By Skyler Timmins
When the Colorado Rockies committed the Cardinal sin, literally, by trading Nolan Arenado to St. Louis, it left a huge gap at third base that many fans wondered if it would ever be filled. Luckily for Colorado, the team was able to replace Arenado, defensively at least, thanks to the efforts of Ryan McMahon.
For the past two years, McMahon has been a Gold Glove finalist, a feat that is much appreciated by a team so used to seeing that quality of defense at the hot corner. Unfortunately, the Rockies haven’t gotten anything close to replacing the offensive output in the wake of Arenado’s departure.
When the Rockies signed McMahon to a six-year $70 million extension prior to the 2022 season, it was with the intention that he could continue to recreate the production of 2021. In what was essentially a career year, McMahon batted .254/.331/.449 with 56 extra-base hits, including 23 home runs, and 86 RBIs. The following season, McMahon essentially replicated the results, despite a slight uptick in strikeouts.
The dilemma with McMahon comes as a result of his lackluster performance in 2023. Through 48 games entering Monday, McMahon is batting .225/.298/.394 with just four home runs – none of which have come in May – with a whopping 32% strikeout rate which ranks sixth worst in all of baseball. He’s striking out more, walking less, and the power is nearly nonexistent at this point in the season.
So what’s the problem?
That’s where the question lies because looking at his career, a number of batting profile statistics indicate that McMahon isn’t much different offensively in 2023 than the previous two seasons. Both his Whiff% and Chase% are in line with his career numbers while his batted ball profiles and contact rates are also fairly normal for his career.
A look at his Statcast percentiles on Baseball Savant illustrates this interesting dilemma for McMahon.
McMahon still hits the ball hard. His power is his calling card, and yet all those hard-hit balls aren’t resulting in more hits, or more importantly, home runs. By all accounts according to these stats, McMahon’s expected slash line should be .227/.301/.425 with an xwOBA of .317 while his xISO sits in the 70th percentile, and yet he isn’t seeing success like before.
Coming into the 2023 season, McMahon told Manny Randhawa of MLB.com that power was the focus in spring training and the offseason. “When it’s shorter, you’re stronger,” he said, “as soon as there’s a longer path -- like think about if you’re pushing something heavy, right? It’s fastest in the short beginning; if you’re trying to make it full-speed all the way out there, it’s gonna be tough.”
“I need to trust myself, not be afraid to trust my eyes,” McMahon continued. “If I think it’s going to be a good pitch to hit, swing -- instead of being so selective and so picky. [In the past], maybe I was firing a little late, just not being aggressive enough. That’s been a focus this spring and this whole offseason.”
Perhaps for McMahon, it’s all about making sure he is staying aggressive early on. On the first pitch an at-bat, he has an OPS of 1.429 with a .551 batting average. Those numbers are also reflected in his slash line when he is ahead in the count where he is batting .298/.484/.596 with two home runs and nine of his 18 RBIs on the season.
In contrast, his numbers drastically drop to .167/.167/.333 if he takes a strike on the first pitch for an 0-1 count. It’s nothing new that a batter’s production drops when they fall behind in the count, but adding just that one strike alters his probability of getting on base throughout each at-bat. With zero strikes he has a .519 AVG compared to a .257 AVG with zero balls, showing that perhaps McMahon’s aggressive approach can be partial to his struggles out of desperation when he falls behind in the count.
So what can he do?
Plate discipline and vision are essential to changing McMahon’s fortunes. He can be aggressive on that first pitch, but only if it’s a good pitch to hit. He is good at hitting fastballs and offspeed pitches which means that pitchers will be more likely to throw breaking balls to induce weak contact or whiffs in the dirt.
The approach must change with each pitch that comes and changes the dynamic of the count and the at-bat. Once he accumulates two strikes, he has to shorten the approach and make use of his hard-hitting ability to try and lace a line drive somewhere for a hit. It’s easier said than done, but McMahon has to learn how to refine his approach at the plate to cut down on strikeouts, increase walks, and turn those hard-hit balls into extra-base hits.
His manager Bud Black theorized recently that McMahon is likely pressing at the plate, trying to be that big power, home run hitter that he has the potential to become. McMahon disagreed, claiming he just isn’t executing the way he needs to at the plate. In either case, the message is clear, McMahon has to perform better with the lumber and solve his peculiar dilemma because there are a slew of minor leaguers knocking on the door, ready for a chance to take his spot.
Skyler Timmins is a lifelong suffering Rockies fan and aspiring writer/broadcaster. He currently writes for PurpleRow.com and is a co-host of the Rocky Mountain Rooftop podcast network. You can find him sharing the occasional memes and jokes along with baseball insight on Twitter @Sideline_Crowd13.