When you look at the triple-slash line of Shogo Akiyama today it’s not a pretty sight. The Cincinnati Reds outfielder is hitting .239/.354/.291 with just nine games remaining on the season. Of course, this season is unlike any other – it’s just a 60-game season in a year in which very little has gone right in this world we live in.
For Shogo Akiyama and the Cincinnati Reds, 2020 was supposed to be special. The Cincinnati Reds are one of the oldest franchises in baseball. They were also the only team to never have a Japanese player on their team. All of that changed in the offseason when the team signed Akiyama to a 3-year deal. For the outfielder, he was bringing his family to the other side of the world in order to play baseball at the highest level. And then the world changed, and mid-spring training the baseball world shut down. It wouldn’t return until late July, and it looked a bit different than baseball ever has before. No fans. Rules on what you can and can’t do both on the field, off of the field (both at the stadium and away from it), and the options available away from the game were limited.
To say that the start of the season was a struggle for Shogo Akiyama would be an understatement. Through 27 games, from the start of the year through August 28th, the outfielder hit .183/.264/.232. That was a span of 91 plate appearances and he had 21 strikeouts and he walked eight times. That’s a solid walk rate, but the strikeout rate was pretty high for a hitter who had been showing no power at all.
In the 18 games played since then by the Japanese-born outfielder things have looked very different. Shogo Akiyama is hitting .327/.478/.385. The power is still not showing up. Everything else, though, has been completely opposite of what he had done in the first stretch of the season. In the 68 plate appearances over those 18 games he walked 14 times with just eight strikeouts.
Here’s how the two stretches compare:
Looking at the information two things really stick out. The walk rate and the strikeout rate. The walk rate, as noted already, was solid in that first stretch – but it’s been elite in the last 18 games. Strikeouts have also fallen to a very impressive rate of 11.8% in this stretch. The Major League average walk rate this season is 9.2% and the average strikeout rate this season is 23.2%.
What has led to the change in both the walk rate and the strikeout rate? At first glance, there wasn’t something that really explained it. His rate of chasing pitches out of the zone between those two stretches was essentially unchanged – 28.8% to 29.1%. The rate at which he was swinging at pitches inside of the strikezone also remained essentially unchanged – 63.8% to 63.5%. The adjustment wasn’t coming from improving his strikezone awareness.
But if we look at what’s happened when he’s been swinging – that’s where we start to see the different. Let’s look deeper at this data:
|1st 82 PA
When he’s swung at pitches outside of the zone Shogo Akiyama’s made more contact. When he’s stung at pitches inside of the zone he’s also made more contact. Overall, of course, his contact rate is up – and it’s up significantly in that time frame.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but in the latter stretch where he’s been making more contact when he’s been swinging, he’s also seeing fewer pitches in the strikezone and fewer 1st-pitch strikes.
In Japan, particularly in 2019, Shogo Akiyama’s strikeout rate wasn’t as low as it has been in this recent 16 game stretch. Last year while playing for the Seibu Lions he struck out 15.9% of the time. Back in the 2015 season his strikeout rate was as low as 11.6% on the season – essentially where he’s been at for the last three weeks with Cincinnati. It’s not likely that he can maintain this low of a strikeout rate, but he doesn’t need to do that in order to be successful, either. There’s some wiggle room between the 23% and the 12% he’s been at lately. The closer to that current rate, the better – but it doesn’t need to be quite that low for him to continue to find success in the batters box.
The slow start to the season has doomed the rookie season overall for Shogo Akiyama. In a normal season, a slow month to start a season could be overcome – but that’s just not the case at all in a season like the one we are watching. We’re seeing a well established player, albeit not in the Major Leagues, adjust his game. We’re even seeing the results from it. The overall numbers aren’t going to show it because of the small sample size of the 2020 season – but Akiyama has been figuring it out and he’s helped carry some of the offensive load for the Reds for the last three week as they’ve made a run at the playoffs.
This article was updated to correct some statistical mistakes.