Photo credit: Joe Camporeale, USA Today Sports

Infante’s Plate Discipline: No More for Omar

To say things have gone poorly since Omar Infante signed with the Royals would be inaccurate. The team has won back-to-back pennants and a World Series title since he came to Kansas City, after all. But to say things have gone poorly for Omar Infante’s production since he signed with the Royals would be wholly accurate, if not massively understated.

By now, you know the story. Infante signed a contract for more than $30 million in the hopes he could fill the veritable black hole that was second base for the Royals. After a disappointing 2014 season, Infante was even worse last season, putting up a .202 TAv, which was tied for his career-low mark. The last time Infante was this bad at the plate was 2003. Rondell White was a Royal then. Angel Berroa was a good Royal then.

Granted, Infante has dealt with more than his fair share of injuries, and it’s certainly possible, if not likely, they contributed to his struggles. Now that the bone spurs have been removed from his elbow, and now that he’s almost two years removed from taking a fastball to the face, the Royals are hoping Infante can start looking like the Omar Infante of old.

And the Omar Infante of old almost always exhibited good plate discipline, which the 2015 version was sorely lacking.

Last year, Infante swung at 33.5 percent of pitches thrown out of the strike zone. That was a career-high, and while he topped 31 percent and 32 percent in 2011 and 2012, respectively, his other five seasons in the Pitchf/x era were much better.

2008 – 28.7 percent
2009 – 26.5 percent
2010 – 27.8 percent
2013 – 27.8 percent
2014 – 25.1 percent

You read that correctly. In 2014, even though his overall numbers were unsightly, it wasn’t due to Infante chasing bad pitches. He simply wasn’t squaring up anything.

He also didn’t square up anything in 2015, and to compound matters, he posted the highest chase rate of his career. That, my friends, is a recipe for bad baseball things. Pitchers could choose to challenge him in the zone, or they could get him to swing at pitches out of the zone. There really were no bad options for them.

One easy way for a player to fall into a swing-happy trap is to fall behind in the count. Sure enough, Infante expanded his zone any time he had a strike against him, after remaining more disciplined the year before.

Omar Swing 14-15

This was even more of a problem because of how frequently Infante fell behind early. Last year, 52.3 percent of his plate appearances went to an 0-1 count. The year before, he fell behind 0-1 in 48 percent of his plate appearances. Infante’s increase in 0-1 counts wasn’t because of first-pitch over-aggressiveness on his part. He only swung at 20.7 percent of the first pitches he saw, barely above the 20.1 percent at which he swung in 2014. The difference was he wasn’t putting the ball in play as often when he swung. In 2014, he fouled off or whiffed on 44.8 percent of his first-pitch swings. That rate climbed to 52.1 percent last year. There were a few more called strikes as well, but Infante did dig himself into 0-1 holes more often because of poor timing.

So Infante was falling behind in the count more often and chasing more often after falling behind in the count. Again, that’s a bad combination. This new-found poor approach led to predictably poor results. In plate appearances in which he fell to an 0-1 count, Infante had a .470 OPS. His .682 OPS in plate appearances in which he got ahead 1-0 wasn’t anything special, but a player with Infante’s contact skills shouldn’t be doing that poorly when falling behind. In all counts when the pitcher was ahead, Infante had a .424 OPS. In previous years, Infante had been much better in those situations:

2011 – .610
2012 – .645
2013 – .759 (!)
2014 – .500

You’ll notice I wrote “much better,” and not necessarily “good.” Though it should be pointed out that the league had just a .508 OPS when the pitcher was ahead in 2014, so he wasn’t doing much worse than expected. Until this year, Infante did quite well when falling behind in the count, which likely goes back to the change in his approach in those situations. He wasn’t going to hit for much power regardless of where the pitch was thrown, but by expanding his zone when a strike was against him, he put himself in an even worse situation to succeed.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what may have caused Infante’s dramatic decrease in discipline. Perhaps he felt like he had to make the decision to swing earlier because that was the only way to make solid enough contact. His injuries may have affected his timing, which may have affected his approach. It’s also possible Infante felt some pressure, with Christian Colon performing well in limited time, and thought he needed to make things happen quickly, which caused him to be more aggressive with the bat. Or maybe the aging process is taking its toll, and his talent level has declined to the point where he’s no longer able to hit at a major-league level.

I am not inside Infante’s dome, but it did seem to me like he was pressing at times. I’m sure there’s some aging involved, because that’s how time works, and obviously the injuries didn’t help, so it’s likely a combination of the above factors.

Now that Infante should be healthy, or at the very least healthier than before, he should improve from last year’s performance level. But even with improved health, there’s still going to be pressure to perform. If anything, the pressure will be higher. His remaining salary is decreasing by the day, and along with Colon breathing down his neck, Raul Mondesi could be ready enough to get some time at the keystone later this summer. If Infante struggles again, the Royals will have no problem looking elsewhere for a solution.

PECOTA has him pegged for a .236 TAv, which is two points above his 2014 line, and if I’m being honest, I can’t really argue against that. There’s a line of thinking that Infante could experience something like a “dead cat bounce,” which, what the heck kind of a phrase is that? I understand the uses, but the origin is disturbing to ponder.

Who’s out there conducting experiments with deceased felines and tall buildings? Also, why? Actually, you know what? I probably don’t want to know. Let’s just climb out of this rabbit hole now and get back to Infante.

Based on the idea of this slight bounce-back, he may improve from last year, but he’s unlikely to be an All-Star. Well, I should say he’s unlikely to be a deserving All-Star. (#VoteOmar)

However, if he can reclaim some semblance of plate discipline, it’s not unreasonable to think a healthier Infante could rebound even more. His 70th percentile projection is a .247 TAv, and if he hasn’t simply forgotten how, or lost the ability, to be a competent hitter, I think it’s possible he could approach that number. Granted, that’s still not particularly good, but with what should be above average defense thanks to a now-functioning right arm, it’s passable, particularly if the rest of the team is carrying their own weight. I wouldn’t say that scenario is terribly likely, but it will be interesting to see what Infante’s approach looks like once the season gets underway.

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