Rowdy Tellez had an excellent season in 2020, but he has started the 2021 MLB campaign below expectations. Why has he performed so poorly in 2021?
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Rowdy Tellez opened the 2020 season very slowly. In his first 41 plate appearances, he recorded a 28 wRC+. However, for the next month until his September injury, Tellez posted a 182 wRC+ in 86 plate appearances. As a whole, Tellez produced a 133 wRC+ in 2020. From an expected metrics perspective, Tellez’s percentile rankings in xBA and xSLG were 78th and 84th, respectively. Those metrics were excellent. With the usual small sample size caveat, Tellez’s 2020 season pointed towards a successful 2021 campaign.
So far, in 2021, Tellez has been sub-par. In his opening 39 plate appearances, Tellez has generated a 23 wRC+. His K% climbed to 28.2% from 2020’s 15.7% mark. The good news is that, after going 0-for-23 in his first seven games, Tellez rebounded with a 161 wRC+ and an 18.8% K% in his subsequent 16 plate appearances. Perhaps 2020 Tellez is here to stay.
Please note that the data presented includes games up to and including April 15, 2021.
For those not familiar with the TV character Columbo, he is a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police. The premise of the show is the reversal of the whodunnit detective story. Instead of having the investigator reveal the killer’s identity at the end of the show, viewers of Columbo knew who the killer was from the beginning. As the episode developed, Columbo discovered clues that would lead to the arrest of the perpetrator. In tribute to Columbo, I will reveal the explanation of Tellez’s early-season difficulties now.
Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler shared the most likely root cause of Tellez’s 2021 underperformance during a recent Blue Jays simulcast. The two Toronto broadcasters noted that two Blue Jays coaches, Dante Bichette and Guillermo Martinez, identified timing and tempo as why Tellez struggled at the plate. Buck and Tabby reported that Tellez has been working with these coaches to get his swing in sync. It is early days, but since he began working closely with Bichette and Martinez on timing and tempo, Tellez has posted a 161 wRC+.
The remainder of this article will be a process of elimination exercise. In other words, this piece will identify possible reasons for Tellez’s poor performance and demonstrate that they are not the source of the 2021 underperformance. I will then return to tempo and timing as a reasonable explanation for Tellez’s early-season woes.
Why Tellez was projected to be a good hitter in 2021
In September 2020, I wrote the article, Toronto Blue Jays: Why 2020 Tellez Is a Better Hitter. In the piece, I concluded that Rowdy could continue to excel in the batter’s box for the following reasons:
- His expected metrics, which are a good predictor of future performance, are excellent.
- Tellez was not the beneficiary of good luck or poor opposition defence, as evidenced by the middle-of-the-pack difference between his actual batting metrics and the expected stats.
- Furthermore, Tellez’s 2020 BABIP was 0.276, which is similar to 2019’s 0.267; accordingly, his success in 2020 was not BABIP-fueled.
- His overall aggressive approach, pitch recognition skills, and two-strike attitude should continue to work in Tellez’s favour.
- The magic wands of Bichette and Martinez will be at-the-ready
Potential Causes of Tellez’s Poor Hitting
The list of possible reasons why Tellez has struggled in 2021 compared to 2020 include the following:
- Pitch mix
- Count states (ahead, even and behind)
- Pitch location
- Plate discipline
- Batted ball profile
Table 1 is a summary of key batting metrics for the 2019-2021 period.
According to Table 2, Rowdy has faced a higher percentage of fastballs in 2021 (62.4%) than in 2020 (54.7%). The off-speed offerings are similar in 2021 (16.8%) and 2020 (16.1%). There has been a reduction in the percentage of breaking pitches that Tellez has seen in 2021 compared to 2020 (20.8% versus 29.2%). However, due to the small sample size of 2021 data compared to 2020, a minor change in the distribution of fastballs and breaking pitches would affect the 2021 pitch mix percentages.
