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Fixing what ails Ryan McMahon at the plate

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Colorado Rockies news and analysis for Monday, February 15, 2021

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride for Ryan McMahon in his Rockies career. Debuting in mid-August 2017 after tearing up Triple-A, he made his first Opening Day roster in 2018. Unfortunately, at that time there was no clear spot in the lineup for the infielder with Trevor Story and DJ LeMahieu playing up the middle, and Nolan Arenado playing at McMahon’s natural position of third base. In 2019, he proved he belonged by slashing .250/.329/.450 with 24 home runs in 141 games. Last season he looked about as comfortable at the plate as the rest of us did living through a global pandemic. This season he’s expected to take over third base from Nolan Arenado.

In an interview with Patrick Saunders this week, RyMac acknowledges that he can’t replace Nolan; he can only go out and “just to be the best Ryan McMahon I can be.” From that same article, just what does the “best Ryan McMahon” look like and what would that mean for the Rockies in 2021? Let’s start with the best we’ve seen from McMahon, that 2019 campaign, and see what went wrong in 2020.

Overall, the raw totals were decent in 2019, but only added up to an 88 wRC+ when you account for playing home games at Coors Field.

What he did well: hit the ball hard. That Exit Velocity placed him in the top 8% of hitters in baseball.

What he did poorly: strike out. His 29.7% strikeout rate placed him in the bottom 6% of hitters.

Ryan McMahon, 2019-2020

Year G PA HR R RBI BA/OBP/SLG BB% K% EV Hard Hit % wRC+
Year G PA HR R RBI BA/OBP/SLG BB% K% EV Hard Hit % wRC+
2019 141 539 24 70 83 .250/.329/.450 10.4% 29.7% 91.9 48.0% 88
2020 52 193 9 23 26 .215/.295/.419 9.3% 34.2% 90.1 43.0% 76
Statcast

Fast forward to 2020 and, even in a shortened season, the worst parts of RyMac’s game were amplified. He struck out at an even more prodigious rate, and the contact he did make was poorer, with the hard hit rate dropping five percentage points. Here’s the change we saw from 2019 to 2020.

Ryan McMahon Batted Ball

Year PA LD% FB% Pull% Straight% Sweet Spot %
Year PA LD% FB% Pull% Straight% Sweet Spot %
2019 539 25.5% 19.3% 31.7% 40.4% 36.3%
2020 193 22.4% 22.4% 38.3% 31.8% 27.1%
Statcast

2019 RyMac made his living on hitting line drives and hitting them hard. 2020 RyMac struggled to produce those line drives. Perhaps in compensation for his lack of good contact, he started showing up early for pitches and pulling the ball significantly more. We’ve seen players in the past see massive improvements by committing to the pull side, but that did not work out for McMahon. Only five of his 16 extra base hits in 2020 went to the pull side, so he was not generating the power that you would hope to see from someone committing to the pull. What’s worse is that opposing defenses took advantage.

Ryan McMahon Shift Statistics

Year PA Shifts % wOBA - No Shift wOBA - Shift
Year PA Shifts % wOBA - No Shift wOBA - Shift
2019 539 179 33.3% .307 .375
2020 193 105 54.4% .324 .285
Statcast

McMahon saw an incredible jump in the number of times he was shifted against in 2020. And the shift went from being ineffective against RyMac to being a no-brainer to use it on him in 2020. A good portion of that change is due to the difference in contact. And contact is built from your approach, which took a turn for the worse in 2019.

Ryan McMahon Plate Discipline

Year PA Swing% Zone% Zone Swing% Chase% Chase Contact% 1st Pitch Swing %
Year PA Swing% Zone% Zone Swing% Chase% Chase Contact% 1st Pitch Swing %
2019 539 49.6% 48.0% 74.5% 26.5% 52.3% 41.4%
2020 193 47.0% 49.7% 67.5% 26.7% 45.1% 28.0%
Statcast

What stands out from that table is that McMahon swung less overall, especially at the first pitch. He didn’t chase more pitches, but he made contact with the ones he did chase less often. This all happened with the number of pitches he saw in the zone going up. That’s a formula for a lot of 0-1 counts, making it especially difficult to get comfortable in the box and find a pitch that you can drive. It also results in more strikeouts.

That’s a lot of numbers and tables and math is hard, so here’s the takeaway. Ryan’s approach got worse in 2020, putting him into bad counts, which led to him finding fewer pitches to hit hard and more strikeouts. To compensate, he seemed to start pulling the ball more, but that made the shift a more effective tool to use against him. He went from a line-drive gap hitter in 2019 to a weak contact pull hitter in 2020, making it a year to forget at the plate.

Nobody expects RyMac to replace Nolan Arenado’s production in 2021. But he’s going to have to change his approach if the Rockies offense is going to turn around from it’s three-year stretch of bad results. Looking for those first-pitch strikes and recapturing his gap-to-gap approach will go a long way to accomplishing that.

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Saunders: Rockies’ Ryan McMahon gets chance to shine with departure of Nolan Arenado | Denver Post ($)

Here’s the aforementioned interview with RyMac, with a little more about what he’s doing to prepare for 2021. Saunders also has quotes from Story talking up McMahon’s potential to take the next step forward. It’s the kind of quote that demonstrates Story is ready take on the full mantle of leadership for the young squad.

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