With the Reds out of post-season contention, our attention has turned primarily to individual achievements — Johnny Cueto’s pursuit of the Cy Young, Billy Hamilton competing for Rookie of the Year and Aroldis Chapman setting various all-time records.
One of the most positive developments for the Reds in 2014 has been Devin Mesoraco’s breakout season at the plate. Several of us have written about the batting exploits of the Reds’ young catcher. A month ago, Jason Linden pointed to many of these numbers. Also in early August, Nick Kirby compared Mesoraco’s season to previous Reds catchers. In mid-July, happier times, I wrote that Mesoraco was having an MVP-caliber year.
But the question lurking in all those pieces was whether Mesoraco could sustain his numbers through the season’s conclusion. A strong September would cement his role to bat in the heart of the 2015 lineup. Last night, Mesoraco blasted a two-run homer and an RBI double, and he walked twice in five plate appearances, raising his season totals to .287/.370/.557.
Silver Slugger Award?
The 26-year-old Pennsylvania native should receive serious consideration for hardware of his own, namely the NL Silver Slugger award, which is given to the best offensive player at each position in his league. The Silver Sluggers are voted on by managers and coaches. Jay Bruce won the Silver Slugger award the last two years and Brandon Phillips won in 2011.
Mesoraco leads all National League catchers in home runs (23), slugging percentage (.557), isolated power (.270), OPS (.927) and wRC+ (156). He is second to Buster Posey in RBI (a stat that depends mostly on opportunity produced by teammates), trailing the Giants catcher 73 to 79. But keep in mind Posey has more than 140 plate appearances than the Reds’ catcher.
Hitting it Hard
The key to Mesoraco’s success in 2014 is obvious to anyone who watches him swing the bat.
He’s hitting the ball harder.
Mark Simon of ESPN leads a group of trackers that conducts video review of every major league at bat, measuring trajectory and velocity. They categorize hit-balls as hard, medium and soft. The average major league position player hits the ball hard 16 percent of the time.
For the season, Mesoraco ranks #3 in the major leagues for hard hit balls (23.8 percent). Here’s the rest of the top ten: Carlos Santana, Troy Tulowitzki, Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Adrian Beltre and Lucas Duda. That’s fast company. Hard and fast, I guess.
Even better from the standpoint of the question of his ability to sustain the batting surge, since the All-Star break, the major league hitter who has the highest percentage of hard hit balls — by far — is Devin Mesoraco. His hit-balls have been judged hard 26 percent of the time. The difference between first place and second (Santana at 24 percent) is the same as between second and fourteenth.
Mesoraco’s success at hitting balls hard is probably a product of, among other factors, being more selective at the plate. He has drastically reduced his swings at pitches out of the strike zone – down to 32.4 percent from 36.6 percent.
Going the Distance
It’s common sense that Devin Mesoraco’s ability to hit balls hard has resulted in more line drives and greater distance on his fly balls. Line drives mean hits, distance means power.
Mesoraco’s line-drive rate has risen to 23.6 percent, which is twelfth best in the NL. That’s up from 21.1 percent (2013) and 16.7 percent (2012).
His average fly-ball distance has increased from 275.70 ft. in 2013 to 297.12 ft — an enormous increase. To put that in context, in 2013, he was the #192 longest hitter in the majors. In 2014, he’s #29. How important is average fly-ball distance? Names in the top ten include: Goldschmidt, George Springer, Cabrera, Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Abreu.
As a result, Mesoraco has doubled his HR/FB from about 10 percent to 20 percent. Blamo.
[How long would you have had to guess before you’d hit on the answer of Joey Votto as #4 in fly-ball distance in MLB this year?]
Sending a Mes-sage
Mesoraco’s performance has been balanced in ways that suggest it’s sustainable. He has shown a relatively even platoon split, with a 146 wRC+ vs. left-handed pitchers and 152 wRC+ vs. righties. Similarly, his wRC+ at home (144) is similar to that on the road (152). (Those numbers don’t include last night.)
Yes, swinging harder has brought more swinging strikes, less overall contact and more strikeouts. And Mesoraco is to be sure a dead pull hitter. None of his home runs have been right of dead center and only two have been to center field. So he may start to see more defensive shifts which could affect his batting average.
But there’s plenty of data now that indicates his breakthrough is legitimate and something Reds fans can look forward to watching for years to come.