Diagnosing Bo Bichette’s struggles vs. fastballs this season

Toronto Blue Jays designated hitter Bo Bichette steps in during a spring training game against the Philadelphia Phillies at BayCare Ballpark Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Clearwater, Fla. (Mark Taylor/CP)

Entering the 2022 season, the Toronto Blue Jays were dealing with a number of question marks from position player depth to the bullpen — but Bo Bichette’s bat did not seem to be among them.

The 24-year-old was coming off a 5.1 WAR season that saw him play 159 games, and he’d posted a wRC+ above 120 in each of his first three years, an elite number for a shortstop.

While Bichette’s swing-happy approach didn’t always look optimal, the results were always there. This year that hasn’t been the case.

Even coming off the tail of a six-game hitting streak with three home runs, Bichette OPS has fallen 89 points this season, and his wRC+ is barely above average at 105. After putting the shortstop in the cleanup spot as one of his first moves as Blue Jays manager, John Schneider was forced to demote him to the five hole on August 5.

Because Bichette is so young, we’re inclined to expect a linear upward trajectory for him, but so far 2022 has been a step back. Not a radical one that should engender panic about his future role with the team, but something worth examining.

Digging into the shortstop’s numbers, it’s clear that his struggles can be isolated to specific pitch types. In the midst of a down year, Bichette is still a top-15 hitter in the majors against both changeups and curveballs according to Statcast’s pitch value metrics. He’s also a positive against sliders (plus-2), something that can only be said for one-third of hitters.

The difficulty for Bichette has come with the hard stuff. Although he has consistently been a better breaking ball and offspeed hitter than fastball masher in his career, there’s a significant gap between what he’s done against those pitches from 2019-2021 and this year.

The difference is even more pronounced on fastballs 95 m.p.h. or harder:

Results like these are puzzling in a player young enough that their bat is unlikely to be slowing down.

The explanation of dwindling bat speed seems particularly improbable for Bichette. The violence of his swing is well-documented, and the power he’s displayed at a relatively small 6’0” 190 pounds is pretty strong evidence that there’s plenty of velocity in his bat — even if we don’t have any bat tracking data for the Blue Jays yet.

If the shortstop was simply getting blown away by heaters, we’d also see a massive uptick in his whiffs against those pitches, which isn’t the case. That’s been relatively flat, with his 2022 numbers coming in right where he was in his rookie season, when he had a .432 wOBA against heaters.

Bichette’s issues with fastballs this season stem from the contact he’s making against them, and his spray chart tells that story well. While he’s always been a gap to gap hitter, this season everything he’s hit against fastballs has been the other way:

The only home run he was able to pull came on an 87.9-m.p.h. pitch from Dylan Bundy that was much easier to turn on than most MLB heaters:

In prior seasons Bichette still did a fair amount of his damage against fastballs to right field, but he was able to get around them to do damage to the pull side, too:

This year Bichette hasn’t hit any fastball more than 390 feet. In just his 11th MLB game he was able to turn on a fastball inside and drive it 441 feet:

Bichette doesn’t have to approach fastballs like Jose Bautista and look to swing early and pull everything to be effective. He’s been very good against heaters with more of an all-fields approach in the past.

That said, being able to turn on hard inside stuff is an important tool for power hitters to have — and because of his unimpressive BB/K rates Bichette needs to be a power hitter for his offensive profile to work.

It’s clear that he has it in him to pull these pitches with authority more, but at times it seems like he could be letting the ball travel too much before he swings. His ability to wait on pitches serves him well against offspeed stuff, but there have been a number of instances this year where even low-velocity fastballs inside result in harmless opposite-field contact.

As an example, this 87.3-m.p.h. cutter (which is classified as a fastball) from Chris Flexen is not far enough inside to jam Bichette, or hard enough to induce a late swing, but instead of getting in front of it he throws the head out when it’s deep in the zone and the result is a lazy fly to right.

Similarly, here’s Bichette taking a 93-m.p.h. fastball right down the pipe and turning it into a grounder to second.

While you can cherry pick any hitter’s worst swings, there’s clearly a pattern of Bichette turning pitches that seem like they could be driven to left and converting them into less-than-impressive contact to the opposite field.

This would be more alarming if this had been a pattern that persisted his entire career, or if bat speed was ever a worry for him. Neither are an issue for Bichette.

For him to regain his prior performance level he’ll need to be a little more dynamic against fastballs. That’s not an easy switch to flip, but he brought 1030 MLB plate appearances into 2022 that suggest he’s more than capable of doing just that.

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