My fiancee and I have a running joke where, when Jarrod Saltalamacchia steps to the plate, I’ll inform her that her boyfriend is up at bat. She’ll likewise let me know when my own boyfriend, Ryan Sweeney, is at the plate.
But where Salty being her boyfriend has everything to do with his looks, my mancrush on Sweeney has everything to do with his performance as a player. I’ve long admired Sweeney from afar in Oakland, and seeing him up close has only made me a bigger fan.
Sweeney doesn’t set you on fire with his tools, nor does he have any particular part of his game that jumps out at you but much like his right-field predecessor in J.D. Drew, he gets the job done quietly and with little fanfare. Recently, the 27-year-old has been hitting leadoff against right-handers as Bobby Valentine tries to figure out the best order of his lineup.
Sweeney, who largely sits against left-handed pitching, is off to a strong start this season with a .319/.350/.448 line through 123 plate appearances, not counting Wednesday’s game. This line is actually a step down from a week ago as he’s hit a bit of a slump, but obviously it’s still a fairly impressive line — and Sweeney might be able to maintain overall gains he has made this season as a player.
Sweeney has never been a player to hit for much power. From 2008-2011, when he collected 1,595 plate appearances with the Athletics, his .097 isolated power ranks him 182nd out of 197 players with at least 1,500 plate appearances over the same time span. A decent chunk of that disparity is due to his home park, but his career road ISO of .109 isn’t that much higher.
Power has never been much of Sweeney’s game, so he’s had to contribute in other ways. Oakland used him in right field because he’s a strong defender there, and his contact/plate discipline skills made him a quality bat to have in the lineup. But in Boston, Sweeney has flashed doubles power, with a .129 ISO leading him to a tie for fourth place in baseball with 13 doubles. He’s doing so because of a major spike in his line drive rate.
Line drives are generally always a very good indicator as to a batter or pitcher’s effectiveness, and Sweeney is no different with a 29.3 percent rate, well above his career mark of 21.8 percent. In part due to this spike, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .402. Looking at his career BABIP of .328, one would surmise that Sweeney has been very lucky, but his expected BABIP on the year is .347, so there’s some clear strides being made here that may allow Sweeney to maintain his improvement. Simply put: Sweeney is hitting the ball harder this year, and he can keep it up.
However, there’s some problems with Sweeney’s approach. As a result of his success, he’s barely walking. He’s only walked in 4.1 percent of his plate appearances, which is a major step back from last season’s 11 percent (career: 8 percent). His strikeout numbers have also spiked to 20.3 percent (career: 14.4 percent). Looking at his swing data yields some interesting notes. It’s no surprise given these walk numbers that he’s swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, but he’s also continued a trend starting last season of not offering at pitches as much inside the zone. He’s only swinging at pitches inside the zone he knows he can do damage with, even though it’s resulting in more strikeouts. Instead of boring you with numbers, look at the heat map below, which shows Sweeney’s swinging data from 2012 on the left and 2009-11 on the right.
You can see from the heat map above that he’s obviously having quite a bit of success on pitches inside the strike zone, but he’s also making contact on pitches outside the strike zone at a higher clip than before. Here’s a look at which pitches this season Sweeney has driven for line drives in another heat map. The takeaway? Sweeney’s dramatic improvement in the lower left, upper right and upper left quadrants of the strike zone above can be essentially explained by his line drive locations — gains he began to make last season.
Over the long run, Sweeney should benefit from Fenway Park and the Green Monster, although it hasn’t come to pass yet. Most of his success to date has come on the road, which suggests that he’s improved his game overall and isn’t just a byproduct of his new home park. Someone with Sweeney’s frame (a listed 6-foot-4, 223 pounds) should have been displaying more power than he has in the past, and that might be manifesting itself this year. To be sure, his lack of walks is a concern, but when he’s hammering the ball as much as he has been in the early going, it’s understandable why he’s passing up walks.
If Sweeney can return to previous levels of walking while holding serve on his batting average and displaying more doubles power, the Red Sox will have a valuable property on their hands — someone with a similar game as J.D. Drew but without the money that unfortunately colored Drew’s contributions to the Red Sox.