You’re new here if you’re not familiar with Jake Lamb‘s penchant for an unusually high frequency of hard hit balls, the special sauce that completely changes an otherwise unremarkable minor and major league record. This season, Lamb ranks an incredible 4th in the majors per ESPN’s Well Hit Average metric, hitting the ball unusually hard in 24.3% of at bats and trailing only David Ortiz, Victor Martinez and Manny Machado. In putting up an impressive .277/.359/.538 batting line, Lamb has definitely benefited from facing LHP in just 20% of plate appearances this season, but even with that limited exposure, Lamb has still impressed against lefties, against whom he’s picked up 20% of his long balls (2 of 10) and 32% of his walks (7 of 15).
We’re talking small numbers here, but Lamb always had the power to put up 25-30 HR seasons — he just didn’t hit the ball high enough in the air as often. Before the season began, it looked like a change in batting stance would help Lamb loft the ball just a bit more:
Note how Lamb’s swing rate on balls down and in was fairly high (for him), but it was not one of his happiest zones in terms of contact rate — and he had a lowly .136 batting average there. Imagine if with just one adjustment, Lamb could hit the ball in the air just a bit more, a bit more often — while no longer swinging on top of those low-inside pitches, and without losing much swing speed. You’d have a monster.
Jake Lamb is a strong man, and this new swing might play to that strength. Stats suggest about as strongly as they’re able that despite low power numbers, Lamb has great talent at hitting the ball very hard with uncommon regularity. We may be about to see that translate to slugging percentage, and to home runs.
It sure as hell looks like that’s what we’re seeing now.
Lamb Making “The Leap”
All Lamb is doing is hitting the ball hard particularly often, as he did last year — it’s just that now, he’s taking walks at a slightly higher rate, and he’s got more batted balls at a slightly higher launch angle. Last year, over half of Lamb’s tracked balls were hit between -10 degrees (just under parallel to the ground) to 20 degrees, a consistency which was remarkable. That was a pretty good approach to amass hits, but not necessarily home runs. This year, he’s been at least as consistent, but he’s grouped his contact a bit higher:
10 HR this season means Lamb has bested his career high of 6 in just over half the PA he had last year. Despite trailing the team leaders in plate appearances by 40 or so, he’s leading the team with 26 XBH through Saturday; Jean Segura ranks second with 21, with Paul Goldschmidt and Brandon Drury tied for third with 19. Despite trailing Segura in PA by 37, Lamb trails only Segura for the team lead in total bases with 99 (to Segura’s 104). And none of that accounts for Lamb’s 22 walks, which are also the second-highest total on the team.
This year, Lamb’s defense has rated just about average at third base; he has 2 Defensive Runs Saved, but a slightly below average -0.4 Ultimate Zone Rating. His true talent level probably lies somewhere between those marks and how he was graded last year, but that still leaves a lot of room in the “above average” department: at 12.9 UZR/150 last year (the rate version of UZR), Lamb ranked 15th in baseball among players with at least a half season’s worth of innings — at any position. Only one third baseman had a better mark: Adrian Beltre, who eked Lamb out with a 13.0 UZR/150.
The FanGraphs version of WAR relies on UZR, but despite the mediocre mark that metric gives Lamb so far this season, he’s tied for first place on the team at 1.7 WAR… with Paul Goldschmidt. Goldy has a big advantage in walks, and has amassed 45 more PA. Except for those numbers, the two players have eerily similar lines this season.
Back when I shared my feelings on Lamb before the 2015 season, I compared Lamb’s minor league record to that of a “Player X” who was Goldschmidt. There were important differences — Goldy’s walk rate spiked in Double-A, and he had a 50-70 point advantage in slugging at High- and Double-A. Still, when Goldy’s SLG climbed to .626 in Double-A, his BABIP dropped down to .331; Lamb’s SLG stayed at the .551 level when he advanced to Double-A, but his BABIP remained ridiculously high at .389. Designed to help us figure out when a player has been lucky, BABIP doesn’t include home runs.
It looks a hell of a lot like Lamb is making The Leap this season that Goldy did at Double-A. This season, Lamb’s BABIP is an incredibly low .306 (for him — that’s still above average). If you use a “Batting Average on Contact” version of that, though, to include Lamb’s home runs — the number would be .357. As noted above, Lamb’s always had the power. It’s just that now, he’s directing more of those balls over the fence.
Contract Extension Now, Not Later
Paul Goldschmidt signed a five year, $32M contract extension with a $14.5M option for 2019 just days before the start of the 2013 season — the year he took his game to MVP levels. It’s hard to imagine better timing than that. Goldy had clubbed just 20 HR in his first full season, with a good-not-great .286 batting average and a good-not-great 10.2% walk percentage, but he’d hit a whopping 43 doubles that year, and had a swing that seemed geared toward generating lots of extra base hits. Do those numbers sound familiar to you?
As great as the Goldy contract is, it’s not like the D-backs actually saved tons and tons of money. As part of the deal, he made $1M in 2014, which was actually more than he would have made, as he was not in line to be eligible for arbitration that year. Back of the envelope, Goldy’s $17.5M in salaries for his three arbitration seasons is probably about $15M less than he would have made if he’d gone year to year — real money, but not franchise-altering money. The true value of the contract probably lies in his $11M salary for 2018, which would have been his first free agent season — and the $14.5M option for 2019, which would still look like a $10M+ bargain if Goldy never hits better than he has so far this season.
Regardless of how much money was saved, the Goldschmidt extension was smart as all hell. An extension for any promising hitter is probably very smart for the D-backs, up to the point at which it causes roster inflexibility. In discussing whether to change the Chase Field dimensions last week, we saw that in the last ten years, Chase has increased home run rate by 10.6%, while also boosting hits (4.4%), doubles (12.3%), and triples (69.5%).
HRs are just 12%-13% of hits in most years; even if you take them out of the mix, Chase Field’s Park Factor for hits would still be positive. And the park has even more of a double-inducing and triple-inducing effect than it does home runs, overall.
That’s what’s so strange about Chase Field. It’s like the laws of physics are partly suspended; the dimensions of the park are bigger, but the ball travels farther, as well, more than making up the difference. But the human beings doing the fielding are not bigger, or faster, proportionally; they stay the same. At Chase, it’s like teams get the XBH benefits of playing in a large park as in San Francisco or San Diego, but without the normal homer-suppressing effect in response.
Basically, hitters will tend to do better with Chase as their home field than they would elsewhere. Some hitters reap more rewards than others — if your approach is geared to hit home runs in any park like that of Mark Trumbo, there’s less the field can do for you. But if your swing is calibrated to hit the ball 98-108 mph most of the time, and you hit line drives but lean in the direction of fly balls, you’re Goldy, or Lamb, or A.J. Pollock, or David Peralta, or maybe even Brandon Drury. All of those hitters have done better than the industry expected, and that’s not one big massive coincidence.
It’s not that the production by those hitters isn’t real. But Chase Field will play up hitters’ talents — and some more than others, in (fairly) predictable way. On the flip side, Chase Field will play down pitchers’ talents, again some more than others, also in a somewhat predictable way. When it comes to the D-backs’ own young players, then, the financial strategy should be tremendously obvious: the team should seek extensions with hitters as early as possible, but as a rule, go year to year with pitchers. It’s not rocket science.
But it is very public. “As early as possible” means very early. Back in November 2014, I worked through the strategy of signing a high number of hitters to low-value extensions, using a hypo that was the first time I used “Rake Man” to mean “Jake Lamb.” In my hypothetical, there were five “Rake Man” players, three of which were essentially worthless (and who would cost little in arb, because they’d be cut before they cost too much), one of which was a solid-average guy capable of 2 WAR seasons, and another capable of 3 WAR seasons.
…when it comes to extensions for young players, a dollar figure that leaves the team holding the bag the majority of the time can still be financially to its advantage. Let’s say you have each of the five Rake Mans sign a $10M extension. You overpaid three of them (most of them!) by $9M. But you got a $22M version for $10M, saving $12M. And you got a $30M version for $10M. You might actually get zero three-win Rake Mans, but that doesn’t make it any less of a good investment, unless you happen to need to be risk-averse; a team might not be a casino, but the same principles apply.
The team would save about $13M in that scenario, just by playing odds. And that doesn’t include the factor we just looked at, of Chase Field hitters outperforming expectations if they have Lamb’s characteristics; it mostly has to do with players and teams not being equal bargaining partners. In arbitration season, we talk a lot about a player’s “first fortune.” Nothing in baseball is guaranteed, and you might be surprised by how many young players would accept a $10M extension, as did Houston’s Jonathan Singleton a couple of years ago. From the same piece:
Lamb’s minor league BABIPs aren’t enough to guarantee major league success, but they are enough to guarantee him a major league chance, I think. I fully expect Lamb to get a full season tryout, probably spilling over into the first half of 2016 even if he doesn’t impress. In some small way, the D-backs are committed to Lamb, even with Brandon Drury on the not-too-distant horizon.
To me, that smells like a Rake Man situation. I don’t care what you actually think about Lamb, so long as you admit he has a chance of being a solid MLB starter, or even a slightly above average one.
At that time, I suggested a six year, $12M extension offer to Lamb to cover the six years of club control. The situation is different now; Lamb isn’t just a Rake Man as posed in that piece, but a player who can clearly stick at the major league level for some time. Nothing in baseball is guaranteed. But if Lamb remains what he’s been in 2015 and 2016, buying out his arbitration seasons at $17M or so with a $1M kicker for 2017 and one or two options for free agent seasons sure seems like something the D-backs almost certainly will not regret. At worst, he’s a similar player to what Goldy was in 2012, an above-average hitter who provides solid defense. At best, he’s more than that — and the D-backs stand to gain a whole lot more that way than they would stand to lose if Lamb finishes out his D-backs club control as a merely useful player.
With a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this winter, the league minimum salary may rise from $500,000 — build that into your math. With Lamb, it could make sense for the team to seek a deal that guarantees Lamb $20.5M in salary and buyouts, locking him in at salaries just a bit below what Goldy was guaranteed in his extension for arbitration seasons. Some kind of decision-making power over Lamb’s first free agent seasons is a big part of what would justify an extension, because at this point, it already seems like Lamb has about $22.5M coming his way for his arbitration seasons, if he stays more or less on track; this proposal would pay him $16.5M for those three years. If Lamb is a 3-win player in most seasons, that’s still a bit of a bargain. If Lamb is a 4-win player, that will look like a really smart move really quickly. Right now, Lamb is on a pace for a 5 win season.
But the D-backs are running out of time. In October 2014, Jeff made a great case for signing Pollock to an extension, but by June of 2015, it was already too late. Later last year, the D-backs did talk extension with Pollock, but they never agreed to terms (although the 2-year deal was smart, for different reasons). The time to roll dice on Lamb with a low-figure extension is gone, but there is still time to sign Lamb to a good extension. If the D-backs got Lamb to sign Goldy’s exact contract right now, they’re unlikely to get another Goldy; you can never expect someone to blossom into one of the game’s best players. As an all-around above-average player at a skill position like third base, though, Lamb more than justifies the expense, and a Goldy deal still puts the team in a position to make out in the long run. By August or the offseason, that opportunity will have passed.
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