Updated: May 13
By Zac Caldwell
When Major League Baseball’s lockout ended, an instant buzz returned to fans across the country. The tension was almost palpable as some of baseball’s best prime talent remained ripe for the taking. Big name superstars like Freddie Freeman, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo all had yet to sign their names on the prized dotted line. Media outlets across the country were teeming with joy as the thought of landing some of the games best premier talent was very suddenly a reality again.
That is, unless you’re a fan of the Cleveland Guardians.
Cleveland’s front office historically has never had the “big fish” catch mentality when it comes to off-season free agency. Often choosing to be conservative versus making a giant splash, Cleveland’s own brand of “Moneyball” (a term coined to describe the 2003 Oakland Athletics, where General Manager Billy Bean used a statistical approach to free agency signings) has stayed prevalent even since the departure of Mark Shapiro in 2015. This again showed in 2022 when the club made a mere two free agent signings, adding catcher Luke Maile on a one year, $900,000 dollar deal and bringing back the aging, but trusty reliever Bryan Shaw on a one year, $3 million dollar deal.
It was almost as if you could hear the fanbase let out a collective sigh of disappointment. This was the best they could do? A backup catcher who only played in 15 games in 2021 and a 34-year-old reliever. No insult to Shaw intended because at the time he was a solid signing, bringing a much-needed veteran presence to a young bullpen that would have lots of new faces. Shaw led the majors in appearances in 2021 with 81 and pitched 77.1 innings, accruing a respectable ERA of 3.49. To find a large enough sample size on Maile, you’d have to go back to 2019 in which he played 45 games and racked up 119 at bats, batting below the Mendoza line at a .151 batting average… sound familiar?
Cleveland is no stranger to choosing defensive minded backstops for its roster. It’s also a well-known fact that catchers who can bring A+ defense and swing the lumber for power don’t grow on trees.
Surely, they could have pursued an outfield free agent like Joc Pederson. With glaring holes in the outfield depth, this would’ve made perfect sense. Pederson isn’t a guy you sign to a monster contract. He’s typically a guy that teams pursue to fill holes in their depth while they work out their long-term plan with prospects or other free agent signings.
Pederson doesn’t bat for average, having never hit .250 in a season, but he does bring some pop and bats left-handed. Nicknamed “King”, Pederson brings one of the best player personalities wherever he goes. There is a reason that he was targeted so aggressively by Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos at last year's trade deadline. He’s a must-have clubhouse personality wherever he goes. Pederson would ultimately sign for 1yr/$6,000,000 with San Francisco.
All of this to say… what?
I’m glad you asked.
In order to understand Cleveland’s front office mentality, perhaps we should turn our attention to a move that was made very quietly among the Guardians coaching staff at the end of the 2021 season. Ty Van Burkleo, the longest-tenured hitting coach in all of baseball, would not return in 2022 as reported by Zack Meisel of The Athletic. Van Burkelo was often a point of contention among Guardians fans, being attributed to what appeared on the surface to be some of the worst hitting stretches ever witnessed. While the data during Vanburkleo’s tenure does suggest that it was that bad, Chris Antonetti clearly felt that a change was due.
Introducing, Chris Valaika.
Jon Heyman of MLB Network was the first to report that Cleveland would hire Valaika a quick one month after Van Burkleo was fired. Valaika comes to the Guardians from the Cubs where he worked his way up from being a low-level hitting instructor to eventually being the Cubs assistant hitting coach. Valaika excels at helping veteran players re-tool their identity at the plate, as well as helping shape a contact-first approach to younger/rookie players.
Perhaps this newfound hitting approach was the reason that Antonetti opted not to go after any big-name free agents and rather take the season to evaluate some of the club’s young talent that they’d spent the last six years building. With a looming identity crisis appearing all but impossible to avoid for Cleveland’s young hitters, it was time to test the product of years spent drafting and trading for prospects.
