Here's why George Springer has struggled to start the year

Photo by Getty Images. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

Dusty Baker attempted to give the struggling George Springer the day off in Wednesday's Dodgers series finale, citing a sore knee from his collision with the center field wall during the Mariners series to begin the season. However, Springer was called into duty late, and he didn't show any signs of busting out of his early season rut.

Springer hasn't looked like himself to start the year, going just 1-for-21 through the first six games of the season, striking out six times and walking thrice. His one hit does happen to be a loud home run off the train tracks, but most of the AB's have ended in weak flyouts, rollover groundouts, or strikeouts.

So, why the struggles? Well, it isn't his knee.

First, George Springer's stance is a little different this year compared to last year. It is just a slight difference visually, but as a hitter it would feel significantly different.

Image via: Grayson Skweres

The left-hand side is Springer's stance in 2019, while the right-hand side is his stance in 2020. Springer has squatted down more in his legs and changed his body posture. His torso has a more forward lean over home plate in 2020 than it did in 2019. Why do this? Simplification. Springer's body in 2019 eventually gets to that same spot that he's in right now in 2020. He's cutting out steps and getting them done before the pitcher even starts his delivery. The forward body lean is also a "good" thing. A fastball comes downhill at an 8-12 degree angle. Some people will say that means that a good swing plane should be 8-12 degrees uphill. While that can be argued, it is inarguable that good contact is always made on a slight uphill plane. The forward lean creates a pendulum effect, in which the swing gets uphill without the batter having to think about it or force his body into that position.

If these changes are good, then why the struggles? Timing.

An old baseball saying is that "hitting is timing and pitching is disrupting timing." A hitter with poor timing isn't much of a hitter at all. Right now, Springer's timing is way off.

Remember how Springer cut out steps, opting to just get them out of the way before the pitcher even starts his delivery? Hitters will make the mistake of thinking that less steps and simplification means that they have more time. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. It seems that Springer feels that he has more time than he really does. He's starting his swing too late, which means he's getting his front foot down too late, which means he has to rush his hands to get to the ball. Rushed hands usually means the hips aren't being used efficiently either. Take a look at this swing off of Taijuan Walker during the second game of the season.

Image via: Grayson Skweres

The left is a screenshot of Springer at foot plant. The baseball is already over halfway to home plate (it is on the catcher's glove shoulder next to the Mariner logo sleeve patch). This leads to the result on the right, where an extremely hittable 89 MPH fastball jams Springer and gets in on his hands. The result?

Now, Springer did hit a homer later in this game. Did his timing magically fix for one at-bat? No.

Springer's foot still gets down pretty late, but Cortes does Springer a favor and throws an 82 MPH changeup down the middle. The 7 MPH difference is enough to allow Springer to catch up and put it in the Crawford Boxes. This is a common theme in 2020. Springer's two hardest hit balls, which are that home run and a warning track lineout off of Yohan Ramirez, are off of pitches 84 MPH or slower. See for yourself…

Now, remember how the timing leads to other problems as well? Namely, throwing his hips out of whack? When Springer is going well his body is stacked, he's in balance, and he's driving balls not just to the pull-side, but to the opposite field as well. He's yet to hit a ball to the opposite field in 2020, and this is why.

This is a 97 MPH fastball off the plate away, but Springer still fouls it off to the pull-side. Since he's late, he rushes his hands, which throws his hips out of line, which gives him a poor hand path, which gets him "around" that ball despite it being a good four inches off the plate.

What does Springer look like when he's going well? He looks on time…

Notice how much earlier his front foot gets down. His hands aren't rushing forward the second his foot hits the ground. He still has time to read the pitch and then throw his hands.

Below is Springer at foot plant on his homer off of Bauer in early 2019. The ball has barely left Bauer's hand (it is by Springer's sock on his lead foot in the frame). Springer holds his hands back for a tick or two longer, and then unloads on the ball, launching it to the train tracks.

Image via: Grayson Skweres

You could claim that this pitch is slow as well, just like his hard hit balls so far this year, but it's clear that Springer gets his foot down earlier throughout the entirety of 2019. Check out this opposite field home run off of Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Justin Anderson.

Springer's foot gets down super early. He holds his hands back, hits the 94 MPH fastball where it's pitched, and trots around the bases with an opposite field home run.

Luckily, timing is a relatively easy fix, and Springer has all of the tools in the world to help him fix his problems. Once he fixes his timing, Astros fans will see the Springer of old.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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