Jonathan India is Getting Better

After a slow start, India has been one of the Reds' better hitters.

Coming into the season, Jonathan India wasn’t even supposed to be on the Cincinnati Reds‘ roster. However, mostly due to necessity and some shuffling around of the team’s other infielders, the Reds made a spot for him at second base, and it looked justified after a splendid performance during Spring Training made him the team’s Opening Day starter at the position. After perhaps stalling out a bit as a prospect after being a top-five selection in 2018’s Draft, India had just 145 plate appearances in Double-A coming into the year, although that has more to do with the nature of 2020 than it necessarily being the fault of India. Still, the team was taking a risk going with an unproven player to open the season at the keystone position, and there were definitely some major questions about his performance and whether he was ready for an everyday role in the Majors or needed more seasoning in the minor leagues.

India already has a good foundation as a hitter; going back to his minor league days, he was able to walk at a high rate. He consistently had double-digit walk rates at every level. Perhaps most impressively, in his first taste of Double-A pitching in 2019, he walked a whopping 15.2% of the time, which showed that he could still maintain his plate discipline despite facing better competition. So far at the Major League level this season, India has maintained that reputation, as he has shown strong plate discipline in just his first taste of the Majors against the best pitching he has ever faced, and still being the young age of 24-years-old.

His 13.3% walk rate ranks in the 91st-percentile this year, and his chase rate of 21.3% places him in the 86th-percentile. Among all qualified hitters, India ranks inside the top-20 in both categories, which is, again, quite impressive for a rookie. We can also see how much India stands out when looking at Statcast’s Swing/Take leaderboard. Overall, India ranks quite favorably with a +21 run value, which once again places him inside the top-20, and in pretty favorable company with some of the game’s best hitters from this season. But, what really makes India stand out is just how good he has been in the chase and waste zones, which should be expected considering his low chase rate. When looking at all qualified hitters in terms of just their run values in those two zones, India has a +24 total run value in those zones and a whopping +30 value when just looking at take runs in those two zones, both of which put him towards the top of the leaderboard. All of this really is just a fancier way of saying that India has shown of the game’s best plate discipline this season. Point made.

While that does give India a good foundation at the plate, there has to be more in the profile elsewhere to truly be a strong hitter. There’s no greater example of this than looking at India just a few months ago at the beginning of the season, where this strong plate discipline was pretty much all that he had going on. Through May 31st, for instance, India had a 9.3% walk rate–lower than it is now, but still strong, and still with a low chase rate–but his overall slash line was just .230/.333/.349, which was good enough for an 86 wRC+. While the walk rate looked encouraging, it wasn’t enough to keep him afloat, as he wasn’t getting good results when he put the ball in play. Also, when we go back to that handy Swing/Take leaderboard, we remember that while India has a +24 run value in the chase and waste zones, he has a lower overall run value at +21, which means that he’s giving some runs back elsewhere:

We see that, while being super positive in the areas outside of the strike zone, India has been a negative the closer we get to the strike zone, including in the heart of the plate, which is definitely not ideal. While there aren’t splits readily available for the Swing/Take leaderboard, it definitely seems likely that things were even worse for India earlier in the season, considering both his poor overall slash line through May 31st and the fact that, among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances in the first two months of the season, he had some of the worst results on both pitches in the zone as a whole as well as in the heart of the zone of any hitter during that stretch. First, his results on contact on pitches in the zone:

Jonathan India: Results in the Zone through 5/31/21 w/ ranks

And then, his results on contact on pitches in the heart of the zone:

Jonathan India: Results in Heart Zone through 5/31/21 w/ ranks

From this, we see that by pretty much every metric, India ranked towards the bottom of the league when he put the ball in play in spots that hitters generally are expected to do well in. Further, the issues in the heart of the zone were quite worrying, as those are pitches in the center in the zone that should be ones that hitters tee off on. It is good to walk a lot and show excellent plate discipline, but it is tough to get by on just plate discipline alone. Hitters are going to have to swing the bat at least some of the time, and for India at the beginning of the season, not much good was happening when he did.

Of course, these were the first two months of his Major League career. There is always some sort of adjustment period for every Major Leaguer, and with India still getting his feet wet and still getting acclimated to top-quality pitching, struggles were definitely likely. But now, fast forward just a couple of months later, and India looks like a much different hitter now than he did back then at the start of the year. Since June 1st, India has been one of the game’s better hitters, with a slash line of .315/.455/.470 and a 156 wRC+, which ranks 15th-highest in the game in that span. He even looks a bit different at the plate, too. It appears that he made a mechanical adjustment earlier in the season, as pointed out by Nick Cicere here at Pitcher List in early June, in which he cut out a dramatic leg kick in favor of a toe tap. And while it’s hard to point to just that adjustment and say that alone is causing this good run of form, it seems likely that it is playing a factor.

He’s still showing his strong plate discipline and walking even more at 16%, again one of the higher rates in the game, which has corresponded with a move into the leadoff spot for the Reds for pretty much the entirety of this stretch. Of course, the walk rate is still great, but now, it seems like the overall package is a lot more complete.