To the surprise of almost everyone, the Guardians slashed .251/.313/.723 (batting average / on-base percentage / on-base + slugging percentage (OPS)) in the month of April. With a team batting average of .251, good for fifth in the entire league and 20 points higher than the league average of .231. It’s safe to say that the new approach of Valaika and company has paid off. Ranking sixth in the league, tallying 179 hits across the same timeframe, it has been to the fans' delight that this young team has found its identity at the plate so early. While struggles and slumps have occurred, the youngest team in baseball has still found ways to get it done even in games where their star third baseman sees nothing but non-competitive pitches outside the zone at the plate.
Words are fun and all, but let’s look at some data from Baseball Savant that reinforces these numbers. For those of you who don’t know, Baseball Savant is MLB’s treasure trove of raw Statcast data. Statcast can tell you anything you possibly want to know about a hitter’s tendencies. From what types of pitches they see, to where in the strike zone they hit the ball best, any metric you can think of. It generates that data in a visual format using a tool called illustrator.
Let’s look at one prime example of Valaika’s work so far: Owen Miller.
Miller was shipped to Cleveland in August of 2020 in the massive haul that San Diego surrendered in order to acquire Mike Clevinger. it has been one of the best trade fleecings in recent memory, executed to perfection by Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff. Cleveland would send Clevinger, Greg Allen and a player-to-be-named-later in exchange for a monster prospect return. Miller was the Padres No. 9 overall prospect at the time and would make his MLB debut for Cleveland on May 23, 2021.
Miller struggled in 2021 to catch on. While not having a guaranteed everyday role and playing in only 60 games, he slashed .204/.243/.552 for the season with a K% (strikeout rate) of 28.3%. Even in limited action, Miller put up underwhelming numbers for a highly touted prospect that Cleveland surrendered their ace-caliber pitcher for. The below graphic shows Miller’s batting average by pitch location for 2021.
Those numbers are not ideally what you want to see from a right-handed hitter. Bad average on pitches down the middle, and pitches away suggest that his K% is not a fluke. Fortunately, there’s a graphic for that, too. Here is his strikeout percentage by pitch location for 2021.
The red zones in the above image show that Miller struck out at a tremendously high rate on pitches low and in and just about everything away and outside.
According to a report by Ryan Lewis of The Akron Beacon Journal, Miller went to work across a four-day span in November with Valaika to get a hitting program in place that would set him up for better success in 2022.
How has that panned out? Let’s examine Miller’s batting average by zone so far for 2022.
A sea of red. You love to see it.
Comparing the image above with the first image, the transformation has been night and day. Miller has turned himself into a formidable hitter in a matter of a few months, as opposed to some young guys who can take months to come around. This is a direct testament to the success of Chris Valaika’s approach: “Just make good contact and get on base”.
I’ve examined some traditional baseball metrics for Owen Miller that tells how well he hits in terms of basic percentage, but that doesn’t exactly paint the whole story of a hitter’s success. If you guessed that launch angle and exit velocity would show up in this article, you’d be correct.
Many argue that launch angle and exit velocity have ruined the way hitters approach the game of baseball, and they might be right to an extent. For the purposes of evaluating the difference in Owen Miller between 2021 and 2022 however, comparing the difference between his launch angle and exit velocity across the two seasons allows me to compare the quality of contact that he’s getting on batted balls.
Here is his average exit velocity for 2021:
The zones in the darker shades of red are what Statcast considers to be “Hard Hit”, which is defined as a hit greater than 95 miles per hour in exit speed. Not terrible by any means, but the weaker contact speed in outside zones aligned with the same spots that he had a high K%, telling me that when he did make contact with pitches in these areas, it was weak contact.
Now let’s compare this to average exit velocity for the 2022 season so far:
A much different story unfolds in the image above. While not exactly matching the average exit speed of his hardest hit zones last year, there is a greatly defined improvement in quality of contact across the board, especially on balls hit on pitches inside the strike zone. This tells me not only that Miller is hitting the ball hard, but his approach to swinging at balls inside the zone has improved.
Now, it’s time to talk about launch angle. Simply put, launch angle is defined as the angle at which the ball leaves the bat. If a ball leaves with a launch angle of 0°, it left the bat in a straight line.
