If you've ever tried to look into the world of Pitch F/X analysis, you have probably stumbled upon the website BrooksBaseball.net, which stores all of the publicly available Pitch F/X data in some really usable forms. Not too long ago, BrooksBaseball teamed with The Hardball Times to manually re-classify every pitch thrown at the major league level and organizing all of that data into Pitcher Cards. You should check them out, they're really cool and help to cut out all of the daunting SQL and clustering scripting you used to need to do to do any serious Pitch F/X analysis.
Now, Brooks Baseball is in cahoots with Baseball Prospectus and is providing Pitch F/X Hitter cards. This is a new toy I can't help but play with, so let's try it out together by looking at the Orioles' best hitter and his worst weakness.
The slider in the dirt isn't really Adam Jones' worst weakness, which might be our first surprise. It's a pitch he only sees from right handed pitchers, and in his career Jones has hit a lot better against righties than lefties. He's also strikes out less often against a right-handed pitcher, despite perhaps the prevailing image being Jones flailing away helplessly on a slider that was nowhere close and then walking back to the dugout.
Still, the slider is a pretty potent weapon against Adam Jones. Using his BrooksBaseball Hitter card, we see that since the start of the 2008 season he has seen 193 sliders out of the strikezone down and away and swung at 141 of them. That 73.1% swing rate confirms the eyeball test: he really does have a difficult time identifying the slider and laying off of it. This is also not a skill that, if it can be developed or taught, Jones is picking up. This year alone, when he has been a true force for good in the lineup, Jones has swung at 19 of 25 sliders down and away (76% swing rate). That's a small sample, of course, so we shouldn't say he's getting worse. But he certainly isn't improving.
Is Jones instead cultivating the ability to spoil those pitches? Well, no. In 2008 Jones swung at 25 sliders and missed 8 of them for a 22.9% whiff rate. In 2012 his whiff rate is 26.3% (swung at 19, missed 5). The only outlier year between 2008 and 2012 is last year. In 2011, Jones swung at 35 sliders and missed 18 times, for a 51.4% whiff rate. He's never done better than a 20% whiff rate.
One of the big differences for Jones this year is his numbers with two strikes. He's hitting .288/.333/.497 on two strike counts this season, compared to .210/.254/.327 in his entire career. It's a big reason why he's having a career year. But it has nothing to do with some newfound ability to identify or spoil those pesky sliders down and away. In fact he's not striking out much less in those counts than he always has. So the next time you see Jones face off against a junk slider, stay calm and realize that it's not the incapacitating pitch it looks like for Jones, even if he's probably never going to get much better against them.