It’s almost the end of August, Nick Ahmed has over 500 PA, and a wRC+ over 95. Wait, what?
Yes, the defensive-minded Nick Ahmed, one of the absolute best defenders in baseball but with only a career 75 wRC+, is suddenly breaking out offensively with a wRC+ right around league average. This improvement at the plate, in addition to his top-of-the-line defense, has turned Ahmed into one of the top 10 SSs in baseball, with his 2.7 fWAR ranking 11th and his 4.4 bWAR ranking 4th among all shortstop. In fact, per bWAR, Nick Ahmed has been the 20th-best position player in all of baseball this season.
Can’t say many saw this one coming, this author included. Ahmed has slowly been making improvements at the plate, most noticeable by developing roughly league-average power in 2016, but his bat was still below average. Ahmed didn’t have great plate discipline and his BABIP skills were also below-average. He has steadily improved each year in the Majors, but it really seemed like his 84 wRC+ last season might have been the best he was going to do.
That, of course, has changed in 2019. And we’re going to dive into the changes. Nick Ahmed’s upside with the bat is still limited due to his average-at-best power, but his defense is so damn good that just getting to a league-average bat has turned Ahmed into an all-star caliber player.
So what’s causing this improvement at the plate? Well, year-over-year, Ahmed has improved his K%, BB%, ISO, and BABIP. That’s every single important offensive peripheral. Ahmed’s batted ball profile hasn’t changed much at all, with his LD%, GB%, and FB% all being very close to his career averages. What has changed, however, is his plate discipline and his power. Let’s look at the two of them.
You’ve probably heard a lot about players and power breakouts (cough Ketel Marte cough) this season but actually, Ahmed’s breakout isn’t related to power at all, even though his power numbers are up year-over-year. This seems to be mostly related to the offensive changes in baseball. The league-wide ISO for non-pitchers has increased from .165 last season to .188 this season, or a .023 increase. Ahmed has gone from .176 to .189, a .013 increase. League-wide HR/FB% rates have gone from 12.8% to 15.4% for a 2.6% increase, whereas Ahmed has gone from 11.3% to 14.3%. for a 3.0% increase. Ahmed is slightly higher here, but not enough to really equate it to a skill improvement.
In fact, per FanGraphs’s Hard% measurement, Ahmed is one of only 26 players whose Hard% has gone down from 2018, out of 246 players with at least 400 PA this season.
While a true skill-level increase in power would really bode well for Ahmed, this might almost be a good thing as it would possibly indicate that Ahmed’s breakout may not be related to the juiced ball at all. The real improvement to Ahmed’s breakout appears to be in his approach at the plate, which are generally the skills most likely to continue year-to-year.
As inferred above, this is where the meat of Ahmed’s breakout at the plate lies and it looks to be very real and an improvement that has been coming over the past three years. The main thing that stands out is how much Ahmed has improved both his K% and his BB% since 2017. And both have been steady improvements. Here are 50 game rolling samples, which indicate that this appears to be very much an approach change and not simply small sample size noise:
Ahmed’s had spikes up and down but there is a noticeable downward trend here and it’s really declining in the second half of 2019. His BB% follows a similar trend:
So obviously both of these stats have improved, but why have they improved? Well, it’s actually pretty simple:
Nick Ahmed is swinging less and chasing less.
Starting at the top, Ahmed is swinging less overall. Here are his swing rates since 2016:
That’s a pretty marked difference between 2018 and 2019. However, he’s actually swinging at more strikes than he has at any point in the last two seasons. What’s really changed is that Ahmed has drastically reduced the rate at which he chases pitches out of the zone:
This is such a big change, in fact, that Ahmed’s O-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone) has dropped a whopping 5.7%, from 34.2% last season to 28.5% this season. According to Fangraphs’s Season Stat Grid. this is the 2nd biggest drop year-over-year, topped only by Dansby Swanson. Out of 250 players.
This is a very good adjustment by Ahmed, as the end-result of this is that he is seeing more pitches per plate appearance, striking out less, walking more, and making better contact as a result of swinging at better pitches, which is driving the improvement to his BABIP. And this is all summed-up quite nicely in his SwStr%:
However, there is another underlying factor at play here, which is likely a big reason why he isn’t chasing pitches outside of the zone nearly as often:
Nick Ahmed is now looking for pitches he can handle and is waiting on them.
It might appear subtle, but Ahmed has really narrowed the zone in which he is swinging at to pitches in the heart of the plate. You’ll also notice that Ahmed is swinging much less at pitches low-and-away, which was his worse zone for strikeouts coming into 2019. A look at Statcast’s zone profiles helps to show this improvement:
So it appears that we’ve narrowed Ahmed’s improvement at the plate to a pretty simple adjustment: more patience and waiting for pitches he can hit in the zone. This looks to be a real skill improvement for Ahmed, not just some short-term luck.
All that’s really left to analyze is Ahmed’s BABIP, which has risen from .265 last season to .290 this season. BABIP is one of those things that’s really hard to determine from the inputs, though Fangraphs has a good xBABIP calculator which can be found here. Surprisingly, this xBABIP calculator predicts a 0.333 BABIP for Ahmed... suggesting he could be doing even better. This author also wrote about Nick Ahmed back in 2017, which found a very similar 0.331 xBABIP for Ahmed. There seems to be a gap here, as Ahmed’s career 0.270 BABIP is considerably lower than the > 0.330 xBABIP he’s seen in both 2017 and in 2019. But it does help to support the notion that his current 0.290 BABIP doesn’t seem to be an overperformance, either.
Unlike the previous article from 2017, this does appear to be a sustainable change for Nick Ahmed. The improved strikeout and walk rates definitely seem to be a true skill-level change for Ahmed, as does the power improvement from 2016 to 2017. All that’s really left to see is what happens with his BABIP going forward. Everything is pointing to him performing at a better rate than he has for his career; let’s see if that continues to hold true.