Tellez has faced just 155 pitches during the 2021 campaign. Accordingly, if he saw 12 fewer fastballs and 12 more breaking pitches, the pitch mix would be very similar in 2021 and 2020. To put this small change in pitch mix into context, when I applied the 2020 pitch mix to Tellez’s 2021 hit rate by pitch type (fastball, off-speed and breaking balls), the number of 2021 hits would increase by just one. Accordingly, a change in pitch mix is not the reason for Tellez’s slow 2021 start.
The data from Table 2 illustrates that Rowdy has faced a higher percentage of pitches when ahead in the count this season (35.3%) than last (26.7%). In even counts, the two seasons are similar (2021 – 41.3%; 2020 – 44.1%). Finally, Tellez was behind in the count for 29.2% of the pitches faced in 2020; it is 23.4% this year.
During the 2015-2021 period, MLB xBA and xSLG figures varied depending upon the count state (ahead, even or behind in the count). The average MLB xBA is as follows: ahead – 0.287, even – 0.259, and behind – 0.194. The xSLG data is 0.519, 0.428 and 0.312, respectively. Not surprisingly, the average hitter performs worst when behind in the count.
Therefore, Rowdy has been in pitch counts that are more favourable to him in 2021 than 2020. A change in count state percentages does not explain Tellez’s lack of results in 2021. Also, the pitch mix (fastballs, off-speed and breaking balls) by count state (ahead, even and behind) is not significantly different in 2021 compared to 2020. Hence, a change from 2020 to 2021 relating to when a pitcher throws a pitch type in a particular count state does not appear to be a reason for Tellez’s 2021 hitting troubles.
Chart 1 depicts the percentage of pitches by strike-zone location in 2020; Chart 2 shows the 2021 figures. The charts, courtesy of Statcast, show that there has not been a significant change where pitchers are throwing their pitches to Tellez. Hence, pitch location is not the primary factor contributing to Tellez’s poor 2021 batting performance.
In 2019, Ariel Cohen wrote the article, The Maddux Plate Discipline Index (mPDI) for Hitters. The mPDI metric measures a batter’s ability to swing at pitches in the strike zone and not swing at pitches out of the zone. Tellez’s mPDI has been below the median in each of his MLB seasons. However, as Table 3 illustrates, his plate discipline has improved each season, including the current campaign.
Tellez is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone (O-Swing%) at a slightly reduced rate in 2021 (36.7%) than he did in 2020 (37.3%). The percentage of swinging at in-zone pitches (Z-Swing%) has increased from 2020’s 69.9% to 71.9%. Table 3 demonstrates that the contact rate on O-Swings (O-Contact%) is lower than the contact rate on Z-Swings (Z-Contact%). Therefore, Rowdy has improved both his O-Swing% and Z-Swing% marks. With the related increase in contact percentages, Tellez’s better plate discipline would not account for his 2021 hitting woes.
Another point to consider is that Rowdy is not more aggressive on first pitches. In 2020, 63.8% of first pitches were strikes; it is 59.0% in 2021. His First Pitch Swing% is 33.3% in 2021, which is less than 2020’s 39.4%. Also, there has not been a significant change in Tellez’s Swinging Strike% (2021 – 11.6%; 2020 – 10.6%) or his Called Strike% (2021 – 15.5%; 2020 – 14.0%).
Batted Ball Profile
Table 4 is a summary of Tellez’s exit velocity, launch angle, and Whiff%. The highlights are as follows:
- Compared to 2020, Tellez has improved the exit velocity on batted balls, be they fastballs, breaking or off-speed pitches in 2021.
- His 2021 exit velocity on all batted balls ranks in the 98th percentile.
- Tellez’s launch angle has increased on fastballs from 2020’s 9 degrees to 19.
- The launch angle on off-speed pitches was 8 degrees in 2020 and has jumped to 28 degrees this campaign.
- Tellez’s Whiff% (swings and misses divided by total swings) on fastballs is similar this season (20.8%) to last (17.6%).