A positive angle indicates upward trajectory (fly balls and line drives), whereas a negative angle indicates a downward vector (ground balls). Launch angle combined with exit velocity paints a picture of how well a hitter gets the ball into the field of play. Sure, you can hit the ball at 95 mph, but if the launch angle is too high, you get a high popup. The same can be said for balls hit at a negative trajectory, although ground balls hit hard typically have a better success rate at getting a batter on base.
Here's Miller’s average launch angle for 2021:
As is typical with Baseball Savant, the darker the red, the better.
Take the lower inside third of the strike zone in the above image. It shows an average launch angle of -12°. Pair this with the average exit velocity of 74.6 mph. Now, I can go to Baseball Savant and gather aggregate data from every similarly hit ball since Statcast’s invention in 2015. The chart doesn’t have a way to generate an image for past seasons as seen above. For 2021, similarly batted balls with the same launch angle (-12°) and exit velo (74.6 mph) produced just two hits out of 20 batted ball events, resulting in a batting average of .100 on all similarly hit balls, which is not the way you want to be hitting the ball.
Now let’s look at Miller’s average launch angle and exit velocity for 2022 using the same zone we just evaluated for 2021. In order to not compare two different size data pools, I will look at 2022 hit data for his 2022 LA/EV data. When comparing data, it is important to not mismatch data pool size/years as it is entirely possible to end up with outlier numbers on the extreme low/high sides. The goal of examining large amounts of data like this is to get the best possible objective summary, although examining past data can potentially tell if hitters are just unlucky in the present compared to the past since no two years are the same.
Here's Miller’s average launch angle by zone for 2022 so far:
Using the same zone that I examined for 2021 (lower inside third of the strike zone), let’s do the same for 2022. This zone shows an average launch angle of 20°, and an average exit velocity of 95.4 mph. Using the same Statcast chart with data from 2022 (link here), the data says so far this season on 14 plays with similar LA/EV, four have produced hits resulting in a batting average of .286. Much better than the 2021 data that had a batting average of .100. For purposes of comparing against a larger data pool because the 2022 season is so young, 2021 data with the same LA/EV produced a league wide BA of .222, which equals 12 hits out of 54 total outcomes. Still, better results than .100.
The last image we’ll examine is Miller’s K% for the 2022 season so far:
What is seen in the image above is a tremendous reduction in the number of strikeouts on the outside third of the strike zone, and the lower inside part off the plate. The decline in K% inside the zone is encouraging, showing us that he is making contact on hittable pitches. He still sees many pitches in the lower away portion off the plate, but that’s due in part to the fact that this season all he has done so far is just smash the baseball, especially against right-handed pitching.
Miller is one of few hitters who boasts reverse splits, hitting right-handed pitching better than he hits lefties. His strikeout percentage on fastballs and changeups is also down. In 2021 he struck out a whopping 26.7% on fastballs and changeups. So far in 2022, that number is down to just 12.2%, a very respectable number.
All one can do is hope for the continued success of this young team. The change in theory from, “Hit the baseball as far as you can” to, “Just make good contact and good things will come” has shown promise early. It also signals the dawn of a new era in Cleveland baseball. Gone are the days of fielders who smash baseballs and strikeout at absurd rates, and in is the age of the disciplined hitter who spits on bad pitches and can spray the entire field.
The confidence in the change of hitting religion was displayed almost immediately as the club made moves to secure its franchise cornerstones in José Ramirez, Myles Straw and Emmanuel Clasé – ensuring that the team has time to evaluate its young talent and build a team to contend while it has its best players.
There has never been a better time in more recent memory to be a fan of a team with so many young and unproven players taking the field every day. The emergence of young rookies like Steven Kwan, the red hot Andrés Giménez, and the improved Owen Miller is a sign of good things to come. For a team that has more prospects in the farm system than it likely knows what to do with, it is a good problem to have when you can put a team of largely non-veteran players on the field and find success.
Cleveland has always been Believeland, and there’s no better team that embraces that mantra right now more so than the Guardians.
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