The Detroit Tigers moved Niko Goodrum to lead off in 2020, but a change in approach, not his position in the lineup, might be the culprit of his toils
The definition of a valuable hitter has changed rapidly over the last five years. Once, it was the ability to make contact, produce a high batting average, and knock batters in. Both teams and players like Detroit Tigers shortstop Niko Goodrum have since recognized and repented from such stats in favor of on-base ability, power, and, if one is feeling particularly savvy, Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+).
There have also been some changes led by Statcast, which for hitters helps give specific metrics relating to a batted ball. This has led us to hard-hit percentage, launch angles, and barrels–which help us to infer if a particular batter has had good or bad luck associated with their results.
Detroit Tigers shortstop Niko Goodrum has struggled at the plate this season at his new lead-off home. He has slashed .186/.240/.384 over the first 23 games of his 2020 campaign with a staggering 36 strikeouts. The struggle has plagued Goodrum so much that manager Ron Gardenhire resorted to an off day Saturday night to hopefully clear Goodrum’s head and spend some time looking at the game as a spectator to gain some insights.
Goodrum’s scuffle and off day prompted a dive into some of the advanced metrics outlined above to see what was causing such a struggle. The expectation was for something to pop out; an unusually low BABIP (batting average on balls in play), a reduction in his hard-hit numbers, his chase percentage. Perhaps his new leadoff role was causing Goodrum to be so unnecessarily patient that it was ruining his at-bats before they started. But none of those traits existed.
The strikeout numbers were elevated compared to 2019, but I did not need a stat page to tell me that. Searching out the over-patience hypothesis, I found it important to see how many pitches Goodrum saw year-over-year both with two strikes as well as an 0-2 count. The original lead-off hitter narrative is for them to display patience, work counts, run well, and be ‘scrappy,’ whatever that means. More recently, teams have opted for their best on-base player for the lead-off spot in hopes to keep innings alive longer and maximize that player’s at-bats throughout the season.
Curious of Goodrum was perhaps caught up in those traditional stereotypes, I wanted to see how many more pitches Goodrum had seen in less favorable counts in hopes of working counts more effectively. The results showed Goodrum has remained essentially the same as his 2019 campaign. According to Fangraphs, Goodrum saw 136 pitches out of 403 with two strikes; good for a 33.7 percent rate. In 2019, he saw 607 pitches our of 1936 with two strikes; a 31.3 percent rate; a change of 2.4 percent year over year. No luck.
0-2 counts were my next potential culprit; considering a hitter who is that far behind in the count is more likely to strikeout than not. In 2019, Goodrum saw 151 out of 1936 pitches 0-2; good for about 7.8 percent. For 2020, 39 of his 403 pitches were 0-2, or about 9.6 percent for a difference of 1.8 percent. Such small increases in pitches seen both with two strikes and within 0-2 counts tell us this is not the reason for Goodrum’s problems; especially considering 30 games could be making him a victim of small sample sizes.
The next spot is to examine the hard-hit and whiff numbers; since an 8.3 percent spike in strikeout rate would infer a reduction in the amount of balls Goodrum is hitting hard as well as the amount of time he is swinging and missing, particularly out of the zone. Interestingly, neither was true. Goodrum continues to be in the 88th percentile of the league for hard-hit percentage while his zone swinging percentage, whiff percentage, chase percentage, and zone contact percentages are all within three percentage points of where they were last season.
A significant spike is found in launch angle, however. In 2019, Goodrum’s launch angle averaged 13 degrees while 2020 it has jumped to a staggering 17.2 degrees. There is a common misconception in both those who analyze the game as well as fans that batters swing for launch angle; and while they may choose to opt for more power in their swings, launch angle is only the product of such an effort.
Niko Goodrum has certainly sold out for power. Why else would his hard-hit percentage remain so high but the strikeout percentage also spike? Likewise, why would virtually every metric measuring his propensity to chase remain largely unchanged? Or the nature of his counts in which he hits? Why would ground ball rates be down 7.8 percent and fly ball rates increase 6.5 percent with a pop-up rate increase of nearly 5 percent? Admittedly it is an inference based on data and we could not know for sure until Goodrum confirmed it himself, but it feels to be the only logical conclusion for such a stumble.
To an extent, the efforts are being rewarded. In 2019, Niko hit a home run in around 2.5 percent of his plate appearances. So far this year, that number has jetted to about 4.1 percent. The problem is the strikeouts and easy, unproductive outs like pop-ups that accompany such a relentless pursuit of power can hinder oWAR numbers; as Goodrum has been worth a -5.6 offensive WAR so far in 2020 with his positive defensive play the only thing saving him from a disastrous overall figure.
It is certainly a possibility that Niko Goodrum’s strategy has been more a product of him pressing and trying to do too much to make up for lost production time over a clear and conscious effort to go for the long ball each and every pitch, but one would think he would have been able to change course from such frustrations by now
This is not to be portrayed as a “get off my lawn” rant from someone who enjoys how players and analysts once perceived the game. The reasons why players should try to hit home runs are valid. It is instant run-scoring with one swing of the bat that can alter a game much more than a bunt single could. However, it is also important to recognize whether such a sacrifice is beneficial for that particular player. For Goodrum, his above-average sprint speed and ability to take walks to make him more valuable than his ability to hit home runs. In Goodrum’s case, the sacrifice has not nearly been worth the limited success in 2020.