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Offensive Threat, Elvis Andrus?

Elvis Andrus is currently sporting an 804 OPS. How did this happen?

Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Elvis Andrus is having a very unexpected 2016 campaign.

Let's flash back to this spring.  Ian Desmond had just been signed.  Jurickson Profar is healthy.  Elvis Andrus is coming off of a disastrous Game 5 of the ALDS that had people asking whether he could even recover from that, whether that game would break him as a player, and has many fans suggesting he's the third (or even the fourth) best shortstop option the team has.

Elvis was regularly showing up on "worst contract in baseball" lists.  Kevin Sherrington espoused paying $10 million per year of his remaining salary so that they could replace him with Profar.  There was regular grousing that Profar would have to be in AAA or in a bench role in the majors so an inferior player could play shortstop.  There was even spitballing among fans about whether, once Josh Hamilton got healthy, Desmond could move to shortstop, allowing the Rangers to keep Delino DeShields in the lineup and bench Elvis.

And here we are, with five games to go in the season, and Elvis Andrus is putting up a .302/.362/.442 slash line.  Among players who qualify for the batting title while with the Rangers, Elvis is second on the team in OPS, trailing just Adrian Beltre.  If we move the bar to 100 PAs, Elvis trails only Beltre and two newcomers, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez.  His wRC+ of 112 is 7th in the majors among qualified shortstops, immediately ahead of Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor and Brandon Crawford.

The advance metrics don't like his defense this year -- DRS has him at -2, UZR at -12, FRAA at -4 -- and as a result his WAR is anywhere from the low-2s to the mid-3s, depending on which version you prefer.  But there is agreement across the board on the bat -- he's been an above-average hitter for a shortstop this year.

So how did this happen?  What's different about Elvis this year, compared to previous years?

I'm not a scout, so I'm not going to try to analyze the swing or anything like that...instead, let's dive into the numbers over at Fangraphs.

We do see an improved walk rate and K rate from Elvis this year.  Elvis is walking in 8.3% of his plate appearances this year, and is striking out in 11.7% of his plate appearances, compared to career rates of 7.8% and 13.1%.  The walk rate is his third highest of his career, behind where he was in 2010 and 2011, and his K rate is his second lowest, behind 2011 (though it is just a hair better than last year's 11.8%).

Both are incremental differences that help, but what's noteworthy to me about Elvis's K rate going down is that it has decreased from his earlier career rates at a time when K rates in general are going up around baseball.  The American League as a whole is striking out 20.7% of the time, which means that Elvis, at 11.7%, at striking out at a little over half the rate (56.5%) of the league as a whole.  If we compare that to, say, 2010, the A.L. as a whole was striking out 17.5% of the time, while Elvis struck out 14.2% of the time -- 81.1% of the league rate.  Even in 2013, when the K rate had begun trending up league-wide, Elvis struck out 13.9% of the time compared to 19.8% for the league as a whole -- 70.2% of the league rate.

So Elvis isn't just putting the ball in play more, he's putting the ball in play more at a time when everyone else is putting it into play less.  And he's putting it in place more, it appears, by swinging more often -- he's swinging 43% of the time this season, whereas before 2015, his swing percentages were anywhere from 36.2% to 40.3% -- so about 10% more often compared to his 2009-14 rates.  That percentage increase appears to be about the same for both pitches in the zone and outside of the zone.

To put this in the context of the league as a whole, Elvis still isn't swinging a ton -- at 42.9% this year, he's 117th out of 148 qualified hitters.  But contrast that to, say, 2014, when he was swinging at 37.1% of pitches, which put him 143rd out of 146 qualified hitters.  Despite swinging at more pitches, Elvis's contact rate relative to the league has improved slightly -- he is 24th out of 148 qualifying major leaguers, right ahead of Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre, this year, compared to being 31st out of 146 in 2014.

Is that impacting the counts he's in?  In 2014, Elvis put the ball in play on the first pitch 8.9% of the time, was up in the count 1-0 40.3% of the time, and was down 0-1 50.8% of the time.  This year, Elvis is putting the ball in play on the first pitch 12.7% of the time, compared to being up 1-0 35.7% of the time and being down 0-1 50.9% of the time.  So Elvis is putting the ball in play more often on the first pitch, but getting fewer 1-0 counts.  Hmmmm...

