Thinking that the National League leader in slugging percentage will be playing in the All-Star game is an easy assumption to make, even without knowing the makeup of the roster. We know that Yoenis Cespedes, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are all starters. We also know that Nolan Arenado, Daniel Murphy, Matt Carpenter, Carlos Gonzalez, Adam Duvall and Wil Myers made it as reserves. Surely one of those nine players leads the NL in slugging, right?
Surprisingly, that is not the case. Arizona third baseman Jake Lamb, who—through play on Thursday—leads the NL with a .625 slugging percentage, second in the majors to David Ortiz’s .677, and 20 home runs will not be among the stars in San Diego next week..
Lamb entered the season as no more than a blip on the fantasy radar after he slashed .263/.331/.386 with six homers in 390 plate appearances as a 24-year-old rookie last season. He also carried the stigma of likely being stuck in a platoon. Lamb hit well enough for a rookie when he had the platoon advantage last year, but he was a complete wreck against same-siders, carrying a .200/.275/.267 line in 51 plate appearances with a lefty on the mound. He was a top-80 prospect in 2015, according to MLB.com and Baseball America, but his average production and black-hole status against lefties made him easy to ignore on draft day.
It’s easy to use the power of hindsight to find events that look like signals now, but that appeared nothing more than one-off occurrences at the time. Still, the fact that Lamb did this against lefty Jorge De La Rosa in his second plate appearance of the season should have tripped a few more alarm bells than it did.
It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that Lamb has turned into a southpaw wrecker or the bane of the existence of all left-handed pitchers. He has earned more playing time against lefties this year, but he’s still hitting just .200 against them. What he is doing, however, is taking more walks and making them pay for their mistakes. Lamb has a .328 OBP and .473 slugging percentage against lefties this season. Last season, he had one homer and four walks with a lefty on the mound. Those numbers are already up to four and 10, respectively, this year.
The most interesting thing about Lamb’s production against lefties this season, as well as one of the most encouraging signs that it’s here to stay, is his swing rate, which is up significantly against lefties from where it was last year. Lamb has offered at 43.6% of the pitches he has seen from a same-sider this season. One year ago, that rate was down at 37.1%. The leap in swing rate, accompanied by attendant jumps in OBP and slugging, shows a player who has dramatically improved his pitch recognition, the single most important skill for any hitter to flip the platoon advantage on its head.
Comparing Lamb’s numbers against lefties from year to year is telling enough, but we must go to the pictures for the “why.”
Here’s a look at Lamb against a lefty last season. This is from an August at-bat against Adam Loewen who made a dramatic comeback to the majors after seven years out of the league, during which he tried to remake himself as an outfielder. As wonderful as his story was, he wasn’t particularly effective last season, totaling a 6.98 ERA and 1.91 WHIP. He did, however, fan Lamb in this meeting.
There’s nothing particularly troubling about the swing and miss here, other than pitch recognition. There isn’t anything funky about Lamb’s setup or his load or his swing path to suggest that he would really struggle against lefties. Just to show you that we didn’t simply cherry-pick one at-bat, here he is flying out against lefty Frank Garces last June.
Lamb struck that ball well, but, again, we just want to show you what his stance and swing looked like last year. Remember the GIF of his homer off Jorge De La Rosa from earlier? Here, we’ll bring it back down for your convenience.
That’s nothing like the Lamb we saw last season. He’s more compact, his hands are lower and, most importantly, he has a big leg kick. Hitters can use a leg kick for a number of different reasons, but what it has served to do here is slow Lamb down, and that can only help him judge pitch type. Hitting is all about timing, and Lamb’s is clearly much improved against lefties—and righties, for that matter—this season.
Again, just so you know we aren’t cherry picking one example, here’s Lamb’s most recent homer off a lefty. It came earlier this week against San Diego’s Matt Thornton.
The fact that Lamb drove this home run to left field is the cherry on top of the pitch-recognition sundae. The only way a hitter can hit a ball to the opposite field with authority is if he lets the ball get deep in the hitting zone, and the only way to do that with any confidence is by identifying the pitch type early on its path to the plate.
To be sure, Lamb is still doing the vast majority of his damage against righties. He’s slashing a ridiculous .316/.382./.662 with 16 homers when he does have that platoon advantage, and you’re always going to be happier with him facing a righty than a lefty. His production against lefties, however, best displays his growth as a hitter, and he’s turned into of the first half’s premier power hitters.