If you want to show a friend evidence explaining why Rowdy was better in 2020 than 2019, look no further than table 4.
You might hear the words “Get Rowdy” echoed through stadiums when the 6’4”, 255lb first basemen launches baseballs to arguably record distances.
Known for his power, large stature and memorable name, Rowdy Tellez is one of many exciting players featured in an offense-heavy lineup for the blue birds north of the border. But where did Rowdy come from and how did he become the power hitter that he is today? What elements of his 2020 season will he need to refocus on to turn this early season around? Let’s start at the beginning:
Rowdy Tellez started his journey towards the Majors when he was drafted in 2013 by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 30th Round (895th overall). Funnily enough, he was drafted just 1 round after his current teammate, Cavan Biggio (29th round, 871st overall).
It would be an understatement to say that Rowdy succeeded during his minor league career. Year after year, Rowdy progressed as a hitter with an ever-increasing OPS.
Graphs 1 & 2 highlight Rowdy’s dominance as a hitter as he made his way through the minors and more specifically, within AA Ball. In his last three months playing with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Rowdy recorded a SLG% of .563, .640, and .688 — capping off an impressive season. As one would imagine, such progress wouldn’t go unnoticed. Rowdy’s 2016 campaign earned him a promotion to the AAA squad, the Buffalo Bisons.
Playing just one level below the MLB, Rowdy was the closest to his dreams than ever before. However, he struggled under that much pressure. His 2017 season with the Bisons was challenging as he posted a .222/.295/.333 batting line over the course of the entire season. The most alarming shortcoming in his performance was Rowdy’s homerun tally. In AA, Rowdy hit 23 round trippers but in AAA, that number was cut to 6 in nearly as many at bats.
While this was a little alarming for an up-and-coming power hitter, he was given another chance with the AAA team. Rowdy took that opportunity and ran with it — and just like previous years, he furthered his hitting ability.
Graph 3 compares Rowdy’s struggles in 2017 to his substantial improvements in 2018. In that season with the AAA club, he slashed .270/.340/.425. And in September, Rowdy finally got his chance…
On September 5th 2018, the Toronto Blue Jays faced the Tampa Bay Rays at the Rogers Centre. In the 6th inning with Aledmys Díaz on second base and 2 out, Rowdy Tellez made his Major League debut pinch hitting for Jonathan Davis. Rowdy drove the very first MLB pitch he ever saw at a whooping 108.9 mph exit velocity (the hardest hit ball in the entire game) to the right center field gap for an RBI double. With his name and that crack of the bat echoing throughout the stadium, everyone learned who he was.
In the next four days Rowdy did this:
He slashed an unbelievable .571/.600/1.214 over his first four games. Most rookies would be happy to make it on base in their first few plate appearances, but Rowdy wanted more. Rowdy tallied 7 extra base hits before collecting his first non-extra base hit. Of course, his torrid pace wouldn’t last but even after he cooled off, he put up a respectable (and more rookie-like) .250/.263/.464 throughout the rest of September. As fun as it was to see Rowdy flaunt his power, and it sure was fun, the big man showed an early sign of weakness with a 28.4% strikeout rate. A shortcoming that plagued him during his early career.
When Spring came in 2019, it was no surprise to Blue Jays fans that Rowdy joined the team in Dunedin yet again. During Spring Training, Rowdy slugged 5 homeruns over 52 plate appearances and struck out in one quarter of those trips to the plate. His strikeout-heavy approach followed him into his rookie season as his strikeout rate climbed to 28.7% (league average: 23%).
To baseball fans, a high strikeout rate isn’t too alarming because it’s common among power hitters. However, in his 2020 campaign, Rowdy accomplished what no other MLB qualified batter did: He dropped his strikeout rate by an unbelievable 12.7%. The player with the second largest improvement was San Diego’s Wil Myers with an improvement of 8.6%. However, Rowdy did more than just improve his approach at the plate…he revolutionized it.
Comparing Rowdy’s performance in 2019 and 2020, it’s clear to see that there were improvements in almost all hitting categories. Although, his biggest improvements were made in his approach at the plate:
Table 2 shows a deeper look into his year-to-year comparisons. As referenced before, the most glaring improvement was in the strikeout rate…and what an improvement that was. Further to this, Rowdy made strides in other aspects of his approach. He laid off more pitches outside of the zone and made more contact on all balls in and out of the zone alike. Simply put, he started to know which pitches he liked and which he didn’t.
In 2019, Rowdy’s weaknesses were 4-seamers and breaking balls but in 2020, Rowdy knew which pitches were his to hit.
