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System Sundays: Schrock, Schtruggling

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Examining the brutal season of Max Schrock, and what his approach can tell us about the why.

St Louis Cardinals Photo Day Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Author’s Note: As the title of this post suggests, it was intended to publish yesterday morning. And then, sadly, yours truly simply forgot to schedule it prior to leaving the house for a day at Johnson’s shut-ins. I was very puzzled when I checked the site yesterday evening and discovered there was no Max Schrock post in evidence. So, you get bonus content today, as I’m scheduling this to go up an hour before my actual Monday morning post. -RB

I don’t think I’ve made much of a secret of the fact that Max Schrock is one of my favourite prospects. Not just in the Cardinals’ system, either; I’m a big fan of the modestly-statured second baseman in the context of the game as a whole.

Part of that could be due to Carson Cistuli’s efforts in making Max Schrock a thing over the past couple years; I cannot deny the allure his charmingly nebbishy affect has for me. But also, I’m simply a sucker for players with extreme contact profiles. The longer I’ve done this whole scouting thing, the more fascinated I’ve become with that most elemental of offensive skills, of simply putting the bat on the ball consistently. Part of it is the rising strikeout rate in baseball as a whole; in a climate of so little contact, it would seem that those capable of putting the ball in play might find some kind of extra value to teams looking for a new margin of advantage. Even more than that, though, I find contact skills to be one of the more intriguing abilities a player can have because of the flexibility it would seem to afford a hitter trying to make adjustments.

We’re living in an era now where teams are more willing than ever to try and have players make substantial changes to their games in hopes of increasing overall production. The launch angle/flyball revolution has brought us multiple, notable success stories of previously low-power players suddenly finding authority in their contact profiles hitherto unsuspected; those kinds of changes would never have been attempted 20 years ago, not because no one understood that power was good, but because coaches and players alike saw individual games as far less malleable, and the spirit of modern experimentation had very little precedent at that point.

As things stand now, though, organisations appear to be treating players and their skillsets as less set in stone than previously believed, and armed with data are working for more and more development in those players. In that context, I have come to believe contact rate may be the single most important ability for a hitter to possess. You can teach a guy to get the ball in the air, you can change his approach to pull the ball more, or stay back and use the whole field, or teach him to wait for his pitch more patiently. But standing outside the batting cage and yelling to a player, “Just...you know. Hit the ball. Like, more. No, not like that! Hit it more.” doesn’t seem all that helpful.

So consider, in that context, Max Schrock, who came over to the Cardinals in the offseason deal which sent Stephen Piscotty home to the Bay Area. The Cards’ return was Yairo Munoz, who I saw at the time as primarily a useful future utility piece — and who has done really nothing to change my perspective to date — and Schrock, with whom I was already fascinated due to the aforementioned contact ability. To wit, the highest strikeout rate Schrock had ever run at any level of the minors was 9.2%, which he posted last season at Double A. He also posted a 7.4% walk rate to go along with that K rate, so we’re essentially talking about a player running closer to a 1:1 K:BB ratio at Double A. That’s a pretty good indication of a guy who’s close to major league ready.

With that kind of contact ability, and that command of the strike zone, one would think Schrock would be an ideal candidate for tweaking. Call it the Jose Altuve Treatment, if you like; take an undersized but solidly built middle infielder with extraordinary contact skills, get him to put the ball in the air a bit more, and open up his swing to make him more capable of hitting for power. Then — voila! — you’ve got yourself a star player.

So now let’s get to the bad news: Max Schrock has had a really tough go of things at Triple A Memphis this season. Over 257 plate appearances, Schrock has just a 78 wRC+. That’s...really bad. His season didn’t start out this way; from the beginning of the season through the 5th of May (I picked that date just because his season started on the 5th of April), Schrock was running a 124 wRC+. He wasn’t hitting for much power, with an .098 isolated slugging percentage, but he was walking nearly 7% of the time, striking out just over 8%, and doing that high-BABIP all-fields hitting thing that you would expect a left-handed contact wizard to do in order to be successful.

And then came the crater. From May 5th to June 5th, Schrock’s wRC+ was 47. His BABIP was .232, his ISO was .067. He didn’t strike out much, with just a 7.3% K rate over that stretch, but his walk rate plummeted to just over 3%.

