Who’s Been (Un)lucky: The Hitters

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Now it’s time for a Birchwood Brothers tradition: identifying players who, their stats suggest, have either been lucky, and thus ought to be eschewed, or unlucky, and thus ought to be swallowed. We are no-trade-league guys. Some years ago, though, we were sucked into the black hole of a league that not only permitted but virtually demanded trading, and were fortunate to survive our resulting passage through the fabric of space-time. In that league, we were offered a mid-season trade for a pitcher that looked pretty good on its surface. But we wondered whether this guy’s success was significantly a function of his good fortune, and came up with a down-and-dirty way of finding out. It worked in that particular case—the guy had been lucky, but not long after we turned the trade down, both his luck and his pitching went bad. And the following preseason, we tried the same thing with the previous year’s full-season stats, and in the fullness of time found that it worked pretty well there too.

What we do is very simple. To identify lucky pitchers, we look for guys with low BABIPs and HR/FB percentages but high hard-hit percentages. To identify unlucky ones, we invert the criteria. And then, with hitters, we use the same stats, but the guys with low BABIPs, low HR/FB%, and high HH% are the lucky ones.

This approach, we hasten to add, isn’t infallible. Its success rate is significantly better than random, but every year it incorrectly steers us away from a guy or two that we might otherwise have liked. And that’s the problem with frequently-but-not-invariably-correct automatic systems: if you don’t tweak them, they can steer you wrong, but once you mix in discretion, you reduce your chances of an against-the-odds outcome of the sort that makes such systems worthwhile in the first place. Nonetheless, we’ll try to list the unlucky guys in what we view as descending order of likelihood that their apparent luck, good or bad, will change. There are also a couple of unlucky guys about whom we have nothing even potentially useful to say. For the record, they are Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kole Calhoun. The lucky guys aren’t listed in any particular order because we couldn’t decide on what it should be. So:

UNLUCKY HITTERS

Enrique Hernández: He’s one of the two unlucky hitters who qualify for the Quadrinity, which we discussed last week and is itself a predictive automatic approach to identifying undervalued players. Hernandez’s 2021 numbers with the Red Sox (.250/.337/.449 with 20 HR in 585 PA) look a lot like his 2018 numbers with the Dodgers (.256/.336/.470 with 21 HR in 462 PA), except that he homered a lot more frequently in LA. Dodger Stadium isn’t quite the home run suppresser that people seem to think it is, but it’s not as good as Fenway for right-handed hitters like Hernandez. And in fact Hernandez, should have hit home runs more frequently last season, when his Average Fly Ball Distance was 313 feet, his GB/FB ratio was 0.71, and he was playing for Boston, than he did in 2018, when his AFBD was 311, his GB/FB was 0.85, and he was in LA. The various projections envision 20 to 25 home runs for him this season. We think it’s going to be closer to 30, and recommend adjusting accordingly.

Keston Hiura: He’s the other Quadrinitarian in this group. In other words, notwithstanding his .168/.256/.301 slash line, his granular stats indicate he was a decent hitter last season. Moreover, his average fly ball distance last season, when he hit four home runs in 173 at bats, was exactly the same as it was in 2019, when he hit 19 in 314 at bats. (We screwed these numbers up last week. Sorry.) Plus his 2021 barrel percentage was in the top 30 overall, and higher than it was in either previous year. And as far as we’re concerned Hiura gets a pass for 2021 anyway, because his mother was diagnosed with lymphoma (thankfully now in remission) in February 2021. Then there’s the usual hope-springs-eternal stuff as well—Hiura made mechanical changes in his swing during the offseason, he’s going to get outfield reps this spring—but it’s always tough to separate signal from noise in this context, so we won’t try. Figure on lots more power, hope he can find his way into a loaded lineup or be part of a trade, and be happy to get him anywhere near his post-lockout ADP of 538.

Yoshi Tsutsugo: We don’t know how this Japanese power hitter managed to hit zero home runs in 103 at bats during his sojourns in Tampa and LA, though it undoubtedly had something to do with his rather high 1.20 Groundball/Flyball ratio. It looks to us as if it took half a season for Tsutsugo to figure out how not to hit ground balls into the shift, perhaps because he was trying and failing to hit ground balls away from the shift. By the time he arrived in Pittsburgh in mid-August, he had evidently concluded that his best chances were to hit the ball over the shift, and ideally over everybody, which is what worked for him in Japan. His encouraging numbers with the Pirates weren’t especially unlucky, but they weren’t especially lucky either, and there’s no reason to think he can’t repeat them.

We adore Hunter Dozier with the abiding passion we reserve for players whom we tout and no one else likes, and who go on to have good seasons. So it was in 2019, but Dozier’s been awful since. There were some encouraging signs last year and some discouraging ones. He hit pretty well in the second half because, it appears, he stopped trying to pull the ball and hit home runs, and his first-half BABIP was desperately low. But Dozier without home runs isn’t an especially attractive proposition unless he steals bases, and overall his Contact Rate and Hard-Hit Rate were down so far that it’s hard to ignore the decline.

