Who’s Been (Un)lucky So Far, Hitter Edition

Now let’s take a look at whose numbers so far might be deceptively good or deceptively bad. We do this by looking at a hitter’s BABIP, HR/FB ratio, and Hard-Hit Percentage. Our theory, which is not abstruse, is that a guy who has hit the ball hard but isn’t getting either hits or home runs has been unlucky, whereas a guy who hasn’t but is has been lucky.

We’ve done this in past seasons; sometimes we’ve been right. In the past, though, we’ve couched it in terms of players who might be traded for or away. Now, though, we realize that we and most of the rest of the world plays in no-trade redraft leagues. And even if you play in a league that permits trading, it does you little good to know that, say, Tim Anderson has been immoderately fortunate this year. So what?

He’s a 25-year-old former elite prospect who gives every sign of outperforming his autoregressive projections. Even after his inevitable descent from the stratosphere, it’s quite possible he remains in the troposphere rather than plummeting to earth, and anyone you trade with will know it. Thus, we’re focusing on (1) desirable players who might actually be available as free agents; (2) undesirable players who might actually be available as free agents, and whom you might be tempted to acquire; and (3) players who might be on your roster and jettisonable.

Unlucky Hitters

Carson Kelly. He’s definitely the most interesting of the guys we’ll mention, because he might well be available—probably is, if you play in one of those effete one-catcher leagues—and might well do you some good. Lots of us figured we’d seen enough of Kelly after watching him hit .154 with no home runs in parts of three seasons with the Cardinals. But people have been saying since Kelly was drafted in 2012 that he would, or anyway could, hit. What seems to have happened is that he decided to be less circumspect, and trade some futile swings at bad pitches (his strikeout rate is up a bit, mostly because he’s swinging at more pitches out of the zone) for some good contact. If so, it’s working—that hard-hit rate is in the top 10 among players with 60 or more plate appearances, just above Paul Goldschmidt’s. At worst, it’s an all-or-nothing strategy, and you’ll get some home runs to go with the .233 batting average, which may well be more than you’re getting from your catchers now.

Kendrys Morales. That’s right, he’s about to be DFA’d by the A’s, unless Khris Davis’s hip contusion is a bigger deal than he’s letting on. And at 35, he may indeed be done for. His average fly ball distance has declined significantly, which is of course a warning sign. But the fact is that he’s hitting the ball as hard as ever—harder, according to Fangraphs—and he isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing home run guy. He may, of course, be this season’s Victor Martinez. But he may also be a victim of circumstance—the emergence of Rowdy Tellez in Toronto, Khris Davis’s long-term lease on DH in Oakland—plus his own ineptitude with the glove. He nonetheless now qualifies at first base, and if he happens to catch on with a team that can use him—we vote for Baltimore, where his career record is .292/.348/.500—he might be useful.

Lucky Hitters

Raimel Tapia. It certainly does look as if Tapia has taken a starting job from Ian Desmond, doesn’t it? As guys who, with their usual consummate timing, drafted Desmond this year for the first time since he became a Rockie (“Rocky”?), we won’t deny Desmond deserves it. But we’re not so sure Tapia keeps the job. His walk rate is down, his strikeout rate is up, and he’s making less contact. True, his hard-hit percentage is unprecedentedly high, but that just means it’s in the bottom quintile of MLB rather than the bottom decile. That .373 BABIP is unsustainable, and since he isn’t stealing bases and won’t hit home runs, Desmond (or more precisely, his ruinous long-term contract—not just a candidate for the worst ever, but clearly recognizable as such from the git-go) probably reclaims the job as soon as Tapia slumps. No reason to dump Tapia now, but no reason to pay a premium to get him, either.

Kelvin Gutierrez. We just picked him up in The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational, but that’s because our third base corps this season has consisted of Jeimer Candelario, Yolmer Sanchez, and David Descalso. Now we kind of wish we hadn’t. He’s in the bottom 10 in walk/strikeout ratio, that .407 BABIP has nowhere to go but down, there’s no historical reason to think he’ll hit more than .240, and he’s not stealing bases, though he’s certainly capable of it. We’re still not sure we want Jeimer back, but it’s close.

Scott Kingery. We know Kingery’s on the IL, but he should be back within two weeks or so, and a lot of people are hanging on to him in the belief that he fits the blue-chip-prospect-who-recovers-from-traumatic-rookie-season model. Fair enough, and could be, but we kind of doubt it. His granular stats, while unquestionably an overall improvement over last year’s catastrophic numbers, just look too close to 2018 for comfort. The big difference is that he’s been hitting the ball on the ground a lot—something he hasn’t done since his first pro season—and running out a lot of infield hits. Kingery’s fast, all right, but not, we think, fast enough to keep doing that. We’d probably be trying to trade him away if we had him in a trading league. Obviously, in a no-trading league, there’s no reason to jettison him if you don’t need to. But would we actually drop a guy hitting .406/.457/.719 if we urgently needed a roster spot to plug some other hole in our lineup? Yes, we probably would, but we understand if you wouldn’t.

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.

newest oldest most voted

Hi guys – thanks for the article. It brings up an interesting discussion. I am still uncertain how to reconcile some of our traditional KPIs of identifying undervalued players (xBABIP, Hard Hit %, etc) with the newer statcast expected stats at baseballsavant. To pick an example in the article, statcast shows Carson Kelly as actually being one of the luckier players in the league (Actual wOBA of .324 vs. Expected wOBA of .284).

It’s simple when the multitude of measures and stats all agree that a player is undervalued; it becomes more difficult when they disagree. How do you reconcile these differences? I’m asking because I genuinely do not know the answer and would love some guidance.

Thanks for all your work.