It's a well known fact that there's a huge difference in quality between Triple-A ball, and the Major Leagues. Therefore hitters who are completely, and utterly dominating Minor League pitching can have a massive wake up call when they reach the Major Leagues. It appears, as a result of this, that the Houston Astros have taken an interesting approach to dealing with this massive gap in talent, and competition.
Recently the Astros have been, in abundance, and potentially prematurely, calling up prospects who have been dominating the highest level of the Minor Leagues. Tyler White, Alex Bregman, Teoscar Hernandez, Tony Kemp, and the focus of this article: A.J. Reed. Prospects who have been knocking the cover off of Triple-A baseballs reaching the big leagues in a hurry, but only to struggle.
It could be said that the Astros are using these struggles to improve their Minor League talent. When they've dominated Triple-A ball the only step left is to dominate Major League pitching: yet, one does not simply follow the other. By, potentially, again, prematurely calling up hitting prospects and having them attempt to adapt to Major League pitching may be an extremely valuable tool in player development.
Complacency, perhaps, or lack of competition can lead hitters to being bored in Triple-A. To being too good for Triple-A. Yet, as the Major League is such a huge step up, they are still likely to struggle at the big league level. By exposing prospects to top quality pitching, they also expose their flaws (potentially at hitting certain pitches, or certain holes in the swing, or maybe even their ego) they can then send them back down to the minor leagues to genuinely prepare for the Major Leagues. To prepare for the adjustments they must make to stick in the Major Leagues. It's only an assumed theory, but there is merit to it.
So, how have Major League pitchers pitched to A.J. Reed -- and, perhaps more importantly, what flaws in his game have been exposed that were blinded by his Triple-A dominance? I'm going to have a look, using pitchF/x data and Statcast data, at how Major League pitchers have responded to A.J. Reed in the big leagues, and how he has been able to perform against them.
Before we begin, it's important to establish one major caveat: given that Reed has only accrued 85 plate appearances with the Houston Astros all of the information presented falls victim to an extremely small sample size. However, it's still interesting to see how, originally, Major League pitchers have decided to pitch to Reed. Furthermore, we should establish that Reed has been struggling thus far. He has posted a mere wRC+ of 44, and his introduction to the Major Leagues in no way reflects his actual ability.
The first thing that becomes apparent about pitchers' game plan is that the majority of pitches A.J. Reed has been seeing have been on the outside of the plate, and down in the zone, often out of the strikezone. Which, given that he is a power hitter, makes sense. Despite being only new to the league, pitchers have been avoiding giving Reed anything to hit on the inside part of the zone, or up in the zone.
As a result of this, Reed hasn't been able to do much damage on the inside part of the zone, and up in the zone due to the lack of opportunity he's been presented with. Rather, he's adopting, and learning to drive the pitches away from him (interestingly his only Major League home run was on a pitch on the outside part of the zone). While the results haven't quite been there, Reed has been hitting the ball hard when pitched away to. On the other hand, he's struggled to do much damage on the pitches down in the zone.
It could also be said that, given that Reed is being pitched to away a lot, that he is, perhaps, leaning over the zone a little making himself vulnerable to being jammed on the inside. Whether it's as a result of a lack of opportunity, or wanting to jam him on the inside, the fact remains the same: generally, pitchers have been keeping the ball down, and away from Reed. As a chart later in the article will show, he has swung at every pitch on the inside part of the plate to no avail, so I'm swaying towards the idea that pitchers are jamming him.
In the Minor Leagues, A.J. Reed's power was all to the pull side with all but one of his home runs being pulled. As a result of not seeing too many pitches on the inside part of the plate, Reed has become more willing to use the whole field. Brooks Baseball's summary of Reed's approach at the plate supports that:
Against Fastballs, he has had a very aggressive approach at the plate with an above average likelihood to swing and miss. When he connects, he generates below average power and sprays the ball to all fields.
Against Breaking Pitches, he has had a very patient approach at the plate with a disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss. When he connects he generates above average power and sprays the ball to all fields.
Against Offspeed Pitches, he has had a steady approach at the plate with a high likelihood to swing and miss. When he connects, he generates average power and is a pull hitter.
The above summary could be an article alone, but let's continue to focus on why the struggles have been a part of Reed's game. The summary paints a pretty horrible image. Aside from moving the ball to all fields (although that could be a warning flag, too, as his power is to the pull side), he's been generating average power across the board, and, most importantly, has been swinging and missing at a disastrous rate. The following chart exhibits his horrible whiff percentage against the above pitches:
Whilst he's been swinging, and missing at offspeed pitches, and breaking balls more than fastballs, because he's been generating very little power against hard pitches he's been seeing a lot of them. Of all the pitches thrown to Reed 58.5% have been fastballs much higher than the league average of 56.7%. He needs to be more patient against the fastball, and make more solid contact against offspeed, and breaking balls (the league average contact rate is 78.3%, Reed has been making contact on just 69.2% of all pitches, and that includes the fastball).
Of course, my fastball conclusions are just assumptions drawn from the data. It's also highly possible that pitchers have been using the fastball as much as they have as, given that Reed is new to the league, they aren't quite sure how to go after him, and are, therefore, playing it safe with the fastball. Furthermore, the uptick in velocity from the Minor Leagues to the Major League also make it a desirable option with limited data on a hitter.
Pitchers have been pitching away to Reed, and he's been swinging so much with so little success that he's not forcing them to either i) make mistakes, ii) attempt to pitch him either inside, or up in the zone. Not to be all doom and gloom, August, whilst having not seen the results, has been call for some optimism. He's been hitting the ball in air a lot more (47.4% this month, compared to 42% in July), and has been increasing his exit velocity to above the league average -- since his return to the big league roster, that is.
To try and draw some conclusions from of all the data presented we need to return to the original question: how have Major League pitchers been attacking A.J. Reed? Well, as discussed above and now concluded here, pitchers have been avoiding pitching Reed on the inside part of the zone, and up in the zone. Given that, in the minor leagues, all of his power has been to the pull side it's not surprising that Reed has been struggling.
Rather, pitchers have been pitching Reed away, and down. The results haven't quite been there yet, but he has been generating more power on pitches on the outside part of the plate (including his aforementioned home run). Reed has simply been taking what he has been given, and has struggled as a result. His power is on the inside part of the plate, and by offering (and often missing) at the pitches on the outside part of the plate he's letting go of his strengths. The following chart shows just how little contact he has been making:
What Reed, therefore, needs to be (although I must concede another caveat: I'm no swing/pitchF/x expert) is more patient against pitches he doesn't really like. He's going to need to take more pitches as he's been offering at pitches he has stood no chance at making contact on, mainly those outside of the zone. In turn, he should start to see more pitches inside the zone, and force pitchers to go deep into counts, potentially making mistakes both up, and in on the plate. The potential is certainly there, and his limited Major League experience is no reflection of his true ability.
If Reed can begin to be more patient at the plate, he should see some better pitches. He should then be able to make more contact, putting the ball into play more often or at least keeping at bats alive. The more pitches Reed sees, the more likely it is that Reed will start to see pitches he actually likes. Combine those improvements with the encouraging exit velocity numbers and we arrive at our conclusion: Reed has been overmatched thus far, but with some minor improvements he should be just fine.
Credit to Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Savant for the graphs, and charts.