Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Can Wladimir Balentien Successfully Return to the Majors?

Wladimir Balentien has become one of the biggest baseball stories around the world as he shattered the NPB home run record despite missing the first couple weeks of the season, doing it in a less hitter friendly run environment than the previous record holders of Oh, Cabrera, and Rhodes (league average home run rate in the NPB Central League is 2.195 % this season, Wladimir Balentien is hitting home runs 11.3 % of his plate appearances, or a HR % + of 516. That puts, relative to league, Barry Bonds' 2001 of 371 HR % + and Chris Davis' 2013 of 264 HR % + to shame, though it isn't quite as impressive as Babe Ruth's 1927, where he had a 951 HR% +). However, Wladimir isn't just hitting home runs. The hitter that was once considered undisciplined and struck out in 26.7 % of Major League at-bats (though he showed some plate discipline at AAA, walking 9.75 % of the time and striking out less than 19 % of the time) has walked nearly exactly as many times as he struck out in the NPB this year. No doubt some of this is a function of being pitched around, but even when you take out his intentional walks, he is still walking 17.8 % of the time, or about 9.25 % better than league average. Tony Blanco, second in league slugging, is walking 11 % of the time, while the best native NPB power hitter, Shinnosuke Abe, has walked 15.8 % of the time, so even compared to the best power hitters in the league, Balentien is walking a lot.

It was an adjustment fellow former-MLB/AAAA power hitter Wily Mo Pena never made. Pena burst onto the NPB scene with long home runs to start the 2011 season, but slowed down significantly, only hitting 21 homers and walking just 6.9 % of the time. This year, he has been nothing short of a disaster, spending a lot of time in the Ni-Gun (the Japanese minor leagues) and just hitting his first Ichi-gun home run in the last couple of weeks. Pena's AAA power numbers were significantly better than Wladimir's as well (though he didn't have the K/BB of Balentien). Despite the time wasted on articles about a "juiced" ball in the NPB, Wladimir's season is nothing short of special statistically, with a 215 SLG + and 182 OPS + relative to 2013 averages. This is an improvement over his 2011 and 2012 seasons, where he had a SLG + of 138 and 169 respectively.

Reports of whether or not Wladimir is interested in coming back to the Majors, are as always, mixed. Sources say that he wants to come back, while Wladimir is still under contract for the next few seasons, and insists that he wants to not only stay a Yakult Swallow until the contract runs out, but play for the team until he retires. If a MLB team does make a serious run at Wladimir, and he is interested, then the actual mechanics of him coming back to the MLB might be a little complicated, with some kind of buyout needing to take place. The point is, if a MLB team does acquire Wladimir Balentien, it won't be for cheap. He is making real guaranteed money in Japan, and not only would the MLB team have to dish out the money for him to be interested, they are probably going to have to pay the Swallows as well. Considering that Balentien slugged .374 in 559 big league plate appearances, hitting at a below replacement level, scouts and executives are going to need to see the tangible evidence that he has changed as a hitter, and isn't just a hitter whose game translated to Japan better than expected. That is, figuring out which hitters will translate from Japan to the Majors, or vise versa, is hard work (pitchers, as fickle as they are, are obviously easier, as both MLB and NPB teams successfully acquire quality "foreign" pitchers much more often than hitters). Balentien obviously translated from somewhat of a AAAA player to a great NPB hitter. The question for MLB teams watching Balentien put together one of the best power hitting seasons ever seen is this: Is he still the hitter that struggled to have his raw power come out in games in 2008 or 2009, or has his time in Japan allowed him to become a different and objectively better hitter that would succeed against MLB pitching if given another chance? Notice I am not asking: "Is Wladimir Balentien's home run title legitimate?" or "Is the power Wladimir has shown this year "real"?" The answer to those questions is yes, of course. The statistics don't lie. Wladimir went to one of the best leagues in the world and has outhit players that actually had success in the Majors, such as Casey McGehee, Lastings Milledge, and Andruw Jones. We aren't asking if he is statistically interesting as a "MLB prospect". He is. This post is just an attempt at doing the work to see, from a somewhat advanced scouting perspective, whether or not the incredible statistics would translate to the Major Leagues.

First, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at his swing, comparing his current swing with the Yakult Swallows to the swing he used while in the Majors. By doing so, perhaps we can spot any major mechanical differences that may be helping him, if they exist. So with the caveat that I think trying to find little things in swing mechanics often come with confirmation biases (my favorite example is Ike Davis. When he is struggling, everyone talks about where his hands are, despite the fact that he has had quite a bit of MLB success with his hands in the same spot), let's take a look at a few GIFs.

Here is Wladimir pulling a home run for the Seattle Mariners:

Here is Wladimir's last MLB home run, a pulled shot with the Reds:

The swing looks the same in both of the MLB GIFs to me. It is a hard violent rip with a violent twisting of the body to pull the ball and almost sling the bat along with him. The head looks fine, and he seems to be under relative control with a firm foot. It is a hard swing, and I can't speak to bat speed, but he isn't completely wild.

This groundball single from the WBC demonstrates how well he stays in I believe:

Here is his 56th homer of the year in 2013:

If anything, he seems to come out of his stance a little more, "swinging from the heels" more than he did in the above GIFs. There is more motion in his overall swing, but there seems to be a little more reach, a little more plate coverage. If you are desperately trying to prove that Balentien has improved, you could argue that his swinging motion is less binary, and that he is adjusting to balls better. Whether or not the bat seems faster is impossible for me to tell, I don't see a difference at least. So other than maybe more plate coverage, I don't think swing mechanics are very helpful in the case that Wladimir will adjust to MLB pitching better if given another chance. Looking at the data below will be much more helpful.

One of the first questions, whether rightly or wrongly, risen about hitters playing in Japan is whether or not they can handle elite fastballs, something that they don't see often in the NPB. We can look back at Wladimir's time in the Majors and see that he saw 112 pitches above 95 MPH. He swung at missed at 20 of them and made contact (balls put in play) with 9 of them. So despite only seeing a few pitches about 99 MPH and none above 100, he swing and missed at 95 MPH + fastballs like they were at least 99 MPH according to our fastball velocity breakdowns.

So it does seem like this was a problem for Wladimir, whether he was slow to recognize pitches, or his swing was long enough that he couldn't catch up to them. Of course, hitting elite fastballs isn't the only thing MLB hitters have to do to be successful, so let's take a look at his overall Pitch F/X data while he was in the Majors, starting with his average result locations:

While most MLB hitters are more likely to hit homers on balls closer to them and higher in the zone, swinging and missing at pitches lower and away, Balentien was pretty extreme. He did like faster and straighter pitches, making contact with pitches about the same velocity as the average pitch, but hitting homers on pitches more likely to be fastballs. Perhaps one of the reasons his power didn't play in the Majors was because he relied on getting pitches in zones that pitchers wouldn't throw many pitches. He would look for high and in fastballs, and pitchers knew it, so they wouldn't give it to him.

He clearly had a plan as the difference between the pitches Balentien swung at and the ones he took shows:

Though he didn't have a great walk rate, he was a pretty selective hitter. He got a lot of pitches low and away, and he didn't swing at many of them because he knew that he would just swing and miss. He would make pitchers come up in the strike zone to him. I think this helps show that he had his zone and a plan at the plate, but it was so binary that pitchers knew it and knew how to attack him.

Here are the locations and velocities of all of Wladimir's homers:

Notice that the vast majority of them are in the 85-91 MPH range. The only really good fastball he hit for a home was away, giving him more time to catch up, and he only had one homer on really slow pitch.

Of course, with him in the NPB now, we do have some version of pitch data, and for the purposes of this post, I will use the Gen's breakdown at yakyubaka.com on Balentien's strike zone and homers this season. Out of respect for one of my favorite sites to read about NPB baseball, I won't republish any of his graphs (only commenting on them in general terms) and encourage readers to read that post as well (it has more graphs and less words than this post).

