The Change: What Hitter Stats to Use Early in the Season

We are lost in the sea (puddle?) that is the small sample size portion of the season. We’re trying to find a mooring, some stat that we can really use to identify believable results. This is where I link you to the pieces about stabilization of stats, wipe my hands demonstratively and end the piece with a leaderboard.

Wait, I am going to do something like that, but with a few words of caution and analysis as well. For one, it seems to get lost that stabilization is merely the point at which the stat itself is more meaningful going forward than the league average. In other words, league average regression is still meaningful after this point, and the stat itself is still meaningful before that point. It’s all a continuum.

Instead, use the list as a way to judge the relative importance of stats. Easy enough. We’re past the point of stabilization for swing rates — not for reach rates or contact rates — and we’re not at the point where ground ball and fly ball rates stabilize. And yet, we can use swing rates, and ground ball and fly ball numbers, to judge players, because those stats are more meaningful than the others.

There’s also a second level here that shouldn’t be swept aside. Swinging less and hitting more fly balls is not — by itself — the greatest marker for improved performance. Some players should swing more and hit more grounders, of course. But here we’re going to look for guys that could benefit from better plate discipline and who could gain more power from more fly balls.

First, the guys that are swinging less.

Swing Rate Changers
Name PA ISO Diff Swing Diff O-Swing Diff Contact Diff GB/FB
Danny Espinosa 42 0.029 -14% -15% 1% 0.76
Scooter Gennett 50 0.268 -12% -17% 1% 0.55
Mike Moustakas 50 0.304 -10% -16% -2% -0.24
J.D. Martinez 49 0.209 -10% -11% -4% 0.32
Daniel Murphy 48 0.317 -9% -10% 14% 0.10
Jean Segura 58 0.259 -9% -12% -8% 0.80
Juan Uribe 33 0.036 -9% -15% -1% -0.76
Jose Altuve 58 0.314 -9% -12% 10% 0.12
Jonathan Villar 43 0.143 -9% -11% 3% -3.50
Christian Yelich 51 0.158 -8% -15% 2% 1.33
Prince Fielder 57 0.063 -8% -5% 12% 0.61
Nolan Arenado 57 0.396 -8% -16% -8% 0.13
Starling Marte 54 0.204 -8% -9% -3% 1.14
Colby Rasmus 51 0.282 -8% -6% 0% -0.45
Chris Carter 47 0.325 -8% -4% -6% -0.53
J.J. Hardy 39 0.286 -8% -8% 0% 0.40
Jason Kipnis 43 0.189 -8% -6% 8% 0.35
Jose Iglesias 40 0.029 -8% -9% -4% -0.59
Joe Mauer 57 0.149 -7% -11% -10% 0.13
Randal Grichuk 44 0.222 -7% -8% 0% 0.29
Domingo Santana 57 0.143 -7% -10% -8% -1.24
Freddie Freeman 46 0.111 -7% -12% 5% 0.67
Mark Teixeira 47 0.243 -7% -5% -4% -1.22
Kyle Seager 49 0.119 -7% -8% 6% -0.29
Anthony Gose 36 0.094 -7% -3% 2% -1.10
Diff Swing = 2016 swing rate – 2015

It hasn’t led to better results for Danny Espinosa, but his swing rate looks like it did when he first came up, back when he was a better player. That’s good news for his deep league owners and bad news for Trea Turner owners — as is the fact that the Nationals are winning. Why take a risk with Turner at short when you’ve already signaled that you’re a little worried about his defense when you played him at second base last year?

Not pictured is a meaningless stat that compares reach rate difference to swing rate difference. Reach rate has a different denominator than swing rate, so it’s not quite ready to use yet. But it’s nice to see that Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich, Scooter Gennett, Mike Moustakas and Jean Segura are the young guys that are taking the most swings away from their reach rate. Gennett in particular looks like this year’s Joe Panik — an empty batting average, sure, but now with more OBP and therefore more runs, RBI, and steals chances. Middle infield mate Jonathan Villar’s numbers are all over the place, but take solace in the fact that he’s showing better plate discipline, and that his contact rate suggests that his strikeout rate will go down soon. You have to love getting starters on bad teams in deep leagues — these two look viable all year, even in 15 teamers with Middle Infield slots.

Segura’s reach and swing rates look a lot more like his work in 2013, which is super hopeful. That’s perhaps the most believable change on the board, considering his age, the circumstances surrounding his stay in Milwaukee (personal tragedy and conflict with the team over a contract), and what happened the last time he put on a new uniform. I’ll call for better than projected walk and strikeout rates, and I even believe this will bleed into power. A back of the cocktail napkin projection would have him hitting .280 with nine more homers and 25 more stolen bases. That’s a top three shortstop, no?

Domingo Santana got good treatment from August Fagestrom, so read that. I’m not sure more steals are coming, but the power should come, and the batting average might be better than expected if he can tighten up the plate discipline.

Randal Grichuk turned the slider machine on and saw a ton of sliders. He is swinging less and could pair a better batting average with his customary power going forward.

