As a former first-round pick, the bar was never set low for Mikie Mahtook. The 2011 draftee made his major league debut in early 2015, but hit just .189 in a handful of plate appearances during his first stint with the Tampa Bay Rays. Nevertheless, Mahtook earned a September call-up and fared much better to end the season, hitting .353/.397/.706 with 205 wRC+ and six home runs over 73 plate appearances. He finished the season worth 1.8 fWAR in just 41 games played.
While this type of production was unrealistic for 2016, there was hope that Mahtook could carry these trends forward while also maturing his game. Our friends at DRaysBay labeled him a potential breakout candidate last year, and saw a bright future for the outfielder. Their biggest key for the young outfielder came down to plate discipline.
If he can learn to take breaking and offspeed pitches outside the zone, and convert the K% to an increased BB%, that would provide the Rays with a welcomed threat on the basepaths.
Their takeaway? Be more patient, walk more, and strike out less. Unfortunately, the path to success was not that simple.
An unexpected strikeout jump
For Mahtook to become an everyday piece, he would need to improve on his plate discipline from his 2015 season. A 27 percent strikeout rate is not desirable, but for a younger player it is far from a deal breaker. The hope was that Mahtook could improve his plate discipline with experience and work out some of the kinks in his game. Instead, 2016 was a huge step back across the board. His walk rate declined, his strikeout rate leapt up, and he lost over 100 percentage points in both batting average and on-base percentage.
This jump in strikeout rate is puzzling at first glance. Mahtook was just as patient outside of the zone in 2015 as in 2016 (OZ-Swing%) and made contact at essentially the same rate (OZ-Contact%). Meanwhile, he swung less often on pitches within the zone (IZ-Swing%). When he did swing, he saw more success at making contact in 2016 (IZ-Contact%). On the whole, Mahtook saw slightly fewer balls outside the zone and swung less often overall last season, but he also experienced a bump from 15 percent to 20 percent in called strikes.
Given these figures, the results do not seem as horrible, as a younger player swinging less often is typically a sign of growth. While patience is still important, maybe Mahtook needs to be a little more aggressive if pitchers are willing to challenge him in the strike zone (34.2 percent of the time in 2015 vs. 41.5 percent in 2016). No player will last long in the majors with a 35 percent strikeout rate, but there is reason to believe this number is not permanent for Mahtook.
Poor contact did not help
Strikeouts were not Mahtook’s only problem in 2016, however. A solid batting average and on-base percentage in his first year were exchanged for dismal results last season. Some of this was to be expected — his .338 BABIP and 28.1 percent HR/FB rate in 2015 were certain to fall — but he turned from a productive contributor to black hole in less than a year.
Again, this decline is not necessarily signaling doom. Mahtook hit well in Triple-A Durham last season in 27 games, hitting .305 with a 10 percent walk rate. Some of his issues in the majors can be even traced back to an injury that kept him out during the middle of the year. There is still much ahead for Mahtook, but one area he does need to improve is the quality of his contact.
Mahtook had a 40 percent hard contact rate in 2015, but saw this drop to 31 percent the next season. Accordingly, his line drive percentage dropped by almost 10 percentage points, while his ground ball and fly ball rates increased and his pop-up rate almost tripled. As a result, his BABIP dropped to .287, which led to Mahtook’s low batting average when partnered with his strikeout tendencies.
To drill down further, it seems like many of his struggles came against four-seamers. In 2015, Mahtook hit .323 against this pitch, hitting line drives 31.8 percent of the time and popping up at less than 10 percent of the time. In 2016, these numbers were equal at 15.2 percent, which is an ominous sign for someone who sees four-seamers as over 34 percent of all pitches.
Still a chance for growth
Mahtook is probably not at the top of many breakout boards this time around, but giving up on him after one bad season is just as foolish as overvaluing him after one good one. While his bat was cold in 2016, he still recorded 81 wRC+ against lefties after a 183 wRC+ season against them in 2015. If he can land somewhere in the middle of these in 2017 while continuing his average to above-average defense (0 DRS, 7.0 UZR in his career), Mahtook will have a nice role to play for the Tigers.
Going forward, Mahtook has a path to success, but it will not come about easily. He must find a way to reduce his strikeouts, but the answer is more than just being extra patient. He also has to barrel up the numerous fastballs he sees and reduce his weak pop-ups and fly balls. Driving the ball like he did in 2015, especially against lefties, will preserve his playing time. What exactly caused all of his struggles is difficult to pinpoint, but there are some clear ways for Mahtook to improve going forward. Expect the Tigers to give him every chance to do so.