Here is Balentien's heat maps as a MLBer (via Brooks Baseball). I don't love using batting average, but that is what Gen used (if you do follow the link and look at his graphs, remember that Pitch F/X graphs, such as the ones above and the one below, are from the catcher's perspective, while the Yahoo! NPB graphs Gen used are from the pitcher's perspective. So they are basically flipped), so this way we can compare them better.
Balentien couldn't do anything with balls up and in for the most part, but did really well on balls down and in. In the NPB, it appears that his best zones have been up, mainly up and away, a below average spot for him in the Majors. Down and away in the zone seems to be a weakness for Balentien in the NPB, while he was good on those pitches in the Majors. He isn't as strong on inside pitches in the NPB as well. It seems that the best way for NPB pitchers to pitch to him is to keep the ball low. Anything high or over the middle of the plate gets destroyed. He will swing and miss at fastballs high, but his real swing and miss spots are on breaking balls thrown low and away, according to the graphs on Yakyubaka. However, when breaking balls are kept in the middle of the zone, that is "hung", Wladimir takes advantage of them.

Just two of his first 50 home runs of the season came on pitches thrown middle in or up and in, so it doesn't appear that he has fixed that part of his swing, which makes his particularness in the MLB (where he wanted pitchers to throw up and in on him) a little strange. It seems that he wanted pitches up and in (more likely, up and in the middle of the plate), though he actually struggles on these kinds of pitches, especially if they have plus velocity.

After looking at Wladimir's mechanics and the pitches he likes to swing at or struggles with, the next logical step seems to be to take a look at where the ball goes when Wladimir hits it. In Japan so far, the answer seems to be "far" or "over the fence", but we can start by looking at his spray chart as a MLBer spray chart as a MLBer (via Texas Leaguers):

There is some opposite field power there, but the vast majority of his home runs and batted balls (especially when you look at all the outs in the infield) come on pulled balls. For perspective, as a MLBer, Wladimir pulled the ball 31.1 % of the time. MLB average for right-handed batters (at least in 2013) is 26.7 %. 50.05 % of homers by right-handed batters are pulled, while 9 of Wladimir's homers (60 %) came on pulled balls. As I think you could have guessed from the GIFs above, he was a pretty heavy pull hitter.

To test if this was still the case, I watched Wladimir's first 55 home runs of the year (from Yakyubaka's video) and labelled them by what field they were hit to:
37 pulled
9 center
9 opposite

So he is still a pull hitter, and perhaps even more aggressively so. I think him being a pull hitter that doesn't handle up and in pitches well is pretty concerning from a Major League perspective. One could speculate all day on what goes on in someone else's mind and not get very far, but perhaps Wladimir feels that while a pull happy approach in the Majors didn't exactly work for him, he can pull everything in Japan, that he can just wait for the mistake with the breaking ball, or wait for the pitcher to finally throw a fastball, and pull it with authority. We know that the average fastball for a starter in Japan is about 5 MPH off the average fastball for a MLB pitcher. This makes it somewhat hard to evaluate hitters coming from Japan (or Cuba or Korea, or even AAA) to the Majors, though at least you can quantify the fastball difference. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to quantify the breaking ball difference. Not only are breaking balls different in the NPB (some examples include more slow curves and less hard curves, sliders thrown for strikes to hitters on both sides of the plate, and less changeups and more splitters), but they are also hard to grade by quality. Are the breaking balls Wladimir is seeing in the NPB worse than the ones he would see in the MLB? And by how much? How can we even estimate it, much less know the difference?

He has gotten better on balls away, but not on balls in. There are still holes in his offensive game that you can point to and lead you to believe that he would not be a successful NPB hitter. However, to use a name I mentioned above, there are still a lot of holes in Chris Davis' game. He still strikes out nearly 30 % of the time. However, he seems to have harnessed his raw power enough to bring it into games consistently (we will see if it is something he can do over multiple seasons, but I would say that a 50 + home run season means he has done pretty well) by improving his plate discipline, getting his walk rate from below 7 % to above 10 %. So even with the apparent flaws in his game, Wladimir's extreme power with improved plate discipline, with less swings on breaking balls out of the zone leading to more walks, he could still be a potent force in any lineup in the world. Perhaps he is already there, as a Yomiuri Giants coach argues:

"His eye has improved a lot...Compared to last year, he is swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone"