Blue Jays SS, Bo Bichette’s hitting this season has disappointed many people this season. Why has he underperformed?
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There were many reasons to be optimistic concerning the 2022 Toronto Blue Jays. In 2021, Vlad Guerrero Jr. was runner-up to Shohei Ohtani in voting for the American League Most Valuable Player Award. George Springer would be available to play more games in 2022 than he did in 2021. Other factors fueled optimism for the 2022 Blue Jays, including Bo Bichette.
For the 2021 season, Bichette posted a 122 wRC+ and a 5.1 fWAR. Regarding Bichette’s 2022 campaign, Steamer projected a 124 wRC+ and a 4.4 fWAR. To date, Bichette has a 106 wRC+ and a 2.4 fWAR. When I add Steamer’s rest-of-season projected 0.8 fWAR to the 2.4 tally, Bichette’s 2022 updated fWAR is 3.2. Hence, Bichette has lagged behind Steamer’s expectations and probably those of many fans of the Blue Jays.
So, what is going on with Bichette? Shaun Doyle recently examined Bichette’s 2022 performance. In this article, my primary focus will be a study of Bichette’s hitting via a comparison to his 2021 batting metrics.
Below is a table that is a summary of Bichette’s key batting metrics.
Before digging deep into Bichette’s 2022 batting performance, a little pitcher-handedness data is necessary. Last season, Bichette posted a 111 wRC+ when facing righthanded pitchers; this season, it is 112. Concerning lefthanded pitchers, Bichette generated a 156 wRC+ in 164 plate appearances last season. After the August 26 game, his comparable wRC+ is a 71 wRC+ in 86 plate appearances.
If Bichette’s 2022 wRC+ versus lefthanders were 2021’s 156 in 86 plate appearances, his overall wRC+ would rise from 106 to 119, just three points lower than 2021’s overall 122 wRC+. Also, Bichette’s OBP would be 0.321 with this adjustment approach; it is currently 0.300. I make this point to illustrate how much Bichette’s 2022 batting underperformance has been affected by the significant production decline when facing lefthanded pitchers. It should also be noted that Bichette’s career wRC+ versus lefties was 158 heading into the 2022 campaign.
Although Bichette’s 2022 performance versus righthanded pitchers is almost identical to 2021’s, it is worthwhile to examine his 2022 hitting. Many expected him to generate a wRC+ against righthanded pitchers better than 112. Given his talent, it is reasonable to expect Bichette to post a wRC+ against righties into the 120-125 range. Also, there is a good chance that some of the issues that contributed to his poor wRC+ versus lefthanded pitchers are the same as those when he encounters righthanded pitchers.
To discover why Bichette’s hitting has not met expectations, I considered changes in pitch mix and pitch location from 2021 to 2022. Alas, those areas did not provide any clues. Whether right-handers or lefthanders, Bichette has not witnessed a significant change in pitch mix or pitch location from 2021 to 2022.
Another area to examine is plate discipline. No doubt, when I put Bichette’s name in the same sentence as plate discipline, some people think that it is similar to mixing oil and water. Yet, Bichette’s 2022 plate discipline is similar to what it was in 2021. Accordingly, plate discipline does not offer clues regarding Bichette’s disappointing 2022 batting results. However, it is worthwhile to spend a little time on Bichette’s plate discipline profile; his plate discipline is better than many observers believe.
In 2021, Bichette’s Chase% was 38.1%, more than ten percentage points higher than the MLB median (among the 362 hitters with a minimum of 200 plate appearances). It may surprise some MLB observers that Bichette’s Chase% is lower this season (36.1%) than last. However, that Chase% remains higher than the 29.1% MLB median (354 hitters with a minimum of 150 plate appearances). Bichette swings at many pitches out of the strike zone. In percentile terms, Bichette’s Chase% ranks 86th (the player with the highest Chase% is in the 100th percentile); in 2021, Bichette’s Chase% percentile ranking was 95th.
It should be noted that plate discipline is more than not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone; it is also swinging at pitches in the strike zone. It would not shock anyone to be told that Bichette, a free-swinger, swings at many pitches in the strike zone. His Z-Swing% is 77.9%, which ranks in the 95th percentile (the highest rate is in the 100th percentile). In 2021, Bichette’s 79.6% Z-Swing% was in the 97th percentile. Bo likes to swing at strikes.
Bichette’s 2022 mPDI versus righthanded pitchers is slightly higher than 2021’s figure; his mPDI when facing lefties is a tick higher this season than last. Relative to the MLB median, Bichette’s overall 2021 mPDI was a hair lower than the median; this season, his mPDI is slightly higher. Yes, Bichette would likely benefit from better plate discipline. Yet, his plate discipline is better this campaign than last. Therefore, plate discipline is not a factor that explains why Bichette’s 2022 batting performance has disappointed.
So why has Bichette’s batting been a disappointment? The clue is his Whiff%.
In 2021, putting the bat on the ball was not a problem for Bichette. His 2021 xBA on pitches with a minimum velocity of 95 mph ranked in the 67th percentile, and his 2021 Zone Contact% and Chase Contact% were higher than the MLB average. Hence, his 2021 swing profile should include the “much better at making contact than the MLB average hitter” descriptor. If his Whiff% is noticeably higher in 2022, then there may be something in his swing profile that accounts for his disappointing 2022 results.
