All spring long, one of the key points that was emphasized by the coaching staff was that the hitters needed to show better discipline at the plate. This was an ineffectively aggressive lineup a year ago, and the new guys in charge wanted to see the holdovers start drawing more walks. And so it was with great displeasure that we watched Yuniesky Betancourt flip everyone the bird and do his own thing out of the gate. Out of 198 qualified hitters, Yuni was one of two bats that didn't draw a walk all April, and it wasn't until May 4th that he drew his first free pass. He was hacking more than ever before, and people weren't pleased.
Just when Yuni's job security seemed to be coming into question, though, things started to turn around. After drawing just two walks through his first 33 games, Yuni got a two-day benching, came back on May 15th, and proceeded to draw five walks over his next 31 trips to the plate. It was a stunning development, and considerable praise was given to both the coaching staff for getting his attention, and Yuni for taking it upon himself to improve. Such a step forward wasn't previously thought possible, and Yuni was able to earn a reprieve from many of his harshest critics.
Indeed, we were watching a version of Yuniesky Betancourt who was swinging at far fewer balls than the one we saw in April. What follows is his O-Swing% over two different splits made available by Fangraphs - the rate at which Yuni swung at balls out of the zone in April, and the rate at which Yuni's swung at balls out of the zone over the past two weeks.
April OSwing%: 41.5%
Last 14 Days OSwing%: 30.9%
Over the last two weeks, Yuni's tendency to swing at balls improved by 26% over his tendency in April. That's a marked leap, and though 30.9% is still worse than the league average, it's far more reasonable for an aggressive hitter than 41.5%, and more in line with what we've seen from Yuni in the past.
That's good, right? Isn't that along the lines of what the coaching staff wanted? Technically, yes. The coaches wanted Yuni to chase fewer balls, and since coming back from his brief stint on the bench, he's complied. But there's something else hiding in here that makes this whole turnaround a little less exciting. Let's look at how often Yuni swung at pitches in the zone, shall we?
April ZSwing: 72.5%
Last 14 Days ZSwing%: 53.2%
That's a drop of - guess what? - 27%. And this isn't a drop to be celebrated. You want your hitters to swing at strikes. When strikes get put into play, they tend to cause runs.
Over the last 14 days, Yuni has improved his OSwing% by 26% from where it was in April, but his ZSwing% has been right there with it in lockstep. So it's not so much that Yuni has been swinging at fewer balls - it's that he's been swinging less often in general, and in pretty much the same ratio versus strikes and balls. That 53.2% ZSwing%, by the way? Over a full season, that would've ranked Yuni second-lowest in baseball a year ago. Yuni's been chasing balls like Freddy Sanchez, but he's been going after strikes like Bobby Abreu.
Yuni's received some praise for improving his eye, but the truth of the matter is that his eye isn't any different than it was a month ago when everyone was sick of him. His ZSwing%/OSwing% ratio during this hot streak is the same as it was in April. The spike in walks has been nice to see, but it hasn't been because of any kind of significant change in discipline - Yuni's simply been swinging less often, and players who swing less often tend to draw more walks. All Yuni's done is apply the instruction to swing less without really considering when.
Will this new approach work for him? I dunno. It might. I can't know for sure. But I'm inclined to say no, because he's still going after the same ratio of strikes and balls, and that ratio of 1.7 would've placed him dead last in baseball a year ago. I'm gad that Yuni has taken the coaching staff's words to heart and started to swing less than he used to, but until he shows some improvement in recognizing what is and isn't a good swinging situation, I'm not going to get my hopes up. He's still the same mess, and I still want him gone.