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A very early look into Jordany Valdespin's developing plate discipline

Jordany Valdespin has seen more pitches early on in 2013 but has his plate discipline actually improved much from where it was last year?

Jason Szenes

Throughout the offseason, our Rob Castellano closely monitored the evolution of Jordany Valdespin's plate discipline. As Rob has pointed out, his plate discipline markedly improved throughout the second half of the 2012 season and it continued to show promise during Winter League play in the Dominican. This development, despite constituting a small sample size (and in the case of the winter league, against inferior competition) gave us some hope that perhaps Valdespin could hone his tools and become a fixture at the top of the Mets' lineup.

We may only be a month into the season but it seems like Valdespin's improved plate discipline has been talked up a bit, with his pitches seen per plate appearance cited as the proof. After the completion of Wednesday afternoon's game, Valdespin had seen an average of 4.33 pitches per plate appearance, noticeably up from his 3.84 mark a year ago. That 4.33 number would sit tenth best in the majors if Valdespin had enough plate appearances to qualify. Looks promising but even with that, his walk rate is lower than it was a season ago at just 3.3%. Now, walk rate is not the only way to monitor plate discipline and thanks to the wonder of PitchFX, we can go a little deeper and learn some more. Check out the chart below:

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
2012 33.5 % 56.6 % 44.8 %
2013 34.1 % 54.4 % 43.9 %

As you can see, the numbers from 2013 are very similar to his averages from 2013. In fact, he's actually swinging at a slightly higher number of pitches outside of the strike zone than he did a season ago, while swinging at pitches in the zone around 2% less. Of course, we're talking about a difference that on the aggregate is essentially meaningless, not to mention that this is still a small sample. In comparison to other notorious free swingers around the league, Valdespin's career 44.6% swing percentage was surprisingly not all that high to begin with but the bigger point is that none of this seems to show us a discernible improvement in his plate discipline. Let's go further.

Season O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2012 65.9 % 84.6 % 77.5 % 10.0 %
2013 78.3 % 88.2 % 84.2 % 6.5 %

The bigger changes are in the amount of contact Valdespin is making. When he's swung, he's made contact nearly 7% more often than a season ago, when his contact rate was about two percent below the 79.6% league average. In 2013, he's seen a slight bump in contact inside the strike zone but it's his improvement in making contact outside of the zone that is most interesting. If he had enough at bats to qualify, that amount of contact outside the strike zone would put him inside the top 30 around the majors in that category and his much improved 6.5% swinging strike rate would place him just inside the top 50 in the majors in that one. With all of that extra contact he's making, Valdespin has also seen a jump in his line drive rate from last year, from 15.4% (which would've been second lowest among qualified players if he'd had enough at bats) up to 18.2% and as a result, his BABIP has gone up 22 points, from .273 to .295. This makes plenty of sense, as more line drives and more hard contact should result in a higher batting average on balls in play.

So what can we say thus far about Valdespin's plate discipline? While his development has yet to manifest itself in taking more walks in the major leagues, it does seem early on that his pitch recognition has improved from where it was in 2012. He's swinging at essentially the same number of pitches but he's swinging and missing less, while making more contact with the pitches that he's swinging at outside of the strike zone. Now are these developments sustainable over the long haul? That's the next question to answer, as it's still very early and we need to see how this develops as Valdespin collects more at bats. While promising, it's something he'll have to show for more than 60 plate appearances and that's an opportunity I hope he gets, since his upside is likely the highest among the Mets' current outfield contingent.