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Buying Back in on Alec Bohm

Let's start with a cliché because those are always fun. We've heard over and over again that "prospect growth is not linear." Well, there might not be a better example of that in the current MLB landscape than Bohm, who was drafted third overall in 2018 and quickly moved through the minor leagues, hitting .291 in only 673 career minor league at-bats before making his debut in Philadelphia. He hit .338 in 44 games during the shortened 2020 and people expected big things from him, but he returned in 2021 to hit just .247/.305/.342 with seven home runs, 46 runs, and 47 RBI in 115 games.

I started digging into Bohm when I was looking at contact rate fallers between 2020 and 2021, and I just fell down the rabbit hole. Yes, Bohm was worse in 2021 than he was in 2020, but we all expected that to be the case considering how he performed in the shortened 2020. But Bohm was worse in the weirdest ways. There were parts of his game that it seemed like he simply forgot how to do, which caused me to keep digging and is the reason we wound up with this article.

Below, I'll talk you through the struggles Bohm had in 2021 and which parts are actually concerning or not. We'll also talk about how, even despite the struggles, Bohm showed some skills growth in necessary areas and why that makes me not overly concerned about him. In fact, I think Bohm could be a strong trade candidate in dynasty leagues, but we'll talk through whether or not we can expect major growth right away in 2021 from the Philadelphia Phillies' third baseman.

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Last Year's Struggles

NFBC ADP: 283

For starters, Bohm's plate discipline remained remarkably similar to 2020 despite the poor results in 2021. His overall swing rate was up slightly but much of that was due to his zone swing rate (Z-Swing%) being up almost 3% while his swing rate on pitches outside of the zone (O-Swing%) was almost identical to 2021. Surprisingly, his contact on those pitches outside of the zone (O-Contact%) was actually up 11%, which is a massive improvement. So the issue for Bohm when it came to his contact profile had nothing to do with chasing bad pitches. Rather, Bohm was swinging and missing more in the zone, with his zone contact rate down over 7%.

In fact, using Statcast's Swing/Take leaderboard, you can see that Bohm was actually better on pitches off the plate (Chase and Waste) than in 2020 but worse on pitches down the heart of the plate or on the corners (Shadow).

Diving further, you can see that the issue for Bohm was specifically on fastballs. He hit .333 on breaking balls in 2021 after hitting .364 in 2020, and he also hit .381 on offspeed pitches in 2021 after hitting .261 in 2020, so he actually improved there. However, he hit just .190 against fastballs in 2021 with a 25% whiff rate after hitting .301 with an 18.4% whiff rate in 2020.

Using Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard, you can see Bohm's stats on each type of pitch:

The pitches he struggles against the most are all variations of the fastball (four-seam, sinker, and cutter). He also has a 14.4% swinging-strike rate (SwStr) against the cutter and a 13.6% SwStr against the four-seam, which only trails his 15.4% mark against the slider as the worst against any pitch type. Even when his strikeout rate against fastballs improved in the second half, dropping over 7% from July 1st on, his batting average never rose. He actually got worse, hitting only .128 with a .179 BABIP against fastballs from July on. So even when he was making more contact against fastballs, he just wasn't getting anything to fall in, and a .179 BABIP against four-seamers seems a bit flukey.

What's also interesting to note is that pitchers didn't really change the way they pitched Bohm in any drastic way. Below you can see the percentage of pitches thrown to Bohm by section of the strike zone (and just outside of it). On the left is from 2020 and on the right is from 2021.

What you notice is that these plots are relatively similar. The percentage of pitches low and out of the zone is the exact same. The percentage of pitches up and out of the zone is also the exact same, except pitchers attacked him up and in a bit more in 2021; although, only 2% more, so it's not some crazy difference. The same goes for the slight 1% difference in middle-in and up-and-in within the strike zone. There are no other real noticeable differences, so we can say that Bohm was challenged slightly more up-and-in (likely with fastballs) but this is not likely why he struggled in 2021 since it's so similar to what he saw in 2020.

