Scott Van Slyke finds success despite splits

scott van slyke

Stuart Wallace is an associate managing editor and writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TClippardsSpecs.

It has been a disappointing season thus far for the Big Four of the Los Angeles Dodgers outfield. The All-Star level of play from Yasiel Puig notwithstanding, the lack of production from Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Matt Kemp has been a source of concern for the team and has made what was once seen as a strength into a huge question mark. While injuries have taken their toll on Kemp and to some extent, Crawford, the hopes that solid 2013 seasons from Crawford and Ethier (108 and 120 wRC+, respectively) and an offseason of rest and recovery from ankle and shoulder injuries and their corresponding surgeries for Kemp would make for a 2014 that saw the trio healthy and contributing in unison, has yet to become reality for the Dodgers.

The injuries and poor play from these core outfielders, as troubling as they have been, have provided a bright spot for the Dodgers, in the form of extensive playing time and surprising productivity from Scott Van Slyke. Van Slyke, who has played the lion’s share of his innings defensively between center field and left field, has also spent time in right field and first base, giving the likes of Puig and Adrian Gonzalez breathers and the team a surprising amount of roster flexibility.

While his defense has been more than adequate, it’s been with the bat where Van Slyke has provided the most value, hitting at a .393 wOBA and 157 wRC+ in 168 plate appearances (PA), each good for second place on the Dodgers (minimum 150 PA) behind Puig’s .399 wOBA and 161 wRC+, respectively. Suffering from an occasional lack of plate discipline in the minors, it’s been his ability to quell questions about his occasionally aggressive plate approach and not suffer too severe of a platoon split—.385 wOBA against lefties, .320 wOBA against righties over his MLB career—that has provided Van Slyke the opportunity to get extended plate appearances.

That being said, Van Slyke’s 2014 has seen him deviate somewhat from the aforementioned skills, with the righty hitting lefties at a .479 wOBA and righties at a .313 wOBA; while his numbers against righties are on par with his career averages and, as a rule of thumb, is considered average in general, it’s his lefty numbers that have paced his performance and breakout season offensively. Briefly looking at his overall plate discipline numbers and comparing this season to his 2013 and MLB averages:

Van slyke chart a

…we find further indication that some of the aggressiveness that was seen in the minors has begun to creep back in to his approach this year, reflected in his swinging strike rate (SwStr%) and swing rates on balls in the strike zone (Z-Swing%), concomitant with a drop in overall contact rate and contact rate on balls in the strike zone (Z-Contact%). Looking at plate discipline through the lens of platoon splits as well as strikeout and walk rates gives us the following numbers:

van slyke chart b

While his overall strikeout rate for the season (29.2%) is higher in comparison to his 2013 and career numbers (24.3% and 26.5%, respectively), his overall walk rates have also taken an upswing, with this season’s rate—14.9%—besting his career and 2013 numbers (13.2% and 12.5%). This has offset the effects of the strikeouts somewhat and is allowing Van Slyke to enjoy a productive season, despite the return of some free swinging tendencies.

Even with some slightly discouraging trends, Van Slyke at the plate has regardless been a pleasant development. While he still displays some pull tendencies, that has generated a number of ground balls (41.6% ground ball rate to left), to go along with the platoon splits, Van Slyke has still been able to resist any dramatic slumps in production. One particular trend seen in his 2014 batted ball data that could help explain the continued production lies in not only how well Van Slyke has hit lefties, but how hard hit them, especially on fastballs. Comparing Van Slyke’s 2013 (left) to this season (right) against left-handers’ heaters:

van slyke chart c
(click to enlarge)

…to his output against righties in the same timeframe:

 van slyke chart d(click to enlarge)

…not only do we see the increased pull tendencies against lefties, but also an increase in how  much harder he hits them compared to righties, with an average distance of balls hit against lefties of 316.7 feet, compared to 265.3 feet against righties. He has also hit lefties harder in 2014 than in 2013, adding another 45 or so feet on hits this season compared to last. This trend is also found in his data against righties, but not as significant, adding only an extra five feet to those batted balls.

It remains to be seen whether the extra oomph provided by Van Slyke’s swing against lefties will remain for the rest of the season, or even into next. Considering the return of some aggressive swing tendencies as well as a pronounced platoon split this year, there lies some room for pitchers to alter their approach to getting Van Slyke out, along with managers possibly stacking righties against him when appropriate, to counter the success he has had thus far. Even if he falls back to Earth against lefties, the offensive breakout of Van Slyke combined with the positional flexibility he has displayed has been a wonderful surprise for the Dodgers and one that alleviates some of the frustrations arising from the poor play of some of their higher-profile outfielders.