MLB Trends: Why the ‘Sweeper’ is Taking Over Baseball; Luis Robert reduces his strikeout rate


MLB’s 2022 regular season is less than three weeks away, and to be completely honest with you, it’s the worst time of year to analyze baseball. The sample sizes are so small that it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s meaningful from what’s just weird baseball. But, we persevere.

With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at Luis Robert’s strikeout rate, Eric Lauer’s speed and the new pitch taking over baseball. Last week, we looked at Julio Rodríguez’s rookie sweet spot, Jhoan Duran’s slinker and league-wide home run rate..

Robert reduces strikeouts

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Based solely on natural talent, White Sox outfielder Luis Robert is one of the what, 10 most gifted players in the world? Maybe one of the five most gifted? The 24-year-old started slow this season (.205/.222/.386), though he wrote a .294/.346/.512 line with 30 doubles and 24 home runs in 523 home plate appearances. 2020-21. He’s a real star.

Robert’s career to date has been defined by extremely hot and cold streaks. When he gets hot, he’s one of the best players in the world, but when he slumps, he looks like he belongs in Triple-A. There has, however, been one constant in his career: Robert hits less often as he gains more experience. A chart is worth a thousand words:

Luis Robert continues to reduce his strikeout rate

FanGraphs

Robert has only struck six times in 45 plate appearances this season, or 13.3%. That’s well below MLB’s 23.0 average and its 25.6 percent strikeout rate of 2020-21. Excluding overlapping streaks, Robert’s four 11-game career-fewest strikeout streaks have come since last August.

The strikeout rate improvement stems from small adjustments to home plate. Most notably, Robert opened up his position last season, allowing him to see the ball better, first and foremost, and also to wait a bit longer on the pitch. That’s enough to dramatically improve his swing decisions and ball-to-ball ability. Here is the before and after look:

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

MLB.com/CBS Sports

GIFs are synced on output, and locations are similar in location and speed. You can see Robert start his leg kick and his swing just a touch later with the open stance. This gives him a lot more time to read and react to the terrain, 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 speed of the bat to catch up high speed even when he starts his swing a little late).

“It’s a bit wider and a bit open, and what that does is make it pile on your back,” White Sox batting coach Frank Menechino told The Athletic’s James Fegan last August. “Because he’s stacked on his back (leg), he’s able to control his leg for his timing and not move forward. So he sees the ball better and he can cover the strike zone. He can stay behind better the ball.”

The White Sox had a rough start to the season – Tuesday’s loss was their eighth in a row – and Robert still hasn’t started playing. It will happen soon enough. He’s too good not to get hot. Robert’s natural bat speed and ability to hit hard has allowed him to produce at the All-Star level for long stretches in the past. Now that he’s making more contact, the stretches could be even longer and could even reach MVP caliber.

Lauer increasing velocity

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On Sunday night, Brewers left-hander Eric Lauer put on a dominating performance against the Phillies, striking out 13 in six scoreless innings. It was his first career double-digit at bat. The 26-year-old allowed five runs (four earned) in 16 1/3 innings early. Last year, Lauer threw a 3.19 ERA in 118 2/3 innings. He was super sneaky a season ago.

Milwaukee acquired Lauer, the No. 25 pick in the 2016 draft, from the Padres in the Trent Grisham/Luis Urías trade, and last year they helped him take his game to another level with some mechanical tweaks like Luke Hooper explained to FanGraphs. Lauer is now throwing from a modified stretch and he’s shortened his arm path, among other things.

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

Eric Lauer’s speed continues to increase.

Brooks Baseball

Velocity isn’t everything. Movement, location, sequencing, whatever else matters. But speed is a pretty big slice of the pie. The harder you pitch, the less time the batter has to react. It’s that simple. A few years ago, Lauer was living in the 91-92 mph range, which is below average speed these days. Now it’s going 94 mph on par. It makes a big difference.

“He puts it right where he puts it – in the zone,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told reporters, including MLB.com’s Paul Casella, after Sunday’s game. “There’s life in the area and it feels like it’s taking off. He’s sprinkled in enough cutter, slider and curveball for the hitter to honor him, and that makes the fastball even better. ”

The Brewers are a top pitching development organization (the Padres, Lauer’s former team, have struggled to complete development of their best young pitchers in recent years), so Lauer’s success is not came out of nowhere. He’s just next for Milwaukee. Adjustments to his delivery, along with him being further away from a shoulder injury in 2020, account for the increased speed, and the increased speed explains his improved performance.

Welcome to the era of the “sweeper”

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

Baseball’s newest craze is the “sweeper,” which is basically a slider with a ton of sideways movement. The pitch isn’t new – the best recent example of the sweeper is Corey Kluber’s breaking ball – but teams have figured out how to teach it. some locations, like Jhoan Duran’s slinker, are unique and cannot be taught. The sweeper is teachable and he’s making his way through the league.

The Dodgers, Rays and Yankees were early adopters of the sweeper (Andrew Heaney added sweeper after signing with Los Angeles and had two great starts before landing on the injured list), but other clubs are also in the game. Here are some examples:

The Sweeper Is So Important The Smart People Of Baseball Prospectus made it searchable in their height type data. You can now search sweepers by move the same way you can search, for example, four-seam fastballs by speed and shifts by sink. The sweeper is not a fad. It is here to stay and will become more and more popular over time. It’s no accident:

I’m sorry for the hitters. I really do. Keystroke analytics have come a long way in recent years, but they still lag far behind pitch analytics. How you supposed to hit the sweeper when it moves that lots and pretty much everyone on staff throws 95+, I have no idea. Oh, it looks like baseball got amortized too. Every hit is a tiny miracle.

The sweeper is just the latest example of weaponized analysis. It’s a pitch that has technically been around for decades, but it’s only recently that clubs have figured out how to perfect and teach it. At the end of the day, pitchers will always be (at least) one step ahead of hitters. The sweeper is the latest example.

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