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Buy or Sell: Jake Marisnick’s performance

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Jake is hitting amazingly well in 2019. The author tries to determine why the author’s dire preseason predictions were wrong. Or were they?

MLB: Houston Astros at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

If you are one of the unfortunates who followed my recently-deactivated Twitter account, or if you are a long-suffering reader of my work here at The Crawfish Boxes, you know that there are three main themes to all of my articles: 1) silly nonsense with numbers, 2) cartoons, and 3) disparagement of Jake Marisnick.

It’s not personal. It’s not even that I don’t value his best skill, which is defense. He is as good at catching fly balls as I am at crafting double negatives.

I merely can’t feel the same enthusiasm as the gushing peanut gallery seems to. I don’t correlate flowing locks and elite-level glove-work with any expectation of any offensive value. And up until 2019, I have been demonstrably correct.

My bad, bro

And so, this article. It begins as an apology of sorts. We’ll see how it ends, as we weave stream-of-consciousness style through the subject of Marisnickity.

I am sorry, Jake.

I mean, I am sorry for doubting your bat. At the very least, until I dig into what exactly you are doing differently this year, I am sorry for doubting the fickle whims of probabilistic statistics. You have been phenomenal at the plate during the first 104 games of the 2019 season. And I humbly admit it.

Because, damn. You have been hitting the crap out of the ball.

A big year...so far

Marisnick, by the end of Friday, May 29th, is the starting center fielder for the best team in the American League (by way of injury to George Springer), and has been hitting like an All Star.

His line, .284/.340/.558 with 6 home runs in parts of 41 games, beats career bests in every slash category.

If we were to play the fun “on pace” game, if Marisnick were to reach 600 Plate Appearances at this same pace, he would score 110 runs, drive in 75 more, steal 17 bases, and clock a whopping 35 home runs. Move over, Mike Trout. There’s a new salmon in the stream.

Small samples be derned—that’s mighty impressive, and doubly so for a fellow who owns an Adam Everett-esque career batting line of .230/.282/.386.

So what’s up?

Where have I gone wrong? How have I slid so far from my lofty heights of predicting greatness for Dallas Keuchel before the 2014 season, into the deep canyons of Hot-Takery that made me so freaking wrong about Jake?

That self-doubt prompted me to pick up my pen, scrawl out this article in perfectly-formed Calibri (by hand), scan it in, perform automatic word recognition, paste it into TCB’s copy editor, and click publish.

The first question I asked was:

“Is Marisnick hitting balls harder?

Yes and no. His average exit velocity against fastballs remains pretty unchainged from last season, and actually that velocity is down from its peak in 2017. However, his average exit velocity against breaking balls and off-speed pitches (which total about 40% of the pitches he sees nowadays) is up by 10 mph compared to 2015, and has seen a year-over-year climb of about 2.5 mph each of the past three years.

That’s good and bad. Or rather, good and “meh”. His average exit velocity overall is still tepid, and is below MLB average (253rd among major leaguers with 50+ batted ball events). So, blah.

www.baseballsavant.com

However, his hard hit rate (number of batted balls with exit velocity above 95 mph) is up 10% from his career norm this year. So while his actual exit velocity isn’t very good, he is hitting a lot of balls harder than ever.

www.baseballsavant.com

That confused me until I figured out how this works. Think of it this way.

  • Player A hits two balls at 115 mph and eight balls at 89 mph
  • Player B hits five balls at 96 mph and five balls at 90 mph

Both players have an average exit velocity of 93 mph. But player A, even though he has two monster bombs at 115 mph, has a hard hit rate of 20%, whereas player B has a hard hit rate of 50%.

I think this is a good thing for Marisnick because hitting Stanton-esque bombs isn’t his game. I’d rather see him more-or-less consistently hitting the ball kind-of hard than have him hit like a limp noodle most of the time with a very-occasional eye-popping tater.

Marisnick has shown in the past an ability to reach similar hard-hit rates; notably at the beginning of 2018 and also around June/July of 2016. It remains to be seen if he can maintain that rate in 2019, but his hard hit rate and improved hard contact against breaking and off-speed pitches should be comforting for forward-looking fans.

“Has Marisnick’s plate discipline improved?”