Where you really start to see the difference is when you look at his whiff rate by zone. With 2020 on the left again and 2021 on the right:

Oh man, that's a lot of pink and red on the right. Bohm actually still got good plate coverage low-and-away, and you can see that his whiff% actually improved on pitches low-and-out of the zone. However, everything up in the strike zone was way worse, as was everything right down the middle of the plate. It's that section in the middle of the plate that's so intriguing and confusing to me. How does somebody who has been as successful as Bohm has been at every level simply swing and miss so much at pitches right down the heart of the plate? The answer would have to be swing-related because I don't buy that he simply forgot how to hit or all of the sudden couldn't hit velocity even though he has for his entire career.

We can also see how his batting average fell in this section as well, with 2020 on the left and 2021 on the right. He showed great improvement on pitches off the plate and continues to put up well above average numbers when pitchers attack him away. In fact, his ability to cover the outside part of the plate, including out of the strike zone low and away, is really impressive. Yet, the inside part of the strike zone was a clear issue.

Still, we've seen Bohm be a solid hitter all throughout his career. He hit .317 during his college career, .291 during his minor league career, and had that .338 MLB debut, so he didn't do all of that while being unable to hit a fastball or hit inside pitches. Yet, in 2021, he was just emphatically worse on pitches right over the heart of the plate and inside. Not just hitting them at people or popping them up, but simply missing them altogether. As I mentioned above, to me, that's the sign of a broken swing.

A component of why that swing might be broken is because of his seeming desire to increase his launch angle. After a slight dip early in the season, Bohm's launch angle steadily climbed throughout the year, obviously hoping he might be able to unlock more power.

His fly-ball rate jumped from 19.7% in the first half of 2021 to 34.5% in the second half; yet, this didn't actually help him unlock any power. In fact, it hurt him. His average exit velocity on balls in the air fell from 94.5 mph in the first half of 2021 to 90.5 mph in the second half. He also had a .100 ISO in the first half and a nearly identical 0.75 ISO in the second half, while his HR/FB% fell from 14% in the first half to 5.3% in the second half. None of that is any better despite trying to elevate the ball more.

It goes without saying that when a hitter tries to increase their launch angle, they often add more loft to their swing, causing the bat path to come through the strike zone at a slightly more elevated angle in order to lift the ball more and, hopefully, drive it out of the park. Even though Bohm's launch angle never rose to any drastic numbers, he went from averaging around 4-degrees to around 8-degrees, which is obviously almost doubling his average rate.

We also have to keep in mind that the launch angle measures the angle that the ball comes off the bat. From there, we can hazard a guess as to the angle of the bat path through the zone, but we don't really know how different the angle of approach was with his hands. Unless we have video, which we do.

 

Analyzing Bohm's Swing

We do know that Bohm always had a smooth line-drive swing. Coming up through the majors with his hands high on top of his back shoulder.

We can then see a massive difference before the 2021 season, with his hands extended back beyond his shoulder and held lower.

Considering Bohm had been so good at taking his hands directly to the ball from where they rested on his back shoulder, it would make sense why having his hands lower would make it harder for him to hit pitches up in the zone. He has to change the way he attacks a baseball because he can't simply throw his hands at the ball if his hands are now lower. He has to consciously think about attacking up from his lower starting point. Consider the years of muscle memory that his body built up with his old swing and you understand why it's hard for hitters to make that change in just one season.

Let's get granular for a second. Starting with your hands extended back like that, as opposed to resting on top of your back shoulder, also means the left arm is strained more. Try to hold a fake bat on top of your back shoulder and then move that fake bat lower and farther out. You can feel what that does to the bicep of your front arm, tightening it a bit as it extends. When our muscles are strained, they don't fire as quickly. Since your bottom hand is so essential to the start of the swing path and the speed at which your hands get to the ball, Bohm starting with his bottom hand (left arm) more extended could easily have led to him locking his arm out a bit more and slowing down his swing.

But Bohm is only 25 years old and is obviously going to continue to grow and adjust. It's also clear that he is continuing to work on understanding his swing and making the necessary adjustments as this video from January shows.

Notice the starting position of his hands in this video. No longer behind his back shoulder and no longer starting from a low position. His hands are actually higher than they were when he was coming up through the minors, perhaps to help him stay above the ball more on high fastballs.

So this is where I'm still optimistic. We have a top prospect with a long history of success, who showed (albeit in a small sample) that he can perform at the major league level. That same prospect tried to make a significant change to the mechanics and approach that he had long since known and didn't experience immediate success. Now he is adjusting back to something that seems more in line with what he had done in the past, plus a small modification to potentially correct a new issue.

