The 2021 Toronto Blue Jays should be an exciting team. Besides “winning the offseason” in the American League, what will make the Blue Jays games a must-watch for me is seeing whether their young players keep taking steps forward in their development, and toward becoming household names. Tools? Man, do the Jays have some tools. Do you like overpowering fastballs? Nate Pearson’s averaged over 96 mph last season, albeit in a limited sample size. Loud contact? Vladimir Guerrero Jr. recorded the third hardest hit ball in the majors last year at 116.1 mph. Or perhaps you are a plate discipline afficionado? In that case, let me introduce you to Cavan Biggio.
Cavan Biggio made his debut with the Blue Jays in 2019, and one thing he has done better than anyone in baseball since then, is not chase pitches out of the strike zone. His outside zone swing rate has been the same 13.6% in both 2019 and 2020 seasons.
That level of plate discipline has been the main factor in his 16.1% walk rate and .368 career OBP. For Biggio, the improvements going forward will be related to what he does with pitches in the strike zone: he is yet to crack the 50th percentile in either his exit velocities or xSLG.
I’m certainly not a swing expert, and “get stronger” is no fun to write an article about. Instead, I wanted to explore Biggio’s swing decisions in the strike zone, and if there could be some opportunities with those. Disclaimer: in the interest of sample size, I will try to use Biggio’s 2019 & 2020 combined statistics whenever possible, as those add up to roughly 700 plate appearances. Let’s start with the big picture view.
The good news is that there isn’t a lot of swing and miss in Biggio’s game: his overall whiff and zone contact rates are right in line with MLB averages. The overall swing percentage is lower than the MLB average, and some of that will be due to the low chase rate. What does stand out though, is that Biggio swings less in the zone, and less at the first pitch than the MLB average. Where in the zone could Biggio be more aggressive? And is he being too passive on first pitches?
When Biggio steps up to the plate, his plan is not too difficult to decipher. 48% of his batted balls have been to his pull side, compared to 36.6% MLB average.
To do that, Biggio has a preference of swinging more at pitches on the inside part of the plate as opposed to pitches away. The three images below illustrate how often Biggio swung at pitches in a particular area of the strike zone, as well as what the MLB average for all left handed hitters looked like for 2019. I looked at the 2019 MLB average in the interest of sample size.
Starting with the middle of the strike zone, in 2019 Biggio swung at about 75% of the pitches in that location (the four “middlemost” squares), right in line with other left handed hitters. In 2020, he swung less at pitches over the middle of the plate and down in the zone – the 75% and 73% from 2019 became 58% and 56% in 2020 – but that could just be a sample size issue, especially since the swing percentages over the middle of the plate down at the knees didn’t show as dramatic a drop-off (60% and 65% became 56% and 59% respectively). Nevertheless, seeing how aggressive Biggio is on pitches right down the middle is something to pay attention to as the 2021 season unfolds.
The other observation from the images above is that Biggio is less likely to swing at pitches away than a typical lefty MLB batter. In particular, at pitches that are about belt high. In 2019, MLB lefties swung at those pitches at a 57% rate in both the “waist-high and away” squares, while Biggio swung at 39 and 43 percent of pitches in those zones in 2019, and 36 and 38 percent in 2020.
Knowing that Biggio is more likely to swing at pitches inside and looks to pull them, how has he been pitched so far in his young MLB career?
Biggio has been pitched mostly away, and he has been letting those pitches go more often than not. To take the next step as a hitter, Biggio will need to show pitchers that he can cover the outside part of the plate and drive those pitches with authority. He is not that far off.
Below are the exit velocities and launch angles when Biggio puts the ball in play in a particular area of the zone.
Being more aggressive on the waist-high pitches away in the zone could be a good starting point. On those pitches, his average exit velocity is right around 89 mph, with a launch angle of 19 degrees. Balls with those characteristics tend for fall for hits about 45% of the time.
Once again, remember that Biggio is looking to pull the ball to right field. Yet he has a career .327 wOBA on pitches waist high and away. If those pitches were driven the other way into left center field, Biggio, with his speed, could even see an increase in the number of doubles he hits.
Let’s finish up by looking at Biggio’s first pitch swinging propensity, or lack thereof. Based on the analysis above, one would expect Biggio to be more aggressive on pitches on the inside and middle of the plate. Once again, I compared his first pitch swing tendencies with all the other left handed batters in the 2019 season.
Overall, left handed batters swung at first pitches right down the middle (again the four “middlemost” squares) at about a 50% clip. In 2019, Biggio was just about the same, while in 2020 we see a similar pattern as with the overall swing rates – a slight decrease in swings in the lower part of the zone down the middle of the plate: from 58% and 55%, he went down to 36% and 17% respectively. This could again be a sample size issue, but something to monitor in 2021. Ideally, Biggio would be close to the 50% MLB average, as that is the area of the zone he does the most damage in, with exit velocities in the 90+ mph range.
Other than that, just like in the overall swing pattern, Biggio is less likely to swing at first pitches away in the strike zone. That, to me, is actually a positive. He knows his favorite location, has a plan, and the confidence to stick to it. By the same token, when pitchers came inside to Biggio with the first pitch in 2020, he was more likely to swing at those pitches than in 2019. He swung at the belt high inside first pitches at 0% and 30% in 2019, and those figures jumped to 33% and 63% in 2020. Small sample size could surely be in play here, but we can clearly identify Biggio’s knowledge of “his” strike zone, and the willingness to wait for pitches inside that zone early on in an at-bat.
To summarize, I would watch how aggressive Biggio is on pitches in the middle of the strike zone in 2021 – specifically, how close he is to the MLB averages of swinging at 50% of first pitches, and 75% of all pitches right down the middle. Obviously those two percentages are not set in stone. But Biggio, just like all the other MLB batters, is at his most dangerous when he connects with pitches in the middle of the zone, and being too passive with that location leaves slugging percentage on the table.
Furthermore, I am curious to see if he becomes a little more aggressive on pitches belt high on the outside part of the plate, and starts driving some of those pitches the other way. Right now, Biggio is mostly being pitched away, and showing pitchers that he can cover that part of the zone will go a long way towards getting more pitches in “his” zone, on the inside part of the plate.