2020 Review — HR/FB Rate Positive Validations, A Review

Confused by the title? For most of the rest of this year, I’m going to review all my preseason, and some in-season, posts where I made predictions or used one of my xMetrics to make statements. I think accountability is extremely important in this industry, as our reputation should hinge upon the quality, and accuracy, of the advice we give. Today, I’m reviewing a post that pitted my xHR/FB rate against actual HR/FB rate. These were the guys who enjoyed HR/FB rate spikes in 2020 that my equation validated, or confirmed was real or mostly real. Let’s find out if these hitters held onto their 2020 HR/FB rate gains in 2021.

As a reminder, my xHR/FB rate equation isn’t a projection, so just because it validated the hitter’s actual HR/FB rate in 2020 doesn’t mean I was projecting a similar mark in 2021. However, a HR/FB rate surge validated by xHR/FB rate certainly has a better chance of sticking than a mark not supported by xHR/FB. So, this is more of a fun review than determining how good xHR/FB rate is.

2020 HR/FB Rate Positive Validations
Player 2020 HR/FB 2021 HR/FB Diff
Salvador Perez 25.6% 26.4% 0.8%
Jose Marmolejos 20.7% 12.1% -8.6%
Luis Robert 19.6% 16.3% -3.3%
Evan White 19.5% 7.4% -12.1%
Willi Castro 20.7% 9.0% -11.7%
Jesse Winker 40.0% 20.7% -19.3%
Leody Taveras 16.7% 8.6% -8.1%
Colin Moran 27.8% 16.1% -11.7%
Juan Soto 36.1% 24.4% -11.7%
Jose Abreu 32.8% 19.9% -12.9%
Travis d’Arnaud 25.7% 14.3% -11.4%
Brandon Belt 19.1% 26.9% 7.8%

Well that’s certainly a sea of negatives in the Diff column! Out of 13 hitters, just two of them increased their HR/FB rates even further. A whopping seven of them suffered double digit HR/FB rate declines and two more declined by more than 8%. This is regression to the mean at its best and a reminder that it’s much more likely for a breakout to revert back to previously establish form rather than sustain that higher level.

Atop the table, which was originally sorted by HR/FB rate difference between 2020 and 2019, is Salvador Perez, one of just two hitters who increased his HR/FB rate even higher. Perez didn’t play in 2019, after missing the entire season to injury, and yet returned in 2020 to enjoy his best offensive performance by far. Of course, it was over just 156 plate appearances, so it wouldn’t have been a mistaken process to essentially ignore his results. While that process wouldn’t have been a mistake, it still turned out to be the wrong move, as last year’s HR/FB rate breakout actually was a harbinger of things to come in 2021.

Along with the increased home run power, Perez’s strikeout rate and SwStk% has now increased for three straight seasons, both notching career highs for the second straight year. That suggests to me that he has been selling out for power, and it has worked so far. That said, I still don’t want a 31-year-old catcher with atrocious plate discipline on my roster at his likely significant cost.

Injury cost Luis Robert half the season so his HR/FB rate drop came in just 275 at-bats. But he did a lot to get excited about in those at-bats, including a significantly improved strikeout rate and SwStk% (though the latter is still high), a massive LD%, and an increased maxEV that was already fantastic to absolutely elite. His walk rate did tumble and his stolen base pace fell dramatically, so not everything was roses. Since he also posted a crazy .394 BABIP, he’s going to cost a pretty penny in 2022, and while I’m sure the upside will be there to earn his price, I’m also guessing the risk will be too high for me to take that plunge.

A strong 140 plate appearances made Willi Castro a popular sleeper heading into this season, but he failed to pan out. Since his 2020 HR/FB rate over a small sample was so out of line with his history, you have to wonder if that was a total fluke or a target mark to reach again. He’ll need to raise his fly ball Pull% for a chance to return to his 2020 level.

In the minors, Jesse Winker’s HR/FB bounced all over the place, from microscopic to merely above average. With stupendous plate discipline, he looked more like an excellent real life player than a fantasy one, but with the hope his power develops. But he debuted in 2017 and immediately flashed power he never had before and hasn’t looked back, as he’s now posted HR/FB rates over 20% in four of five MLB stints. Obviously, he wasn’t going to sustain 2020’s 40% mark, and even xHR/FB rate didn’t believe it. But his 31.6% xHR/FB rate did mostly validate the big jump, even though that would have been difficult to sustain as well. Like Castro above, Winker’s fly ball Pull% fell precipitously this season and is likely one of the main reasons his HR/FB rate was nearly cut in half. The majority of those previously pulled flies were pushed to center, which is the deepest part of parks and typically results in a lower HR/FB rate.

Suddenly last season, Colin Moran made himself fantasy relevant for the first time outside NL-Only leagues. Injury limited him to just 318 at-bats this year, but while his HR/FB rate did decline, it still remained well above his lower 2018 and 2019 levels. His biggest problem remains a lowly FB%, which has been stuck below 30% in three of four seasons. Since he plays on a weak offense, calls a pitcher friendly park home, and is poor against left-handers, he’s still not someone mixed leaguers are going to be targeting.

In the mixed LABR league, I made the possibly controversial decision to draft Mike Trout over Juan Soto fourth overall. Obviously, it turned out laughably bad, but only because Trout missed the majority of the season to injury. That said, my logic behind passing on Soto proved correct. The projections and fantasy community fully bought into Soto’s HR/FB rate spike last year despite it coming over just 154 at-bats. I did not and figured he would regress closer toward his previous levels, which made Trout’s projection a bit more valuable. Even with the right process, the results don’t always work in your favor! That said, I still can’t get over how incredible Soto’s career has started. Did you realize that he walked 145 times and struck out just 93 times? And this was as a 22-year-old!

xHR/FB rate validation or not, it was pretty clear that Jose Abreu was overvalued after his MVP 2020 season. The odds heavily favored regression back to the 34-year-old-in-2021’s previously established level of performance and that’s precisely what happened. Previous year breakouts and disappointments are typically overvalued and undervalued, respectively, but when those surprise performances come during a shortened season like 2020, it’s even more of a reason to be skeptical. This is especially true when it’s a breakout (although, he did post an identical wOBA during his 2014 debut, so breakout might be the wrong term) from a hitter in his mid-30s. There are no signs of age-related decline here, so expect more of the same in 2022.

Turns out, Brandon Belt didn’t need to leave AT&T Park to enjoy the breakout HR/FB rate I always thought he was capable of. Last year was the sign of things to come and he turned his power up another notch this year, raising his HR/FB rate above 20% for the first time and ending up as one of just two on the list to increase his HR/FB rate from 2020. Belt made the most of his HR/FB rate breakout by also posting a career high 50% FB%, but had to jack up his strikeout rate to the highest mark since 2014. It’s too bad he was limited to just 325 at-bats due to injury, as he could have been the first Giants hitter to reach 40 homers since Barry Bonds in 2004 and the first non-Bonds hitter since Matt Williams did it all the way back in 1994.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Jolly Good Show
2 years ago

I think what really struck me about Perez was how many games he played this year. Even though some were at DH, you must wonder if all the over usage of him over the years will lead to him breaking down. The partial season last year probably helped.