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Ryan McMahon is having a weird season

Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, June 15, 2022

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The Rockies likely had some lofty expectations when they signed Ryan McMahon to a six year, $70M contract prior to the 2022 season. The third baseman was coming off his best season in the Majors, a campaign that included being a Gold Glove finalist (next to Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado) and an improvement at the plate. McMahon struck out less and hit less groundballs, leading to a .254/.331/.449 output (95 wRC+, 100 is average) that still left some room for growth. After signing the deal, you’d assume that the Rockies thought they were getting a Gold Glove caliber third baseman who’d be a league average hitter, and that’s a valuable ballplayer who can stabilize the hot corner for the next half decade. Except... that kind of hasn’t happened yet this season.

Fielding Troubles... Or Not?

Through June 13th, Ryan McMahon’s 11 errors led all Major League players, and the only other player with double-digit gaffes was the Astros’ young star shortstop Jeremy Peña. This is after McMahon made only 7 combined errors in well over 1200 innings between second and third base last season, by the way. So, therefore, the automatic conclusion is that RyMac has been horrific at third base this season, right? Well... no. As a general rule, errors and fielding percentage are not a totally accurate measure of good defense. Great fielders, of course, put themselves in position to make more errors, because they get to balls that poor fielders don’t even sniff. So with that being said, Ryan rates as a solid fielder at third base even with all those uncharacteristic errors, which tells you something about his quality. The lefty-hitting third baseman has positive values in UZR (+1.6) and DRS (+5) and ranks exactly neutral per Statcast’s Outs Above Average. Were I a betting man, I’d put money on McMahon finishing the season as one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. He’s gotten off to a weird start with the glove, but that won’t continue. Defense isn’t the issue here.

The Bat

This is what might’ve given someone pause when McMahon got that long term contract. Entering 2022, the California native was a .243/.323/.433 hitter, good for only a 87 wRC+, and that’s not typically something you want at a non-premium (C, SS, CF) defensive position. Clearly, the Rockies bought into his improvements from 2021, as McMahon solved two of his issues from previous years to different levels. His strikeout rate went down to 24.7%, his career-low over a full season by a good amount. Most importantly, he stopped hitting so many groundballs: his groundball rate went from over 50% (which is extremely high, especially for a power hitter) to below 40%, and he managed to do it without hitting lots of pop-ups: he exchanged grounders for a few more line drives and flyballs. McMahon always hit the ball hard, it was just a matter of not beating it into the ground. So after his 2021 improvements, one would think that the arrow would keep pointing up for Ryan McMahon.

So far this season, however (through June 13th), McMahon is hitting a very, very modest .236/.332/.368 that only adds up to a far too light 88 wRC+. Is he striking out too much again? Kind of, but not totally. His K rate of 27.5% is higher than last season, but not by a debilitating amount. Is he hitting more groundballs? Again, slightly so: his groundball rate is up by 2.4%, but he’s also barely popping the ball up, so that compensates. Those improvements have mostly held. His BABIP is also just fine, and it’s actually higher than his career average (.324 to .313). His walk rate of 11.5% is a career high. So what’s the issue?

A Career Outlier

Well, there’s something. McMahon had outperformed his expected weighed on-base average every single season... until 2022. In fact, his expected wOBA this season is the best of his career by a noticeable margin. Expected metrics are not the Bible (they’re just another tool), but according to Baseball Savant, McMahon’s results have worse than his process in every single area: his expected batting average is .257, higher than his .233 average. His expected OBP is .352, 20 points higher than the .332 he’s put up. The most noticeable is his slugging percentage, as his expected SLG is .447, 79 points higher than the measly .368 he has right now. What’s the deal?

The Opposite Field Problem

This is where Ryan McMahon is a victim of the normal baseball MLB is using this season, just like everyone else, but the change has been especially noticeable for him. As Eno Sarris wrote in The Athletic ($) some days ago, the new, unjuiced ball has removed a significant chunk of the damage done on opposite field flyballs, and few hitters in baseball pull their flyballs less often than Ryan McMahon. But it’s not just flyballs that’s messing him up, it’s line drives as well.

For MLB as a whole, a line drive or flyball hit to the opposite flyball has produced a .345 batting average, a .554 slugging percentage and a .315 BABIP. For Ryan McMahon in 2022? .306 AVG, .556 SLG... and just a .278 BABIP. That’s despite him hitting those types of balls much harder than the average MLB hitter. McMahon’s xwOBA on opposite field line drives and flyballs this season is .440, but his actual wOBA is just .357. That difference of -.083 points is significant, and much worse than the league average -.021. There’s well-hit balls that are finding gloves, and some of those will eventually fall in, but there’s also the fact that those opposite field flyballs McMahon used to excel at doing damage on are just not as valuable as they were three years ago, because the baseball itself is not as lively. The fact that his rate of opposite field flyballs has skyrocketed this season just as MLB decided to tone down the way the ball was flying (two third of his flyballs are hit the other way!) is bad timing.

