First Pitch Travails and Tribulations Starring Desmond Jennings

By now everyone should be familiar with Rays center field dynamo and lead off hitting Desmond Jennings. He makes plays all over the place, but today we’re going to focus solely on his bat. For complete openness I wanted to come into this piece railing on why Desmond Jennings should not be batting leadoff for the Rays. After digging into the following data I think there’s another discussion we should be having. Let’s start with the original premise.

The role of a leadoff hitter is to get on base. Pure and simple. Walk, single, get hit, get a hit, 300 feet or three, just get your self on base for the good hitters to follow. Many leadoff guys get bogged down with that first approach. Sure, it’s good to make the other guy expose his repertoire and what he has for the day, but is it smart to stick with the same approach with no adaptability? No, in a game of adjustments you should try to remain as unpredictable as possible. That means straddling the line of passivity and patience by swinging first pitch from time to time, particularly if you’re key-holing a pitch and then end up getting it. Let’s start with a look at his swing rates by handedness and pitch type:

Jennings is clearly being very passive on first pitches and it’s not based on any particular type by either kind of pitcher. Overall, he’s only swinging around 23% of the time on first pitches while swinging 59% of the time against all other pitches in all other counts. One thing to despise about a guy that’s of the mindset to take first pitch no matter where is that they seem to have a tendency to swing at whatever the next pitch is. Now we’re not going to delve into that level of minutiae, but you can see that after taking first pitch 3/4ths of the time he’s swinging at everything else around 3/5ths of the time. Shirley Surely, there is room for compromise in there and this is one of the big reasons I don’t think Jennings makes a great leadoff hitter, yet. Well maybe he’s just not getting anything to hit first pitch:

Legend: Square = Breaking Ball, Triangle = Change Up, Circle = Fastball

Brown = Called Strike

Green = Ball

Orange = Foul

Black = In Play, Out

Blue = In Play, Hit

Red = Swinging Strike

You can see that he’s getting almost zero fastballs inner-third which is most likely the pitch he is hoping to get and then mash. He is, however, getting a ton of fastballs out the outer half of the plate that he is taking for strikes. This could be an area where he can open up his zone a little bit because he should still be able to do damage with these middle and up pitches whether it’s going to center or taking the ball the other way. Desmond has done a good job laying off the breaking ball down and away for the most part, though first pitch that’s a little easier. You’ll also notice that his hits have mostly come on pitches within six inches of the center of the plate up and down the zone. The takeaway here is that it would be nice to see him shift his pitch preference from what is most likely inner third to more out over the plate and away. Right now he isn’t seeing anything where he wants it because he hasn’t adjusted to how he’s being pitched. Rope enough singles and doubles over the infield on those pitches over the plate and you’ll see him start to get those pitches that he can turn on and deposit in Crawford’s Corner.

Let’s turn our focus on what types of pitches he’s seeing:

Pay special attention to the note. The total columns show how often he has swung either first pitch or all other pitches by handedness and overall. Against lefties he’s swinging first pitch around 41% of the time and that goes down to 34% against righties. The rest of the columns show how often he is receiving that pitch by handedness so first pitch against lefties he’s seeing an even mix of secondary stuff, but not as many breaking balls the rest of the count. Righties have felt the need to throw the breaking ball more often and especially first pitch where he’s seeing a ton of breaking balls to start the count and slightly less so from there on out. We’ve seen what’s being thrown and how often he’s swinging, but let’s drill down a level to see the outcome of each pitch starting with the first one he sees:

These are the five results on any given pitch. You may already have an intuitive feel for this after looking at the second chart, but here are the specific figures. Anything with a wrinkle should probably just be left alone, as he’s only putting 5% of these pitches in play and taking a strike a whopping 39% of the time. The change isn’t much better though he has upped his in play percentage while not having a single swinging strike. The fastball is unsurprisingly where he’s having the most success. He’s only swinging 27% of the time, which should come up if he’s willing to adjust his keyhole zone, and though he’s putting 15% of all pitches in play he’s still taking a very high level of called strikes at 32%. This is an area where we need to see growth as many of those pitches are in the heart of the zone and deserve to be punished. Let’s compare this to the rest of the counts:

As we saw above Jennings has no problem swinging at anything when it’s no longer a 0-0 count and the biggest place this manifests is in his swinging strike rate. Even against lefty fastballs, a pitch he should absolutely crush he’s whiffing 15% of all pitches and against righties it’s only slightly better though still unacceptable. His called strike rates are really low, particularly against righties. What we see here is a guy that’s taking first pitch unless it’s absolutely within a zone and the pitch type he’s looking for and then over-compensating the rest of the count by swinging at everything thrown to him. So how’s all this working out for him:

Run values are great because they adjust for count and punish batters for taking (or swinging through) strikes and making outs while rewarding the batter for taking balls and collecting hits. Positive is good here and you’ll notice that we’re looking at both the raw run value and that figure adjusted per 100 pitches. Notice that on first pitch Desmond is only doing really well against right-handed fastballs. The first pitch chart above shows that, yes, he’s taking more called strikes than balls, but he’s also putting a ton of balls into play and having success doing so. Smaller bright spots are the first pitch breaking ball from righties and the fastball from lefties while secondary stuff from lefties has mostly ranged from pretty bad to disastrous. We can use this same lens to look at all other counts:

Throughout the rest of the count he’s having quite a bit of success against the lefty fastball, a pitch he SHOULD be mashing and some success against the righty change, which is another pitch he should be having success against. Everything else is piss-poor. He’s well below average against the fastball and the breaking ball against righties and the breaking ball from lefties is eating his lunch, as well. All of these things show that Desmond Jennings is just a mess at the plate right now. It appears that he’s getting himself in bad counts and has become something of a guess hitter. It doesn’t matter how fast you are or that you can hit the occasional dinger if you’re up there taking strikes from pitcher’s with no fear of a negative outcome and then chasing everything else that they offer.  Lastly, let’s take a look at the location of all those pitches in other counts that he’s not hitting:

Due to the number of pitches let’s first take a look at secondary stuff.  You should immediately notice that there weren’t many hits, at all, but particularly on the inner half. He has a bunch of balls in play that turned into outs and quite a few swing strikes clustered down and over the middle and down and away, mostly on breaking balls.  Let’s move on to the fastballs:

Here we see quite a few more hits particularly six inches from center either way and middle and down. Still you can see many of the foul balls are in locations that he should be hammering and there’s still a lot of called strikes in locations that he should be able to not only cover, but to do damage. It looks like pitches on all four corners give him trouble and he didn’t have a whole lot of success collecting hits on pitches on the extreme outer half, especially on fastballs that got up at all.

Jennings has a lot of holes in his swing to cover right now. His zone recognition hasn’t been bad, per se, but he seems to go up there with the mindset that he’s taking first pitch unless it’s in a certain area and if it’s not there he’s going down in the count. That’s not a bad approach if you’re a hitter that can hit with one or two strikes, but Jennings just doesn’t have the plate coverage or ability to hit secondary stuff to make this approach work. I’d like to see him moved down the order where he can be a little more aggressive on first pitch and early in the count without having to work an at bat. In the meantime, put Ben Zobrist or Kelly Johnson up there because unlike Jennings these are two guys that can hit when they’re behind in the count and are much better suited for working counts, and then getting on, over, and in.

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About Jason Hanselman

Rays fan.
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