The Cubans: Fun With Free Swingers and PitchFX Data

Been awhile since I contributed anything to the site outside of "Adam Dunn sucks". Here ya'll go. If you're in a hurry, just read the highlighted bits, they're the most important.

For Caribbean players the adage, "you can't walk off the Island" has long held true. That's painting (some would say "stereotyping or "pigeonholing") with a broad brush but it certainly applies to the White Sox's Cuban born players Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez -- neither is what you would describe as a patient hitter. Both bring other virtues to the plate, but patience is not one of them.

The free swingers Ramirez and Viciedo are off to divergent starts at the plate one hot, one cold, let's investigate the underlying data and see how it affects (if at all) their projected future value.


Let's start with Ramirez's data and analyze his hot start in relation to it.



For his career, Ramirez has an outside zone swinging percentage of 37% and a walk rate of only 5.3%. During his putrid 2012 season (slash line of 265/287/364), his outside zone swinging percentage was 41.5%, the highest of his career...until this season, in which he's swinging at 45% of those pitches. Despite this uptick in free swinging his walk rate his bounced back from 2.6% last year to 6.9% this year, helping fuel a nice 327/379/481 slash line.

Ramirez hasn't really improved his approach (to no surprise, as plate discipline is something that rarely improves on young players, let alone on a player as into his prime as Ramirez) but what he is doing is making his swings count.

His LD% is up to 25%, fueling his (probably unsustainable) .340 BABIP. On swings on pitches inside the zone he's making contact a whopping 98% of the time. That's up from his career average of 91.4%. Ramirez is also making contact on 75.4% of pitches outside the zone, again, up about 5% from his career averages. Ramirez is seeing the ball and hitting the ball.

Despite his success at making contact outside the zone, he isn't really going deep into counts, he is seeing only 3.47 pitches per PA, a few tenths of a point below his career avg.

After considering the data, I feel pretty confident concluding that Ramirez will come back to earth, but what we're seeing is that last year was a "fluke" as far as true talent level for Ramirez at the plate. Right now Ramirez is hammering balls over the middle of the plate, and also fouling or putting into play balls he usually strikes out on (and probably will again once his hot streak is over). Fueled by an uptick in line drive rate driven BABIP and some getting into more deep counts, he currently sports a sexy 131 wRC+ which, combined with his defense has given him .6 WAR already. WAR is not a predictive stat, the underlying swing data says more fluke than anything else. But last year was also a fluke in a negative way -- regression works both ways.

With the current paucity of quality hitting SS in MLB ,a decent hitting slick glove player like Ramirez is quite useful. His updated zips projection now has him with a wRC+ of 92, which should be good enough for 3-4 WAR depending on defense and baserunning.

Even with his disastrous year at the plate last year he contributed enough elsewhere to be credited for 1.8 fWAR. I argued earlier in the year (as did a number of Sox fans) that Ramirez is closer to a 4 WAR player than a 2 WAR player as long as his bat regressed to his career average, which so far, so good.

For a Sox team short on solid values in the field, Ramirez earning his contract helps offset problem areas alsewhere . A 3-4 WAR year wouldn't necessarily be a pleasant surprise, but it would be pleasant.


Dayan Viciedo has often been compared to another well nicknamed, stout LF with great pop but not much patience -- former Sox outfielder Carlos "El Caballo" Lee. Like Lee, Viciedo has a powerful swing capable of line drives and towering home runs alike. Like Lee, he's a mediocre fielder who also won't take many walks. Like Lee, his value is going to be tied to two things as a hitter -- ability to hit for average and hit for power.



So far in his career Dayan has displayed the latter but not much of the former. Despite hitting for high averages in the minor leagues and his early stints with the Sox, last year saw Dayan struggle to a 255/300/440 slash line. Raise that average 30 points and hit a few more balls hard and Viciedo could sport a 285/330/500 line. In today's run environment that would be useful, as the aggregate LF in MLB last year could only manage a 754 OPS.

Despite ringing endorsements (or maybe the kiss of death) from Adam Dunn and Hawk about Dayan's talent level, so far he hasn't really put it together this season. The past few games have been nice though, and let's look at his 2013 data to see if we can see any early trends.

The first thing that pops out is that he's yet to take a walk. He's swinging at 60% of all pitches seen, and a whopping 43% of pitches outside the zone. He's making Ramirez look like Dunn, or, pre "aggressive 2013 Dunn" anyways.

Unlike Ramirez, Tank isn't making great contact in the zone or out of it: he's made contact only 77.3% on pitches inside the zone and outside the zone only 43%. Unlike Ramirez, Tank is not a guy that is going be able to hit for a high average unless he becomes more disciplined. His K% is 32% and it's easy to see why: when you swing as hard as he does, you better make sure you're swinging at good pitches, or you're going to strike out and have a hard time hitting for average. Vlad Guerrero he is not.

Viciedo sees only 3.72 pitches per PA, which isn't surprising.

We've covered the problems with Tank at the plate, let's focus on some positives. When he does make contact, he's hitting the ball hard, as his .197 ISO suggests. Also, he's hitting less infield popups (down to 12.5% from 16% last year) and less ground balls relative to fly balls (.5 ground balls per fly ball, which is inverted from the 1.5 ground balls to fly balls he had last year). His HR% on fly balls is down 4% to 12.5%. Some of that is bad luck, some of it probably cold weather. His LD% is up a tick to 22.6%.

Viciedo basically has one excellent tool (ability to hit for power) and a bunch that need working on at the plate. In order to turn into anything more than a 1 WAR player he needs to improve his discipline on pitches outside the zone and continue to hit more fly balls than ground balls. He's been successful with the latter not with the former.

Needless to say, this is a make or break year for Tank. If he can continue to work on his pitch identification both in the box and out of it (in the video room) and continues to hit a lot of fly balls he should turn into a 280/320/480 type hitter, which isn't any great shakes, but is certainly useful, especially with the left handed outfield bats the Sox have that can rest him against the toughest righties maybe nudging that line up a bit higher.

Right now it's a bit of a cause and effect problem for Tank. If he continues to hit alot of fly balls, he's going to hit a good amount of HRs. If he hits a bunch of HRs, he's going to be pitched to more carefully. At that point he either has to improve his plate discipline or his ability to hit pitches hard outside of the zone. If he fails to do neither he'll be nothing more than a platoon player. If he does both he'll be a star.

I'm guessing somewhere in the middle: a 2 WAR type player that needs to be mashing LHP to earn playing time. Sadly, I was hoping for more data that would say Tank has at least improved on his ability to not swing at pitches outside of the zone, but right now that data just isn't there. The article from Beyond the Box Score I linked earlier suggests younger players occasional improve their plate discipline, but it's far from a given.

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