From the 5th of June through the end of the month, things got even worse. His wRC+ from June 5th to the 29th (the last game Schrock played), was 43. The BABIP was still .232, and the ISO was just as bad, at .070. What’s sort of amazing is that Schrock struck out even less over that time period, whiffing in just 5.2% of his plate appearances, but no power, a low BABIP, and a walk rate of just 2.6% does not make for a productive hitter, no matter how stridently he refuses to strike out.

So what happened? Is this simply a case of Schrock running into better pitchers, capable of pitching him in the zone, and him not being able to cope? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. The fact he’s run such low ISOs and walk rates suggests that perhaps pitchers really are just attacking him inside the zone with impunity, but what has changed that has cratered his BABIPs to a point he’s never had happen before in his career?

Now, to be fair, it could just be that Schrock is doing exactly what he’s done before, and the BABIP gods have decided to treat him poorly for awhile now, and that’s all there is to it. After all, as Jon Jay showed us in his years wearing a Cardinal uniform, you live by the BABIP, you will occasionally die by the BABIP.

However, I don’t think that gets us entirely to the bottom of this story, or at least not as close as I hope we can come. It’s unfortunate we don’t have super cool statcast numbers for minor leaguers, where we could really dig down into exit velocity data and things like that. Teams might very well have that stuff; I don’t know how many clubs have installed Trackman systems and the like in their minor league parks, or at what levels, but I know there is some of that stuff going on in the minors. Us, though? We don’t have anything with that sort of granularity.

We do, however, have more basic batted-ball data for the minors, and even that can tell us a reasonably informative story, I believe. And what kind of story can we cobble together about Max Schrock?

Well, for starters, we can see that Schrock is running the lowest ground ball to fly ball ratio of his career. In 2016, he played at multiple stops, but the two spots where he actually played enough to pay attention to the numbers were at Low A and High A in the Nationals’ system. In Low A, his GB:FB ratio was 1.39; in High A, it was all the way up at 1.83. In other words, Schrock hit the ball on the ground nearly twice as often as he put it in the air at High A in 2016. Toward the end of that season he was dealt to the A’s, and ended up getting something like 30 total plate appearances at two levels in the Oakland system. We’re going to ignore those numbers.

It’s in 2017 that we see a really serious change in his profile. That 1.83 GB:FB ratio he posted at High A in the Nats’ system fell all the way to 1.18 in the Oakland system. Schrock’s GB% fell from 51.2% to 41.5%. That’s almost ten percentage points, but maybe even more importantly it’s nearly a 20% actual drop in groundball rate. The flyball rate, unsurprisingly, jumped the most, going from 28% to 35.3%, with the remainder of the missing grounders turning into a more mild uptick in line drives. In other words, going from the Washington system to that of the A’s between 2016 and ‘17, Max Schrock appears to have become a member of the launch angle revolution.

A slightly weird little aside: Schrock’s pull percentage actually went down, significantly, from 2016 to 2017. In 2016 at Potomac (High A), Schrock’s pull% was 44.3%. In 2017 at Double A Midland, his pull% fell all the way 35.6%. Now, on the one hand that makes a certain amount of sense; grounders tend to be pulled more often than balls hit in the air. It’s just the nature of swing geometry in general. A player who stops hitting the ball on the ground as much might be expected to go to the pull side less often. However, the counter to that is that a player buying into the launch angle/fly ball idea is doing so in all likelihood to try and increase his power production. And where is power production most commonly found? That’s right; the pull side. So a hitter who starts hitting the ball in the air more often, but also starts going to the opposite field more than he had previously, is really only getting partial benefit from raising that launch angle. If Schrock was trying to improve his power output at the behest of his new organisation in 2017, he only made part of the transition he needed to.

Now, if we look at Schrock’s batted-ball profile in 2018, we find some more changes. His GB:FB ratio has fallen even further, to 1.05. His groundball rate is down to 40.2%, while his flyball rate has jumped again, almost three percentage points, to 38.2%. The line drive rate is down a couple ticks, which is indicative of a player raising his overall launch angle, but LD% also happens to be the noisiest of all batted-ball stats, so it’s tough to read too very much into that bit of variance.