One would think that cutters and sinkers were magnets to Rowdy’s bat in 2019 as he averaged a wOBA of .561 & .494 on each pitch respectively. He was rarely fooled by each pitch, producing low Whiff% (23.5) and K% (14.5) rates. Unfortunately for Rowdy, that might have been the peak of his success in 2019 as he struggled immensely against almost all other pitches, as shown in Table 3:
The COVID-shortened 2020 season featured a brand-new side of the big first basemen. With league-wide strikeout rates on an upward trend, Rowdy managed to turn himself around in many categories against the most common pitches in the league:
If you want to show a friend evidence explaining why Rowdy was better in 2020 than 2019, look no further than table 4. And if you want to show your friend one statistic from this entire article, look at his strike-out rate reduction on curveballs: 34.4%.
Curveballs aside, it’s clear to see that Rowdy solved more of his pitch-specific issues in 2020. The second biggest improvement came not from breaking balls, but from the bread and butter of most MLB pitchers: The 4-seamer. Though Table 4 shows improvement, it really doesn’t do justice to his development as a hitter. In 2019, Rowdy could not hit a fastball and pitchers knew it. On two strikes, Rowdy was pitched fastballs often and he struck out about a third of that time. It became clear to pitchers that Rowdy had a hole in his swing and opponents abused it:
Image 1 shows how high Rowdy chased out of the zone to hit that fastball he liked so much in 2019. He was swinging and missing often at balls high above the zone. In 2020, Rowdy set his eyes lower and improved his elevated zone discipline, as shown in Image 2:
During his 2019 campaign, Rowdy couldn’t seem to hit a fastball even if it was thrown into the zone. In 2020, Rowdy whiffed at less pitches above the belt and rarely missed any fastballs in the zone. Rowdy only allowed 6 fastballs thrown in the zone to get past his bat. In fact, he reduced his In-Zone Whiff % against 4-seamers from 29.6% to 14.3%. This improvement could be credited to his stance change that developed over the 2019 season and proceeding winter.
Ball players know that bigger leg-kicks make for more powerful swings, but this comes with the disadvantage of offset swing-timing at the plate. If a player spends too much time powering up their swing with a kick, a fastball can fly by while the swing catches nothing but air. This may have been the core mentality in the minds of those helping Rowdy in late 2019 because his leg-kick changed quite a bit.
The durations by which Rowdy lifted his front leg and landed his front leg (aka his leg-kick) during his swing were timed over 10 different, randomly chosen base hit videos between his 2019 and 2020 seasons. It was a night and day difference in his stance. Rowdy reduced his leg kick duration from ~0.84 seconds to ~0.41 seconds. To put it into perspective, 0.4 seconds is about the same time it takes for a 90 mile per hour fastball to reach homeplate…and 90 mph is less than league average.
Along with this change, the lateral movement in his leg-kick reduced. Images 3 & 4 featured this best:
Image 3 shows a homerun on June 16th 2019 and Image 4 shows another homerun on September 6th 2020. Image 4 shows a dramatically changed leg kick as Rowdy’s leg height and leg stride are visibly different. This likely allowed him to better time his swing, reduce his whiffs on fastballs and quite possibly allowed Rowdy to use the entire field when hitting.
As anyone can guess, if the ball is hit to the same area every time, the defense will catch on and move there. If this happens, teams will vacate other areas of the field and put more players there (known as a ‘shift’ in baseball). With Rowdy being the prototypical power hitting lefty that he was, he hit the ball to the right side a lot:
Image 5 shows his tendencies and thus, fielders played him accordingly. However, with his improved approach at the plate, Rowdy evened his spread and was able to use the entire field:
Image 6 shows Rowdy’s base hits for the 2020 season fanned out over the field. Fielders hindered Rowdy’s hitting ability in 2019 with the shift, resulting in a .312 wOBA. In the following year, Rowdy hit around the shift and took full advantage of the left side that was emptied by defensive teams. He recorded a .401 wOBA in 2020. Suffice to say, no one really knows how to address the big man at the plate when he’s using the entire field. That is assuming the ball stays in the park.
Past being a memorable name slotting into the Blue Jays lineup, Rowdy Tellez has the potential to be an absolute menace to opposing pitchers. As he progressed through the minors and eventually to the Big Leagues, he has improved in all aspects of his hitting ability. When his approach at the plate is patient and the discipline is there, Rowdy bolsters his ability to hit breaking balls and fastballs in the zone.
Adjustments have been made throughout each season by pitchers, defenses and Rowdy alike. Every player is attempting to have the upper edge on the other. In the early 2021 season, it seems like the defense playing against Rowdy has that edge. However, just as Rowdy struggled in 2019 and broke out in 2020, he will continue to make adjustments and try to regain his edge. Perhaps the quiet, first basemen/designated hitter will step into his previous year’s form and get the cardboard crowds in Dunedin rowdy once again.