What if Bradley Zimmer was better?
What if Bradley Zimmer ... was good?
That is essentially the question the Cleveland Guardians asked when they sought to acquire outfielder Myles Straw from the Houston Astros. According to The Athletic, it was a goal they have pursued for some time now, as they have targeted Myles for over a year. They finally landed him yesterday in the waning hours of the trade deadline in exchange for Phil Maton and catching prospect Yainer Diaz.
But what exactly does he bring besides a comparison to an outfielder who has amassed just 2.1 fWAR in over 200 games?
For one, like Zimmer, Straw brings tremendous speed. This season with the Astros, Straw ranks 23rd in Baseball Savant’s sprint speed metric, which measures the feet per second a player travels in their fastest second in very specific instances. Straw traveled at 29.2 feet per second on average. He will instantly be third on the Guardians behind Amed Rosario (29.6, 13th overall) and Bradley Zimmer (29.3, 19th overall). He’s already swiped 17 bases this season, which puts him in a tie for sixth overall in baseball and the most in Cleveland.
By percentiles, Straw’s sprint speed is in the top 4% of the league in terms of raw running ability. Also similar to Zimmer, Straw is an excellent center fielder and figures to stick there long term (one terrible play Friday night from Zimmer notwithstanding). But that’s where the comparisons between the two players stop.
Once you get past speed and defense, these two diverge down completely separate paths. Where Bradley Zimmer once showed pop with his bat, but huge holes all over his swing, Myles Straw is one of the weakest hitters in baseball but rarely swings and misses. The only player with a lower hard-hit rate (over exit velocity of 95 mph or greater) than Straw last season was David Fletcher. His hardest-hit ball of the season — a measurement which can show that a player has the ability to hit the ball hard but has potentially been unlucky — was 107.5 mph, which ranks as the seventh-lowest in the league.
We are in an era where this kind of thing matters more than ever as pitchers are pumping high-90s fastballs like they’re playing whiffle ball. For the most part, you either hit the ball hard or you get eaten alive — simple as that. But Straw is a unicorn, a unique player that might still be able to find success even without blistering exit velocities. He gets by on being a sort of Ichiro-lite. Nick Madrigal with more strikeouts, if you will.
Straw’s batting profile has a weird look to it — he virtually never swings and misses with a chase rate among the lowest 5% in the league and a whiff rate in the lowest 2%. You can rest assured if he swings, he likes what he sees. But weirdly enough, he still strikes out roughly 20% of the time. Even in the minors, he never saw that strikeout rate dip below 10%, which is something these kinds of hitters with elite, but very weak, contact get by on.
To bring back to the Nick Madrigal comparison, the former White Sox second baseman and now Cub second baseman has a career 7.4% strikeout rate. Willians Astudillo, who goes into every plate appearance just looking to get his bat on the ball, has a 5.1% strikeout rate. And then there’s Straw, who has a career 19.7% strikeout rate in 594 plate appearances.
The difference between those two and Straw is that he draws more walks, making him an ideal top-of-the-order hitter — or at least something close to it. This season, Straw has seen the 17th most pitches per plate appearance (4.09) and has a 10.3% walk rate as a result. His lack of barreled balls hampers his on-base percentage, but he still gets on at a .339 clip (several points higher than his slugging percentage).
Straw finds most of his success on pitches down the zone, where the vast majority of his 85 hits have come from this season. This heatmap, courtesy of Baseball Savant, shows the location of all singles, doubles, triples, and home runs that Straw has hit this season.
The glaring hole in Straw’s approach is weirdly the middle of the plate. Most of his swings and misses come right over the heart of the zone, and he can’t seem to read pitches anywhere between the middle of the zone and its outer edge.
This first heatmap shows his swinging strikes this season. A lot of juicy baseballs that could have barreled up and out of Minute Maid Park, but you’ll notice not a lot of obvious balls that were swung at and missed. We know he doesn’t swing and miss often, but when he does, he’s missing on some balls that should be hit.
His patience can get the better of him at times, as well, as evidenced by a red spot the size of Jupiter’s great one. This represents all the called strikes he’s watched go by this season, likely waiting for that one pitch in his wheelhouse, down in the zone.
Since I’ve already thrown out too many comparisons in this thread, here’s another one: Tyler Naquin. This reminds me an awful lot of Naquin’s inability to hit anything fast and up and the zone, but absolutely crushing low breaking balls. I don’t think Straw’s strengths and weaknesses are that obvious and easy to exploit (he’s also not going to crush anything), but he clearly favors a sweet spot. Unlike Naquin, though, he can still occasionally get to the pitches outside of it, and you’re not going to get him to chase much.
The most enticing thing about Straw’s bat is that he hits the ball everywhere. By the numbers, he pulls the ball 30.1% of the time, hits it straight ahead 35.5% of the time, and goes opposite field 34.4%.
In chart form, it is pure art.
So, most importantly, what does this addition do for Cleveland? For one, it might finally give them a consistent, above-average center fielder to play every day. Without a prospect right on the doorstep, we are still years away from seeing someone come up through the system and take over center field for a decade. There are better options than Straw in the majors, sure, but he’s an upgrade over what they have now. He has proven over a not-insignificant amount of playing time that he can hold down the center field position. He probably even knows how to call off his corner outfielders when he’s going for a ball.
With Cesar Hernandez gone, Cleveland’s regular lead-off man is out of the picture; Bradley Zimmer certainly shouldn’t be it, despite his speed. Straw might not be the ideal candidate either, but if he can get on base 34-ish% of the time and be a threat to steal every single time, he’s not a bad replacement for Hernandez. At the very least, his patience at the plate could help out a team that has seen the 6th fewest pitcher per plate appearance in the American League.
The bottom line is Straw’s addition finally, hopefully, adds some stability to a position that the Guardians desperately need. At 26 years old with another year of team control followed by three years of likely inexpensive arbitration, he shouldn’t get in the way of Cleveland’s other plans either if they don’t intend to spend any money on an upgrade. And if everything goes well, if Straw can start identifying pitches a little better with more experience, maybe they won’t have to spend on a new centerfielder anyway.