The Chicago Cubs have the luxury of letting outfielder Junior Lake learn on the job, but so far in 2014 it has been to the detriment of the Major League team. On Wednesday night in Cincinnati, though, the Junior Lake Cubs fans remember from 2013 returned and showed the potential that has kept him on the MLB roster despite a line of .221/.254/.382 in 72 plate appearances.
In Lake’s first at-bat against starting pitcher Tony Cingrani, he drove the ball deep to the warning track in center field before Billy Hamilton settled under it to record the out. Lake continued to hit the ball with authority throughout the game, recording a single to center in the top of the third before stinging a line drive double to left that one-hopped the fence in the fifth inning.
The double by Lake was hit as hard as any ball during the game and served as evidence that he has the ability to do serious damage when making solid contact. Making contact, however, has gone from being a minor problem last season (26.8 percent strikeout rate) to being a downright disaster in 2014 (41.7 percent strikeout rate).
There are a few factors that have been major contributors to Lake’s striking whiff rate this season, and it begins with him getting behind in the count. In 2013, Lake saw a first pitch strike 66.1 percent of the time, and that rate has gone up all the way to 76.4 percent in 2014. That rate is No. 1 in the Major Leagues for players with at least 70 plate appearances, meaning no player has been behind in the count 0-1 more than Lake.
A contributing factor to Lake’s first-pitch strike woes is his swinging strike rate of 19.8 percent. Only Mike Zunino at 20 percent has swung and missed this year more than Lake. In 2013, Lake swung and missed 16.3 percent of the time which was No. 6 in MLB for batters with at least 250 plate appearances. A player can still have success with this much swing and miss, as Yasiel Puig showed last year with a 16.9 percent swinging strike rate, although in Lake’s case it has become a serious impediment to his development.
Another component of Lake’s struggles this season compared to last year is his contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone. In 2013 Lake made contact with bad balls 47.9 percent of the time, but this year that number has dropped to 39.2 percent. In addition, Lake is swinging at more pitches in the zone (72.1 percent) than last year (65.9 percent), but he has made less contact with those pitches, going from 80.9 percent last year to 75 percent in 2014.
If he can harness his free-swinging ways, Lake has the potential to have nights like last night, hitting the ball with authority and driving runners in. By being behind in the count more than any other player in MLB, though, Lake has been at a serious disadvantage this season and has exacerbated the issue by digging himself further in a hole when he continues to swing at balls out of the zone.
As has always been the case with Lake, his ceiling is sky high while his floor is equally as low. If Lake can attack strikes early in the count and make pitchers throw him balls he can drive, he has the raw talent to be an offensive force. If Lake fails to make the necessary adjustments, however, he may eventually sink back into obscurity.
(All numbers courtesy of FanGraphs)