When the Orioles acquired Travis Snider in January, the move was made with the hope that Snider's late 2014 performance was the start of a breakout. After struggling at the plate for several years with Toronto and Pittsburgh, Snider batted .288/.356/.524 in the second half of the 2014 season and it was finally looking like the former 14th overall pick had figured it out.
O's fans were hoping Snider could be an everyday right fielder who could slide into the spot vacated by Nick Markakis and provide similar or better offensive production. While no one expected him to match that .888 second-half OPS, various pre-season projections had him pegged as a slightly above-average hitter with an OPS in the mid-.700s.
Clearly, that hasn't happened. Instead, Snider is hitting an anemic .237/.318/.341 and is showing no signs of heating up. In July, he played in only twelve games and had only three hits in 34 at-bats, all singles. His power has been especially absent, dropping from a .174 ISO in 2014 to .104 this year, and Snider has only three home runs so far on the season.
So, what's going on? Earlier this season I took a look at the underlying reasons for Steve Pearce's sharp decline in offense by looking at Pitch/FX and plate discipline data. The conclusion was that there really wasn't any obvious decline in how he was hitting the ball or his approach at the plate, and that it was probably more a result of being extremely lucky in 2014 and extremely unlucky in 2015. For Snider I'm not going to go through the whole exercise here, but the summary is this: Snider's problems are not luck. He's clearly changed as a hitter, and the data says so.
Here's a table looking at his plate discipline data, which shows how often he swings at, and makes contact with, pitches inside (Z) and outside (O) the strike zone. I also included league averages from 2014.
Snider's swinging at a few more pitches out of the zone than last season, but he's still better than average in that regard. Pitch selection has always been a strength for Snider - he's walking at an almost identical rate this season (9.7%) to last season (9.5%), which is well above average (7.5%). It's pretty clear that his pitch selection hasn't changed much. Instead, the number we need to notice is the one in the bottom-right corner.
Snider is making contact with 80.9% of the strikes he swings at. That obviously means he's whiffing on 19.1% of the strikes he swings at, compared to 10.3% last year. That's terrible! For reference, Mark Reynolds has an 80.7% Z-Contact this season. This should help explain Snider's increase in strikeouts from 18.7% last season to 23.7% in 2015, as well as his decrease in power (since he's missing more of the pitches that should be hit the hardest). Something's wrong here. On to some heat maps....
The above maps show Snider's batting average per pitch in various parts of the zone. Red is better and blue is worse. [Update (11:51): If you're wondering why the averages are all so low, it's because they include all pitches seen and not just the ones that are put in play. Long story short, just look at the colors.] It's from the point of view of the catcher, so inside pitches to the lefthanded Snider are on the right. He's hitting outside pitches about as well as last year, but this year that's the only thing he's done well. His ability to hit the inside pitch has definitely changed.
All hits aren't created equal, though, so we should also look at some power numbers. Instead of batting average, the next maps show his isolated power. As a reminder, ISO is simply slugging percentage minus batting average. If you've eaten recently, you may want to look away. This isn't for the faint of heart.
I don't even know what to say. Snider's power on the inside part of the plate, especially up and in, has completely vanished. That huge area of dark blue shows that Snider does not have a single extra-base hit on a pitch towards the high/inside part of the plate. If you drew a diagonal line across the strike down from top left to bottom right, all 14 of his extra base hits would fall on or below it (really!). That dark blue blob tells us all we need to know: there's something going on with Snider's swing that has resulted in a huge hole in his plate coverage.
Before the season started, Fangraphs posted a blurb about Snider's swing and how it had changed for the better during his breakout in 2014. He was focusing on getting his lower body involved and, as the article puts it, "generat[ing] torque with his lower half, thus allowing his top half to uncoil." I'm not a coach or a scout, but to my untrained eye it sure doesn't look like he's doing that now. Snider's swing often looks like it's the kind of arm-heavy swing a hitter would use to poke a low and away pitch into the opposite field. With a swing like that it's basically impossible to hit a high and tight pitch with any kind of authority, which is exactly what we've seen so far this season.
So what does this all mean? The pessimistic fan would say that Snider is seriously flawed as a player and that the O's should give up on him as Rich Dubroff suggested they might. The optimistic fan would say that we know there's something acutely wrong with him, and if it's a mechanical issue the coaching staff should be able to fix it. If that's the case it needs to happen soon, because a resurgent Snider would be a nice boost to the Orioles' lineup during their playoff push.
All images are from Fangraphs' heatmaps