Early Season Outliers

All the teams in Major League Baseball crossed the 40-game mark last weekend.  The team I follow, the Cubs, seems to be committing a second season to not trying to compete and instead “evaluating” the talent of prospects and players existing in the liminal space between being a prospect and starting a career after baseball.  Some of those players continue to tantalize fans with the hope that they might be able to be regular contributors despite the issues that caused their prospect shine to tarnish.  This means I’ve spent too much time this season thinking about how productive a player can be while having a major hole in their game, or while having only one true strength. Now that one quarter of the season is complete, I decided to take a deeper look at some of the players around baseball who are succeeding or failing in unusual ways. 

I focused my attention on three basic aspects of offensive performance which are typically central to why batters succeed or fail: hitting the ball, hitting the ball hard, and passing on bad pitches, which can be measured by the rate stats K%ISO (Isolated Power), and BB%.   DISCLAIMER: I am absolutely a nerd, and my fascination with looking differently at the numbers of baseball was kindled by the Bill James Baseball Abstracts of the 1980s, which I would devour to the detriment of all my high school coursework every spring.  However, I cannot swim in the depths of modern statistical analysis and therefore cannot rightly call myself a stat analyst in the modern sense.  We will be wading in the shallows here.  I was curious to see how good a batter can be if they strike out at a high rate, or walk at a low rate, or don’t hit for much power; also, how bad can a batter be if they limit strikeouts, excel at drawing walks, or hit for a lot of power?

The parameters I’m using here are largely borrowed from the stat glossary at FanGraphs, and I’m also using their measurements of all these stats.  I’m using WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to classify players as doing well or not; specifically, since a seasonal WAR total of 2 is considered average for a starting position player, I’m using 0.5 WAR through the first quarter of the season as the line for success or the lack thereof.  

Best Players with a Bad K%

In 2021, when all who are not pitchers agreed that strikeouts were out of control, MLB batters struck out in 23.2% of all plate appearances.  In 2017 that rate was 21.6%, and so far in 2022 the rate is 22.5%.  For that reason, I’ve decided to label 30% or higher to be a high K rate, and 15% or lower to be a low K rate.  So, which batters have been average or above while striking out at least 30% of the time this season?

Patrick Wisdom40.3%0.6
Chris Taylor34.9%0.6
Dansby Swanson34.4%1.4
Eugenio Suarez33.1%1.3
Brandon Marsh32.4%0.7
Kyle Schwarber32.4%0.7
Cody Bellinger31.9%0.8
Julio Rodriguez31.4%1.0
Seiya Suzuki31.1%0.8
Pavin Smith30.6%0.5

And here we immediately see why I was drawn into this exercise, as the Cubs leading reclamation candidate (Wisdom) and newest hope for the future (Suzuki) are both on the list.  Seiya Suzuki’s K rate in Japan was only 16%, so there is reason to hope that this high K rate is a product of him learning the league.  I’m amused that the list has two Cubs (and one former Cub in Schwarber), two Dodgers and two Mariners.  Half of the players on this list are bringing positive defensive value to their WAR, with Dansby Swanson being the only player who may be bringing most of their value with defense, but even without his defense he would be above the 0.5 WAR threshold.  

I am surprised that there are this many players on the list; however, another way of looking at it is that there are 115 offensive players with at least 0.5 WAR so far this year (with at least 120 plate appearances, which was my cutoff), so it’s clearly the less likely way to succeed.  

For what it’s worth, there are only 4 players to date who are striking out more than 30% of the time and notproducing enough to justify starting: Franmil Reyes (-0.6 WAR), Adam Duvall (-0.1), Tyler O’Neill (-0.3), and Jesus Sanchez (0.3).  Two vets whose teams are counting on turnarounds (Duvall and Sanchez) and two young-ish players who are underperforming their previous levels (one of whom, O’Neill, has been put on the IL).  

Good K%, Bad Results

What happens when we flip the chart on its head?  Who are the players who are keeping their K rate low but not producing good value?

PlayerK %WAR
Jose Iglesias10.3%0.2
Alex Verdugo10.5%-0.5
Miguel Rojas10.5%0.2
Amed Rosario12.4%0.2
Gio Urshela12.5%0.1
Abraham Toro12.6%0.2
Wilmer Flores13.2%0.2
Jesse Winker13.4%-0.3
Nicky Lopez13.6%0.3
Tony Kemp14.1%0.1
Whit Merrifield14.2%0.1
Yuli Gurriel14.3%0.1
Dylan Carlson14.6%0.3
Charlie Blackmon14.9%-0.2

There are 37 players with a K rate below 15%, and 14 of them are still not producing up to the standard of an average starter.  That surprised me, and my assumption was that these players were undermined by severely bad defense.  I was completely shocked to find that 13 of these 14 players had negative Offensive WAR numbers – only Wilmer Flores was dragged below the average line by his defense! 

Most of the players on this list have either an ISO or their BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) way below their established norms, which suggests that their teams are giving them this much room to fail because they believe that their numbers (and therefore their value) will return to normal and acceptable levels.  Jesse Winker is a great example: he has a career ISO over .200, but so far this year it is at .080.  Seattle certainly didn’t trade for a corner outfielder from the Deadball Era, so they are obviously going to give him time to figure things out.  His new teammate Abraham Toro is another example.  The Mariners are hoping he will be a useful piece for them, and he has a very short track record in the majors (not quite 700 ML plate appearances), so he’s going to still get time to figure things out.  

