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The keys to Cameron Maybin’s recent hot streak

The left fielder has been a different hitter in the leadoff spot.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Los Angeles Angels Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Through May 15, Cameron Maybin was one of the worst hitters in the league, batting .180 with a .549 OPS. But due to Yunel Escobar’s inury and Kole Calhoun’s poor start to the season, Maybin was shifted to the leadoff spot the following day, and his fortunes suddenly changed; he went 5-for-6 that day and hasn’t looked back.

In an admittedly tiny sample size of seven games and 36 plate appearances since he began hitting leadoff every day, Maybin is hitting .483/.583/.828. It’s only a week, but it brought his season line from an abysmal .180/.305/.243 (62 wRC+, where 100 is league average) to a respectable .243/.365/.364 (111 wRC+).

At the beginning of the season, Maybin was hitting a lot of weak ground balls to the left side of the field. Through May 15, he hit the ball on the ground 65% of the time, which was the third highest rate in the majors. At the same time, his soft-contact rate was in the top 25% of baseball while his hard-contact rate was in the bottom 20%.

Additionally, he was pulling the ball 43.5% of the time, his highest rate since 2013 and about 12% higher than last year, his most productive season. To make matters worse, his strikeout rate was at its highest level in six years.

Pulling the ball isn’t an inherently bad thing of course, but ideally a player wants to be hitting the ball in the air if they’re pulling it as much as Maybin was in order to maximize power. But Maybin is not and will never be a power hitter (though he looks like one right now), and he has had the most success in his career when he is instead focused on spraying the ball to all fields, which is exactly what he has been doing recently.

Since May 16, Maybin is hitting the ball to the opposite field as often as to the pull side; in that span, he has done both about 35% of the time. Furthermore, he has increased how often he hits the ball up the middle to about 31%. These numbers, along with his now lowered strikeout rate, are much more in line with where they were last year.

The 30-year-old is hitting the ball harder than he has ever hit it, too; his hard-contact rate is up to 46.2% in the last week. During this hot streak, he has also decreased the amount of ground balls he is hitting and nearly doubled the frequency with which he hits fly balls, bringing his season percentages to about where they were a year ago.

The aspect of Maybin’s offensive game that has seen the least improvement during this stretch is his on-base ability, but that’s because it had already improved so drastically this year. Even when he was struggling, he was still walking at an above-average rate, and he has now drawn a walk in 15.6% of his plate appearances this year, which ranks 12th in the majors.

This has led to him currently posting an impressive .365 on-base percentage for the season, which has given him ample opportunity to take advantage of his speed on the bases; his 10 stolen bases are the third-most in the American League.

In short, Maybin’s hot week was the result of hitting hard fly balls instead of soft ground balls. But most importantly, he has been driving the ball up the middle and to the opposite field more, which is the biggest takeaway from this hot streak, as it represents a change in approach and something that could realistically continue for the remainder of the season. Because of these improvements, his overall numbers on the season now resemble those from his career year in 2016, suggesting that he has the ability to produce a similar season this year.

It’s difficult to gauge how much his breakout can be attributed to his move the leadoff spot, and it is probably nothing more than a coincidence. In fact, his production throughout his career has been roughly identical in each of the three spots in the order that he has spent the most time occupying (first, second, and seventh). Still, Maybin has undoubtedly been a catalyst at the top of the Angels’ order, and the question now becomes, “What does Mike Sciosscia do with the lineup when Escobar returns?”

He could move Escobar down into a more run-producing spot to keep Mike Trout hitting second. Or he could put Maybin and Escobar in the first two spots in the lineup and move Trout to third, which seems to me to be the most likely scenario. And, hey, Maybin’s .365 OBP and Escobar’s .350 or so OBP in front of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols sounds pretty good to me.

And lastly, to put Maybin’s value thus far in perspective, he has now accumulated 0.6 Wins Above Replacement this season. That may not sound like much until you realize that Angels left fielders combined for -0.9 WAR over the previous two years.