Sandy Leon: Hitting Machine

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Between chasing knuckleballs to the backstop and rolling ankles in the outfield, the 2016 season has been a rough one for Red Sox catchers. However, there has been one steady hand at the wheel for Boston. Ian York uses PITCHf/x and his unique charts to investigate the curious case of the Sandy Leon hitting machine.

Sandy Leon entered 2016 with a reputation as a decent defensive catcher and a weak bat. While his defensive contributions have indeed been solid since he was called up to the majors in June, his offense has been shockingly good: As of Sunday, August 21, his OPS of 1.086 on the season is the highest in baseball (140 at-bats or more).

While no one seriously expects Sandy Leon to remain the best hitter in baseball for the rest of his career, he is showing no signs of slowing down as the season progresses:

Month June July August
OPS 1.243 0.956 1.141

At this point it’s worth asking what has changed, and how sustainable those changes might be.

In 2014 and 2015, Leon truly was a very bad hitter: he had an OPS of .447 and .439 (OPS+ of 25 and 21) respectively. Using PITCHf/x data to break down his results against different pitch types shows that he was terrible against everything. This table shows the number of hits, and the number of total bases, he achieved against the various pitch families, compared to baseball-wide averages:

2014 2015 2016
Hits/pitch Total bases/pitch Hits/pitch Total bases/pitch Hits/pitch Total bases/pitch
Average Leon Average Leon Average Leon Average Leon Average Leon Average Leon
Fastballs 0.06 0.03 0.09 0.05 0.06 0.04 0.10 0.04 0.06 0.08 0.10 0.13
Breaking 0.05 0.05 0.08 0.05 0.05 0.06 0.08 0.07 0.05 0.06 0.08 0.10
Offspeed 0.06 0.06 0.10 0.06 0.06 0.05 0.10 0.05 0.06 0.08 0.10 0.17

In 2014 and 2015, Leon had two major problems as a batter: He couldn’t hit a fastball, and he had no power whatsoever. He hit offspeed and breaking pitches at about league-average rates, but almost never for extra bases; and with fastballs, not only did he not hit for extra bases, he only hit at half the league-average rate.

In 2016, both of those problems have disappeared. He now hits all pitch types at a slightly higher than league-average rates, but with more power; especially offspeed pitches, which he has been totally destroying. His ISO went from 0.018 in 2015 (second-lowest of 428 players with at least 110 at-bats), to .262 in 2016, 25th in baseball (at least 140 at-bats) and ahead of such names as Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton, and Mookie Betts.

His improvement in hitting fastballs can be seen in these location charts, which break down Leon’s batting success against each pitch type by sub-regions around the strike zone. The charts are from the umpire’s viewpoint; Leon is a switch-hitter, but I have not split these charts by batting side since it makes the numbers too small to be very meaningful. Darker red indicates more success:

The contour lines in the background show pitch location. Although in 2014 and 2015 pitchers only showed him fastballs in one location (inside to a right-handed batter), in 2016 there are two clusters of fastball locations for 2016, inside and outside to right-handed batters, as pitchers have begun to treat him with more respect.

On the other hand, pitchers have not yet dramatically changed the types of pitches that Leon is seeing. Breaking down pitch family usage by year and by month, we can see that while pitchers have started reducing the number of fastballs and increasing the number of breaking pitches to Leon, the difference is not yet huge. In particular, pitchers are still showing Leon about the same number of offspeed pitches, despite his success against them.

Leon’s BABIP in 2016 is .456, which is completely unsustainable no matter how hard he hits the ball. As well, pitchers have not yet completely adjusted to this new, superpowered Sandy Leon. As his BABIP regresses and as pitchers find his weaknesses, his numbers will undoubtedly drop.

On the other hand, catchers often reach their peak a little older than other players; at 27 years old, Leon is not far past a typical catcher’s peak. His explosion this year does show some encouraging signs. He hits pitches at only slightly more than league average rates, and league average is a very realistic target. As for the slugging that is fueling his numbers this year, Leon is listed as 225 lb on a 5’10” frame; he is a very solidly built player and it is easily believable that he should have considerable power. The change in batting stance to a more upright position – which we will discuss in a forthcoming article – may have genuinely changed his batting ability, or may have increased his confidence and let him reach his natural peak. If Leon settles in as a good defensive catcher with above-average power and league-average contact rates, he will be tremendously valuable.


Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

Featured image courtesy of Adam Hunger.

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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