The most intriguing cases to watch from this list are players on teams that have serious postseason aspirations.  If Yuli Gurriel continues to be the less valuable version of himself will the Astros feel pressured to find a stouter First Baseman?  Will Dylan Carlson be moved to the bench if the Cardinals see an opportunity to catch the Brewers, or need to cement their Wild Card status?  

Provide Value and Carry a Weak Stick

Chicks dig the long ball.  And by “chicks,” I mean General Managers, and marketing executives, and pretty much everybody except pitchers.  So who are the players who managed to climb Major League Mountain despite possessing a gentler offensive profile?

Geraldo Perdomo.0490.5
Cesar Hernandez.0650.5
Luis Arraez.0680.7
Alejandro Kirk.0710.6
Myles Straw.0731.1
Gavin Lux.0740.9
Ke’Bryan Hayes.0750.9
Trey Mancini.0880.6
Adam Frazier.0971.0
Andrew Benintendi.0981.2
Andrew Velazquez.0990.6

There are 40 players with at least 120 PAs and an ISO below .100, but these are the only 11 who are providing starter-level value.  Most of them do it the same way, exemplified by three guys in the middle of the chart: Myles Straw, Gavin Lux, and Ke’Bryan Hayes.  All three take their walks at positive rates and play plus defense, with Straw and Lux also adding meaningful baserunning value.  Most of the rest of the list follow this script, with slightly less success.  Only a couple guys find enough success with a high average but minus defensive value, with Luis Arraez and Andrew Benintendi being the exemplars.  

The Weirdest Ones

There is a reason all manner of Chicks dig the long ball, though.  It’s almost impossible to hit for power and not be valuable.  Here is the entire list of players with more than 120 PAs and an ISO over .200 who have not accounted for at least 0.5 WAR through a quarter of the season:

Daniel Vogelbach.2160.2
Gary Sanchez.2080.2

That’s it. 

You can hit below .200, but if you do it with power you can still accumulate value (Christian Walker and Kyle Schwarber).  

You can strike out 40% of the time, but if you generate power in enough of the other 60% of at bats you can still accumulate value (Patrick Wisdom). 

You can walk 4% of the time, but still accumulate value if you hit for power (Rafael Devers). 

You can be truly atrocious on defense and overcome it by hitting for power (surprisingly, former Gold Glovers Anthony Rizzo and Paul Goldschmidt). 

However, if you hit for a low average and strike out a lot and play “defense” and create mayhem on the bases for your own team, your power will not save you.  

This is the lesson. 

Don’t Walk, Produce Runs

Finally, we come to the extremes of walk rate.  In 2022 the league walk rate is 8.5%, and in 2021 it was 8.6%, so we will use 8.5% as our baseline.  So, how many players are walking less than 4.5% of the time and creating value?

Travis d’Arnaud2.5%1.0
Starling Marte2.9%0.5
Tim Anderson3.7%2.0
Jorge Mateo4.0%0.5
Wander Franco4.1%1.2
Luis Robert4.2%1.3
Rafael Devers4.3%2.5
Bobby Witt, Jr.4.3%0.9

Through the first quarter of the season 8 of the 22 qualifying players with low walk rates were achieving starter-quality value, which is a worse ratio than the high K rate players (10 of 17) but better than the low ISO batters (11 of 40).  If there is a point to be taken from this it is the affirmation that Babe Ruth was on to something with his decision to strive for power.  I suppose we already knew that by now.  

These 8 non-walkers gain their value in the full range of manners – hitting for high average (Tim Anderson and Rafael Devers), hitting for impressive power (Devers again, and Bobby Witt, Jr.), and playing great defense (Travis d’Arnaud, Jorge Mateo and Witt) – or just doing everything other than walking better than average (Wander Franco and Luis Robert).  I think this list has more exciting players – like Franco, Robert, Devers and Anderson – than any of the others.  

Okay, He Can Walk.  What Else Can He Do?

Finally, we come to the last group of outliers.  Surely a high walk rate is desirable, but who are the least valuable walkers?

Max Muncy20.2%0.3
Carlos Santana16.4%0.0
Aaron Hicks15.7%-0.1
Darin Ruf15.7%0.2
Joey Gallo13.9%-0.2
Brandon Belt13.3%0.2
Yoshi Tsutsugo13.3%-0.6
Rafael Ortega13.1%-0.1
Jesse Winker12.8%-0.2
Robbie Grossman12.7%-0.8
Steven Kwan12.7%0.4

The story is the same for just about everyone on this list: power and batting average have tanked for these guys early in the season, and they play positions which which do not provide defensive value (think corner OF, DH and 1B).  Hicks and Ortega are primarily centerfielders, but they aren’t playing the position well enough to help.  Most of these players are established and their teams are waiting for them to return to their previous batting form; Steven Kwan is a rookie who Cleveland hopes can tap into a little more of the power he showed in the upper minor leagues; Tsutsugo and Ortega are here because someone has to take the field for the Pirates and Cubs.  

The other takeaway from this group is the observation that there are twice as many high-walk-rate batters who are producing value as there are players on this unfortunate list.  Again, since most of these players have track records of success, it can be expected that they will be given every chance to move off this list and into the value category.  

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