David Bote: If it’s spring training, and you’re a ballplayer recovering from shoulder surgery and hoping to play again fairly soon, and someone asks your boss whether you’ll be back on the field by May, the answer you want him to give is “I sure hope so. This team needs him.” What you don’t want him to do is shrug and say “we’ll see,” which is evidently what Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations, did the other day. And it’s pretty hard to see how Bote, though a plus defender at 2B and 3B, cracks the lineup if the A-Team stays healthy. But the fact remains that Bote was probably the unluckiest hitter of 2021, in addition to being constantly sick and/or injured during the season. We wouldn’t say his Statcast x stats were good, but they’re a lot better than his actual stats, and you could do worse than get him in a very late round of a very deep draft, especially if you’ve already got one of the Cubs’ starting infielders.

Matt Carpenter: Carpenter is 36, he’s a liability in the field, he’s moving to a pitcher’s park, and he hasn’t had a good season since 2018. However, the stats say emphatically that he was unfortunate—not just the ones we’ve been looking at, but also Statcast’s, which put him in the top quartile in xwOBA and Barrel Percentage. And we keep reading how he’s spent the winter holding seances with Joey Votto and visiting soothsayers—something like that—in his tireless efforts at a top-down refurbishment of his swing. Plus, he should be able to scare up some at bats in Texas, as long as…

Willie Calhoun can’t handle full-time DHing the way he can’t handle playing the outfield. The stats we’re using suggest Calhoun was unlucky, but we’re having trouble finding any other stats that do. If you compare Calhoun’s 2021 numbers to the stats in his one good season, 2019, you’ll see the problem. His hard-hit percentage is way down, and his average fly ball distance went from 335 to 306. And whatever the problem was, it wasn’t the shift, which he did okay against.

LUCKY HITTERS

J.D. Davis: He’s a professional hitter, right? That’s what we thought too. But take a look at his contact rate, and especially his contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone. It looks to us like pitchers figured out how to get him to chase bad pitches. Maybe he’ll catch up to them, but if not….

Jazz Chisholm Jr.: Chisholm’s second half wasn’t good, and it appears that pitchers concluded, accurately, that the way to get him out was to pitch him inside and get him to hit into the shift. That said, while his first half BABIP was quite high, his second half BABIP was quite low, so it’s possible his overall numbers are approximately who he is, in which case he’s a top 100 player. Take the chance if you like; we’re not going to.

Tyler Stephenson: Stephenson of course doesn’t steal bases and also doesn’t hit many home runs, and to be worth the premium he seems to be commanding in drafts, his batting average needs to be very good, like the .286 he hit last year, rather than pretty good, like the .265ish the projectors foresee, or the .260ish that we expect. Stephenson does get on base a lot, which is nice, but he scored 56 runs last season hitting in front of Nick Castellanos, and he’s not going to score that many hitting in front of Kyle Farmer or Colin Moran. So figure a season comparable to what Omar Narvaez or Christian Vazquez will put up. Pretty good for a catcher, but Narvaez and Vazquez are a lot cheaper.

Gio Urshela: Urshela was plenty lucky statwise last year, but he was very unlucky healthwise: COVID, a hamstring strain, a hand injury. How you think he’ll do in Minnesota reduces not to whether you think his luck will regress to the mean, but rather to how much you think he’ll miss Yankee Stadium, where he’s a monster. We offer no firm opinion, but fear the worst, even though he’s done pretty well Target Field over the years.

Max Stassi: His is a strange story. His 2019 stands as perhaps the unluckiest season we’ve ever come across. (For reasons we now can’t fathom, we didn’t identify him as such in our 2020 Lucky/Unlucky article.) His 2020 was superb, and now we see that he was lucky in 2021. So what do you do with him? You go back to 2018, when in 250 plate appearances he hit .226/.316/.394 with 8 home runs. Which is pretty much what the projectors think he’ll do, except they think he’ll hit twice as many home runs. We don’t.

Wil Myers: There are lucky guys about whom the evidence is ambiguous, like the guys we’ve mentioned so far. And then there are lucky guys about whom the evidence is unambiguous, like Myers. His 2021 appears on the surface to be a fairly typical Myers season, and that’s what the projectors are predicting, minus some mild age-related decline. We think it could be worse and faster than that.





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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TheBabbomember
6 months ago

J.D. says the hand issues really affected his bat speed last season, contributing to the obscene spike in swinging strike rate and big drop in Z-contact (a real killer coupled with his large increase in Z-Swing, guess he was pressing though he still didn’t really chase too much). Hopefully the surgery cleared things up, maybe we’ll find out if he manages to get enough AB somewhere this season.

nuxiemember
6 months ago
Reply to  TheBabbo

stephenson hit behind castellanos last year, or the other way around.