Anthony Gose is probably one of those guys that should swing more. His ratio of reach rate different to swing rate difference is the second-worst on this list, meaning that he’s swinging less on pitches inside the zone too much. This has lead to a good walk rate, but not a good strikeout rate. I think a little aggression might serve him right.

On the veteran side, pay attention to Joe Mauer. His plate discipline is back, and he could be a great source of batting average and runs and RBI, and he could do it in any league where those might be needs. Kyle Seager continues to incrementally improve, and there should be better days ahead.

Now, the ground ball changers.

Ground Ball Rate Changers
Name PA HR ISO Diff Swing Diff O-Swing Diff Contact Diff GB/FB
Christian Yelich 51 1 0.158 -8% -15% 2% 1.33
Nick Markakis 52 0 0.200 3% -5% 2% 1.22
Yasmany Tomas 46 2 0.238 -4% -8% 1% 1.19
Dee Gordon 56 0 0.109 6% 2% 5% 1.19
Starling Marte 54 2 0.204 -8% -9% -3% 1.14
Cesar Hernandez 49 0 0.067 4% -2% 4% 1.03
Jon Jay 56 0 0.058 -5% -12% 7% 1.01
Jason Heyward 55 0 0.042 1% -1% 6% 0.99
Robinson Cano 53 5 0.327 -3% 3% -3% 0.93
Avisail Garcia 46 2 0.171 2% -3% 2% 0.83
Jean Segura 58 3 0.259 -9% -12% -8% 0.80
Ryan Howard 47 4 0.300 -4% -9% 3% 0.77
Danny Espinosa 42 0 0.029 -14% -15% 1% 0.76
Yoenis Cespedes 51 3 0.283 2% 1% 9% 0.74
Francisco Cervelli 48 0 0.079 -7% -11% 6% 0.74
Brett Lawrie 51 1 0.122 -1% -6% 3% 0.74
Freddie Freeman 46 1 0.111 -7% -12% 5% 0.67
Wil Myers 55 2 0.154 -1% -3% 2% 0.67
Lorenzo Cain 51 2 0.136 -6% -12% 15% 0.62
Prince Fielder 57 1 0.063 -8% -5% 12% 0.61
Andrew McCutchen 61 2 0.192 5% 6% 6% 0.58
Leonys Martin 42 2 0.211 -2% -3% 8% 0.57
Adeiny Hechavarria 41 1 0.171 -1% -9% 0% 0.56
Eduardo Escobar 44 0 0.095 4% 10% 1% 0.55
Scooter Gennett 50 3 0.268 -12% -17% 1% 0.55
Diff GB/FB = 2016 GB/FB – 2015

Yes. You really want 30 games to ‘believe’ in these numbers, but when a young man like Christian Yelich does what he’s needed to do all of his career in the first three weeks, you sit up and take notice. Someone must have told him it like it is: if that ball is near the ground, it’s far from bing a homer. I’ve got a feeling, someone put it in his ear and let him figure it out. Since he can run so fast, and is now adding power, I don’t think his value is going down. The fact that he’s also swinging less and making more contact means this is no mixed bag. Buy if you still can.

Yasmany Tomas came to America fat. He looked terrible at the plate. He hit everything into the ground. There was no reason for Yasmany Tomas to be good. And now, he’s stopped swinging so much, stopped swinging at things off the plate as much, and is one of the league leaders in changing his launch angle. He also looks more fit! All I can say is: first impressions can hang with you too long. I didn’t believe. Now, I’m interested.

Could this be a lesson for Avisail Garcia? He’s finally showing a batted ball mix that is conducive to the power he’s supposed to have, at least. The problem is that the track record of suckitude is longer. No, I can’t get back on that train. Wil Myers has shown more in the way of plate discipline and defense (surprisingly), and is showing better results. Let that bias us in this case, given Garcia’s past results.

On the veteran side, maybe Nick Markakis will hit five home runs this year! Maybe Jon Jay will hit two. It’s hard to call their existence on this list an unqualified win, considering they make their living with batting average and on-base percentage, and fly balls don’t do well there. Same thing for Dee Gordon and Cesar Hernandez — should they be hitting it in the air?

More unqualified wins are in the stat lines of Yoenis Cespedes and Lorenzo Cain. Both had power outbursts last year, and these stats suggest that you can believe in a repeat. Cespedes is one of seven players in the top fifty in average exit velocity that’s actually averaging a launch angle over 20 degrees, meaning his average ball in play (91.5 mph, 21 degrees) is really close to a home run. It *should* go about 315 feet at least.

The quickest takeaways for the young players that are available in many leagues: buy Jean Segura, Domingo Santana, Christian Yelich, Yasmany Tomas and Yoenis Cespedes in all leagues. In deeper leagues, consider picking up Joe Mauer, Scooter Gennett, and Jonathan Villar, and buying Randal Grichuk.

We hoped you liked reading The Change: What Hitter Stats to Use Early in the Season by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Mjcdriscoll
Member
Mjcdriscoll

Eno, Is it possible to get a combined ranking of Relief Pitchers that accounts for a league that uses a Net Saves + Holds? I would really like to know where you would rank some of the good setup pitchers relative to closers for a league like this.
Love your work!

Thanks,

Mark

Mike
Member
Mike

Oh man that would be awesome!!!