- There has been a notable jump in the Whiff% on off-speed pitches in 2021 (57.1%) compared to 2020 (27.5%).
Table 5 presents Tellez’s batted ball profile for the 2019-2021 period. The high points are listed below:
- Tellez is pulling the ball at a higher rate in 2021 (46.2%) than 2020 (33.7%).
- He has also increased his percentage of balls hit to the opposite field from 2020’s 26.3% to 30.8%.
- His pop-up percentage has almost doubled in 2021 to 11.5% from 2020’s 6.3%.
- This pop-up issue is consistent with the increase in which Tellez has hit under the ball. In 2020, his Under% was 18.9% which has now climbed to 34.6% in 2021.
- Before his 161 wRC+ resurgence, Tellez’s Under% exceeded 50%.
The changes in Tellez’s batted ball profile are the best evidence to support the view that timing and tempo are the primary reasons for Tellez’s 2021 underperformance.
Timing and Tempo
When I initially considered why Rowdy was off to such a poor start in 2021, my initial thought was that poor pitch recognition was an issue. Another possibility was whether Tellez was pursuing launch angle, intending to hit more home runs. However, I think the timing and tempo is the main issue.
Poor Pitch Recognition
The 2020 data contained in Table 6 shows that Tellez’s expected metrics were good for all pitch types. Tellez’s xBA on breaking balls and off-speed pitches was better than the average American League first baseman. His xBA on fastballs was a tick below that of the average AL first baseman, but his xSLG was better. Furthermore, the pitch mix in total, and the pitch mix by count state, are very similar in 2021 compared to 2020. Therefore, it seems unlikely that poor pitch recognition is the reason for Tellez’s 2021 difficulties. First, Rowdy demonstrated that he was good at pitch recognition in 2020. Second, there is no significant change concerning how he is pitched (pitch mix and pitch type by count state).
The Pursuit of Launch Angle
Many MLB players have sought to increase their home run totals by increasing the launch angle and exit velocity on batted balls. Pitchers have adjusted to this batting approach by elevating fastballs to generate more swings and misses. However, Rowdy’s case does easily not fit the profile. The pitch location charts do not show a significant change in the percent of pitches thrown in the upper part of the strike zone. Also, Tellez’s Swinging Strike% is similar to last season’s mark, and his 2021 Whiff% on fastballs is comparable to 2020.
Out of Sync
The data is consistent with the view that Tellez’s early-season woes are related to being out of sync. The evidence is as follows:
- The Under% is very high (34.6%), but it has decreased from approximately 53.0%, which it was before Tellez’s work to improve his timing and tempo.
- Tellez’s Whiff% on off-speed pitches has skyrocketed from 2020’s 27.5% to 57.1%. This development is consistent with being out of sync.
- According to Statcast, barrels is a batted ball that is the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle. The reduced Barrel% (from 8.4% to 3.8%), despite improved exit velocity, suggests that Tellez’s launch angle/swing plane has been off.
- In golf, a change in timing and tempo can alter the swing path of the golf club and thereby affect the struck golf ball’s trajectory. It is the same for the baseball swing. An alteration in timing and tempo can modify the swing plane of the bat, which would change the launch angle of the batted ball.
- Also, the increase in both Pull% and Oppo% is consistent with the opinion that Rowdy’s timing has been off.
The data supports the opinion that Rowdy’s 2021 underperformance is due to timing and tempo issues. Also, since Buck and Tabby reported Tellez’s work with Bichette and Martinez to improve his timing and tempo, Tellez’s swing has looked more in rhythm, more in sync.
The last word
Tellez posted excellent batting stats in 2020. Many reasons supported the belief that he would perform very well in 2021. However, Tellez has struggled during the current season. The likely cause of his challenges is timing and tempo issues. Tellez has batted well after working with Bichette and Martinez to address those issues. It appears that Tellez is back on track at the plate.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.