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Cory Spangenberg could be poised for a breakout season in 2019

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Tailoring his approach to his new home ballpark could help Spangenberg make good on his potential.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is officially under way, and the Brewers have not yet made a splashy upgrade to their infield. Rumors persist regarding a possible reunion with Mike Moustakas, which would force Travis Shaw back to second base. But, as of now, Shaw is slated to return to his natural position at third base while a platoon of Cory Spangenberg and Hernan Perez handle duties at the keystone. The recently-signed Brett Lawrie represents another option, but it’s fair to assume that he will begin the season in the minor leagues to re-acclimate himself to professional baseball after two full seasons away from the game.

A Spangenberg and Perez combination at second base may seem underwhelming, but there is a fairly reasonable chance that the duo can perform adequately. Spangenberg has a pedestrian 94 wRC+ for his career, but he owns a slightly above-average 106 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. Perez, meanwhile, has an 89 wRC+ against lefties, but this mark is bogged down by a rough stint with the Tigers at the onset of his career. Over his three-and-a-half-year tenure in Milwaukee, Perez has managed an exactly average 100 wRC+ against southpaws. If both players are strictly platooned, they could very well produce league-average results.

However, Spangenberg may have the potential to be more than simply average. After signing him to a split contract, President of Baseball Operations David Stearns mentioned that he and his brass believe that the infielder might possess some untapped power. Could he experience a power surge with the Brewers?

Let’s break down Spangenberg’s career to date. He has slugged just .391 with a .133 ISO in 1,278 plate appearances. However, Spangenberg has shown some glimpses of power potential over the past two seasons. In 2017, he was a below-average hitter (93 wRC+), but he set a career-high with 13 home runs. Unfortunately, he took a step back last season, struggling to a .290 wOBA and 83 wRC+. His home run total dropped to seven, although that was likely due in part to having 157 fewer plate appearances than he did the previous season.

While Spangenberg’s production tanked in 2018, he did make strides in one area that would be important for a breakout season. He posted a career-best hard-hit rate of 38.1%, which puts him slightly above the league average. Travis Shaw, Mike Moustakas, Rhys Hoskins, and Cody Bellinger are examples of power hitters who had a hard-hit rate similar to Spangenberg’s in 2018.

Even with that recent improvement, Spangenberg has never been a power threat. Why not?

Part of the explanation is that Spangenberg has played all of his home games in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Petco’s five-year park factor since 2014, Spangenberg’s debut season, is 97. Miller Park’s park factor is 101. That’s a difference, but not an especially drastic one—at least, not in terms of overall offense. Petco Park’s home run factor for left-handed hitters in that span is 96, which is in the bottom tier of the league. Miller Park’s is 112, the third-best among all MLB stadiums. Spangenberg is going from an unfavorable park for offense, both power-wise and overall, to a lefty hitter’s paradise.

In each of the last two seasons, the Brewers have imported players who ultimately benefited from playing half of their games at Miller Park. Travis Shaw crushed 31 dingers in his debut campaign in Milwaukee and followed that up with a 32-homer showing last season. Christian Yelich went on an absurd power binge in the second half of 2018, finishing with a career-high 36 long balls. The Brewers definitely believe in the Miller Park factor. In addition to acquiring Shaw two years ago and Yelich last offseason, they added more lefty bats in Moustakas and Curtis Granderson at the 2018 trade deadline. This offseason, they p picked up power-hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal, a switch hitter who does his best work from the left side of the plate.

Between the difference in park factors and the recent success of fellow lefties upon moving to Miller Park, it’s safe to say that Spangenberg is going to benefit from his new surroundings. The extent to which it will help him, however, is debatable. Adjusting his approach could help him really take advantage of his new home ballpark.

The Miller Park effect worked for Shaw because he hit enough fly balls for it to help him. His 37.6% fly ball rate and 14.6° launch angle in 2017 were actually the lowest of his career, but it was still enough to reap the benefits of his new home stadium. Spangenberg, meanwhile, has a career fly ball rate of 25.8%. That is the 22nd-lowest in all of baseball since his debut season. His career launch angle of 4.8 is the 20th-lowest (minimum 750 batted balls). He hits plenty of ground balls, carrying a career 49.9% grounder rate.

Ground balls are bad. The league-wide OPS on ground balls last season was .494, and the league-wide ISO was 0.21. For the overwhelming majority of players, hitting lots of ground balls hurts far more than it helps. Some especially skilled hitters, such as Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, can make it work by beating out infield singles, hitting ground balls harder than most players, or simply because they have a knack for finding holes. However, the general rule of thumb, especially in today’s game, is that hitters should look to avoid hitting the ball on the ground.

Fly balls, on the other hand, are good. The league-wide OPS and ISO on fly balls last season were .915 and .460, respectively. In general, hitting the ball in the air is a good idea.

Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for every hitter. In some cases, hitting more fly balls isn’t the answer. For example, Yelich’s breakout was not the result of an increased fly ball rate. Rather, he increased his power output by simply crushing the baseball in general, especially in the second half. The fly balls that Yelich did hit were almost always clobbered. Spangenberg does not have the elite hard-hit rate that Yelich does, so hitting more fly balls in general is the more obvious solution.

It makes some sense that Spangenberg hasn’t focused much on hitting the ball in the air. After all, he was playing in a home field that did not favor left-handed power hitters, so hitting fly balls to the warning track wouldn’t have helped him a whole lot. Now that he’s moving to Miller Park, the Brewers, who lean heavily on analytics and recently hired data-oriented Andy Haines as their hitting coach, could encourage Spangenberg to elevate the ball more often.

He certainly wouldn’t be the first player to make such an adjustment. There are numerous players who have joined the so-called “fly ball revolution” to add more power. Different hitters have increased their fly ball rates by varying amounts with varying levels of success. Daniel Murphy set a career-high with 25 home runs after making the adjustment. Yonder Alonso had never reached a double-digit home run total in a season, but he has now hit 28 and 23 long balls in his past two campaigns. There are others who have taken it to the extreme. Francisco Lindor was initially a solid hitter with some pop; now he’s fresh off a 38-dinger season. Brewer-killer Matt Carpenter wasn’t much of a power threat over the first three years of his career. He just hit a career-high 36 homers last season, which marks his fourth straight season with 23 or more round-trippers.

Perhaps the best comparison for Spangenberg is Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, who had a career 28.7% fly ball rate through the 2014 season. Then, in his age 30 season, he increased his fly ball rate to 36.2% and hit 16 home runs. If Spangenberg can make a similar improvement, he could likely reach 20 home runs due to Miller Park having a higher home run factor (111 for lefties) than Dodger Stadium (96 for righties).

There’s obviously more to hitting than home runs, and the two are not perfect matches as hitters. Spangenberg has dealt with some trouble putting the ball in play, scuffling to a career-worst 32.8% strikeout rate last season. Turner has an excellent career 14.3% rate. However, his pre-breakout batted ball profile lines up rather well with Spangenberg’s. The Statcast metrics (available since 2015) on fly balls for each player also line up quite well:

Cory Spangenberg and Justin Turner, Fly Ball Data (since 2015)

Player FB% Average Exit Velocity Average Distance Hard-Hit%
Player FB% Average Exit Velocity Average Distance Hard-Hit%
Spangenberg 25.6% 91.1 MPH 322 ft 36.9%
Turner 42.2% 91.0 MPH 318 ft 37.2%

When Spangenberg does hit fly balls, he hits them about as well as Turner does. Spangenberg beats him slightly in average fly ball distance. The two hit their fly balls at nearly identical average exit velocities and have roughly the same hard-hit rate. The obvious difference is that Turner hits significantly more balls in the air, which in turn leads to more home runs. The apex of his transformation came in 2016, when he set career-highs in home runs (27) and ISO (.218). Expecting Spangenberg to make such a leap and turn into the current version of Turner is the best possible—and a highly unlikely—outcome. Instead, matching Turner’s 2015 adjustment is a much more realistic goal.

Is Spangenberg going to reach 30 home runs like Shaw and Yelich did? Probably not. Comparing him to those two isn’t really fair. Yelich and Shaw are examples of players with some pop who turned into legitimate sluggers; Spangenberg is a singles hitter with the potential to develop some power. His increased hard contact rate is evidence that the process has already begun, and at 28 years old, it may not be done rising, either. Directing that hard contact into the air could help him parlay that into increased power production. A 20-homer season with an OPS around .800 shouldn’t be ruled out. The Brewers would gladly welcome production like that at second base.

As of now, how often Spangenberg will see the field is still up in the air. He figures to get regular playing time at the keystone against right-handed pitching until top prospect Keston Hiura is deemed ready for the big leagues. That’s not a guarantee, though, as the Brewers could still scoop up Moustakas or a free agent second baseman any day now. However, Spangenberg has ample experience at third base and in left field, and the team is asking him to play some shortstop in spring training. Could he see playing time there if Orlando Arcia struggles mightily with the bat once again? If Spangenberg hits, his versatility will allow the Brewers to find ways to get him in the lineup.

Cory Spangenberg as he is now is capable of giving the Brewers acceptable production at second base. Bringing him in was a low-risk move that could prove to pay huge dividends this season. Spangenberg has been making more hard contact than ever before, and he’s going from a pitcher’s park to one that heavily favors lefty hitters. An adjustment to hit the ball in the air more frequently could tie it all together, and he happens to be joining an organization that is phenomenal at using data to turn players into the best versions of themselves.

David Stearns and company have hit it big with left-handed bats in each of the past two seasons, and Spangenberg could be their next success story. They seem to believe that there’s something about him that warrants giving him a shot, and if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few seasons, it’s to never underestimate this front office’s ability to find diamonds in the rough.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant