MLB Trends: Why the Sweeper Is Dominating Baseball; Luis Robert lowers his strikeout rate

The 2022 MLB regular season is less than three weeks long, and to be completely honest with you, this is the worst time of year to analyze baseball. The sample sizes are so small and it’s almost impossible to tell what’s significant from what’s nothing more than baseball being weird. But, we moved on.

With that in mind, our weekly series detailing various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at Luis Robert’s strikeout rate, Eric Lauer’s speed, and the new pitch that is dominating baseball. Last week we looked at Julio Rodríguez’s rookie strike zone, Jhoan Duran’s splinker and league-wide home run rate..

Robert reducing strikeouts

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Based on natural talent alone, is White Sox outfielder Luis Robert one of the 10 most talented players in the world? Perhaps one of the five most talented? The 24-year-old has started slow this season (0.205/0.222/0.386), although he authored a 0.294/0.346/0.512 line with 30 doubles and 24 homers in 523 games in 2020-21. He’s a genuine star.

Robert’s career to date has been defined by extremes of heat and cold. When it gets hot, he’s one of the best players in the world, but when he goes down, it feels like he belongs with Triple-A. However, there has been one constant in his career: Robert is losing less often as he gains more experience. A graphic is worth a thousand words:

Luis Robert continues to cut his strikeout rate

FanGraphs

Robert has been eliminated just six times in 45 board games this season, or 13.3 percent. That’s well below their 23.0 MLB average and their 25.6% strikeout rate from 2020-21. Excluding overlapping streaks, Robert’s four 11-game streaks with the fewest fouls of his career have all occurred since last August.

The improvement in the strikeout rate stems from minor tweaks to the board. Most notably, Robert opened up his position last season, allowing him to see the ball better, in the first place, and also wait a little longer on the field. This is enough to significantly improve your swing decisions and hitting the ball. See the before and the after:

Luis Robert opened up his position last season and drastically reduced his strikeout rate.

MLB.com/CBS Sports

GIFs are synced at launch and pitches are similar in terms of location and speed. You can see Robert start his leg kick and swing just a touch later with the open stance. This gives him a lot more time to read and react to the shot, and when you have more time to analyze the situation before committing to a swing, it can lead to good things (plus, Robert has the club speed to achieve great speeds even when he starts his swing a little late).

“He’s a little bit wider and a little bit open, and what that does, it leaves him stacked on his back,” White Sox batting coach Frank Menechino told The Athletic’s James Fegan last August. “As he is stacked on his back (leg) he is able to control his leg for the time and not go forward. That way he sees the ball better and can cover the strike zone. He can get better behind the ball .”

The White Sox had a rough patch earlier this season – Tuesday’s loss was their eighth straight – and Robert has yet to play. It will happen soon. He’s too talented not to get hot. Robert’s natural bat speed and his ability to hit hard have allowed him to produce at All-Star levels for long periods in the past. Now that he’s making more contact, though the stretches could be even longer, and could even reach MVP caliber.

Lauer’s increasing speed

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On Sunday night, Brewers southpaw Eric Lauer delivered a dominant performance against the Phillies, knocking out 13 in six goalless innings. It was his first career double-digit strikeout game. The 26-year-old allowed five runs (four won) in 16 1/3 innings at the start. Last year, Lauer pitched for a 3.19 ERA in 118 2/3 innings. He was very sneaky a season ago.

Milwaukee acquired Lauer, the 25th pick of the 2016 draft, from the Padres in the Trent Grisham/Luis Urías trade, and last year they helped him take his game to the next level with some mechanical tweaks, as Luke Hooper explained on FanGraphs. Lauer is releasing from a modified stretch delivery now and he has shortened his arm path, among other things.

With the new mechanics came the extra speed. Lauer’s fastball averaged 93.4mph on Sunday, and three of his top five starts by average fastball speed came this season. The other two were at the end of last year. This graphic says it all:

Eric Lauer’s speed continues to climb.

Brooks Baseball

Speed ​​is not everything. Motion, location, sequencing, whatever matters too. But speed is a big slice of the pie. The harder you play, the less time the hitter has to react. It’s really very simple. A few years ago, Lauer lived in the 91-92 mph range, which is below average speed these days. Now he’s hitting 94 mph on regular. That makes a big difference.

“He just puts it where he puts it — in the zone,” Brewers coach Craig Counsell told reporters, including MLB.com’s Paul Casella, after Sunday’s game. “There’s life in the zone and it feels like it takes off. He’s played the cutter, slider and curveball enough to make the hitter honor him, and that makes the fastball even better.”

The Brewers are a major pitching development organization (Lauer’s former team Padres struggled to finish developing their best young pitchers in recent years), so Lauer’s success didn’t come out of nowhere. He’s just next in line for Milwaukee. His delivery adjustments, as well as the fact that he is further away from a shoulder injury in 2020, explain the increase in speed, and the increase in speed explains his improved performance.

Welcome to the ‘sweeper’ era

Thanks to granular pitch data, high-speed cameras, and other tools, we’re in the age of pitcher construction. Teams can help their pitchers improve the quality and form of their pitches while receiving instant feedback as they work on adjustments. It is no exaggeration to say that teams are designing pitches in a lab and teaching them to their pitchers. It’s remarkable, really.

Baseball’s newest craze is the “sweeper”, which is essentially a slider with a ton of lateral movement. The field isn’t new – the best recent example of the libero is Corey Kluber’s pitching ball – but teams have figured out how to teach it. some pitches, like Jhoan Duran’s splinker, are unique and cannot be taught. The sweeper is teachable and is catching on throughout the league.

The Dodgers, Rays and Yankees were early adopters of the sweeper (Andrew Heaney added the libero after signing for Los Angeles and had two great games before entering the injured list), but other clubs are also involved. Here are some examples:

The sweeper is so prominent that the smart folks at Baseball Prospectus made it searchable in their field type data. You can now search sweepers by motion the same way you can search, say, four-seam fastballs by speed and shifts by dip. The sweeper is not a fad. It’s here to stay and will only become more popular with time. This is no accident:

I pity the hitters. I really want. Hit analysis has come a long way in recent years, but it is still far behind pitching analysis. How should you hit the sweeper when it moves what a lot and almost everyone on the team plays over 95, I have no idea. Oh, looks like baseball has been dampened too. Every base hit is a small miracle.

The scanner is just the latest example of armed analysis. It’s a field that has technically been around for decades, but only recently have clubs figured out how to improve and teach it. In the end, pitchers will always be (at least) one step ahead of batters. The scanner is the most recent example.

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