Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jay Bruce and "Optimal Defensive Positioning"



"Optimal defensive positioning", well, that's what the Astros call it, everyone else knows it as "defensive shifting", is all the rage these days. And, one hitter who sees a ton of it is Jay Bruce.

The point of "optimal positioning" is increase the conversion rate on balls-in-play. In theory, if you positioning your infielders where a hitter is more likely to hit the ball, then more plays will be converted into outs. In short, it's a way to reduce a hitter's "batting average on balls in play."

The league-wide increase in pitcher velocity is driving an increase in strikeouts. More strikeouts means fewer balls in play. So, that's one way to reduce offense, simply limit the opposition's ability to put the ball in play. The other way to attack offense is to improve your conversion rate on the remaining balls-in-play.

Increasing pitcher velocity and the increasing use of "optimal positioning" are two reasons why offense is in decline around Major League Baseball. The former reduces the number of balls-in-play, the latter improves the conversion rate on balls-in-play.

Of course, if a hitter manages to poke one the other way for a base hit to beat the shift, then the emotional reaction from fans will be swift. Fans are emotional. Fans are passionate. It's easier for fans to appreciate times when the shift doesn't work than those times when it does. Even so, on some hitters, it's an absolute no-brainer. Unfortunately, Jay Bruce is one such hitter.


Here's a look at Jay Bruce's spray charts, courtesy of BrooksBaseball, for the entire 2012 season, the entire 2013 season, and the first half of 2014, pay particular attention to the green dots:




Jay Bruce 2012






Jay Bruce 2013






Jay Bruce (1st Half) 2014 






When you see the data laid out like this, it's abundantly clear why teams are constantly shifting on Jay Bruce. And, it's abundantly clear why organizations can brush off fan reaction to a few singles poked the opposite way to beat the shift. Also, you can see why the idea that Jay Bruce can drop a few bunts down the third baseline to encourage teams to stop shifting against him is a complete non-starter.

In fact, judging by the "green dot phenomena" going on in those spray charts, you could argue that teams could be MORE extreme in their shifting on Jay Bruce. The 2014 chart only represents half of the season, but it's eye-popping. Based on that chart, it looks like Jay Bruce has ONLY HIT 6 GROUND BALLS to the left-side of the field so far in 2014.

Why would you position your infielders on the left side of the field if he never hits it over there???

This begs the obvious question: just how significant will the hit be on Jay Bruce's batting-average-on-balls-in-play and, thus, his overall batting line?

There definitely WILL be a hit on his batting average, it's just a question of how BIG. Regardless, the ground balls hit by Jay Bruce are now the low-hanging fruit for any organization willing to implement "optimal positioning", which begs another question: how detrimental will the league-wide use of "optimal positioning" be to Jay Bruce's career?

Over the last week, I started to get the feeling that the Reds were evolving; that this was becoming Todd Frazier's, Billy Hamilton's, and Devin Mesoraco's team; that Joey Votto and Jay Bruce were becoming complimentary, secondary players. Joey Votto is being undone by injury; maybe Jay Bruce is being undone by defensive positioning.

Baseball is a game of adjustments. It'll be interesting to see if front offices, in response to "optimal positioning", start to place greater and greater value on hitters who use the entire field. If so, that's necessarily a move away from hitters like Jay Bruce.



Wednesday, July 2, 2014

2014 Top Prospect List: #15 Seth Mejias-Brean, 3b

Courtesy: MILB.com

SETH MEJIAS-BREAN
DOB: 1/4/1992
HEIGHT: 6-2, WEIGHT: 216, B/T: R/R


In a system short on infield prospects, Seth Mejias-Brean is one of the best, though that may be a more telling comment on the system than the player. Mejias-Brean is more likely to be a complimentary player than an impact talent. Still, he brings a disciplined offensive approach, which is something sorely lacking in the system.



AMATEUR CAREER AND DRAFT HISTORY

Seth earned 10 varsity letters during his athletic career at Cienega High School, including 4 in baseball, 3 in basketball, and 3 in football, and was a member of the National Honors Society. Being a good student and a well-rounded athlete punched his ticket to the University of Arizona where he ultimately helped the Wildcats win the College World Series in 2012.


Courtesy: Unknown


In his three years of college ball, SMB hit:  

2010: .310/.363/.384/.747 with 1 HR and 40/17 K/BB in 203 ABs
2011: .313/.372/.379/.752 with 0 HR and 29/14 K/BB in 195 ABs
2012: .355/.401/.479/.880 with 1 HR and 23/22 K/BB in 265 ABs

Obviously, he never had a problem hitting for average. His sophomore season (2011) was plagued by a wrist injury, which caused a 3-for-36 stretch and hampered his power production. However, he bounced back in his junior season with across the board improvement, elevating his prospect profile.

The issue with Seth was a lack of power production, causing him to land in the 8th round of the 2012 draft, where the Reds selected him with the 262nd overall pick.


PROFESSIONAL CAREER

The Reds have kept Mejias-Brean on a deliberate, conservative development path, causing him to be older than the competition at many of his minor league stops, an important bit of context to keep in mind. After signing, he joined the rookie Pioneer League Billings Mustangs to finish out the 2012 season.

For the Mustangs, SMB hit a robust .313/.389/.536/.925 with 8 homers, 6 steals, and a 29/21 K/BB ratio over 179 ABs. Sure, he had the "age vs. level" advantage, but it was a strong performance level at the tail end of a long, draining collegiate baseball season.

To start out the 2013 season, SMB was sent to low-A Dayton. For the Dragons, he hit .305/.381/.453/.834 with 10 homers and an 83/55 K/BB ratio over 479 ABs and 127 games. His performance level earned him a late season promotion to high-A Bakersfield to finish up the season. For the Blaze, SMB hit .308/.308/.615/.923 with 1 homer and a 0/0 K/BB ratio over 13 ABs and 3 games.

SMB had a return engagement with high-A Bakersfield to start the 2014 season, hitting .300/.396/.476/.872 with 11 homers and a 49/44 K/BB ratio over 267 ABs and 69 games. Bakersfield is a very friendly hitting environment and SMB's power certainly got a boost from park effects. Still, the strikeout-to-walk ratio was stellar and he showed the ability to drive the ball. He earned a promotion to his current home, double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

The promotion to double-A is frequently cited as the most challenging, so far SMB has hit .242/.419/.333/.752 with 1 homer and 3/9 K/BB ratio over 33 ABs.


The common theme for SMB: hitting .300 or better at every level with solid K/BB ratios.

The common concern on SMB: Whether there's enough power production to his game.



SWING MECHANICS 

Early in his professional career, the Reds changed SMB's swing, encouraging him to stand taller, more effectively bringing his legs into the swing. Incorporating his lower-half more effectively into the swing has improved his ability to drive the ball, rather than just spray it around the yard.

SMB is very spread out at the plate, using a wider than shoulder-width stance. To trigger his weight transfer, he uses two different strides. The first variation is a two piece stride, drawing his lead foot back, tapping it, and then striding forward to meet the pitch. The second variation involves minimal movement, mostly just lifting up the heel of his front foot and setting it right back down. The first variation is typically used early in the count, the second variation later in the count when he wants to shorten up.

In his pre-pitch stance, SMB holds his hands up close to his right ear and uses a small bat waggle. The higher hand position can add length to the swing, as the bat has to travel farther to reach the point of impact. However, SMB does an exceptional job of dropping his hands (from left photos to right photos) during the load to get into better hitting position.
































The effective loading of his hands makes it easier and quicker for him to get into the slot position (see photos below: dropping back elbow into back hip to shorten swing path and maximize rotational force), ensuring that he's short to the ball.



















The mantra in hitting is that the swing should be "short to" and "long through". SMB definitely lives up to the former part, which ensures a healthy contact rate. However, the long through deals with extension and power, areas where SMB's swing isn't as strong.

SMB's swing and approach are contact-oriented, which is evident when looking at the components of his swing that should be generating power. SMB's swing is inconsistent, it can be fundamentally sound or it can be undermined by flaws that creep in and undermine his ability to drive the ball with authority.

A few of the concerns I have over SMB's swing and his ability to generate power are as follows:

1) Occasionally hits off the back leg, as his weight doesn't fully transfer to the front side due to limited hip rotation and lower body drive, this likely occurs when he uses the no-stride variation of his swing,

2) Occasionally hits against a flexed, rather than firm, front leg, which causes the hips to slide forward, rather than rotate, undercutting the rotational force generated by the swing, probably a byproduct of an ineffective weight transfer, and

3) His swing can get stiff and top-hand heavy, giving the appearance that he's trying to muscle the ball with the upper body rather than letting the hip-rotation whip the bat through the hitting zone.


These swing flaws don't show up all the time and SMB can and does show the ability to drive the ball to all fields. He'll just need to strike the proper balance between being short for contact and long for power; knowing when to dial it down and when to let it rip.

Here's a look at SMB in action, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube:







Overall, SMB does a nice job controlling the strike zone and has a strong contact rate. However, his swing makes it difficult to project a power ceiling for him that's anything more than average. And, of course, not many prospects reach their max projection, instead landing somewhere short of it.

Still, SMB has flashed power to all fields and it wouldn't surprise me if he were to carry it into game action a little more consistently.


DEFENSE AND POSITIONAL VALUE 

Mejias-Brean is a good defensive player. Unfortunately, due to the presence of Tanner Rahier on the roster, SMB spent 79 games at first base for low-A Dayton in 2013. Does that say something about the prospect pecking order? Maybe. Do teams shift better prospects to accommodate lesser ones? Maybe.

Regardless, SMB's bat won't play at 1b, so time spent there is largely a waste unless he lands in a utility role. Unless and until that proves necessary, he'd ideally be getting as many reps as possible at 3b, which is where he needs to stick on the defensive spectrum in order to have appreciable value.

In the field, SMB moves well. His athleticism and agility combine to give him good range and footwork. The range allows him to reach a high percentage of balls hit his way, while the good footwork helps him get into proper position to convert those balls into outs. He has good fielding actions and smooth, forgiving hand movements.

SMB's arm is average, at best, but accurate and sufficient for third base.

Overall, SMB's defense at the hot corner should be above average and a value-driver for his prospect status.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, SMB is a solid prospect. He lacks the type of plus carrying tools (speed, power, etc) and plus skills (elite on-base ability, elite hand-eye coordination, etc) that are typically needed to generate impact talent, but he has the type solid across the board skills that could make him a nice complimentary player.

SMB gives the Reds the type of professional hitter that is perpetually lacking in the system. The organization has done a very nice job drafting impact talent at the top of the draft, but haven't had as much success finding complimentary talent in the middle and later rounds. The Reds need more hitters who can grind ABs, making consistent contact and drawing walks in the process.

If SMB continues to improve on the offensive side (by either adding more power or improving his table-setting skills), then he could carve out a career as an MLB starting third baseman. However, he'll need to continue to develop and improve to get there. The best case for SMB would be to emerge in the mold of Bill Mueller/Joe Randa, but that would be his max projection. And, again, not many players reach their max projection.

Still, Seth Mejias-Brean is a solid second-tier prospect who could ultimately provide a solid return on investment for the Reds. And, if I was a betting man, then I'd frequently wager on those hitters who effectively control the zone, making consistent contact on strikes and taking pitches out of the zone for balls, which is a strong predictor of success. SMB does a nice job in that department.

For now, SMB checks in at #15 on the list.