When Eric Sogard came to the Brewers on a minor-league deal prior to the 2017 season, he represented the type of player many teams like to give a chance to at the AAA level. Our friends over at Athletics Nation announced the Brewers' signing by remembering Sogard as a "beloved presence" for A's fans, as well as a player who brought "hustle" and a "great attitude." Throw in his infield utility and it made a ton of sense for the Brewers to bring him in.
Many things made Sogard a fan favorite in Oakland, including #NerdPower and that "scrappy" label that undersized infielders are invariably given. First appearing with the Athletics in 2010, Sogard was also one of the few players to stick around on a team that turns over talent as much as anyone in the league.
From 2013 through 2015, Sogard appeared in 367 games with the Athletics, slashing .247/.305/.315 for a 76 wRC+ and more triples (six) than home runs (four). Even those numbers are inflated by a decent 2013, as Sogard posted just a .584 OPS from 2014-15.
Sogard's time with the Athletics ended unceremoniously after he required knee surgery in April 2016, which resulted in the utilityman missing all of the A's season and appearing in just two High-A games all year. He elected for free agency at season's end.
Sogard began 2017 with the AAA Sky Sox, slashing .330/.421/.516 with 15 walks and twelve strikeouts before his May 12 call-up. In just 74 PA since joining the Major League club, Sogard owns a wRC+ of 218 and a batting average north of of .400 with three home runs, the most he's ever knocked in a single season. He also owns a 20.3% walk rate and just a 8.1% strikeout rate.
Of course, those numbers are preposterous and bound to change significantly, but Sogard's approach at the plate really has evolved, and could lead to a poor lifetime hitter becoming a league-average hitter, a welcome complement to his above-average defensive chops. So let's get into it:
Here's Sogard's leg kick from a May 12, 2015 game against the Red Sox. This play resulted in a double off of Justin Masterson.
First impressions? That's a pretty late leg kick. While the perspective makes it difficult to tell definitively, the ball is a little less than a quarter of the way to home plate, while Sogard's foot is still at its highest point off of the ground. Having a late leg kick fits with Sogard's profile from 2013-15. During that time, he hit batted balls up the middle more often than nearly 85 percent of hitters (min. 1000 PA). In that same time, Sogard pulled batted balls less often than 81 percent of hitters.
An aversion to pulling the ball isn't particularly surprising coming from a player with Sogard's profile. Just two hitters with a minimum of 1,000 PA had a lower rate of hard hit balls from 2013-15, Ichiro Suzuki and Dee Gordon. Like Sogard, those two also avoided pulling the ball and frequently went up the middle.
In fact, Sogard's leg kick in 2014 was more of a slide step, similar to what contact hitters like Gordon and Ichiro utilize. Sogard's hard hit rate from 2013-15, 17.4 percent, falls well below the 20 percent rate that FanGraphs calls "awful."
Sogard's leg kick in 2015 reflects that of a utility player who is focused on driving the ball up the middle and knows he isn't crushing the ball when he makes contact. In fact, Sogard was dead last in home runs per flyball percentage from 2013-15, with a paltry 1.3 percent. That's lower than Ben Revere from 2013-15 (1.8%), who you may recall took 1,566 plate appearances to hit his first career dinger.
The difference is Revere avoided flyballs at all costs, owning the second lowest flyball rate in the league (16.8%) from 2013-15. Sogard on the other hand hit flyballs more often (36.1%) than league average during that time. That's a considerable faux pas for a guy who knocked the ball out of the park just once every seventy-five flyballs.
This is all a long-winded way of saying what we already knew about a player who came to the Brewers with a .609 OPS; Eric Sogard was a bad hitter. But is that still the case?
Now let's take a look at that new leg kick. This is from May 18 of this year, and resulted in a double off of Ryan Buchter.
First impressions? A special thanks to Sogard for wearing those knee-high socks. They make it easy to see how much higher Sogard is bringing his front foot in 2017. Rather than just above the height of his back foot like in 2015, Sogard is now bringing his lead foot up near the top of his sock, or the bottom of his back knee.
He's also setting up considerably earlier than in the past. Buchter hasn't even released the ball yet. Sogard's earlier setup should lead to an earlier swing, which has presumably led to his increased pull rate.
In fact, instead of being in the bottom quarter of the league for pull rate, as he was with a 35.9% pull rate from 2013-15, he's in the top quarter of the league in 2017 with a 46.2% pull rate (min. 70 PA).
More importantly, Sogard's hard hit rate this year is 26.9%, a marked improvement over his career rate from 2010-15 of 18%. And sure, 26.9% is still well below league-average, but we're not looking for the next Barry Bonds. We're looking for a player who gets most of his value on defense without negating it on offense.
Still, there's something intriguing about Sogard's new kick. Jose Bautista's leg kick, which is considered to be a signature of his career-saving approach, is strikingly similar to Sogard's. And while I don't want to alarm anyone by putting a picture of Sogard next to one of the best power hitters of his generation, I think it will show just how high the utilityman's kick is now, and how far he seems to have altered his approach from that of a slap hitter.
This image of Sogard is from Spring Training. In order to better show how similar the kicks are, I have flipped Joey Bats be to a lefty hitter, perhaps the only thing that could make him scarier.
I feel the need to say one more time that the comparison between Sogard and Jose Bautista ends at their leg kick. However, I do believe that Sogard adopting a higher kick similar to those of power hitters like Bautista and Josh Donaldson shows Sogard's new desire for hard hit balls. This new approach has Sogard knocking 18.8% of his flyballs out of the park this year, versus his career average of 2.2%.
And while he still isn't hitting the ball hard at a league average rate, Sogard was able to keep a Major League career afloat for years with a much lower hard hit rate, thanks to his utility and his other peripherals.
Much of Sogard's ability to remain on a Big League roster is thanks to excellent plate discipline and bat control. From 2013-15, Sogard chased just 26.4% of pitches outside of the zone, better than nearly three-quarters of hitters with at least 1,000 PA. Additionally, just six players whiffed on pitches less often than Sogard (4%), and 85 percent of the league swung more often than he did (41%).
This year, Sogard has the lowest whiff rate in the entire league at 2.1%, and is chasing pitches (18.1%) less than 98 percent of batters (min. 70 PA). If Sogard's new approach maintains the improvements on his hard hit rate, he's a new hitter entirely. His pre-2017 career BABIP of .270 should be easily bested, as should his pre-2017 career 72 wRC+.
I know 'league-average hitter' isn't the sexiest description, but Sogard's new offensive potential mixed with his defensive ability--particularly when he's manning second base--should make for a solid starter. Jonathan Villar's early struggles to the year have also opened the door to "Eric Sogard, Competent Starting Second Baseman," and he should continue to leech more and more starting time at the keystone and at the top of the lineup.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs