One smaller step for Jake Lamb, one giant leap in production

The White Sox crossed the halfway point toward the trade deadline this week, and Jake Lamb is here to say that the left-handed bat you’ve been pining for has been with you the whole time. You just had to see him with clear eyes and a full heart.

OK, maybe don’t watch him roam right field with such investment, but he deserves your attention in the batter’s box, where he’s hitting .261/.404/.478 over 57 plate appearances.

Sure, it has many of the markings of a fluke. He rolled into town with a .205/.309/.351 average over the previous three seasons, most of which were spent with the Diamondbacks, and he lost a competition for a job with the Braves during spring training. Now he’s joining the White Sox’s Walkathon and lighting up even strong right-handed pitchers, despite having no history of typical platoon splits the last three years. It’s all a little much.

If you’re looking to beef up his sample, this run is adjacent to a similar revival with Oakland last year, during which he hit .267/.327/.556 over 49 plate appearances for the A’s. Smash those samples together, and you have a guy hitting .264/.368/.516 across a total of plate appearances that reaches triple digits (108 PA). Yet it doesn’t seem like it’s that simple, or else Oakland probably would have stuck with him, some team would have signed him before late February, and Atlanta wouldn’t have cut him in late March.

He said last September he made tweaks between leaving Arizona and debuting for Oakland, and sure, he closed his stance a little, and maybe that helped. But as Dayn Perry noted during the encouraging early returns, Lamb’s wOBA with the Diamondbacks (.261) was 80 points lower than his expected wOBA (.340), which would be above average. Some of luck was due to even out, and by the end of the 60-game season, his luck had evened out in a couple of columns:

  • 2019: .193/.323/.353
  • 2020: .193/.283/.352

Teams better at identifying affordable hitting talent passed on Lamb, so the context doesn’t paint the picture of a guy on the cusp of a breakout. So when I started writing this post, I merely intended to use Lamb as the latest guy who’s helping the White Sox cross off a week at a time while the front office waits for the trade market to materialize, after which I would list some possible targets. In fact, I was basically going to rip off the headline on Perry’s piece, because the Sox are in the exact same situation as Oakland last year:

But in the process of checking whether Lamb’s approach resembles his Oakland form more than what he was doing in Arizona, I found out that Lamb’s recent Chicago self doesn’t resemble Lamb’s early Chicago self.

* * * * * * * * *

Lamb has made a pretty significant in-season adjustment to the way he goes about his business in the batter’s box, and let’s see if you can spot it. Here’s Lamb facing Shane Bieber all the way back on April 13, a game where he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. A lot of guys go 0-for-4 against Bieber, but that’s not the point here. Just put on your best anonymous “American League scout” glasses and take a look.

Ready? Here’s the before:

Now, here’s Lamb facing Bieber on Tuesday, a game where he reached base all four times. If you don’t want me to spoil it, wait until you’re ready to scroll past this GIF.

Notice the difference? Besides the outcomes?

Lamb swapped out his leg kick for a toe tap. Maybe it’s not even a “tap” since his foot often doesn’t come back up, but “dainty stride” probably isn’t used in scouting reports, so we’ll use “toe tap” for a toe-oriented foot placement for the purposes of this post.

Lots of guys make changes to their stance over the course of the season based on how they’re feeling and what pitches they might be getting abused by, and oftentimes it’s incidental to the results. What’s notable about Lamb’s changes is not that they exist, but when he made them.

Let’s go back to the White Sox-Twins game on May 13, when Lamb gets the start against Minnesota righty Michael Pineda. In his first at-bat in the first inning, Pineda strikes out Lamb on three pitches, with Lamb using the leg kick each time.

Lamb next comes to the plate in the third. He uses the leg kick through the first three pitches, including this breaking ball on a 1-1 count on which Lamb can’t check his swing.

Pineda tries the same pitch on 1-2, but Lamb lays off it, and without any stride whatsoever.

One pitch later, Pineda comes back with a fastball, and Lamb lasers it out to right without even picking up his front foot, stunning Pineda in the process.

Lamb then chooses to go strideless for the entirety of his next at-bat, although he doesn’t have same success. He walks back to the dugout with a backwards K after Pineda clips the bottom of the zone with a slider.

Lamb didn’t see further action until four days later, and when he comes back, he’s split the difference between the two forms he showed in that game against the Twins. He’s got this toe tap, and he uses it on the first pitch he sees on May 17, lining out to center.