It would be expected that India is hitting the ball harder during this stretch, which he is at 40.8%, and up considerably from the 21.9% rate he had through the end of May, which is definitely quite the jump. In fact, it’s the second-largest gain:

Top-Five Hard% Increasers

That spike in hard contact definitely is important, but when we break the two splits out into the three quality-of-contact measures, we see that perhaps, more importantly, India is making these hard contact gains while cutting down significantly on soft contact:

Jonathan India: Contact Quality Splits

We see that earlier in the season, India actually had a higher rate of soft contact than hard contact, so his hard contact was, effectively, canceled out. He had a top-ten rate of soft contact in this time frame and was just one of eight hitters to have a higher rate of soft contact than hard-contact:

Soft% > Hard% through 5/31/21

Obviously, that is not where a hitter wants to be. It’s important to hit the ball hard, but it’s hard to have sustained success with such a high rate of soft contact. One way to look at this is to take a hitter’s rate of hard contact and subtract their soft contact rate to effectively get their “net-hard” rate, for lack of a better term. This pretty much shows which hitters make the most of their overall contact. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then, considering just how poor India was in this department at the start of the season and how much his hard-contact rate has spiked in the months since, that he’s the hitter with the single largest improvement in terms of this “net-hard” rate:

Top-Five Net Hard% Increases

Additionally, in this strong stretch of play, over 85% of India’s contact falls under the classification of either hard or medium, which stacks up well to the rest of the league. It is also important to keep in mind that India perhaps isn’t the type of hitter that should be expected to have a super-high rate of hard contact anyways. That’s just not who he was billed as when he was a prospect. So, while we obviously like to see a ton of hard contact, what he’s doing right now is still good, and at the same time, he’s doing a much better job of limiting weaker contact, which is still an important part of the recipe to follow to get good results.

Another thing that has happened to India during this hot stretch and goes hand-in-hand with those hard and soft contact rate improvements is that those poor results in the zone and in the heart of the zone have gotten considerably better. We see that when looking at those results compared to the rest of the league (minimum 100 plate appearances in this span):

Jonathan India: Results in the Zone 6/1-pres. w/ ranks
Jonathan India: Results in Heart Zone 6/1-pres. w/ ranks

While India isn’t suddenly among the best of the best in this area, he still ranks quite favorably in pretty much the top-30% in each stat. Even then, things just look much better, and it is still a remarkable difference from where he was earlier in the year. This substantial turnaround in terms of results in the heart of the strike zone is likely why, even after the poor results there at the beginning of the season, India is considered a positive in terms of swing runs in that zone, with four.

While it is good to see India making strides and just doing much better at the plate as of late, it’s still not a perfect profile. There are still some red flags that stand out. For one, his BABIP during this hot stretch from June onwards has been a super-high .414, which is the highest in the game in that span:

Top-Five Highest BABIPs June 1-pres.

BABIP can be a noisy stat, but it does seem like a good bet that this will fall down some going forward. He is hitting the ball a lot better, as we know, and hitting the ball harder will usually lead to more hits and a higher BABIP. Still, during this hot stretch from India, his groundball rate has been over 50%, which suggests that this BABIP mark isn’t going to be super sustainable. But, while some regression should be expected, it doesn’t mean that India will suddenly fall flat on his face and look more like the hitter he was earlier in the season.

His .319 batting average in this strong stretch is likely high, but his expected batting average per Statcast is still a solid .280, which would still be a positive if maintained over a whole season. India has perhaps been extreme this season. We’ve seen him look extremely weak at the plate, but we’ve also seen the opposite. There can be a good middle ground in terms of his production; it doesn’t have to be one or the other. He can be a hitter that is comfortable above league-average while not being elite, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

One other red flag concerning India is that he may still be too passive at the plate. His zone-swing rate has been dropping as the season has gone on, with the low point being here in July at 52.8%:

His overall passivity is due in part to his excellent plate discipline, which has led to the low chase rate and the high walk rate, as detailed earlier. At the same time, though, it does look like India is letting a lot of good pitches go by, as he swings seven percent less than the league average at pitches in the heart of the zone. He does swing more when he’s behind in the count as well as with two strikes, so it does look like he does get more aggressive depending on the situation:

Jonathan India: Zone-Swing% by Situation

It’s good to see India’s swing tendencies change depending on the count, but at the same time, those pitches he sees when behind or with two strikes likely aren’t the best pitches to hit. For whatever it’s worth, India is in the top half of the league overall in terms of wOBA in two-strike counts, and also one of the best since June 1st, but that does come again with a high .400+ BABIP, so it perhaps should still be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe he really does truly change his approach with two strikes, which allows him to have this level of success, but it’s likely still too early in his career to make that determination.

However, the issue truly is that with one of the game’s highest called-strike rates at 19.5%, he’s likely going to be ending up in more two-strike counts than most hitters. Instead of banking on his currently strong two-strike results to hold up long term, one thing India could try to do instead is to be more aggressive on pitches in the zone earlier in the count. It’s not the easiest change for a hitter to make–to swing more only at pitches in the zone while still maintaining an elite chase rate–but it does seem as if India could benefit from at least being slightly more aggressive on pitches in the zone going forward.

Overall, it is good to see India doing a lot better at the plate right now after struggling mightily at the start of the season. He posted some of the weakest Statcast metrics at the beginning of the year, and while he was walking a lot, it wasn’t nearly enough to cancel out what he was doing when he made contact. With a mechanical adjustment and perhaps just more time to see and get used to Major League pitching, India has completely turned around that slow start. He’s now hitting the ball a lot harder and getting good results in the parts of the plate where he should. While things still aren’t perfect in his profile, there’s little doubt that India has gotten better as a hitter as the season has gone on.

After landing on the Opening Day roster, India was perhaps thrown into the fire earlier than expected, but with time, he’s been one of the better hitters on a team with one of the best offenses in the league, and it looks like he’ll be sticking around for quite a while.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare (@graphical_ark on Twitter)

Matt Wallach

Matt studied accounting at UAlbany, is a Yankee fan, and writes for Pitcher List and Rotoballer where he can work with even more numbers to analyze baseball players, which is a lot more fun.

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