Mikie Mahtook was selected in the 1st round (#31 overall) of the 2011 draft out of LSU. Thanks to the injury-plagued roster, Rays fans got to see more than a gilmpse of Mahtook last season, which may give us an indication of how he handles MLB pitching.
Heading into 2016, he remains blocked on the depth chart by Brandon Guyer, so t seems as if the right handed hitting prospect will start the season at Durham, but should be first in line to get a call up if there is an injury or trade.
If there is a chance of regular playing time, could Mahtook take advantage of the opportunity?
Looking back at 2015
Mahtook started 2015 at AAA Durham, but was called up on April 10th, 2015 after John Jaso landed on the DL, and only lasted a week before being sent back down. Mahtook would continue to ride the Durham shuttle, spending time on the MLB roster in June, July, August, September and October, with most of his time coming in the last two months.
In 115 PA, Mahtook hit .295/.351/.619 with a wRC+ of 168. His strikeout rate was 27%, and he walked at a 5.2% clip. In his career, Mahtook has posted a .322 BABIP in his time at AA and AAA, and his .338 BABIP in the majors was consistent with his minor league performance.
The strikeouts and walk rates are concerning, so let's get a better visual idea of where MLB pitchers attacked him, and see if we can find potential improvements to Mahtook's approach.
Mahtook saw most of his time against LHP, bu did get some opportunities against RHP.*
Lefties kept a lot of their pitches outside the zone, both on the outside edge, and down below the zone. Righties did a lot of the same, attacking the bottom outside corner.
This information, plus the 25% strikeout rate, leads me to believe that Mahtook is getting fooled by breaking or off-speed pitches and swinging over them.
There is logic to the pitchers' strategy against Mahtook. He is swinging and missing at a lot of pitches at the bottom of the zone, from left and right handed pitching. There is also a strange whiff rate at pitches right down the middle and towards the outer third of the zone. It might be a timing issue, or he could be getting fooled by pitches.
*Interesting note: Out of Mahtook's 115 PA in 2015, 38 of them came against RHP. In that super small sample size, he posted a 138 wRC+ with .375 BABIP. Regression is due, but the signs and early tests are promising.
Plan of Adjustment
Mahtook's tendency to swing at low in the zone pitches (and the ability of opposing pitchers to exploit that tendency) certainly explains the high K% and low BB%. If he gets more playing time in 2016, Mahtook will need to adjust and learn how to spot those pitches in the zone, and not be tempted to bite.
Even as the season progressed, and Mahtook saw more pitchers, the attack plan changed, with a shift towards more breaking pitches and fewer fastball and offspead pitches. This could explain the whiffs below the zone.
The Good News
When Mahtook gets a good hold of the ball, he is putting it all over the field. but if he gets over the top of the ball, its usually being pulled to the left side of the infield. These weaknesses could certainly be worked on.
For those unfamiliar with batted ball data and exit velocity, there is a pretty good introduction by Tony Belngino at Fangraphs. If you don't want to dive in right now here is a TL;DR:
If you take one piece of information out of this article, let it be the following one:
– Fly Balls > 92.5 MPH = .560 AVG-1.884 SLG (7.6% of all batted balls)
– Fly Balls 75-90 MPH = .077 AVG-.148 SLG (11.9%)
This is the exciting part. Mahtook really flexed his power, especially when he was given more playing time in the later months. Even when pitchers were increasing their use of offspeed and breaking pitches, Mahtook was able to have productive at bats and use his power to get on base.
Although a lot of things would have to break the right way for Mahtook to become a breakout candidate in 2016, he is much closer than you think.
First, he would have to be promoted to a full time role as the 3rd OF along with Keirmaier and Souza. With a full time promotion, more established MLB pitchers might have a better look at Mahtook, and find new attack strategies. We can also expect some negative regression just due to the small sample size that we have to work with at the MLB level.
Second, we have already seen Mahtook adjust to pitching and change his game plan at the plate when pitchers are trying to exploit his weaknesses. If he can learn to take breaking and offspeed pitches outside the zone, and convert the K% to an increased BB%, that would provide the Rays with a welcomed threat on the basepaths.
Increased patience at the plate, and small adjustments could lead to Mahtook becoming the perfect candidate for a breakout performance in 2016