And that’s more or less what he’s been doing ever since, and to fantastic results. Lamb has reached base 12 times over his last seven starts, but even if you set the outcomes aside, he’s faring vastly differently at the component level. He’s chasing fewer pitches out of the zone, he’s making a little more contact, and the pitches he’s putting into play are getting off the ground.

DatePABAOBPSLGContact%GB%Chase%
Through 5/1331.167.355.29276.964.330.0
After 5/1326.364.462.68280.023.521.3

And the gap in these numbers would be even more severe if you shifted the home run he hit from the top row to the bottom row, which could then be classified as “leg kick” and “no leg kick.”

There is a little bit of noise, in that the “after 5/13” row represents regular playing time that he hadn’t enjoyed during April. He didn’t even start consecutive games over the first month. At best, he appeared in three games over five days. At worst, he dropped off the lineup card for a week afterward. There just wasn’t a reason to play him with regards to his performance or his position, and so there wasn’t much reason to ponder his plight.

Lamb has fashioned himself into enough of an outfielder to find time now, whether he’s letting Adam Eaton rest his legs in right, or sparing Andrew Vaughn a difficult assignment against a righty in left. Perhaps if Eaton started ailing in April, Lamb would have found this kind of groove without changing anything he did in the box. We’re only talking about a couple dozen plate appearances, so it could be a short-lived resurgence at a time that benefits the White Sox immensely.

Still, it’s worth exploring further, because Yermín Mercedes is hitless in his last 19 at-bats, and he slugged .313 against righties in May. He might be the one who requires a caddy now, so the Sox may as well see how far Lamb’s resurgence goes by letting him soak up some time at DH. If the Sox run Lamb into the ground (send him to the slaughter?), it will confirm where Rick Hahn needs to direct some resources as the trade deadline draws nearer. If Lamb somehow rediscovered the All-Star-caliber offense he posted for two years in Arizona after years wandering deserts literal and figurative, the Sox’s shopping list might be one item shorter.

You seldom see a player make a change so abruptly, and it seldom generates such stark changes in results, so it’s fun to imagine a story where Lamb uses a gentle toe placement to pivot back to stardom. I’m not ready to rush to that conclusion, but the nice thing about early June is that there’s no need to get it right immediately. Everybody involved can just let it play out by playing him.

(Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn / USA TODAY Sports)

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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GrinnellSteve

Excellent deep dive into a possible basis for his improvement!

digger0910

Yes. Jim: This is some seriously good sh!t.

tommytwonines

Agreed. Good analysis.

But what did Lamb’s swing look like during the “good years.” Did he have the leg kick?

Last edited 1 year ago by tommytwonines
karkovice squad

Yes, but was Frank Menechino behind the change or was Tim Anderson? Which one is the better hitting coach?

GoGoSoxFan

Clearly Anderson is the better hitting coach. Nobody else in MLB could teach Billy Hamilton to hit in a decade.

calcetinesblancos

I like them both, but TA must know something because he seriously became a good hitter overnight.

karkovice squad

Anderson and Moncada went to an off-season minicamp with Steverson before the ’19 season which, apart from COVID interrupting Moncada’s progress, seems to have set them on their current trajectory.

Ted Mulvey

A dainty stride lifts all offense.

metasox

A few days back, Lamb talked about making this change partly to make his timing less of an issue as playing sporadically made it diffcult to maintain. IIRC, he mentioned having been working with Menechino behind the scenes.

itaita

As for Yermin maybe im wrong and its recency bias but it feels like hes just swinging at everything now. It started off as him just having an ultra hot start of the year and its transitioning into pressing which is making him swing at every everything. Maybe he could use a few more days off to sorta cool down a bit.

calcetinesblancos

It would be refreshing if they would keep playing Lamb against RHP (DH, OF, whatever) at least until he shows that he’s no longer hot, as Jim mentioned. Just going off the numbers, that gives us a better chance of winning.

texag10

No, he is. You can see it on Fangraphs and I commented on a different article. His swing rate went up 3% in May while his contact dropped 3% as well. Maybe he’s just about to make an adjustment back to the league but just because you can foul off a ball 3 feet outside, doesn’t absolve you from swinging at it in the first place.

karkovice squad

The big thing is that he’s whiffing on fastballs out of the zone now. It’s putting him in a hole and then he makes bad contact with 2-strikes.

