Last January, the Reds announced the signing of free agent Shogo Akiyama to a three-year, $21 million contract. Akiyama became the first player from Japan in the franchise’s storied 150-year history. Public scouting reports on the 32-year-old outfielder were scarce, but the kind of player he was in the Nippon Professional Baseball league was clear.
Shogo Akiyama was one of the best all-around players among his competitors. He was a multi-year All-Star who could hit for good average, run the bases and play above-average-to-excellent outfield defense. He also hit for power, with 20+ home runs in each of his last three seasons. Akiyama is a left-handed hitter and showed a small pitcher-handedness split as a batter in Japan.
How those skills would translate to Major League Baseball and how Akiyama would fit on the Reds roster were open questions.
How it began
Shogo Akiyama was not in the Reds Opening Day lineup. With lefty Matthew Boyd starting for the Detroit Tigers, Reds manager David Bell played Phillip Ervin in left field and Nick Senzel in center. Akiyama entered in the 6th inning after Boyd had been pulled. He got two plate appearances, going 1-for-2, with a ground-ball single to center in his first MLB.
Bell played Akiyama mostly in left. From August 15 to September 1, between when Nick Senzel went on the COVID list and the Reds traded for Brian Goodwin, Akiyama did get most of the starts in center. In September, Akiyama was back in left for all but a few innings. While Bell continued to use Akiyama in a platoon system, the outfielder did come to the plate 23 times against a left-handed pitcher, batting .190/.261/.238 with a not-great 30% strikeout rate and 4% walk rate.
For the first two-thirds of the abbreviated season, Akiyama struggled against right-handed pitching as well. Heading into the Reds off day on September 7, the outfielder had hit .200/.304/.256 in his 104 plate appearances on the supposed good side of his platoon split, with no home runs.
Akiyama had the 7th highest ground ball rate (54.9%) for left-handed hitters against right-handed pitchers. His average exit velocity (84.8 mph) and hard-hit rates (22.5%) were among the bottom ten hitters in those categories.
On September 8, Matt Wilkes analyzed Akiyama’s hitting:
“This confluence of circumstances has resulted in a lackluster beginning to his MLB career. … Overall, though, that’s equated to a poor 55 wRC+, meaning his offensive production has been 45% worse than the league average hitter. Only five players with at least 110 plate appearances have a lower wRC+. A deeper dive into the batted-ball data doesn’t reveal many encouraging signs. Akiyama has not only made a lot of weak contact, but he’s also struggled to elevate the ball. Only 17 hitters have a higher ground-ball rate than Akiyama (52.5%). His average launch angle of 4.3 degrees ranks 243rd out of 257 players with 50 or more batted balls.”
Whatever the reason — struggling with MLB pitching, adjusting to life in a new country, being beaten by the shift — Akiyama was having a disappointing season for the Reds when he came to the park on September 8 to play the Cubs.
What happened next
Akiyama was in David Bell’s lineup that night at Wrigley Field, batting 7th and playing center. The Reds lost the game and were shut out by Cubs pitching, but Akiyama was 2-for-3 plus a walk in his four plate appearances. Both hits were opposite-field singles. He went 2-for-4 the next game. Again, both to the opposite field. And 1-for-2 the day after, with two more walks and a single to left-center.
Shogo Akiyama never slowed down. His run production before and after September 7 was a study of contrast:
Akiyama went from hitting .200 to .364. When you take into account his entire offensive performance, including walks, his run production (again, this is just against RHP) went from 44% below league average to 58% above average. Yowza.
OK, your small sample size sense should be tingling. And your arbitrary endpoint caution sign flashing.
You’re not wrong. It’s a good instinct to be skeptical whenever someone analyzes a baseball player using calendar-based endpoints. For example, citing a pitcher’s stats in June and then saying he was different based on his July numbers and then something else in August is easy analysis. But it’s usually meaningless or misleading. You can almost always find a date range that proves a point, any point. Narratives driven by arbitrary endpoints (month-by-month are the worst, as if players change when the calendar page turns) should be ignored in most circumstances.
So when you look for turning points in a player’s season, it should be based on more than small-sample results. Defining moments should be founded on the player changing something important, like a pitcher throwing a new pitch or adjusting his motion, or a batter adopting a different stance or becoming more selective.
Or, for example, when batter stops hitting to one field and starts hitting to another.
What didn’t change
Before we look at what Akiyama did change in those 56 plate appearances after September 7, it’s important to lay out what didn’t.
After September 7, Shogo Akiyama remained an extreme ground ball hitter. His average launch angle declined even further. His average exit velocity, which had been among the softest in the league, became softer. His microscopic ISO (isolated power) became tinier.
If Akiyama didn’t hit the ball the ball harder or in the air more, what improved his batting average and run production so drastically?
Shogo Akiyama started slapping the ball to the opposite field. All the time. This change was obvious to fans who were watching the Reds every day. But the stats are overwhelming.
Prior to September 8, Akiyama had hit 75% of his pitches either to right field (pull) or center field. After then, he hit just 42%. His opposite field hitting increased from 25.4% to 58.3%. That’s a gigantic change.
