Houston Astros outfielder George Springer is feeling some urgency this year. Perhaps that’s fitting. This was the year the experts predicted Houston to finally break through and win the World Series.
Thus far, the team has played like it. At 9-4, Houston already has more wins in April than last season. The team seems determined to get off to a fast start and Springer is at the center of that.
As the leadoff hitter, he’s responsible for setting the tone early. If he can get off to a quick start, perhaps his team will follow suit. If the early numbers are any indication, he may have taken that sentiment to heart this year.
Springer has utilized a more aggressive approach at the plate. And while he’s already seen it pay off in some aspects, the best might be yet to come for the 27-year-old.
Springer’s new approach will be the focus of Tuesday’s Free MLB Game of the Day. He’ll look to get his team going early as the Astros take on Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels. The contest, which begins at 8:10 p.m. ET, can be streamed for free on our MLB page, the Free Game of the Day tab or right here in this very post. Local blackouts apply per MLB’s rules.
On the surface, being more aggressive at the plate seems counterproductive for a leadoff hitter. You want the first hitter in your lineup to get on base as much as possible. Usually, that means a player with a high on-base percentage should hit there.
Springer has typically posted pretty strong on-base percentages in the past, but his willingness to take more hacks this year has driven down his walk rate from 11.8 percent to 6.5 percent. He’s seeing fewer pitches too. His pitches per plate appearance has dropped from 3.94 in 2016 to 3.44 in 2017. His .295 on-base percentage is abysmal for a leadoff hitter right now.
But his approach has helped in other ways. Springer is making more contact at the plate. That’s actually a pretty significant deal for him. Over his career, Springer has been prone to posting high strikeout numbers. His strikeout rate was an atrocious 33.0 percent during his rookie season. He’s been able to slowly cut down on that number each year he’s been in the majors.
That’s been the case again in 2017. Springer’s 21.0 percent strikeout rate is currently the lowest of his career. Strikeout rate is one of the stats that stabilizes quickly, so it’s easier to take notice of the change despite the small sample of plate appearances. Springer may not retain these gains all season, but things have looked positive thus far.
On top of that, Springer has been more aggressive, but in the right way. The PITCHf/x data confirms that the outfielder is swinging more often overall, but only at pitches inside the strike zone. His Z-Swing rate, which measures how often a player swings at pitches in the strike zone, is up from 72.0 percent to 78.2 percent. That’s a big change. His contact rate on those pitches is up too, from 73.8 percent to 76.0 percent.
Conversely, Springer is swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone. His O-Swing rate, which measures how often a player swings at pitches outside the zone, is down from 26.1 percent to 24.0 percent.
He’s being more selective on pitches that are harder to hit, but swinging away on pitches in the strike zone. And he’s making more contact. That seems like a pretty ideal approach for any hitter.
Why hasn’t this approach led to drastic improvement? Springer started the year on a power binge, but his other numbers have lagged. He’s hitting just .232/.295/.571. The slugging percentage is excellent, but the batting average and on-base percentage leave a lot to be desired.
So far, it looks as though Springer is having awful luck. His batting average on balls in play, BABIP, sits at just .189. That’s one of the lowest figures in the league. If his hits aren’t leaving the yard, there’s a good chance he’s getting unlucky. By comparison, Springer’s career BABIP is .315. Hitters normally remain fairly consistent in that area from year to year, so Springer should see his figure rise closer to his career norms soon.
As he starts to approach that number, both his batting average and on-base percentage will rise. And if he can still keep his power numbers up … and it looks like he can, there’s a chance he’ll put up his finest offensive season of his young career.
That hasn’t happened just yet, but the signs are there. Springer’s aggressive approach may be the thing that takes his game to the next level. Ironically, we just need to have the patience to let his luck even out before we truly see what he can do.
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