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Like a (Jake) Lamb to the slaughter

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If we can pin-point a single day when Jake Lamb’s career peaked, it was three years ago today.

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MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

“This is the best I’ve ever felt in my career. With that comes a lot of confidence, and it’s good to have my confidence all the way back. I’m just ready for whatever this year has in store. As far as my bat goes, I’m ready to go right now. I feel really good at the plate.”
— Jake Lamb, July 10th, 2020

On August 8th, 2017, life was going pretty well for Jake Lamb. It was a couple of weeks after his first All-Star appearance, and he just had two home-runs and five runs batted in, in the Diamondbacks’ 6-3 win over the Dodgers. That included a go-ahead grand-slam off the right-field foul-pole, against left-handed reliever Tony Watson (below), which became our Play of the Year for 2017. It was a little past the two-thirds mark in the season (Game #112, to be exact), and Lamb was hitting .268 with 25 home-runs and 90 RBI - both numbers at or better than those posted by Paul Goldschmidt to that point. Jake’s OPS was .918, second on the club to Goldy, and ahead even of recent arrival J.D. Martinez.

It marked almost three years to the day since Lamb had made his major-league debut on August 7th, 2014. The 26-year-old had become an integral part of the Arizona offense. His career line was .256/.339/.474, for an .813 OPS, and since the beginning of 2016 (his first year with 400+ PA), Lamb had hit 54 home-runs in 235 games, delivering an .874 OPS. With Lamb under team control for a further three years, outside of first-base there seemed few more certain positions long-term for Arizona than the hot corner. But then, it all started to unravel for Jake.

Over the three years since that glorious August day, he has hit fractionally below the Uecker Line (113-for-566), with only seventeen home-runs in total. His overall line post that heady day in August 2017 has been a dismal .200/.307/.341 for an OPS of just .648. He initially saw his playing time at third-base get taken over by Eduardo Escobar, forcing a move to first. But there, Lamb’s absence last year opened the door for Christian Walker. Walker had a breakout season, both with the bat and defensively, unexpectedly becoming a finalist for the Gold Glove. Consequently, Jake become a credible non-tender candidate this winter. While he dodged that bullet, a horrendous start to the season leaves Lamb a potential DFA.

Where did it all go wrong? There are four causes which potentially have played a part. Let’s look at each of those in turn.

Injury

The most obvious factor is simple: health. After totaling exactly three hundred games in 2016-17, Lamb managed less than half of that in 2018-19, appearing 134 times. In 2018, he first missed a month and a half with a left shoulder sprain, apparently suffered when diving for a foul ball, then exacerbated by a slide into home-plate (above). He came back in mid-May, but towards the end of July, re-injured the shoulder diving for a ground-ball against the Cubs. That ended his season. Investigation found Lamb had a frayed rotator cuff in the shoulder, and he opted to have surgery on August 2nd. But even when he was on the field, it may have impacted Jake’s performance. He told Arizona Sports:

“I went a good two months with zero pain. When it comes to the communication with the training staff and Torey, that was the hardest part, because there was no pain. So when they asked me, ‘Are you feeling good?’ I did feel good. And I thought it was just swing mechanic issues... It’s my back arm [that’s injured], so getting on-plane with the ball, dropping my elbow and then finishing through the baseball... Not that it’s an excuse, because that was, again another mental battle, going through struggles is part of this game, especially hitting-wise. But it never felt right whether it was in the game, in BP.”

The surgery went well, and Lamb was expected to be fully fit for the 2019 campaign. The baseball gods, however, had other plans. Barely had the season started when Lamb was hurt again. This time, a Grade 2 left quadriceps strain, suffered when rounding first-base (above), forced him onto the Injured List on April 5th. The initial expectation was that Jake would miss six weeks. But various setbacks during Lamb’s rehab, meant he ended up being absent for almost twice as long, until nearly the end of June. By the time he returned, Walker had shown he was perfectly capable of taking over at first-base, and Lamb started only 49 of the remaining 91 games.

Struggles against left-handers

This is perhaps the defining aspect of Lamb’s offense as a whole. His career splits are as follows:
vs. RHP: .257/.342/.463 = .805 OPS
vs. LHP: .169/.277/.319 = .596 OPS
That’s 209 points of OPS difference; last year, the average left-hander’s split was 55 points.

However, the reason for the drop in his overall production after 2017, is not Jake failing to hit left-handed pitching. It is instead a result of his no longer being able to handle right-handed pitching. Indeed, over 2018-19, Lamb’s OPS vs. LHP increased on the 2017 figure. But his OPS vs. RHP cratered. In 2017, it had been .844. That dropped to .655 the following season, and barely ticked back, to .676 in 2019. Since the end of 2017, again through Monday, here are his platoon splits:
vs. RHP: .197/.304/.325 = .629 OPS
vs. LHP: .214/.325/.400 = .725 OPS

Now, we are talking perilously small sample sizes. Between injury and platoon management, Lamb has just 70 at-bats against southpaws, over approaching three years. But you’d certainly be hard-pushed to say that his well-recognized issues against left-handers have been responsible for the larger decline.

