George Springer’s trouble with fastballs

It takes a lot of muscle to square up a big fastball. In the case of George Springer, it might also take some relaxation.

Heading into the series that had the Astros in town, I asked hitting consultant and FanGraphs author Dan Farnsworth about a few of the Astros hitters as part of my research process. About Springer, Farnsworth said "I like his swing a lot, perhaps except for the excessive effort he has sometimes." I didn’t get to talk to Springer, but I did talk to his hitting coach Dave Hudgens, and that word came up again.

Apparently, though, excessive effort is not a problem in batting practice. Take a look at the swings he took that day in batting practice, and they do look free and easy.

In game, it’s tough to get the same side view. But here in this package of highlights about Springer’s five-RBI night against the Padres, you might see some more effort.

And then there’s the problem that most videos are highlight videos, when the player is acting optimally. But here’s a side-view of a Springer at-bat in minor-league camp, and in a swing before the home run, you can see what might be called effort issues. (And another, here, from the majors, with some slow mo.)

Of course, we’re talking bout batting practice, which is a two-fold problem.

For one, hitters are often working on parts of their swing that aren’t their best features. Farnsworth pointed out that Ian Kinsler‘s batting practices are full of squibbers to first base, and then come game time, Kinsler is hitting frozen ropes to left field, his pull field. Despite the fact that scouts take a lot of knowledge away from batting practice, you wouldn’t want to assume Kinsler was a light-hitting opposite-field guy after watching him in BP.

The other problem with using batting practice is the pitch speed. It might seem fairly common for players to have a different effort level when the pitch is coming in about 20 mph slower than it does come game time. Hudgens pointed out, though, that there are "many great hitters that looked the same in BP as in the game" — and that he thinks Springer can be a great hitter.

There’s some evidence that Springer’s effort level is different against fastballs than breaking and offspeed pitches. That serves to highlight the velocity difference between game and BP fastballs. There, in Springer’s pitch type values, you’ll see that Springer is doing better against the slow stuff. Pitch type values weigh the outcomes on a particular pitch — the whiffs, the called strikes, balls, and hits — without recognizing the context, but they do paint a picture here.

Season wFB/C wSL/C wCT/C wCB/C wCH/C wSF/C
2014 2.9 -2.2 -2.4 2.6 -2.1 2.1
2015 -0.8 -0.4 -0.9 6.4 4.2 -4.5
Total 2.0 -1.9 -2.0 3.3 -1.1 0.8

Farnsworth wondered if it was more of a "mental issue" than a physical one, and the Astros broadcast crew has talked about this some, too. The young hitter could be "seeing fastball and trying too hard to hit the piss out of it" as Farnsworth put it. A batter with his tools can probably catch up to those fastballs without all that effort, and a little success may be all that it takes to calm his approach.

Of course it’s still possible that this is about Springer’s ability to catch up to cheese. He has a 16% swinging strike rate on all pitches over 94 mph, so you’d be right to say that he has some issues getting up to speed there. But that number is without context. All batters do poorly on 94+, averaging a 10% swinging strike rate on those pitches (8.5% is the major league average). And Springer has a 16.1% swinging strike rate on all fastballs.

We can also look at his swinging strike rates on all pitches to compare. He has high whiff rates on all pitches, but if you index his swinging strike rates — divide them by league rates — he’s relatively worse against fastballs than against all pitches.

Pitch Type Whiffs Indexed Whiff
Fourseam 18% 275
Cutter 24% 264
Sinker 13% 230
Split 28% 170
Slider 25% 170
Change 21% 150
Curve 15% 139

Fastballs just generally give him fits, despite doing well on softer offspeed and breaking pitches he puts into play.

As George Springer begins to show some more of that ridiculous promise over the next few months, maybe it’ll be due to a more relaxed swing at the plate. Particularly against fastballs.