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Early Season Struggles Causing Concern

Major League Baseball is constantly changing and over the past decade we have seen a clear transition away from “small ball.” Teams in the past were focused on fielding, steals, and bunts. In 2015 the Kansas City Royals won the World Series utilizing this strategy. Now we see teams like the Phillies being built. This team clearly has no focus on fielding or stealing bases and instead is focused on maximizing home runs. Like the way we have seen hitting change, we have also seen pitching change. Pitchers now throw harder, with more spin, and typically less control. Recently, a major shift has been away from the fastball to breaking balls. So, what impact does this have on hitters that make a living demolishing the fastball? This article looks at four hitters I am growing concerned about in 2022.

The Shift Away from the Fastball

Obviously, it is very early in the season. Statistics have not stabilized yet. However, the drop-off in fastball percentage has been stark to start 2022. According to Fangraphs, the drop-off in fastball percentage over the past four seasons can be seen below:

2019 52.5%
2020 50.5%
2021 51.1%
2022 48.7%

The drop-off in fastball has resulted in more breaking pitches. Using Fangraphs Pitch Value for runs above replacement, the fastball has been worth -1,399.8 runs from 2019-2022. In comparison, the slider has been worth 1,221.4 runs over that same period. Pitchers have consistently had more success using the slider and are starting to use it more. Some batters in specific struggle to hit breaking balls. Using data provided by Baseball Savant, I was able to look at which hitters had the largest gap in their wOBA between fastballs and breaking balls. The 27 hitters with at least a .140 difference in their wOBA can be seen in the table below:

PlayerAvg Fastball wOBAAvg Breaking wOBADifference
 Yonathan Daza.423.162.261
 Brett Gardner.435.215.220
 Albert Pujols.365.149.216
 Max Muncy.471.262.209
 Eric Haase.397.191.206
 Kevin Pillar.386.184.202
 Josh Donaldson.425.223.202
 Miguel Sanó.443.256.187
 Kelvin Gutierrez.328.145.183
 Juan Soto.509.327.182
 Mike Yastrzemski.409.230.179
 Amed Rosario.371.196.175
 Guillermo Heredia.361.188.174
 Corey Seager.399.231.168
 Xander Bogaerts.474.309.166
 Pat Valaika.294.138.156
 Mark Canha.412.259.154
 Kyle Schwarber.503.349.154
 Michael Brantley.447.295.152
 Eddie Rosario.348.196.152
 Jeimer Candelario.430.278.152
 Omar Narváez.378.233.145
 Tyrone Taylor.428.285.144
 Ryan Zimmerman.400.257.144
 Whit Merrifield.356.214.143
 Marcus Semien.436.294.142
 Jorge Soler.377.237.140

Looking at the early data from 2022, there are four players that have been struggling as a direct result of seeing fewer fastballs. I am concerned that the pitch mix change these hitters are seeing is going to impact their 2022 value. These four hitters need to make a change fast before it is too late.

Hitters Struggling off Breaking Balls

Marcus Semien – 2B/SS Texas Rangers

The Rangers had a massive offseason. Among their big signings was Marcus Semien. Through nine games, the results have not been what the Rangers expected. Semien has hit .128/.170/.190. Pitchers have realized that a key to getting Semien out is to throw him fewer fastballs. So far this season, Semien has seen his fastball percentage drop from 56% last year to 53% this year. Since breaking out in 2019, Semien has a .291 batting average off the fastball. Against all other pitches, his average is just .203. So far in 2022, his percentage of breaking balls seen is up 2.6%. Although this might not seem like a lot, it is clearly affecting Semien’s approach at the plate.

Throughout his career, Semien has always had very good plate discipline. He has never chased more than 25.6% of the time and that was back in 2016. Through nine games in 2022, he has chased 29% of the time. This includes chasing 75% of the time on off-speed pitches. The change in pitcher tendencies has impacted his ability to hit the fastball early on this year. In 2021, Semien posted a wOBA of .438 on pitches thrown between 95 and 100 mph. So far in 2022, that same range has resulted in a .231 wOBA.

