth their salt will say that this balance is crucial to a repeatable and controllable swing.  Other angles of the 2012 home run swing views show that Dominguez clearly is not allowing his momentum to carry over to the front foot, and his swing looks much more controlled.

Dominguez2012Bomb2

Dominguez 2012 Balance

2012DominguezBalance2

Another View

Finally, a side-by-side comparison sums up the degradation in his Dominguez' swing that may have contributed to the drop in contact rate.  In the 2012 home run swing, Dominguez keeps his hands into his body, creating a "shorter" swing.  This is the same approach that Chris Carter worked hard to adopt mid-season that contributed to his batting average and power explosions.  As a result of Dominguez' better balance in 2012, he is not hanging over the plate quite as much - extra movements and changes in his center of gravity are not as present.  In 2014, Dominguez' arms are clearly stretched out in a "long" swing (something he did with regularity during the season), and he appears overbalanced, like he'll need to take another step so that he won't fall over.

DominguezBatt

Dominguez 2014 and 2012

By working to address his balance and bat control issues, Dominguez should become better at fouling off those low-and-away pitches that he has been unable to do anything with, instead of whiffing on them or inducing weak contact.  If he can develop that skill, pitchers will stop pounding that area of the zone quite as much to preserve their pitch counts, and he should see more pitches to hit with authority.

So what about next year?

Some of Dominguez' troubles may be laid at the feet of a depressed BABIP.  If Dominguez' 2014 BABIP had matched his xBABIP of .290, he would have hit .249/.299/.363.  Still bad, but definitely better than his actual results.  A reasonable expectation for Dominguez in 2015 is that he should hit no worse than that slash line.

But if Dominguez' is able to quiet down his batting approach and develop better bat control, he has all the prerequisite power and all-fields hitting abilities to become a league-average offensive third baseman.  He doesn't have too far to go to put up numbers like a more-powerful version of 2014 David Freese or Chase Headley -- somewhere in the neighborhood of .260/.320/.410.  If he is able to do that at age 25 when many top prospects are still in the minor leagues, and provide average or better defense, then he will return to the status of viable major league 7-hole hitter, with a bit of upside to be better than that.  The tarnish of 2013-2014 will diminish somewhat and he may regain some of the gleam that made him a national Top 100 prospect.

The Astros should write off Dominguez' dismal 2014 season as that of a young batter who struggled with adjustments, and give him another long look.  They should ascribe him an off-season workout plan that includes hours in the batting cage practicing balance and eliminating excess motions that drain his ability to be precise with his bat.  Considering his age, defensive upside (yes, it's still there), and power, no better third base option exists on the market when cost is considered.  At still two or three years away from his statistical offensive prime, it is too soon to write off Matt Dominguez as a possible contributor on the next winning Astros team.