We also see that he is now pulling the ball more than he did in 2017, seemingly completing that transition he only mostly made last year. His pull% has jumped from 35.6% to 41.3%, and while his opposite field numbers have fallen some — 39.4% to 37.8% — that pull-side approach has actually come more at the expense of him using the middle of the field.

So what we have here, over the course of two full years, is a player who has very much bought in to the launch angle revolution, and gone for more pull-side flyball power in his approach. It’s the same change we saw Matt Carpenter make back in 2015, the same change we saw Jose Martinez make from 2016 to 2017. (And then go back on somewhat this year, but on balance he’s been so good that one has to simply admire the balance in his offensive game.)

From Potomac to Memphis, Schrock’s groundball rate has dropped a full eleven percentage points, his flyball rate has risen over ten points, and he’s pulling the ball almost as often now as he did then, despite hitting more balls in the air, which again tend to be pulled less, as a general rule. Max Schrock would, on the surface, seem to be a perfect example of that new-school shift, where a player makes a change to be more productive by leveraging what he does well — in this case, make a lot of contact — in order to try and improve in an area where he has less natural ability, i.e. power production. Did I mention that Schrock, in the midst of all this change, is running just a 7.2% strikeout rate? Yes, he’s been awfully aggressive at the plate this year, with just a 4.6% walk rate, but he’s making as much contact, if not more, than he ever has, all while changing his batted-ball profile to that of a player trying to exploit pull-side power in the air more often than he has before. And also, that lower walk rate is something we saw with Matt Carpenter when he first made his move to try and hit for power, as he attacked hittable pitches more aggressively, and thus waited out pitchers less often until they learned to treat him more carefully. It would seem, for Schrock, to have been a remarkable transformation.

Or it would until we have to come back around to the part where Schrock has been terrible at the plate for much of the season.

Here’s where I’m concerned: when we see players make this kind of change, what we’re hoping for is to see them hit for more power. Max Schrock has made the changes we want to see a hitter make to unlock their power, and is now....hitting for less power than ever. He had never posted an ISO below .100 before at any level; now he’s running an .083. And actually, here’s the scary part: he hit for less power last year at Midland (.101), hitting the ball in the air a bunch than he did at Potomac (.112), when he was hitting grounders all day every day. You would hope than when he moved to using the pull side more that trend would have reversed course, but it’s only gotten worse. His BABIP has cratered largely because he’s hitting routine fly balls over and over to the right fielder. I can say that because I’ve watched quite a few Memphis games this year, and ‘Max Schrock flies out to right’ is the Memphis equivalent of ‘Kolten Wong grounds out to second base’.

Schrock’s HR/FB% this year is a dismal 3.2%. Barely over three percent of the balls he has hit in the air this year have left the park, and that’s playing in the extremely hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Admittedly, Memphis actually has maybe the toughest park in which to hit in the whole PCL, especially for left-handed hitters, but he’s also playing in places like Albuquerque (I hate trying to spell Albuquerque, by the way; I always try to put an extra ‘r’ before that first ‘q’ for some reason), and Las Vegas, and Reno, all of which are big-time hitter’s parks. If Schrock were running a HR/FB% of even 10%, he would be in the big leagues by now.

Why this is all concerning is that it appears there’s a decent chance that the A’s and now the Cardinals have tried to make Max Schrock into an Altuve-sized power hitter, and he simply doesn’t have any power. The fly ball conversion only works if the hitter in question can produce good results on fly balls. It would seem to be very questionable right now as to whether or not that is the case with Schrock.

So is it time to give up on Max yet? No, of course not. You never give up on a player who appears to be trying to make a conversion of some sort, and for Schrock this is still fairly new territory. The results right now are very concerning, but we don’t have nearly enough time with this new pull-side fly ball Max Schrock to conclusively say the modification to his approach was a failure. And even if it does end up that way, maybe he can make another adjustment and try to go back to all-fields low-launch-angle spray-hitter Max Schrock. So no, you don’t give up yet.

However, there is a cautionary tale in here somewhere, something about it not being quite as easy as we might think for a player to remake himself, if we’re only ever really looking at the success stories.