 

Conclusion

That is how prospects grow and evolve. Write Bohm off after one bad season seems drastic. It's hard to alter yourself while also competing against athletes at the highest level of a sport. In some ways, his struggles last year while making those changes seemed as inevitable as his potential regression from 2020 was going to be. Yet, Bohm still has many things working in favor of a resurgence.

For starters, he hits the ball harder than you think for somebody that isn't a true power hitter. He had an average exit velocity of 92 mph in 2021, up from 90.2 mph in 2020. That actually ranked 22nd in all of baseball for hitters who had over 250 batted ball events, ranking just ahead of Jose Abreu, Franmil Reyes, Teoscar Hernandez, and Matt Olson.

His hard-hit rate has also always been above the major league average:

If you also look at his average exit velocity by zone, you can see that he also hits the ball hard the other way, putting up solid exit velos on pitches on the outside part of the plate as well. He also showed solid growth in this area, with the numbers from 2020 on the left and those from 2021 on the right.

What also stands out to me here is also that Bohm's average exit velocity on pitches up in the zone, and in particular the top three sections up-and-in show noticeable improvements in 2021. This means that Bohm hit the ball much harder on pitches up in the zone in 2021, he just simply hit those pitches far less often than he did in 2020. However, with a young player, we need to focus on him showing that he possesses a skill. We know he CAN hit those pitches, and we know that he can hit them HARD, so there is something to build off of there.

Bohm also has a solid understanding of the strike zone, which is important for a young hitter. His 14.8% called strike rate would have ranked inside the top-42 in all of baseball had he had enough at-bats to qualify. So even though he doesn't take a lot of walks, that has more to do with the fact that he swings a lot, with a swing rate that was in the 70th-percentile in baseball in 2021. However, we covered earlier in the article that he has excellent plate coverage and does a good job making quality contact on pitches out of the zone, especially away, so his aggressive tendency isn't really an issue.

What will be a bit of an issue as we project his fantasy ceiling is whether or not the power ever comes for Bohm. We've already discussed how finding a comfortable swing path will be a big step for that. As he currently is, Bohm is simply not able to consistently drive the ball in the air. Yes, he hits the ball hard, but his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives ranked 90th in baseball and his max exit velocity was 91st. That's not tremendously exciting.

However, he also hit 34.4% of his balls in the air over 100 mph during the first half of the 2021 season. That was good for 62nd-percentile in baseball. Now, being in the 62nd percentile isn't anything to jump up and down about, but that 34.4% mark was similar to Mark Canha and Starling Marte, who were both at 33.9%, and Frank Schwindel, who was at 32.3%. Canha is projected by ATC for 19 HRs, Marte for 17, and Schwindel for 21, so there is some reason to think that Bohm could grow into a 20 home run bat.

There are steps that will need to be taken in order to unlock that level, and I'm not sure that we should expect them right away given the unusual nature of this lockout offseason. At the end of the day, this research has revealed him to be a hitter with solid plate discipline and excellent plate coverage, who can hit the ball with authority in almost every area of the strike zone. We identified that his new swing in 2021 caused him to struggle with fastballs, particularly fastballs, but that he is also shown the ability to hit those pitches hard and is continuing to work on tweaking his swing back towards what he was used to.

Given his pedigree and past success, I am willing to bet on Bohm continuing to improve as a player. In 2022, you might just be getting a .270 hitter with 15 home runs and a few chip-in steals in what I believe will be a solid lineup (I think the Phillies will sign another hitter or two), but at pick 284 in drafts, that's not a bad gamble to take. Especially when he's going after players like Gio Urshela, who has flaws of his own, and Abraham Toro, who is projected to be a .250 hitter with 15 home runs and seven steals, which is essentially the production I think you can get from Bohm with the good possibility of Bohm having a higher average. He's certainly not a starting 3B target, but I think you could do worse at your CI spot if you decide to wait.

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Fantasy football never sleeps at RotoBaller! With early 2024 best ball drafts already taking place, we're digging into the ADP of fantasy football's most impactful players. NFL Network contributor and RotoBaller analyst LaQuan dives into the early ADP of some popular fantasy options. Find out which notable fantasy football contributors are rising up 2024 draft... Read More