Nick Ahmed‘s stats are really bad at the plate. Like, really bad. Entering Tuesday, Ahmed had the 6th-lowest wRC+ of any qualified hitter and even though he’s changed his swing a little and is possibly the most valuable defensive asset in the entire National League, there’s still the distinct possibility that he’s in the process of swinging his way out of some playing time in the very near future. In the unlikely event that Michael Bourn takes off, Chip Hale could have an extra potential infielder on his hands in Chris Owings, or maybe Peter O’Brien ends up snagging some time and there’s a shift in the middle infield with Jean Segura at short and Brandon Drury at second. No matter the configuration, Chip Hale has options at his disposal, which makes Ahmed vulnerable considering how well he’s not hitting.
Last week, Ryan looked at the differences for Ahmed batting ninth (i.e. behind the pitcher) rather than in front of the pitcher. The gap was big. From last week:
Whoa! In those three little areas outside the zone, low and away: swings 36% of the time when Ahmed is not 9th in the order, but just 12% of the time when Ahmed is 9th. That fits with what we’d think would be the pressure of hitting primarily in front of the pitcher: you’d better swing at what you can, because you won’t get pitches to hit with the pitcher waiting in the wings…
Ahmed could be trying to stretch more to cover more than just the plate when hitting in front of the pitcher, with disastrous results — but the good news is, he doesn’t necessarily have to be that aggressive if he doesn’t want to be. And when he hasn’t been, he’s done well.
So in a sense, we’ve got one thing going on with the batting order and that’s definitely playing into Ahmed’s issues. But this doesn’t account for all of his struggles, so I kept searching and compared Ahmed’s 2016 campaign to last season. Swing rate? Up four percent but not a huge increase. Contact rate? Down one percent. Ground ball rate? Similar. Fly ball rate? Down about eight percent. Line drives? Up about eight percent.
That should catch your eye. Ahmed isn’t striking out a bunch more or popping a ton of balls up in general. In fact, he’s hitting more line drives than before and faring substantially worse. That doesn’t seem to vibe with what we know about line drives, BABIP and just hitting in general. Looking at his batted ball velocities in a general sense, his hard-hit rate is up 13% from last season. He’s subtracted from his medium-hit balls to get there (same number of soft-hit balls exist), but hard-hit balls are generally better than medium-hit ones. Still, Ahmed isn’t being rewarded.
So we’re left to muse whether this is bad luck or something is going on with these hard-hit balls. Looking at all tracked batted balls from 2015 and 2016 for Ahmed, the observed effect becomes very real. His average launch angle has dropped from 14.1 degrees to 11.4 degrees, meaning balls have been hit slightly more level, or rather have more become line drive oriented. His average exit velocity is up from 85.9mph to 88.3mph, and even a 2.5mph gain tends to result in surplus production. When it comes to batted ball gains, even small increases or decreases can have tangible effects. From this general view, we’d expect him to be doing better than he did in 2015, not far worse.
Still, we can go deeper. What exactly is happening with these hard hit balls? If we set our definition as balls hit at 95mph or more, we can see that StatCast tracked 77 of these balls in 2015 and Ahmed has already hit 35 in 2016. Last season, Ahmed hit .597 on these balls, but is only hitting .514 on them this year (through Monday). Given the sample, however, that’s something like three balls off of last year’s pace, not a major change. In 77 hard-hit events last year, Ahmed lined out eight times. This season he’s already lined out six times on hard-hit balls, so maybe he’s getting BABIP’d a little. But, on these hard hit balls, Ahmed’s launch angle has actually risen. He’s hitting them at nearly 12.5 degrees as opposed to just eight degrees last season. That’s meant twice as many fly ball outs on hard hit balls at the expense of some ground outs, and given that we know fly balls go for outs more often than grounders, that’s not helping his cause.
The weak hit balls barely matter — they’re almost always outs no matter the launch angle. The medium-hit stuff is very launch angle dependent, but the results are never staggering. But the hard hit stuff, well, that’s where the money’s made. And unfortunately for Nick Ahmed, he’s lined out more often and hit a few more flies — balls that are expected to go for outs more often than those on the ground even when you hit them hard. Put it all together and maybe there’s more to the nuanced swing changes than met the eye as he’s getting under a few more baseballs. For a guy that’s always going to run a poor BABIP due to his limited hitting ability, this isn’t helping and it’s likely dragging down his total offense, even if just by a little. The sample is so small here that just eight more balls falling in this season moves him from a player barely scraping .190 to a guy hitting .250. I’m sure we’d all be alright with Nick Ahmed hitting .250.
In the end, we have a guy who’s always going to be a limited offensive player having some bad luck and launching just a few too many flies part way through the season. That’s resulted in some absolutely terrible offense. But, these things are still fragile even 41 games into the season. A strong series or two could turn him around very quickly. He’s got some holes in his swing, but he’s making more hard contact than ever before and that should be encouraging. Perhaps there’s some new loft in the swing that could ironed out, or maybe we just need to hope that he hits a few fewer at-’em balls. Either way, there’s room for hope, but it sure does look ugly at the moment.
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