Trevor Story’s numbers dipped in 2017 following a breakout rookie season. But his aggressive approach and ability to handle breaking and off-speed pitches with greater efficiency once again has made him one of the most feared hitters in baseball.
The collective sigh of relief from Colorado Rockies fans must have created a stiffer breeze than any cool winds rolling off the Rocky Mountains. Trevor Story’s MRI of his recently injured right elbow revealed only inflammation rather than structural damage, removing fear of the Rockies’ All-Star missing extended time in the midst of a playoff race.
The concern was reasonable. Few teams can afford losing the first shortstop in major league history with 40 doubles, 30 homers and 25 stolen bases in a single season, an accomplishment that marks a drastic resurgence following a 2017 campaign that saw Story’s numbers tumble. How Story rebounded is a tale best told through advanced metrics that can pinpoint specific areas of improvement at the plate.
Maintaining the form from his breakout rookie season of 2016 never was going to be a simple task. Just look at a few records Story set or matched: First player in MLB history to homer in each of his first four career games. First player in history to hit seven home runs in his first six MLB games. Matched George Scott’s record set in 1966 of becoming the fastest player in MLB history to hit 10 home runs (21 games).
The encore wasn’t as well-received, though. Story’s average fell from .272 in 2016 to .239 the following year. He hit 24 homers after finishing with 27 as a rookie despite 131 more at-bats, and his OPS dropped from .909 to .765. Story also led the NL with 191 strikeouts in ’17. The sophomore slump was real.
How has he come back so strong in 2018? First, take his approach. Last season, Story had 24 hits and three home runs on the first pitch he faced. Through Sept. 20 of this year, Story ranks third in the majors with 41 hits on a 0-0 count while tied for second with nine home runs and a co-leading four triples in such a situation. There’s an obvious point to attack the pitcher early that wasn’t necessarily a focus during his second season. (We’ll get more detailed later.)
That’s seemed to help Story produce better contact as well. Story hit .286 with an .860 OPS on pitches in the strike zone in 2017. Those numbers have risen to .350 with a 1.045 OPS in three more games this year. Story’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is up to .357 from .325, and his swing-and-miss rate is down to 14 percent from 22 percent in 2017. He’s also struck out 28 fewer times than he did in 2017 despite having 66 more at-bats through Sept. 20.
Let’s make it clear, however: This isn’t about Story’s improved plate discipline. According to STATS’ metrics, Story is swinging at roughly the same percentage of breaking and off-speed pitches out of the zone as he did in 2017. He chased 195 of the 538 pitches he saw out of the zone last season (36.2 percent) and has chased 211 of the 586 pitches outside the strike zone this year (36 percent) through Sept. 20. There’s a little more plate discipline there, but not all that much.
In fact, he’s actually chased fastballs out of the zone more this season than he did last – 29.2 percent compared to 25.5 percent.
The major difference from 2017 to ’18 is his ability to hit the breaking and off-speed pitches in the strike zone.
Story is hitting .367 when swinging at 147 sliders in the zone this season, compared to .217 last year. He’s batting .500 after swinging at 71 changeups, compared to .250 against 57 last season.
We can break down Story’s efficiency against breaking and off-speed pitches in greater detail with STATS Advanced Heat Maps, which give value to every single pitch seen – not simply balls in play, like outdated heat maps that are common – based on what league-average hitters do against corresponding pitches. We’ve detailed the process behind STATS Advanced Heat Maps in a previous post introducing the concept, which you can view on the STATS blog.
A quick reminder from our introduction to STATS Advanced Heat Maps: Red indicates positive value for that respective location and pitch type. The darker the red, the better a hitter is in that zone. Blue indicates the opposite; the darker the blue, the worse they are in that respective zone. So, if a player’s heat map is showing a lot of red on the outer edges, for example, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is hammering pitches in that zone. With each pitch being considered, hitters can add value by laying off pitches out of the zone that the average hitter chases, thus showing red.
Have a look at how vastly Story’s advanced heat maps differ from 2017 to ’18. Each map is from the pitcher’s view, and Story is a right-handed hitter.
Story’s 2017 map against breaking and off-speed pitches is ice cold, whether he swung the bat or laid off a pitch. The one-year difference is stunning. Whereas a pitcher could almost guarantee a successful result – a strike or even a weakly hit ball – when throwing a breaking or off-speed pitch to Story last season, he’s dialed in this year – especially when one of those pitches enters the zone. The dark red on inside pitches also indicates he’s laying off bad pitches in that area more than he did last season, particularly on breaking balls.
And remember that new-found aggressiveness we discussed earlier? The advanced heat maps below detail his overall swing rate on breaking and off-speed pitches in each of the last two seasons:
The dark red is much more prominent in Story’s 2018 maps than last season’s within the strike zone. He’s also taking a more aggressive approach overall, with there being more orange and red around the zone on borderline pitches this season than the blue that dominated most of last year’s map. Story is turning more on breaking and off-speed pitches when he’s jammed rather than laying off like he did in ‘17
It all amounts to Story raising his batting average nearly 50 points, driving in 20 more runs and hitting more homers than last season – obvious accomplishments that re-establish him as one of baseball’s more feared hitters, much like his 2016 rookie season. But how Story improved his numbers is the truly interesting part, especially considering how specific one can get when isolating pitches faced.
Luckily for Rockies fans, his contributions to the team’s playoff push will continue soon.