Resoundingly, no, though this comes with caveats. Marisnick’s walk rate is down and his strikeout rate remains alarmingly high.

He is swinging at more pitches outside of the zone than ever before, and not doing any better at making contact on those outside pitches.

Weirdly though, he has seen an improvement in contact on pitches inside the zone, to about the same rates he was experiencing in 2016 (which is good). This improved contact on pitches in the zone combined with his improvement on barreling up breaking and offspeed pitches seem to be solid data points to explain his nice 2019 so far.

“How about results on batted balls?”

Unfortunately, good in-zone contact comes with a downside, especially since Marisnick isn’t choosy about where the pitches in the zone are. Because pitchers tend to hammer him at the bottom of the strike zone as a matter of course (more on that in a bit), Marisnick has now spiked his ground ball rate to 50%, which is nearly 20% higher than last season.

This is consistent with a massive change in average launch angle this year - down to 1.7 degrees above horizontal. This is 5th-lowest in all of the major leagues (307 of 311). That is ... not good.

This chart is bad.
www.baseballsavant.com

Marisnick is pulling the ball more, and that is where the bulk of his hard hits are coming from. This has come at the expense of hard-hit balls up in the zone. Which is probably good, if you think about it.

www.baseballsavant.com

The biggest issue Marisnick continues to have is that he doesn’t seem to be recognizing and laying off of outside pitches. And pitchers keep busting him there - a full quarter of the pitches thrown to Marisnick this season are low, away, and outside the zone. Generally, he hasn’t been able to do anything with outside pitches, either in making contact (as evidenced by his strikeout rate in those zones) or in making good contact with those outside pitches he actually manages to connect on.

This trend is nearly identical to 2018.

www.baseballsavant.com

“Has Jake changed his swing?”

No.

In comparing a few examples of his swing from 2017 and 2019, it does not appear that he has made any mechanical changes during the past few seasons. Improvement, if any, seems to be coming from better recognition of breaking and off-speed pitches.

Images from mlb.com. Mad Photoshop skillz by author.

“Is there luck involved?”

Yes. Marisnick currently boasts a BABIP that is nearly 75 points higher than his career average, which cannot be sustained for the long haul. His Home Runs per Fly Ball rate is a hilarious 31.6%, 11th-highest in the major leagues among batters with at least 100 plate appearances (he’s looking up at Springer on that list, FYI). He has hit ZERO, AND I MEAN ZERO, infield fly balls, which is not sustainable for anybody, especially a guy with a 13% career rate in that stat.

Statcast isn’t a believer. Based on his average exit velocities, barrel rates, and launch angle, Statcast calculates that Marisnick’s expected batting average should be .219 instead of .284. His expected slugging percentage should be .381, and his expected wOBA should be 100 points lower than it currently is.

“So am I buying or selling?”

Sadly, I can’t convince myself to 180 on my past pessimism regarding Marisnick’s bat. He remains an elite defensive player and for that he should be valued and retained. But expecting a continuation of his 2019 hot start seems like trying to sell Fool’s Gold to a Leprechaun. And if that simile makes no sense to you, you aren’t alone.

Here’s the TL:DR version: Jake is raking at the moment, and seems to have improved his breaking ball recognition. However, he also:

  • Has the highest BABIP of his career
  • Has a silly high HR/FB rate
  • Hasn’t popped up once this year
  • Is driving balls into the ground more often than ever
  • Has a launch angle lower than 98.7% of all other major leaguers
  • Has a below-average exit velocity off the bat
  • Is striking out a ton and walking less than ever

Marisnick is about to be pumpkin’d.

George .... please, get well soon.

* * * * * *

Author’s Note: My intention when I set out to write this article was to write a self-deprecating hit piece against myself, fully laden with groveling and begging for forgiveness over my past doubts of the “changes in approach” that fans assured me would lead to forever greatness of Marisnick’s bat. I went into the article with that mindset, and unfortunately (and obviously) my research took me in another direction. I want those of you who have argued with me on this subject in the past to know I earnestly thought I would find some hard evidence that there has been a significant change in mechanics or approach to explain the player’s 2019 success at the plate. Instead, I found the opposite, and yet another victim of the dreaded “small sample” statistical population that crushes many a dream of baseball fans nationwide.