So what's the difference?  Again, just comparing to 2014, after going down 0-1, Elvis had a 541 OPS in 2014.  This year, it is a 716 OPS.  After being up 1-0 in 2014, Elvis had a 734 OPS, compared to an 898 OPS this year.  And on first pitches, he's at 891 OPS this year, compared to an 861 OPS on first pitches in 2014.

That wasn't what I was expecting...I thought we would see more plate appearances where he saw just one pitch (which are traditionally high-OPS results), and fewer 0-1 counts.  Instead, it appears he's just better across the board regardless of how he starts the plate appearance. we know he's walking a little more, putting the ball in play more often, and his numbers are better.  What is happening when the ball is in play?  Elvis has a .330 BABIP this season -- his second highest of his career (he had a .332 BABIP in 2012), and 18 points higher than his career .312 BABIP.  One could chalk that up to luck, but Fangraphs also shows his line drive rate at 23.5% this year -- the highest of his career, and about a 10% increase over his career 21.5% line drive rate.

Which ties into a comment that Steve Busby made last night about Elvis...he mentioned that, historically, Elvis tended to try to "push" the ball the other way, and was playing like a slap hitter, whereas now Elvis is looking to drive the ball more.  And not only is Elvis hitting more line drives, he's also hitting more fly balls -- he's at 28.6% this year (after a 31.8% fly ball rate last year), compared to a 23.5% career rate.  More line drives and more fly balls means, of course, fewer ground balls, and in 2015 and 2016, Elvis has had a ground ball rate under 50% (its 47.9% this year), whereas it was anywhere from 55.1% to 61.1% from 2009-14.

And consistent with Busby's observation that Elvis is no longer trying to "push" the ball, Elvis's pull rates have improved.  After pulling the ball 39.7% of the time in 2009, he did so anywhere from 28.5% to 35.4% of the time from 2010-14.  Last year, he pulled the ball 43.7% of the time, and this year it is 42.4% of the time.

Hitting the ball in the air, pulling the ball, driving the ball...its a different approach, and it is resulting in not just a higher BABIP, but also more power.  Elvis has a .140 ISO this season -- a dramatic improvement over his career rate of .084.  He's set a career high in home runs, and has the most extra base hits he's ever had in his career, despite having fewer plate appearances than any season since his rookie year.

Interestingly, these improvements appear to be a carryover from 2015 -- one of the things you may have noticed is that his 2016 season is similar to his 2015 season, but not his 2009-14 seasons.  His 2015 ISO was .099, above his career average, and his pull rates are also similar between 2015 and 2016.  His K rates are almost identical between 2015 and 2016.  The biggest difference, really, is his BABIP -- it was .283 last year, by far his career low.  Looking at the batted ball data, it certainly appears that a good portion of that low BABIP is due to random fluctuation or bad luck.  If his BABIP last year was closer to what the batted ball data suggests it should have been, then we are probably talking this year about him building on his improved 2015 campaign, rather than him having a quality offensive year out of the blue.

So if your eyes glazed over with all the "%"s and numbers, what's the upshot of all this?  Elvis is being more aggressive at the plate (though he's still being selective), is continuing to make contact at a high rate, and when he's making contact, he's pulling the ball more and hitting fewer ground balls.  As a result, he's striking out less and hitting for more power.

And in looking at the data, I think I may have an inkling as to why Jeff Banister has left Elvis near the bottom of the order, rather than hitting him near the top of the order.  One of the things that leadoff/second place hitters are supposed to do is see a lot of pitches and work the count.  That was something that, from what I understand, was preached to Elvis over the years.

And Elvis was patient -- from 2010-14, there were 163 players with at least 2000 plate appearances, and Elvis was 159th in swing percentage.

But I wonder if Jeff Banister feels that approach made Elvis too passive, resulted in him looking at pitches he should try to drive, contributed to him being a slap hitter.  And I wonder if Banister is concerned that putting Elvis back at the top of the order might result in him reverting to his old, top of the order, more passive habits, rather than being "drive the ball" Elvis.

Anyway...I'm not sure if this will continue.  However, given that we saw these changes developing in 2015, and given the success he's having this year, I think there's reason for optimism.  Elvis seems to realize he's not "Tiny E" anymore, the little guy who is supposed to bunt and beat out grounders.  Elvis is grown up now, and he's swinging the bat like he's a grown up.

Hopefully, we'll see this from him for quite a few more years to come...