Who Got (Un)lucky, Hitter Edition

We now complete our lucky/unlucky trilogy by looking at hitters. For those of you just joining the symposium: we ‘ve had some success identifying players who have, we posit, been unduly favored or disfavored by fortune, and for whom the wheel accordingly figures to make a 180-degree turn. With pitchers, we look for (1) lucky guys who’ve been hit hard (as measured by, duh, Hard-Hit Percentage) but have managed to contain the damage, as measured by Batting Average on Balls in Play and Home Run Percentage, and (2) unlucky guys who’ve done the opposite.

We’ve already reviewed the results of this exercise for both starters and relievers. With hitters, we do essentially the same thing. We find guys who hit the ball hard but didn’t get hits, and guys who didn’t but did. Last year this approach would have pointed you towards Marcell Ozuna and Chris Iannetta and away from Ian Desmond. Of course, it would also have steered you away from Jonathan Schoop, who, in what is not among our finest moments, we suggested would be outperformed by Ben Zobrist and Logan Forsythe. So how do you tell the Schoops from the goats? Beats us.

Let’s start with the lucky guys. Most of them are players you probably aren’t going to take anyway: Leury Garcia, Kennys Vargas, Jake Marisnick. But there are a couple of interesting ones. One of those is Starlin Castro. People aren’t expecting much of him, since he’ll be part of what figures to be the worst lineup in baseball, but he is being taken for a buck or two in pretty much every league, in preference to, among others, Asdubral Cabrera, Jose Reyes, Raul Mondesi, and Kolten Wong, all of whom we expect to outperform him. In fact, Castro’s season may have been even worse than it looks to the discerning eye, because his stats were fattened by an unprecedentedly high percentage of infield hits, which we doubt he duplicates.

Big deal, you say; I wasn’t going to draft Castro anyway. Okay, then; we give you the Bill James MVP of 2017 and the luckiest hitter of the season: Eric Hosmer. Luckwise, Hosmer had as extreme a season as we’ve seen since we started looking at these kinds of numbers. Of the 144 qualifiers for the batting title, he had the 14th highest BABIP, the 18th highest HR/FB%, and the 29th lowest HH%. Those are all variables waiting to regress. Regress to what?, you wonder. We’d guess that his 2014-2016 performance is about what you’ll get—maybe 20 home runs, a .270 or .280 batting average, about the same 80 runs and RBIs Will Myers got with the Padres last season. Not tragic, but not the 11th first baseman off the board, not a 5th- or 6th-round (ADP 78) pick, and not that much better than what can be expected from Brandon Belt, whom you’ll be able to get in the 15th round, and probably quite a bit later.

Hosmer’s counterpart among the unfortunates is Mookie Betts, who hit the ball as hard as ever but had comparatively little to show for it. It looks to us as if the difference between Betts’s 2016 (.318/.363/.534, 31 HR) and his 2017 (.264/.344/.459, 24 HR) is largely accounted for by BABIP and HR/FB. Indeed, he hit the ball harder last year than the year before. And Betts is only 25, so there’s no reason to expect any kind of age-related decline. We therefore wonder: instead of 2017’s being any kind of regression to the mean after a spectacular (third most valuable Fantasy hitter, after Trout and Altuve) season, was it more like an aberration, and 2016 more like the mean? If you think so, then maybe Betts should be the third or fourth player off the board (depending on what you think of Trea Turner) rather than the seventh or eighth.

This is, of course, of little use to you if you’re drafting, say, 10th, or for that matter if you’re drafting 1st. Of greater practical value is our embrace of Ian Kinsler, who’s now the 20th second baseman off the board, with an ADP of 193. We see Kinsler’s problem: he’s 36, he’s coming off what is ostensibly his worst season ever, and his glove, while still good, may not be enough to keep him in the lineup. We note, though, that in addition to Kinsler’s having low BABIP and HR/FB and a high HH%, there’s a big difference between leading off for the punchless 2017 Tigers and leading off in front of Mike Trout. Moreover—we’re suckers for this kind of stuff—Ray Durham, the player whom Baseball Reference identifies as the most similar to Kinsler through age 35, came all the way back (.289/.380/.432) from oblivion (.218/.295/.343) in his age-36 season.

And speaking—as perhaps few before us have ever spoken at such length—of players similar to Ian Kinsler, the guy that BR identifies as the most similar tout court is Chase Utley, who qualifies as the single unluckiest hitter of 2017. Utley is 39; he hit .236 last season; his glove doesn’t play especially well at second base any more; he’s behind Cody Bellinger at first base on the depth chart; he seriously contemplated retirement during the off-season; and he was resigned by the Dodgers mostly to serve as a “veteran clubhouse presence,” the job description of which overlaps more with “babysitter” than “major league ballplayer.” Nonetheless, the numbers say what they say, and his ADP of 660 indicates that he should be readily available in the 40th round. Do we envision him supplanting Logan Forsythe as the Dodger second baseman? No; Forsythe himself was pretty unlucky, and figures to bounce back. But if, like us, you’re the kind of person who broods and obsesses over whether to take Utley, Eric Sogard, Carlos Asuaje, or Kaleb Cowart as your fourth-string second baseman, now you know what to do.

The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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Excellent. Birchwood-quality analysis.