Who’s Been Unlucky–The Hitters

Join us now on our third and final sojourn among the players upon whom Fortune smiled or frowned in 2022, and whom He/She/It figures to treat differently in 2023. Our method is simple: We look  for players whose underlying stats are significantly better or worse than their overlying ones, and who therefore figure to do better (if unlucky) or worse (if lucky) than the market and/or the projection systems think they will. For hitters, we invert the approach we took in the two preceding installments for pitchers: the lucky guys are the ones whose BABIP and HR/FB% was high while their Hard-Hit Percentage was low, and the unlucky guys are the ones with a high HH% but low BABIP and HR/FB%. It’s simple, and it’s not infallible, but by and large it works.

Lucky Hitters

Jeremy Peña: You already know the situation, because it’s described right there on Pena’s Fangraphs page: “Pena’s rookie year got off to a hot start before the league adjusted to his over-aggressive approach.” Thus, Pena’s second half: .243/.267/.398 with an 0.12 BB/K ratio, which was the worst in MLB of any player with at least 200 plate appearances in the second half. But what you may not have known is that Pena’s second half was lucky.  In other words, his fantasy-relevant stats should have been even worse than they were, and may well be even worse than the projection systems envision. Adjust accordingly.

Andrés Giménez: Everyone knew he was a better hitter than he appeared to be in 2021, but nobody knew he was that much better. So was he really? Likely not. His Fangraphs Hard-Hit Percentage of 25.6% puts him way down towards the bottom of batting-average qualifiers, and although Statcast is a trifle kinder, there’s still a huge gap between his actual (.466) and his expected (.400) slugging percentage. Plus, Bill James’s invaluable annual Handbook has a stat we hadn’t paid much attention to before—slugging percentage on hard- (and medium- and soft-) hit balls. Gimenez’s was 1.216 last season, and only a handful of players (including Starling Marte, about whom more in a moment) had lower HH% and higher HH Slugging Percentages. What does this signify? Well, for some players—Aristides Aquino, for example—it clearly means that, on those rare occasions they make good contact, the ball goes a long way. But judging from the guys (like Gio Urshela, Dylan Carlson, and Jarred Kelenic) whose 2021 Low HH/High HH-SLG presaged a disappointing 2022, we surmise that it signifies that things happened just right for the guy in Year 1—the hard-hit balls found the gaps or the short fences—and probably won’t in Year 2.

Vaughn Grissom: We’re inclined to overlook this one. For one thing, it’s based on only 156 plate appearances. For another, the guy was only 21 and expecting to spend the season in the minors when he got plucked from the Double A chorus line to stand in for Ozzie Albies, and did better than anyone had a right to expect. His September/October numbers suggest that, as with Pena, the league was figuring him out, but we’d balance that out with the probability that he gets a bit more seasoning before he’s tossed into the maelstrom again. Looking just at his MLB stats, we were worried that he might be strictly a lefty-masher, but his minor-league numbers reassured us.

Starling Marte: An interesting case. If you look just at his season-by-season stats, Marte’s 2022 was of a piece with the rest of his career. True, his BABIP was high, but, as with a lot of fast guys who hit a lot of ground balls, it always is. Moreover, he had an endless series of injuries last season. Yet there’s cause for concern. His hard-hit rate, as measured by Fangraphs, Statcast, and James, was down, though not to an unprecedentedly low level. And his baserunning numbers (including his lackluster SB%) were his worst ever, which bodes ill for his infield-hit rate, which was itself down. If you want to attribute all of it to the injuries, we won’t argue with you. But we’re laying off Marte ourselves.

Unlucky Hitters

Spencer Torkelson: What you make of Torkelson this season depends on what you make of the 2022 Tigers. Not to get all woo-woo on you, but our view is that the entire team was suffering from the existential despair of being trapped on a ship to nowhere piloted by Al Avila, unquestionably the worst GM of the analytics era, who’d been on the job for seven years, screwed up everything he touched, had authored, in the preceding offseason, two of the most unnecessary long-term contracts ever, and appeared to have inviolable job security. Until, suddenly, he didn’t—he got fired on August 10th. And things immediately got a bit better. Tigers 2022 through August 10th: .226/.283/.332. Tigers from August 11thh on: .240/.294/.376. It was about the same for Torkelson individually. From the start of the season until he was banished in July, he hit .197/.282/.295. After he was recalled on September 2nd, it was .219/.292/.385. Not wonderful, but lots better. And his hard-hit percentage during that time, 37.5%, was more than respectable, albeit not what you’d hope for from the best college power hitter of the last decade. We’re not expecting miracles from Torkelson–.240 is probably the upper limit on his batting average—but we do think he could get a lot closer to 30 home runs than the projectors think.

Anthony Rendon: We can’t blame the market for being down on him. He’s had two brutal, injury-crammed seasons, turns 33 this year, and plays for a franchise that appears not to know what it’s doing.  But nobody seems to have noticed that his 2022 was better than (a) his 2021 and (b) it looked. Until he got hurt on May 25th, his hard-hit percentage was in the top third of MLB, and he was starting to heat up a bit—his pre-injury May was appreciably better than his weak April, which we’re inclined to excuse in a guy coming off one injury-compromised season and another COVID-compromised one. The projectors say about .250 or .260 with 15 home runs. If he’s healthy—and he says he is—we think that’s his downside.

Kyle Isbel: There are a bunch of reasons to like him, aside from his highish HH%/lowish BABIP and HR/FB%.  A small one is that he’s chasing fewer bad pitches and making more, as well as better, contact. A big one is that he’s virtually a one-man laboratory experiment on the effect of the new rules. We have here a left-handed groundball pull hitter—exactly the kind of guy the shift hurts most. And he’s a fast guy who’s generally a good baserunner, but hasn’t been very good at stealing bases. So his strikeouts should be down a bit, his batting average should be up, and instead of stealing 9 bases in 15 tries, as he did last year in a half-season, he steals, say, 15 in 20 or 20 in 25. The projectors think he’ll improve a bit; we think he’ll improve a bit more than that bit.

Ketel Marte: In what we assume is yet another instance of God amusing herself, 2022’s luckiest hitter was Starling Marte, and its unluckiest was his non-relative Ketel. What Ketel had, to be precise, was perhaps the unluckiest half-season we’ve ever seen. People will look at his month by month record and see a guy who collapsed in the second half. If they look a bit harder, they’ll notice that he had hamstring problems on and off throughout the second half and make the connection. Or maybe they’ll blame the shift. According to Bill James, only four hitters (Corey Seager, Kyle Schwarber, Carlos Santana, and Yordan Alvarez) lost more hits to the shift last season than Marte did. And those are plausible explanations. But we’re seeing, also or instead, a guy who hit rather well in the second half; he just doesn’t have the fantasy-relevant numbers to show for it. Try this thought experiment: imagine that Marte had a full season with the same hard-hit percentage (37.1%) as he had in the second half. Now imagine, in that same full season, he had a league-average BABIP (.290) and HR/FB% (11.4%) rather than the BABIP (.226) and HR/FB% (6.9%) that he actually had. Suddenly, Marte looks like Christian Kirk, who hit .285 with 14 home runs. Which is kind of similar to the Marte of seasons past, and is about what the pundits are projecting for Alec Bohm, whose NFBC Average Draft Position is 183, whereas Marte’s is 203, and Marte’s upside is probably higher.

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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Jonathan Hurstmember
12 days ago

Christian Kirk!