Defensive shifting

Lamb’s struggles coincided with the rise in defensive shifting. To varying degrees, he ticks off virtually all the boxes to be targeted with a shift. Left-hander? Check. Power bat? Check. Pull hitter? Check. Ground-ball prone? Check. In 2017, Lamb saw a defensive shift against him 37.6% of the time. The following year, that increased to 63.9%, and in 2019, it reached 71.1%. [As a yardstick, the average left-handed bat was shifted on 41.9% of the time in 2019] The results of this can be seen if we compare two metrics, wOBA and xwOBA. The former is an offensive number which, for example, takes into account that one point of OBP is more valuable than SLG. See here for details. There will not be a test. :)

What’s interesting is xwOBA. It’s what a batter’s wOBA “should be,” worked out based on their exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, sprint speed. [Again, more info here and here] This, crucially, removes defense from the result. While there are other factors, the gap between wOBA and xwOBA can help determine how much a player has been hurt by facing a shift. In 2017, with Lamb being unshifted on more often than not, his wOBA was .353, not too far from the xwOBA of .361. But in 2018, the gap between the two figures more than tripled, to 26 points (.290 vs. .316). It then doubled again to 52 points for 2019 (.297 vs. .349), four times the MLB average difference of 13 points.

We can’t blame the shift for all of Jake’s struggles: the drop-off in xwOBA is indicative of worse results at the plate, regardless of what happens thereafter. But there’s good reason to suspect it’s a factor. In spring training this season, there was some indication Lamb had been adjusting his approach at the plate, to counter the elements of his profile which made him such a good shift candidate. Steve Gilbert wrote [emphasis added]:

He found himself closing off his front shoulder so instead of facing out towards the pitcher as he started his stride, it curled in. When that happens, he has to spin open with his body causing him to become pull happy and hit more balls on the ground. To make sure that no longer happens, Lamb opened up his stance at the plate. He starts with his front foot slightly out to the right, which he found helps him keep his shoulder square to the pitcher. When he does that, he can use the whole field and get balls up in the air.

We’ve hardly had enough chances to see if there has been any impact. But according to Statcast, Lamb’s average exit velocity this year is a career-high 92.8 mph (again: just 12 balls in play). That hasn’t translated into hits, of course. But last August, Jake told Zach Buchanan, “When you’re hitting the ball hard, I’ve always said it counts as a hit in my book. Especially with shifts now, I’m not looking to aim the ball and put it where they aren’t. I’m looking to crush the ball and let it eat. If there’s a guy there, there’s a guy there. If it goes over the fence, it goes over the fence. Whatever.”

Image taken from https://baseballwithr.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/in-search-of-the-optimal-launch-angle/

The problem has not been how hard Jake has been hitting the ball this year. It's the average launch angle of 24.1%. As the chart above shows, at an exit velocity of 90 mph, the chance of a hit drops steeply as the launch angle increases above 15 degrees. Jake may have been hitting the ball hard, but he has been getting under it.

Wearing down

There is a sharp difference in Lamb’s numbers between the first and second halves of the season, and it’s something we noticed as far back as winter 2017. Despite the injuries, he has had almost equal numbers of PA in both. But here are the stats:
1st Half: .270/.357/.503 = .860 OPS
2nd Half: .213/.305/.375 = .681 OPS
[I’ve no clue, incidentally, into which category this year’s games fall!] That’s a difference not too far short of his platoon split, and goes contrary to the norm: in 2019, all batters hit slightly better in the second half, albeit by only eight points. Might Lamb be simply running out of steam?

The above picture, taken during summer camp, did seem to show a new, rather more ripped, Jake than previously. But quizzed whether he has bulked up, he played the photo down: “I think it just looks like I have. I’m in really good shape — a lot of biking — but I don’t think I’ve bulked up.” Though with a 60-game sprint, stamina should really not be any kind of issue.

Looking forward

This is Lamb’s final year before hitting the free-agent market, and his walk year could hardly have got off to a worst start. A 60-game season doesn’t provide much of a chance to make an impression, and Lamb’s slow start has likely condemned him to a bench role. Given the offensive woes of the team in general, there’s no room for dead wood, and It’s not as if Torey Lovullo can afford to wait for Lamb to turn it around. Unless injury opens the door to Jake getting more playing time, he could be entering the fray in about the worst possible situation. Money is likely to be tight already this winter, and without a meaningful sample of good performance on his CV, Lamb may find further employment hard to obtain.