2017 Bad Batted-Ball Luck All-Stars
Players who should have had better seasons at the dish in 2017
The old adage is that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. With the advent of advanced stats such as exit velocity and chase rate, average fans like me have a better idea of who is the best at doing that very difficult thing. Yet, given various factors such as batted-ball luck and the differing ballpark conditions, excellence according to advanced stats does not necessarily translate to excellence on the field or in the box score. Here are nine players (one at each position) whose expected wOBAs (according to my model) were at least 10 points greater than their actual wOBAs (minimum of 250 plate appearances) in 2017.
C — Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals (wOBA = .329, e.wOBA = .344)
In 2017, Salvador Perez had an average exit velocity of 88.5 mph, 94th-highest out of the 318 position players with at least 250 plate appearances. Also, 25.5% of Perez’s batted balls were hit with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, 83rd-highest. Yet, Perez’s wOBA was only .329, 151st-highest. While the main culprit of Perez having such a low wOBA was his sheer lack of plate discipline (Chase-Rate = 47.9%, 1st-highest), Perez had some bad luck on batted balls hit with an exit velocity in between 80 and 100 mph, racking up a wOBA 112 points less than expected on those batted balls, which accounted for 49% of his batted-ball total. My best guess as to what caused the bad luck is that, because Kauffman Stadium is such a pitcher’s park (.809 HR park factor, 27th-highest) and because Perez is such a fly-ball hitter (18.9 average launch angle, 15th-highest), some of Perez’s fly-balls that would have been home-runs in other ballparks turned into outs in Kauffman Stadium.
1B — Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers (wOBA = .313, e.wOBA = .373)
In 2017, Miguel Cabrera was the king of bad batted-ball luck. His 91.1 average exit velocity was 10th-highest amongst the 318 position players with at least 250 plate appearances. Also, 31.2% of his batted balls were hit with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, 22nd-highest. Yet, Cabrera’s wOBA was only .313, 219th-highest, despite posting a chase-rate (32.2%) and an in-zone contact-rate (86.2%) relatively similar to his respective career averages (30.1% and 86.8%, respectively). That is because Cabrera’s wOBA on batted balls (.361) was 87 points lower than his expected wOBA on batted balls (.448), the largest such disparity.
2B — Rougned Odor, Texas Rangers (wOBA = .272, e.wOBA = .296)
While a 38.3% chase-rate (25th-highest) and a career-low 85.3% in-zone contact-rate will lead to a really low wOBA, a .224 BABIP (3rd-lowest) will lead to a wOBA even lower than expected. The main cause of Odor’s low BABIP was a .223 wOBA against the shift, the worst wOBA against the shift out of 44 players with at least 200 plate appearances in such scenarios.
3B — Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles (wOBA = .328, e.wOBA = .348)
Machado’s 91.0 average exit velocity was 11th-highest amongst the 318 position players with at least 250 plate appearances, and 34.2% of his batted balls were hit with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, 10th-highest. Yet, his wOBA was only .328, 156th-highest. There was a theory during the season that Machado was hitting the ball too hard and that he was not getting the bloop-hits that customarily boost hitters’ batting averages. While I am not one to believe that a hitter can hit the ball too hard, Machado was definitely experiencing some bad batted-ball luck. On batted balls hit with an exit velocity of at least 90 mph, which accounted for 58% of Machado’s batted-ball total, Machado’s wOBA was 143 points lower than expected. As a result, Machado’s wOBA on batted balls (.373) was 30 points lower than expected (.403), the 17th-greatest such disparity. It may be beneficial for Machado to try to lift the ball more often, especially given his ability to hit the ball hard, for 10.1% of Machado’s batted balls were hit with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph and a launch angle of less than 0 degrees, the 4th-highest such rate.
SS — Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves (wOBA = .276, e.wOBA = .288)
Former #1 pick Dansby Swanson’s MLB career got off to a hot start in 2016, batting .302/.361/.442 in 145 plate appearances with the Braves. However, a severe drop in BABIP from 2016 (.383) to 2017 (.292), along with relatively similar “process” stats, caused his wOBA to drop from .334 to .276. Some bad luck on batted balls hit with 26–39 degree launch angles (273 points below expected on 13% of batted-ball total) caused his wOBA to be lower than expected. Such data may also suggest that Swanson would have more success at lower launch angles.
OF — Khris Davis, Oakland Athletics (wOBA = .361, e.wOBA = .397)
Khris Davis is one of the rare players on this list so far that had a career year in 2017 but could have had an even better year. Davis’s average exit velocity in 2017 was 92.2 mph, 5th-highest, and 38.6% of Davis’s batted balls were hit with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, 4th-highest. Yet, Davis’s wOBA was “only” .361, 59th-highest. It seems as if Davis ran into some bad luck on batted balls hit with an exit velocity in between 90 and 100 mph, for his wOBA on such batted balls was 108 points lower than expected. It may be beneficial for Davis to adopt more of a pull-approach, for 42.3% of his batted balls were to the center of the diamond, the 6th-highest such rate. My guess is that some of the “air-balls” that Davis hit with an exit velocity in between 90 and 100 mph would have been home-runs if pulled but turned into outs because they were hit to the center of the diamond.
OF — Melky Cabrera, White Sox/Royals (wOBA = .319, e.wOBA =.341)
For all of the other players on this list so far, I talked about how they underachieved based on their batted-ball profiles. For Melky, I am going to talk about how he did not deploy his chase-rate optimally. Let me explain. While it has been proven that taking a ball is a positive in and of itself, the most optimal time not to chase a pitch is when it leads to a walk. Yet, despite his only slightly below-average 32.1% chase-rate (204th-best), Melky was one of the worst hitters at converting three-ball counts into walks, with a 32.7% walk-rate in such situations, which was good for 280th-best out of 311 hitters with at least 50 plate appearances in three-ball counts. As a result, Melky’s 5.4% overall walk-rate (276th-best) is below what is expected from a 32.1% chase-rate. For comparison’s sake, Miguel Cabrera had a similar 32.2% chase-rate, yet walked 48.6% of the time in three-ball counts, 46th-best. As a result, Miguel’s 10.2% (103rd-best) walk-rate is above what is expected from a 32.2% chase-rate. In essence, my point is that Melky “wasted” his non-chases in plate appearances that did not lead to walks.
OF — Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals (wOBA = .269, e.wOBA = .295)
Alex Gordon was pretty light-hitting to begin with, with his 85.8 mph average exit velocity being only the 234th-highest amongst hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. However, a .261 BABIP (33rd-lowest) that is much lower than his .312 career mark will further worsen matters. Similar to Dansby Swanson, Gordon should consider trying to hit the ball lower to the ground more often, for his 13.3 degree average launch angle (114th-highest) seems high for someone that does not hit the ball hard too often.
DH — Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels (wOBA = .286, e.wOBA = .314)
“The Machine” was, by some accounts, the worst player in baseball in 2017. A .249 BABIP (22nd-lowest), the main culprit of which was a .225 wOBA against the shift (2nd-worst amongst 44 players with at least 200 plate appearances against the shift), which led to a league-leading 26 double-plays grounded into, will do that to a player. Just to add insult to injury, Pujols is now the all-time leader in double-plays grounded into, with 362 GIDP (don’t worry, Albert, you’re still a first-ballot Hall of Famer and possibly the greatest right-handed hitter of all-time).