The Tigers 3rd round pick in the 2007 draft, Brennan Boesch had a breakout season for the Tigers in 2010, posting a monster first half in which he slugged his way to a .345/.397/.593 triple slash with 12 home runs and a 17.6% K-rate in 267 pre-All-Star Game at-bats. The very first pitch he saw, a fastball from Rich Harden, he lashed for a double and he just kept right on hitting through the break. More impressive is that he didn't begin to compile those numbers until after a mid-season call up, necessitated when Carlos Guillen went down. Until the All-Star break Boesch looked as though he were trying tp put his stamp on the left field job and make himself a permanent fixture in the Tigers batting order.
Unfortunately he wasn't able to sustain his success. That has a lot to do with the fact that his performance was just wildly unsustainable given his .387 BABIP during that stretch. But it also has a lot to do with who Boesch is as a hitter. For one thing, he's one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball, swinging at 57.3% of pitchers offerings, the 5th highest percentage of pitches in all of baseball. Not surprisingly, he also chased the 5th most out-of-zone pitches of anyone in baseball last year, going after 41.1% of pitches thrown out of the zone.
The aggressive approach is mimicked in his his aggressive swing. At the plate Boesch strikes an imposing figure at 6'6" 220lbs. Tall and thick, he'll wave his bat as he waits for his pitch and when it comes, he likes to open up very quickly, getting his hips engaged early and letting his shoulders open up. That helps his create good bat speed and allows him to hit for impressive power. It also leaves him extremely susceptible to off speed pitches and pitchers who can work him away and off the plate. He's also seems to load his hands slower than you'd like ideally and his swing is longish.
An aggressive swing rate isn't always a death knoll of course. Looking over the list of players who posted swing rates over 50% last year shows a lot of really great players. The difference is that most of those players don't also chase as many pitches outside of the strike zone. Looking at the list of guys who swung at half of the offerings they saw, combined with chasing 40% of pitches out of the zone reveals a pretty mixed bag of players, some good, some really bad. But in almost all cases, the approach produces very low walk rates. That's not surprising of course - it's hard to draw a walk when watching four pitches in any given at-bats runs contrary to your entire hitting style. This is true of Boesch as well, as his 35 non-intentional free passes was good for just a 6.8% walk rate in 2010.
While Boesch's extremely aggressive approach worked well in the first half of the season, it was almost equally ineffective in the second half. Following the All-Star break Boesch would hit an abysmal .163/.237/.222 with just 2 home runs in his final 221 at-bats. At the same time his strikeout rate jumped to 23.5%. Essentially, the wheels fell off. Pitchers realized they didn't need to throw Boesch strikes and began attacking him out of the zone even more vigorously, and he obliged, either swinging and missing or putting balls into play that he should've taken, leading to weak contact and significantly diminished power.
One of the problems I highlighted for young hitters in my W.T.E.F. Austin Jackson article is that pitchers learn at this level. Once they find your weakness, they'll exploit it mercilessly until you either prove you can adapt, or until you're run back to the minors. In Boesch's case, his weakness appears to have been spotted. The question becomes whether he can adapt.
On that front, I'm torn. On the one hand, Boesch does an acceptable job barreling balls. He's not going to light up the world with his LD rate, but he's capable of something in the 15-17% range. If it's 17%, that's a bit below average, but passable. If it's 15%, eek. That high amount of strikeouts, combined with fairly low LD rates means Boesch won't be able to sustain an aggressive BABIP and will have a very difficult time hitting for average.
The other issue is that for all his power, Boesch hits way too many ground balls. Ground balls are a great thing if you're really fast and like to beat out infield hits. They're really bad however if your speed is closer to average and you need to rely on your ability to hit for power. Ground balls are something that happens when you're always out front, you break your hands and roll over pitches. You've probably observed this, but ground balls rarely turn into homeruns, and also have a far lower likelihood of turning into doubles and triples.
I want to believe in Boesch, badly. I want to believe that his LD rate will trend toward 17% and that he can adjust his approach so that he chases fewer balls, and instead forces pitchers to come back over the plate with fastballs which he can hammer away at. I'm just not certain I can. Boesch has some really good tools, and he has enough athleticism and a very good arm that should allow for his defense to play up in either left or right.
What you choose to see in Boesch will have something to do with how you evaluate players. You can see the power, then project enough improvement in the swing mechanics and approach for him to be a very good hitter. Or you could see him as in inherently flawed hitter who will be 26 and running out of time to remake himself. I think he has the athleticism and work ethic to run himself into a .250/.330/.500 type of bat. Whether or not he will - I doubt it. That doesn't mean he doesn't have a MLB future, it just might be as more of a platoon bat/corner outfielder.
Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.