At 58.3% Akiyama was the most extreme opposite fielder hitter in the league, by far. Second place was 48.8%. Average was 25.8%.
The Before-After spray charts are almost impossible to believe. Here’s the Before:
The red dots are singles the gray dots are outs. Lots of ground balls. Most balls hit to the outfield are pulled to the right side or hit to right-center. Two of his three doubles (purple) are to the right side of second base. For those of you who care about the impact of the defensive shift, look at the hits Akiyama lost in short right field when an extra infielder stood out there.
Now here is the After, Akiyama’s chart from September 8 to the end of the season:
It’s hard to believe that’s the same hitter. It’s hard to believe it’s any hitter. Lots of singles, every last one to the left-side of second base. He has a double down each line. Akiyama still hit a bunch of ground balls, many pulled, but the ones he got in the air were going to left field.
Digging further reveals another byproduct of Akiyama hitting to the opposite field. He was able to swing later and made more contact. By September 7, he already had excellent walk and strikeout numbers. But after he could wait a bit longer, his plate discipline was Votto-esque. Akiyama’s swinging-strike rate went down and contact rate improved. Those are important fundamentals for a player’s hit and on-base tools.
Hold on a second
Before we move on to the “what’s this mean” section, it would be negligent not to consider this particular Before-After stat for Akiyama:
BABIP stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play. It measures the percentage of balls a batter puts in play that falls in for hits. It excludes home runs because those aren’t in play. League average BABIP for qualified hitters is about .300. BABIP is a crucial metric for Akiyama because he’s a singles hitter. More of his offensive value comes from balls dropping in than for a batter who hits a pile of extra-base hits.
Many factors influence a hitter’s BABIP:
- How hard he hits the ball
- How fast he runs
- How good the defense is he faced
- His batted ball composition (GB, FB, LD)
- How skilled he is at hitting away from defenses
- Plain old luck
To get an idea of how enormous the jump in BABIP that Akiyama experienced is, in 2018 the best BABIP in the league was .375 and the lowest .231. In 2020, the range was .412 to .203. So Akiyama’s 190-point variance in BABIP before and after September 7 is gigantic.
What explains it?
We can rule a few factors out. We know Akiyama didn’t hit the ball harder. We know he wasn’t faster. He didn’t hit many fewer ground balls. And there’s no reason to believe he played in front of worse defenses after September 7, although it’s possible.
From our list, that leaves (1) hitting the ball away from the defense and (2) luck. There’s a limit to the first explanation. While batters have some control in some swings over the general direction a ball is hit — roughly, which side of second base or maybe an extreme pull — they can’t control the exact location. Hitting a ground ball precisely between the 3B and SS is not an actual skill anyone possesses.
In Akiyama’s case, the spray chart points to him being able to hit to the opposite field when he gets it in the air. That skill is more valuable in an age of extreme shifting against left-handed batters because not only won’t there be an infielder in short left field like there often is now in short right field, but there may even be two fewer players on the left side of second base.
Was Akiyama’s elevated BABIP (and let’s be clear, that explains ALL of his improved run production) a function of luck or skill? Both undoubtedly played a role. How much for either? We’ll need more data this year for that.
Hate to bring this up but …
Akiyama’s .052 ISO last year was dead last among the 157 qualified major league hitters. I don’t need to tell you where 0 home runs ranks.
What to expect in 2021
Shogo Akiyama at the plate in 2020 was no mystery. He was one thing prior to September 7 and became a different thing after that. That date is not an arbitrary in-search-of-narrative choice. The results and underlying data point right at it.
What Akiyama’s 2020 season means for 2021 is less clear. Let’s not forget our COVID-sized caveat for anything that happened in 2020.
But it’s worth wondering if Akiyama has an uncanny ability to aim the ball. If he does, it sets up this plausible storyline: Shogo Akiyama took a while getting used to MLB pitching. Once he did, he found success slapping the ball away from the shift and in front of outfielders.
But the Shogo-Can-Aim narrative has issues, pointing to that garish .444 BABIP as being a big stack of small-sample luck:
- Still hits more than 50% ground balls, which he isn’t trying to do.
- Those ground balls are still predominantly to his pull side, which is usually into a shift, so he isn’t trying to do that.
- When he pulls the ball in the air to the right side of second base, he doesn’t seem to be able to aim it.
- Presumably he would have had the same “aim skill” before September 7.
- Even if he can aim, it’s still just singles.
Hitting away from the defensive shift is an increasingly valuable skill. But opposing teams can and will adapt to what Akiyama did in 2020. They’ll position outfielders shallow, where he hits the ball and make him prove he can hit it over their heads. If necessary, they’ll pitch him inside to stop him from slapping the ball to left.
Father Time deserves a mention, too. Akiyama turns 33 in April.
We don’t know what the Reds will get from their $21-million gamble in 2021. So far, it appears Shogo Akiyama isn’t the all-around player the front office and fans expected when he signed. Akiyama’s complete lack of power and unproven ability to hit LHP remain huge limitations. On the other hand, he’s proven he can play capable defense and is an excellent base runner. If Akiyama can hit .300+ against right-handed pitching and maintain an excellent K% and BB%, he’ll contribute.
Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/1231720009908604930/photo/2