Last season, Bichette posted a 22.3% Whiff%, which was 28th percentile (among 361 hitters with a minimum of 200 plate appearances). The batter with the highest Whiff% is the 100th percentile. Also, the median Whiff% is 25.1% in 2022 and 2021. Bichette’s Whiff% has risen this season to 24.9%, the 48th percentile. In 2022, compared to 2021, Bichette makes less contact when he swings the bat.
The higher Whiff% is consistent with other metrics. For example, Bichette’s K% has risen from 2021’s 19.9% to 25.0%; the MLB average is 22.3%. His swinging strikeout rate has increased from 2021’s one swinging strikeout every 6.05 plate appearance to once every 5.05 in 2022.
What would cause Bichette’s Whiff% to rise? The answer is two-fold. First, his swing profile; second, Bichette appears to be guessing more than he did this season compared to last.
Let me state from the outset that I am not a hitting coach, nor do I have access to non-public data and video. Accordingly, the following points are guesses based on observation and publicly available data. My “expertise” is best captured by a scene from The Big Bang Theory, a television show. I can’t solve Bichette’s batting challenges.
Regarding lefthanded pitchers, the problem is that while Bichette’s 2022 batting record is poor and the impact upon his overall record is significant, despite the low number of plate appearances, those limited opportunities make it difficult to draw solid conclusions. Therefore, my primary focus will be on examining his profile when facing right-handed pitchers.
Concerning righthanded pitchers, who account for 84% of Bichette’s plate appearances, the key metric changes are as follows:
- Higher K% – 2022’s 24.8% versus 20.7% in 2021
- Higher Whiff% – 26.1% in 2022 compared to 22.9% in 2021
- Higher HardHit% – 51.9% in 2022; 48.1% in 2021
What swing characteristics are consistent with the data listed above? According to Chipper Jones, who appeared on the August 24 edition of the Fan 590’s Blair & Barker show, Bichette has a long swing with many moving parts. Most MLB observers would agree with Jones’s description of Bichette’s swing. Furthermore, Jones opined that Bichette’s swing profile could lead to extended and more extreme performance peaks and valleys than a hitter with a simpler, more compact swing.
To illustrate Jones’s point regarding the length and complexity of different swings, consider the Bichette chart and that of Alejandro Kirk, whose swing is more compact than Bichette’s. Kirk’s rolling 50-batted balls HardHit% chart has shorter and less extreme peaks and valleys than Bichette’s. I have also included Bichette’s 2021 chart. One can see that the extremes in HardHit% were shorter in duration last season compared to this campaign. I share Jones’s opinion that Bichette’s long swing and multiple moving parts contribute to the time and extent of the peaks and valleys of his batting results.
Although the 2022 sample size is small concerning opportunities facing lefthanded pitchers, I don’t think it unreasonable to conclude that Bichette’s relatively long and complicated swing negatively affects his batting performance against lefties. Especially given the infrequency of facing lefties. July of this season is the month that he had the most plate appearances against lefthanded pitchers (26); April had the fewest (6). In 2021, Bichette’s highest monthly plate appearances versus lefties occurred in July (35); the lowest happened in April (21). Synchronizing a long, complex swing is more challenging if few opportunities exist.
Another item to consider is whether Bichette is guessing more at the plate this season than last. I cannot provide direct evidence that he is guessing more in 2022 than in 2021. However, consider three pieces of Statcast data.
- Bichette’s Meatball Swing%, the rate at which a batter swings at pitches right down the middle of the strike zone, has declined from 2021’s 87.7% to 84.6%. This Meatball swing-rate reduction is consistent with a batter looking for a particular pitch, did not get that pitch and then let a meatball pass. (These Meatball Swing% data points and others on this list reflect the results when facing any pitcher, whether righthanded or lefthanded).
- His rate of called third strikes is higher in 2022 (once every 20 plate appearances) than in 2021 (once every 30 plate appearances).
- With two strikes, Bichette’s Swing% on pitches in the Heart Zone is 93% (97% in 2021), a tick lower than the MLB average for right-handed batters (94%).
For a free swinger like Bichette, the lower Meatball Swing%, more frequently called third strikes and lower Swing% at pitches in the Heart Zone with two strikes is consistent with the opinion that he is guessing more in 2022 than in 2021.
The Last Word
Bichette’s batting thus far in 2022 has been below expectations. When people see a 106 wRC+ after last season’s 122, it is easy to see why they are disappointed. However, the most significant factor in the 16-point wRC+ drop is Bichette’s atypical lack of production when facing lefthanded pitchers.
However, given his talent, there are issues that Bichette should address. For example, Chipper Jones opined that Bichette’s swing characteristics lead to extreme and lengthy performance peaks and valleys. We have seen that this season and last. A more compact swing, not to mention a more disciplined approach, should lead to better results. The combination of long performance valleys and guessing incorrectly can frustrate many Blue Jays fans. Yet, fans should not let frustration dim their optimism. Bichette is a talented hitter, young and, by all accounts, motivated to improve. I am confident he can make the necessary changes in approach and swing mechanics to put him back on the road for consideration as one of the better-hitting MLB shortstops.
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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.