Hitter xwOBA Underperformers — May 3, 2021

We’re about one sixth of the way through the season now, so while the sample sizes of performance and advanced underlying metrics remain small, they aren’t completely meaningless like they were a week or two into the season. So let’s begin evaluating surface results on the hitting side by looking at Statcast’s xwOBA and comparing it to actual wOBA. As a reminder, xwOBA is not a predictive metric. It’s backwards looking and should be used the same way you might use SIERA for evaluate pitching performance. It’s more of a “how should the hitter have performed”, rather than a “how will the hitter perform”. That’s because it assumes all the underlying metrics driving xwOBA, like walk rate, strikeout rate, launch angle, exit velocity, etc, are all sustainable skills, which certainly isn’t true for all players and all metrics.

So don’t read this table and automatically believe these hitters will match or come close to matching their xwOBA marks over the rest of the season. That’s not how it works. However, do figure these batters have been “unlucky” and should perform significantly better the rest of the way, assuming their underlying skills don’t dramatically change. As a result, this could be your initial acquisition target list before diving deeper.

xwOBA Underperformers
Dominic Smith 2.7% 26.7% 0.111 11.8% 0.275 0.248 0.385 -0.137
Kyle Tucker 6.4% 18.2% 0.184 13.2% 0.158 0.253 0.367 -0.114
Cesar Hernandez 13.3% 18.1% 0.066 4.5% 0.211 0.248 0.352 -0.104
Albert Pujols 3.8% 11.3% 0.200 17.2% 0.164 0.278 0.379 -0.101
Avisail Garcia 11.1% 27.3% 0.128 17.6% 0.263 0.284 0.374 -0.090
Bryce Harper 16.7% 19.8% 0.295 30.0% 0.358 0.448 0.535 -0.087
Jorge Polanco 5.9% 15.8% 0.077 3.8% 0.237 0.248 0.334 -0.086
Rafael Devers 10.9% 21.8% 0.292 29.2% 0.318 0.403 0.487 -0.084
Willy Adames 4.4% 32.2% 0.128 6.7% 0.236 0.225 0.304 -0.079
Freddie Freeman 16.1% 13.6% 0.245 20.6% 0.200 0.353 0.431 -0.078
Francisco Lindor 12.0% 12.0% 0.052 4.5% 0.197 0.247 0.325 -0.078

Dominic Smith might be the ultimate type of buy low opportunity. He’s coming off of two small sample breakouts that could easily be erased from the minds of his owners given the super slow start. But that xwOBA is nearly as high as his 2020 mark, suggesting that nothing has really changed except for the results of his plate appearances. The risk here is that he needs to hit, and hit quite well, to remain in the lineup given his brutal defense. Statcast thinks the hitting will come, but will the Mets remain patient enough to see that turnaround happen while in the starting lineup or as a bench bat?

We were finally going to see a full season from Kyle Tucker and dreams of a 30/30 season were in the heads of his future fantasy owners. At the moment, it’s mostly a BABIP thing that’s bringing down his wOBA, but clearly Statcast believes that sub-.200 mark is a complete fluke. Unlike Smith above, Tucker was projected to be an elite fantasy contributor, so the upside is massive if/when he rebounds. That makes him a strong acquisition target too, but there’s less of a chance you can buy him at a discount given his top prospect pedigree. It’s worth trying though!

While Albert Pujols has underperformed his xwOBA every single season since 2015, the first year of calculation, he has never underperformed to this degree and his xwOBA has never finished above .359 during that time. It would be easy to believe Pujols is simply done and he may very well be. I cautioned in the intro not to use xwOBA as a projection, and this is a good example. It’s very possible his xwOBA begins to decline as the year progresses and comes closer to meeting his low wOBA, rather than the opposite.

One of xwOBA’s weaknesses is accounting for the defensive shift. Pujols has always pulled his grounders at a high rate, which explains why his BABIP on grounders has consistently been below the league average, including five sub-.200 marks over the last seven seasons, versus a low-to-mid .200 league average. It’s a good sign that Pujols has posted the highest xwOBA for a while, but there’s no reason to believe his wOBA is going to rise that high to meet it.

Once Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain return from the IL, Avisail Garcia may be out of a job if his luck doesn’t turn quickly enough. It’s unfortunate as he had the perfect opportunity to earn more playing time if his results matched his underlying skills while the entire Brewers roster hit the IL.

LOL at Bryce Harper actually deserving of a wOBA over .500.

Jorge Polanco has already been losing playing time and could continue to do so if his wOBA doesn’t rebound back above .300 like xwOBA suggests it should be sitting at. Since 2016, Polanco has actually outperformed his xwOBA every single season except for 2020, so this isn’t a matter of factors being consistently missed by xwOBA. I get that the upside here doesn’t appear exciting enough to bother targeting him, but he could still be worth doing so in deeper mixed and especially AL-Only leagues. The rebound needs to come soon though or he’ll become a reserve infielder.

As the minor league season gets underway, calls for top prospect Wander Franco to replace Willy Adames will get louder and louder. Adames can’t afford to continue underperforming his xwOBA, but man, nothing looks right at the moment. He’s not walking, he’s striking out a ton, he’s not hitting for power, and his batted balls aren’t falling for hits very often. He’s a risky buy low right now given who’s itching to take his job.

It’s absolutely shocking to find Freddie Freeman sitting a month into the season with a .200 BABIP. He owns a career .339 mark and one of the most elite batted ball profiles across the league. This year, his LD% is down from its typically lofty height, so perhaps it makes sense he’s not BABIPing well over .300. But surely there’s no excuse for a .200 mark. The power has been normal, as has the elite plate discipline. I doubt his owner cares so much about his current .224 average and is willing to give him away at a discount to his draft day cost, but you never know!

Francisco Lindor has been one of fantasy baseball’s biggest disappointments so far, having hit just one home run and having yet to swipe a base. The power has completely disappeared based on ISO, but remember ISO is a result, so even if the batter hits the ball hard, it could find a glove and look like a .000, rather than fall in the gap and become a double. That’s not a difference of power, just a difference of horizontal angle.

Sure, his OBP is down, of course, but I think the biggest red flag here is the lack of stolen base attempts, which stands at just one. You never know how a hitter’s steals are going to be affected when switching teams, so even if he rebounds offensively, that doesn’t necessarily mean his stolen base attempt rate will rebound too. I think he does deserve a discount from his draft day price solely due to the risk his steals remain down all year.

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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Brad Lipton
2 years ago

I think these sort of analyses, while very useful, need to be put in the context of fantasy statistics used. For example, I can’t go to a Kyle Tucker owner and try to buy him low: he has 5 HR, 15 RBI, 13 runs and 2 SB. Sure…he has a low average, but his other counting stats are not low.

2 years ago
Reply to  Brad Lipton

I tried to do the same thing a little further down the rankings with Votto and it was the same thing – he has 5 HR and 17 RBI which are both top 40 in the majors at the moment.

2 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Votto might be the best of these since his value wasn’t that high entering the season anyway…

2 years ago
Reply to  stonepie

That’s kind of what I was thinking but the other guy is a big Votto fan so no dice for me

2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

I was typing something similar; maybe you could get Tucker for Whit/Castellanos/Buxton + a sweetener?

2 years ago
Reply to  kid

Castellanos has started off hot the last couple years, I think he is the best sell high out of that group. Buxton might actually be legit. Even if he regresses to what he did the last couple seasons, that is still one of the best players in fantasy baseball on a per game basis.

2 years ago
Reply to  carter

Buxton has always been legit but you just can’t count on health. He’s gonna go all out on a diving catch into the OF wall any day now.

2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

Is JDM too much to give in a standard league?

Brad Lipton
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

Maybe, but if someone is on your team, his value is 110%…on another team, he is 90%.

In order to use any of these analyses to “buy low”, the performance has to not be there in the counting stats (like Hernandez or Adames, for example).

At any rate, thanks for your work on this, Mike. I always find it useful and interesting. It is among my first reads each day (your articles).