So that’s the thing. Defensively, RyMac has had his hiccups, but those should not be a continued issue. It’s the batted ball data that leaves you scratching your head, and the conclusion I’ve arrived at is simply that while he’s likely been a bit unlucky, the way Ryan McMahon hits the ball is harming his production with the more normal baseballs MLB is using this season. Is there an adjustment to be made? Pulling more flyballs seems to be the obvious solution, but that’s easier said than done. Count me in as someone who will be watching the Rockies’ third baseman with a lot of interest for the rest of the season. If he’s a league average hitter, he can be a great player for the Rockies. If he can’t make the adjustments, he won’t be as good as he can be, or as good as the Rockies are expecting him to be.

★ ★ ★

Tuesday Prospect Notes: A Few Top 100 Tweaks | Fangraphs

Drew Romo gets a shoutout here, and rises in the Top 100. Wait until the first proper update of the prospect lists for Ezequiel Tovar’s jump into the upper echelon of the rankings.

Zac Veen on learning curves, getting better | Rox Pile

Veen’s not been as overwhelming this season in Spokane as he was last year in Fresno, but he’s still playing well. The 20-year-old is hitting .257/.366/.396 for a 125 wRC+ in High-A. He’s also stolen 22 bases in 23 attempts.

On The Farm

Triple-A: Salt Lake Bees 1, Albuquerque Isotopes 5

A rare low scoring game in the PCL in which the now 27-34 Isotopes shut down the Bees from the jump. Starter Brandon Gold (6.0 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 6 K, 1 HR) was terrific, with the only run coming on a 4th inning solo shot, and the bullpen pitched three hitless innings after him, with Justin Lawrence in particular striking out four across two frames and picking up the win in relief. This phenomenal pitching performance complemented a balanced lineup: five different Albuquerque batters got an RBI and there were three home runs hit, one by Wynton Bernard to lead off the ABQ half of the first, and back-to-back shots by Carlos Pérez and Alan Trejo to give the team the lead in the 7th inning. Elehuris Montero went 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and a stolen base. Albuquerque will look to make it three wins in a row today with Ashton Goudeau on the mound, who’ll be making his third start in Triple-A after a stint with the big league club.

Double-A: Akron RubberDucks 5, Hartford Yard Goats 2

This ballgame looked promising for Hartford (38-20) three batters into the bottom of the first. Daniel Montano singled, Ezequiel Tovar hit a two-run homer to the opposite field (his 13th of the season) and Jimmy Herron singled. And after that? Herron got picked off and the Yard Goats managed just one more hit the entire game, going ice cold and giving the pitching staff a slim 2-0 lead to hold onto. And for most of the afternoon, it looked as if though they just might manage to do it. Starter Nick Bush was fantastic (6.0 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 6 K), dropping his ERA to 3.18, but the typically outstanding Yard Goats bullpen faltered right out of the gate. Fineas Del Bonta-Smith navigated through a pair of hits to put up a scoreless seventh, but PJ Poulin gave up three hits and a run in the eight to cut the lead to just one run, and Gavin Hollowell allowed three hits, a walk and four runs in the ninth to blow the save. The most damaging of all was a three-run shot to top Guardians prospect Bo Naylor to make it 5-2 and effectively put the game out of reach, with Hartford going down quietly in the bottom of the frame. This loss puts a stop to the seven-game winning streak Hartford had going on, and they’ll look to start a new one today. Their starter is TBD at the time of writing this column.

High-A: Hillsboro Hops 2, Spokane Indians 9

A well-rounded performance by Spokane (29-27) highlighted by one of Zac Veen’s best games as a pro. The top Rockies prospect went 2-for-5, but both hits were home runs, and he drove in four of his team’s nine runs. The nine runs gave ample support for Mike Ruff, who wasn’t all that sharp but still managed to prevent runs and get himself a win (6.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 4 K, 1 HR), and the bullpen held Hillsboro hitless the rest of the way. The win is hopefully the first of a good run for Spokane, as the ballclub entered this series reeling after losing five of six and the division lead at Eugene in their last series. Lefty Evan Shawver (0-3, 2.73 ERA) will take the ball for Spokane in the second game of the set.

Low-A: Fresno Grizzlies 7, San Jose Giants 4

This ballgame would’ve probably given Earl Weaver a heart attack. Fresno (39-19) and San José combined for six errors (three apiece) that led to three unearned runs, a passed ball, no home runs and three outs on the basepaths. The game was tied 4-4 going into the 8th, where the Grizzlies rallied for three runs that would win them the day. Every batter in Fresno’s lineup reached base at least once, six different players had an RBI and Adael Amador, Warming Bernabel and Juan Guerrero all had two-hit games. Starter Jarrod Cande was very good as well (6.0 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 0 HR), and Fresno will look to keep their winning ways going with young right-hander Case Williams (4-1, 3.38 ERA) on the mound for game number two against the Giants. The Grizzlies, owners of the third best record in all of Low-A, have won seven in a row and sit comfortably in first place, seven games clear of San José.

★ ★ ★

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