Jose Peraza swings a lot. We knew that when he consistently checked in with walk rates below 5 percent when he was in the minors, and we’ve more or less come to accept it when his walk rates dipped even further as he began getting regular big league playing time. Last year, Peraza’s swing rate was the 42nd-highest in all of baseball. The year before, it was 26th-highest. He’s made his approach at the plate very clear, but importantly, that approach has never made him an outlier. That is, until now.
After a little less than two weeks of regular season games, Peraza has the highest swing rate in all of baseball by more than eight percentage points. His O-Swing% is also the highest by more than eight percentage points. His Z-Swing% ranks 12th-highest. He has played only nine games and logged just 30 plate appearances, but the uptick in his swing rate has still been alarming. Here’s Peraza’s swing percentages year over year, courtesy of Fangraphs:
Over the first four years of Peraza’s career, his swing rate has always been high, but it also hasn’t fluctuated much. In his brief start to 2019, there is suddenly a steep incline. Now, part of this almost certainly has something to do with the number of strikes Peraza has seen this season. He leads all big league hitters in zone percentage, a category he finished 59th in a season ago, and the uptick in pitches he swings at inside the strike zone is more or less right in line with the uptick in pitches he’s seen there.
A funny thing about the number of pitches a batter sees inside the strike zone is that it can have a significant effect on how often he swings at pitches that are outside the zone. After all, if a hitter is seeing a lot of strikes, that tends to mean he is falling behind in more counts than the average hitter, and in turn, is chasing pitches outside the zone to keep from striking out. Swinging at lots of balls can be a result of a hitter getting consistently fooled, sure, but it can also be a result of a hitter protecting the plate when he needs to.
Early in 2019, it seems that Peraza likely belongs in that second group. In 30 plate appearances, Peraza has taken a first-pitch ball in just eight of them, and has gotten ahead 2-0 just once. Just two of his plate appearances have gotten to a two-ball count at all. As a result, Peraza’s natural free-swinging tendencies have been exploited by pitchers getting ahead in the count and forcing him to climb up and down the strike zone, instead of waiting for pitches closer to the middle.
Now, there is obviously a lot of caution that should be applied when analyzing a hitter’s performance over the first couple weeks of his season. Some numbers have realistic odds to stick; others don’t. Mike Trout, for example, is likely to finish among the top three major leaguers in fWAR when this season is over. Tim Beckham probably will not. But regardless of the specific numbers behind it, Peraza’s swing rate is an important thing to keep an eye on as his season progresses, because of how much his offensive production has depended on it over the course of his career. Below are Peraza’s 15-game rolling averages showing the relationship between his swing rate and wOBA dating back to 2017.
For the most part, when Peraza is swinging more than usual, his offensive production plummets. When his swing rate is under control, his hitting is at its best. Even without a robust walk rate, we’ve seen how valuable Peraza can be to an offense over long stretches of a season. Over his final 102 games of 2018, Peraza slashed .305/.344/.465, good for an .809 OPS, despite walking just 4.4 percent of the time. Over his first 55 games of the season, he hit .256/.292/.324 while walking 3.7 percent of the time. Peraza’s success as a hitter doesn’t really depend at all on his ability to walk, but it does depend on him being in good counts, and getting the right pitches to swing at.
Peraza is far from the only hitter in the Reds’ lineup in need of a resurgence at the plate. But somehow, he doesn’t feel like as safe a bet to rebound as the likes of Joey Votto, Yasiel Puig and Jesse Winker. Going forward, Peraza’s going to rely a bit on pitchers being less effective at getting ahead in the count, but he’ll also need to show more of a willingness to take pitches around the edges, with the hopes that more mistakes will follow. It’s no grand revelation to say that someone will hit better if they are in more hitter’s counts. In Peraza’s case, though, that feels especially true.