There’s also a big spike in whiffs against changeups the zone but he doesn’t see as many of them.

jorgefabregas

According to baseball savant, he has one of the worst chase rates in the league (1st percentile). So it’s not your imagination.

MarketMaker

yeah, i keep looking at that and wishing he’d stop being his own worst enemy.

Just John

As I read about the taming of Lamb’s leg kick, the first thing I pictured was actually Mercedes. When I first saw him take swings, his leg kick seemed about as egregious as anyone, but it was hard to argue with the 450+ foot ropes. I wonder if we won’t seen him try to make a similar adjustment at some point. I’ve always assumed more leg kick = more power, which might not be true. However, if there IS a kick::power relationship, someone might wanna remind him that 350′ bombs are worth just as much as 450′ bombs on the scoreboard.

Maybe a little slice of lamb is what’s missing from the Yerminator.

metasox

I wonder about Yermin as well. There was some commentary here on a podcast that he should abandon the two-strike approach and keep the leg kick. I have trouble following that logic in that if he isn’t hitting with the leg kick when he is ahead in the count, why would he do any better when he is behind… I don’t know what all Yermin tried in the minors, but he should be open to mixing it up. He isn’t hitting for power, but he seems to have some natural power that he could tap into, maybe without the kick. And looking at Lamb’s walks, I wonder if less movement helps hitters to follow the ball better

Last edited 1 year ago by metasox
soxfan

Yermin has figured out that if you swing at the first pitch, you can’t get publicly scolded by your manager for swinging at a 3-0 offering.

grittyiq

Good catch and excellent analysis! To my untrained eye it looks like he’s keeping his hands higher too. I wonder if that’s just a side effect of removing the leg kick

calcetinesblancos

Lamb seemed like a weird fit when we signed him, but now that we see him playing in the OF as well, he’s actually pretty useful. As a part-time player, what more do you want? He works counts, gets on base, hits for power, and seems like a smart baserunner.

I’ve now also seen him play the OF in person, and he got hit some balls with really weird spin off the bat that I could see being hard to handle if you don’t have a lot of OF experience. I’d expect him to get better out there defensively as the season progresses.

texag10

I’m not gonna sit here and say he needs to play every day but he can play LF, RF, 1B, 3B, and DH. He’s a lesser version of what I was rooting for with a DH candidate this offseason. Get some versatility on the bench that can rotate through multiple positions to give guys the day off in the field but maybe not taking their bat out of the lineup. There’s no reason Lamb can’t get 3-4 games a week without taking our other impact bats out of the lineup. Ride the hot streak while it lasts and if he never turns back into a pumpkin, all the better.

Right Size Wrong Shape

No more 1B, please.

soxfan

For a team with so many “1B-only” options, I feel really uncomfortable when anyone but Abreu is playing 1B. Pretty sure Grandal is the next best option.

calcetinesblancos

I mean, would anyone argue that he shouldn’t be in there every time there’s a RHP starting? I also think they should play Lamb at 3rd more often so Moncada can DH and stay fresh.

karkovice squad

“Can play” is stretching the quality of his defense by a fair bit. He can definitely stand in those positions on the field.

I also would hesitate to expand his role too much and risk overexposing him, a feature of Sox roster depth failures in the past. 2-3 games a week seems fine, especially with Mercedes struggling and Vaughn looking like a hitter who hasn’t faced pitching above A-ball against righties.

300+ PAs probably puts his liabilities front and center given TLR’s penchant for batting him 2nd when he needs a defensive replacement who seems to inevitably come to bat again in a close game.

joewho112

Lamb stepping up would be huge. All the injuries has made it hard to sit guys for any amount of time. The rookies could both use a break. Eaton has always been a guy that needs full health to be useful.

With healthy Robert, Jimenez and Engel, the problem is finding everyone at bats. Now the problem is finding someone to take at bats while you sit Eaton/Mercedes/Vaughn. It’d be great if Lamb could provide competence or better so you can sit those guys when needed.

MarketMaker

awesome article, jim. it’s rare that a specific event can be pointed to as a catalyst for change, which tends to make a lot of the before/after stats somewhat arbitrary and less reliable. this at least gives us a glimmer of hope that it’s not just wild small sample size fluctuations.

GrabSomeBench

Jimmy my man, excellent job. This is exactly the kind of article we need to see. Many of us were probably wondering if Lamb did something different. You’re not going to get Jason Benetti to talk about because he’s too busy talking about southpaw and Sox Math (not sure which one I hate more). Great article and great analysis.