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On Billy Burns, contact hitting, and the A's hitting philosophy

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Are the A's overemphasizing a contact approach?

Probably a groundball.
Probably a groundball.
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday night, the A's squeezed out a nice little win over the idiot Angels. Kendall Graveman pitched a gem, Khris Davis hit a dinger, the A's pen couldn't hold the lead but the A's offense bailed out the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth. It was a nice, fun little win capped by a Billy Burns walk-off single.

After the game, A's broadcasters Ray Fosse and Glenn Kuiper bantered some on Burns' 2016, as a Gatorade bath rendered the typical awkward post game interview impossible. Fosse may not have the same level of access to a functioning brain the rest of us do, but he presumably has more access to the A's clubhouse than the average fan. He noted that Burns has been working hard with hitting coach Darren Bush at hitting down on the ball in an effort to hit more groundballs.

What?

Let's keep our salt grains close here. It's hard to know how accurate Fosse's statement is (I mean, he's Ray Fosse), and while we can look at some of the results, there's just no telling how telling the statistics are.

So what do we know about Billy Burns? Last year, he was a pretty dang good player. His hitting was probably a smidgen unsustainable as his slugging at the big league level topped any number he'd put up in the minors before. His walk rate plummeted  as he became a slap hitter, but he was successful. His defense left a lot to be desired, but overall, his first season was beyond acceptable. He's was a rookie speedster and no one was expecting a finished product.

It's fine and dandy that Burns and the A's made adjustments. The sport is a game of adjustments and adjustments were sure to come from the other side. But the adjustments he's made are, to put it lightly, puzzling. Burns has doubled down on his status as a slap hitter, losing the power he showed last year and lowering his walk rate further. His primary goal seems to be putting the ball in play no matter the situation.

A little while back, I looked at Burns' swing rate on first pitches. Last year, he was a stud against first pitches, in part thanks to his high swing rate (49.5%) and an obvious effort to make solid contact. He hit four of his five dingers on first offerings for an OPS of 1.193, 67% better than league average. As a hitter with almost no power, it seemed like an obvious strategy: try and mash first pitches where you're likely to see a good pitch to hit.

This year, he's not doing that. His first pitch swing rate is down (though up some since I wrote that article) to 35% and so are his first pitch numbers. It could be small sample noise, but it looks like he's made a change, and it looks to be a bad one. When he does swing, the ball is being put in play more frequently, likely a sign he's not swinging for power like he did on first pitches last season. The eyeball test agrees. His first pitch swings have been slappy, a large departure from the guy who took King Felix deep on the first pitch of a game last September.

Via Fosse's anecdote, we know about another possible change. Supposedly, Burns is swinging down on the ball more and the numbers seem to back it up. His groundball rate is up some (54.6% vs 50.3%) and his average launch angle is down (7.1% last year vs. 6.3% this year). His overall exit velocity is up slightly this year (82.8 MPH vs. 82.6 MPH last year) but a closer examination reveals that change might be meaningless: his exit velocity on groundballs this year is up (85.9 MPH vs 82.6 MPH last year) while he's hitting linedrives and flyballs with less gusto. Hitting the ball hard is great, but if you do it on the ground, there's a good chance it's an out regardless of the velocity.

Essentially, Burns is hitting the ball on the ground more and when he does hit it in the air, it's traveling shorter distances at lower velocities. Here's where his hits have gone in his two big league seasons, the marks indicate where the ball was first touched.

Burns Spray

Burns' has seemingly made a change and it has resulted in a truly awful first two and a half months of the year.

Is this a trend?

We've documented a Burns problem, but it makes you wonder about the organization from the top down. As the team barrels through a consecutive season of little power, few strikeouts, fewer walks, and poor run production it's hard not to wonder if A's players have been taught a flawed strategy like Billy Burns presumably has. The obvious question becomes, are the A's permeating a contact first strategy that sacrifices power and walks? Or is it just a function of playing bad baseball players?

It's a question that can never really be answered from our perspective, but let's talk about it.

Statistics can offer some clues, and most regulars are indeed swinging more than they did last year. Here's how the numbers stack up.

Player 2015 Swing % 2016 Swing % Difference
Khris Davis 48.20% 55.50% 7.3%
Stephen Vogt 41.5% 45.3% 3.8%
Yonder Alonso 45.5% 47.5% 2%
Coco Crisp 41.5% 44.2% 2.7%
Chris Coghlan 44% 45.7% 1.7%
Billy Butler 45% 46.5% 1.5%
Josh Phegley 52.4% 52.4% 0%
Marcus Semien 43.9% 44.7% .8%
Jed Lowrie 45.2% 45.9% .7%
Josh Reddick 43.3% 41.1% -2.2%
Danny Valencia 46.70% 46.60% -.1

Of course, at least some of that can be explained by other factors. The A's are seeing more strikes this year and pitchers have no reason not to attack the zone.

The teams' contact rate is up as they're missing pitches less frequently. Their 9.5% swing and miss rate is 22nd in all of baseball. They're fouling pitches off a touch below average too, and the A's ability to put the ball in play with limited power lends credence to the idea they're putting contact first.

Contact isn't a bad thing all the time. Increasing contact can mean a better batting average and overall line. But sometimes it's not a positive thing, and it seems that way for the A's. To quote Ted Williams incarnate, Chris Coghlan,

"Some pitches I do want to swing and miss on. It's the baseball equivalent of "live to fight another day,".

The eyeball test matches up with Coghlan's quotation. Too often, the A's are creating weak contact in situations where a swing and miss would garner another chance.

My take

I'm not going to say definitively whether or not this is a philosophy issue. Even with the stats and anecdote to back the idea up in Burns' case, there's just a whole lot we don't know. For the team as a whole, we just can't know what their goals for each at bat. The A's might just be making worse contact thanks to their poor personnel.

That said, the numbers certainly are different from previous seasons. It's worked out beyond poorly thus far. As we near the halfway point of the year and the A's offense remains one of the worst in the league, it seems like high time to try emphasize something different for A's hitters.

Your thoughts?