The results have not been all bad for Semien, his in zone contact rate is the highest of his career and he has still posted a better than league average whiff rate. I am concerned because he has never been a good breaking ball or off-speed hitter. He has done most of his damage off the fastball and if pitchers continue to throw him less, he could be in for a rough season.

Whit Merrifield – 2B/OF Kansas City Royals

Whit Merrifield has been declining for years now. From 2018 to 2021 he has seen his wOBA drop from .349 to .340 to .329 and finally to .306 last season. So far this year it seems as though the massive cliff drop might be here. Whit has struggled to a .153 wOBA over the first eight games. He has seen a decline in his average exit velocity, contact percentage, and sweet spot percentage while seeing his chase and whiff rates increase. Whit has been another victim of a pitch mix change. He saw a fastball 58% of the time in 2021 and so far in 2022 that number has dropped to 54.1%. Merrifield had the 25th largest drop-off between his fastball wOBA and his breaking ball wOBA. There should be no surprise that so far pitchers are throwing him a breaking ball three percent more.

I am also concerned that Merrifield is losing a step. He has never made consistently hard contact. His fantasy value has come from his durability and speed. Since debuting in 2016, he has posted a BABIP of .330. He uses his elite speed to get on base more often than his batted ball profile suggests he should. After playing every game possible each of the past three seasons, I think it is possible that Merrifield’s body is starting to wear down. Since posting an 89th percentile sprint speed in 2020, that number dropped to 86th percentile last year and is down to the 79th percentile so far this season. 79th percentile is still very good, but for somebody that relies on elite speed to produce, I am worried this could be a signal of the end for Merrifield as an elite fantasy option.

Jeimer Candelario- 3B Detroit Tigers

Candelario has seen the biggest increase in breaking ball percentage of the four hitters I am detailing. After seeing a breaking ball 26.6% of the time last season, he has seen this pitch 39% of the time in 2022. Candelario had the 21st largest gap between his fastball wOBA and his breaking ball wOBA last season and pitchers took note. Candelario has yet to get a hit off this pitch group and has whiffed 48% of the time. He has been unable to lay off and contact anything other than the fastball. Candelario seemed to make some strides with breaking balls in 2021 posting a whiff percentage below 40 for the first time in his career. So far in 2022, he has taken a step backward. This is a major red flag for anybody counting on Candelario as a sleeper this season.

The bright side with Candelario is that he is still posting excellent contact statistics. He has a double-digit walk rate, strong exit velocities, and an excellent sweet spot percentage. However, if pitchers keep exploiting his weakness facing breaking balls he could be in for a long season. I would be watching closely to see if Candelario can make any adjustments over the next week or two. If he does, he could be a great buy low candidate. If not, he might be somebody that you must cut ties with.

Kyle Schwarber- OF Philadelphia Phillies

Of the four hitters included in this article, Schwarber ranks highest in the gap between fastball wOBA and breaking ball wOBA. In addition, Schwarber also has struggled against off-speed pitches. In 2020 and 2021, he has posted a lower wOBA against off-speed pitches than he has against breaking balls. The bad news for fantasy managers is that he is seeing more of both. In 2022, his fastball percentage has dropped 56% to 44.5%. His breaking ball percentage has increased from 29.1 to 30.2 and his off-speed percentage has increased from 14.9 to 25.3. The results have been ugly as Schwarber has posted a .139/.225/.333 line through nine starts.

The biggest indication that this is affecting Schwarber can be seen in his quality of contact. So far, Schwarber has posted just a 13% sweet spot percentage along with an 86.5 average exit velocity. He will not continue to post a -28 degree launch angle against off-speed pitches, but the lack of fastballs Schwarber has seen thus far is concerning. Pitchers are forcing him to hit pitches he has historically struggled against. This is something to monitor for fantasy managers relying on a big season out of Schwarber. He has already moved down from leadoff to fifth in the lineup because of his early-season struggles.

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