Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Since the position battles in spring training don’t appear to be all that exciting, I’m going through the Royals’ lineup to get an idea of how opposing pitchers will look to attack each player this season. I use data from Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant, and Fangraphs to figure out what pitches each hitter loves to see, and what pitches give them nightmares. On Sunday, I went over Norichika Aoki‘s profile. Today, I’ll move on to the second hitter, who’s also the second baseman, Omar Infante.
As you might expect, Infante did pretty well against most pitches in his 2013 campaign. He posted batting averages of at least .300 against sinkers, changeups, sliders, and cutters. Infante really feasted on cut fastballs, in particular. Facing that pitch in 2013, Infante hit .488, and had a slugging percentage of .721. Granted, that was on a total of 134 pitches seen, but looking at a larger sample of Infante’s career shows a similar pattern, though to a lesser extent. In 2012, Infante hit .356 with a slugging percentage of .800(!) against cutters. Going back to 2008, Infante has an average of .313 and a slugging percentage of .490 against cutters.
That’s not the only pitch Infante has had success against, of course. He saw sliders 16.7% of the time in 2013, and had an average of .319 with a .472 slugging percentage against them. He saw sinkers 24.7% of the time, and had in average of .370 with a .496 slugging percentage against them. Fourseam fastballs, on the other hand, gave Infante a bit of trouble. Against that pitch, he hit only .231 with a slugging percentage of .340. Last year was a down year for Infante against fastballs, but there is a simple explanation for his struggles there.
Infante hits a lot of line drives. In only one of his last 7 seasons has he failed to top a line drive rate of 20% (2010), and last season, Infante had a line drive rate of 23.6%. In addition to a lot of line drives, Infante doesn’t hit a ton of ground balls. In fact, he actually has a higher career fly ball rate (39.8%) than ground ball rate (38.7%). That hasn’t been the case in recent years, but the rates are close enough to see that Infante isn’t a guy who slaps and slashes at the plate. His swing plane results in a lot of balls in the air, which is a perfect combination with pitches that have downward movement, like sinking fastballs. As the authors of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball point out, ground ball pitchers want hitters to swing over the top of their pitches, while fly ball hitters want to get under the pitch. The downward trajectory of the pitch and the upward trajectory of the bat combine to allow the hitter to square up the ball, which results in line drives or well-struck fly balls.
Getting back to Infante against fastballs, his swing results in line drives on sinking pitches, but on fourseam fastballs – which “rise,” in the sense that they don’t drop as much as expected from gravity – he has had some issues producing weak pop ups. Last season, over 11% of the fourseam fastballs he put in play were popped up, and that number has been over 10% in each of his last four seasons. Granted, Infante does have a career average of .284 and a .424 slugging percentage against fourseamers, but his BABIP against that pitch has been below .250 in each of the last two years, so that could be something to watch this season. Infante also struggled mightily against curveballs in 2013, and since 2008, that has been the toughest pitch for him to face.
Opposing pitchers may challenge Infante with high fastballs in an attempt to induce weaker contact from a player who doesn’t have much home run power. Also, if Aoki is getting on base as frequently as the Royals hope, Infante might see more fastballs up in the zone to give the catcher a chance to catch the runner stealing. Pitchers will probably try to throw him curveballs and changeups to keep him guessing, but Infante’s contact skills and bat control will keep him from striking out very often. The key to Infante’s success will be having an above average BABIP, and the key to having an above average BABIP will be Infante continuing to make solid contact on as many pitches as possible.