Measuring Luck in Baseball

So I’m sure you’ve seen the stats on certain players and thought “this guy can’t be that good, can he?” Or you’ve seen those one-year wonders that never came close to that level of production ever again. A lot of times, you can go back to advanced metrics to try and project who is due for a big breakout season or who might be in for a major decline. I’m going to try and do that here by using statistics to determine who the luckiest and unluckiest hitters in Major League Baseball are. Now I will preface this by saying that this may not be entirely accurate, as I have no way of gaining stats such as “bad hops that turn sure outs into base hits” or “plays where the defender robbed you of a base hit” unless I go back and literally watch every single at bat of every player in the Majors. That’s just not happening, I’ve got stuff to do. I will however, use the stats that I have gained from Fangraphs.com to try and find the best way to paint a picture for you as to who is the luckiest hitter in the game. Ideally, there would be a way for me to combine all of the following stats I will be using into one encompassing number, but my skills as a statistician just aren’t at that level. I will more or less be taking each stat that I think is important in determining luck and giving you the players who fall into these categories. So without further ado, let’s dive into the numbers.

BABIP

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Avisail Garcia had a career year in 2017, could he be due for regression? (photo credit: Detroit Free Press)

BABIP stands for “Batting Average on Balls In Play” and basically measures what a player’s batting average would be if you were to take their strikeouts and home runs out of the equation. This is probably the best stat we have towards measuring luck as it shows how often guys are getting hits when defenders have a chance at making a play on the ball. Here are the Top 10 players in the 2017 season according to BABIP:

  1. Avisail Garcia-CHW: .392
  2. Charlie Blackmon-COL: .371
  3. Jose Altuve-HOU: .370
  4. Tommy Pham-STL: .368
  5. Tim Beckham-TBR/BAL: .365
  6. Domingo Santana-MIL: .363
  7. Chris Taylor-UTIL-LAD: .361
  8. Aaron Judge-NYY: .357
  9. Marcell Ozuna-MIA: .355
  10. Dee Gordon-MIA: .354

Now a few of these guys I can safely say is due to skill at the plate, namely Blackmon and Altuve (my two MVP picks for this season) because they’ve been ranking highly on these lists for some time now. It’s guys like Garcia, Pham, and Beckham who make me nervous just simply because I hadn’t seen production like this out of them prior to 2017. Now for the Top 10 Worst BABIPs in the majors this season:

  1. Rougned Odor-TEX: .224
  2. Todd Frazier-CHW/NYY: .226
  3. Curtis Granderson-NYM/LAD: .228
  4. Maikel Franco-PHI: .234
  5. Jose Bautista-TOR: .239
  6. Ian Kinsler-DET: .244
  7. Scott Schebler-CIN: .248
  8. Albert Pujols-ANA: .249
  9. Joey Gallo-TEX: .250
  10. Yangervis Solarte-SDP: .258

Todd Frazier has been very high on this list for the last few years now yet he is still a productive player, being worth a WAR of 3.0 this season, which is above average. You’ll also notice some other big names on this list, such as Jose Bautista, Ian Kinsler, and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols. Pujols’ production has been on a steep decline ever since he signed a huge contract with the Angels back in 2012 so his inclusion isn’t unfathomable here. It’s guys like Kinsler being on this list that surprised me.

Quality of Contact

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Joey Gallo was about as all-or-nothing a hitter as you will find in 2017 (photo credit: Fan Rag Sports)

Typically when a ball is hit hard, it suggests that the hitter got a good piece of it or squared it up really well. We all see those plays where a guy absolutely smokes the ball and it’s hit right at the third baseman for a quick out, which affects their batting average the same way as a strikeout despite not missing the ball. This is an imperfect tool because sometimes, you get guys like Giancarlo Stanton who are just flat out stronger than everyone and could hit a hard hit ball on a check swing. A ball is considered hard hit when it travels at roughly 100 mph off the bat. Below is a list of the guys who hit the ball hardest in 2017. I want you to keep in mind that the best hitters have contact rates of about 40-45-15:

Player                           Hard Contact                       Medium Contact                  Soft Contact

Joey Gallo-TEX                        46.4%                                        38.9%                                  14.7%

Aaron Judge-NYY                    45.3%                                        43.5%                                  11.2%

Paul Goldschmidt-ARI          44.3%                                         44.3%                                  11.3%

Corey Seager-LAD                  44%                                           43.1%                                 12.9%

Nicholas Castellanos-DET      43.4%                                     45.1%                                  11.5%

Cody Bellinger-LAD               43%                                          43%                                      14%

Miguel Cabrera-DET             42.5%                                       47.5%                                   9.9%

Matt Carpenter-STL            42.2%                                       45.7%                                    12.1%

Khris Davis-OAK                  42.1%                                        44.4%                                    13.5%

Chris Davis-BAL                  41.5%                                        45.7%                                   12.8%

One thing I want to draw your attention to on this list is Joey Gallo. Yes, he hit the ball hard the most consistently, but he also had the highest percentage of softly hit balls among guys in the top 10 as well as the lowest percentage of medium hit balls in this group. Gallo was a go-big-or-go-home type of swinger this season, as also evidenced by his 41 home runs and 196 strikeouts on the season. Here are the guys who hit the ball softly the most frequently in 2017:

Player                      Hard Contact                         Medium Contact              Soft Contact

Jose Peraza-CIN              21.4%                                        52%                                      26.6%

Jose Reyes-NYM                26.7%                                        47.2%                                    26.1%

Manuel Margot-SDP         25.4%                                     48.7%                                    25.9%

Yangervis Solarte-SDP      31.1%                                     43.8%                                   25.2%

Billy Hamilton-CIN          16%                                         59%                                      25%

Dee Gordon-MIA               16.1%                                      59.2%                                  24.7%

Didi Gregorius-NYY         23.1%                                       52.4%                                 24.4%

Odubel Herrera-NYY       29.4 %                                     46.3%                                  24.4%

Cesar Hernandez-PHI      22.1%                                    54.4%                                  23.5%

Todd Frazier-CHW/NYY             32.2%                                      44.6%                                 23.2%

A few guys on this list won’t be considered for “luckiest” or “unluckiest” because a lot of times this soft contact is a result of them playing to their speed. Guys like Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon often drop down bunts because they are freakishly fast, so using their soft contact against them isn’t really fair in this case. You may also notice a couple guys in the top 10 softest hit balls who were also in the top 10 worst BABIP: Todd Frazier and Yangervis Solarte, so you can pretty much rule these two out for consideration for “unluckiest.” They just aren’t hitting the ball hard and it’s hurting them.

Pop Up %

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Had Freddie Freeman not missed a large chunk of the season due to injury, he may have been a leading candidate for NL MVP (photo credit: AJC.com)

Pop ups can be killers and often happens when a guy tries to get the ball airborne and dips his back shoulder a little too much. I often find that pop ups can be a good indicator of a guy who is due for a big home run season, because usually when the ball is popped up, the hitter got a little too far under the ball. And when they hit those balls that are skied in the air with terrific hang time, you can probably guess that if they squared it up properly, it’d be going a long way at a more horizontal level. It will just take a little bit of tweaking in their swing to turn those pop-ups into bombs. I must also clarify that a ball is considered a pop up as long as it remains in the infield or fieldable by an infielder. Here are the guys who popped out most frequently:

  1. Todd Frazier-CHW/NYY-18.5%
  2. Jose Reyes-NYM-18.1%
  3. Tommy Joseph-PHI-18.1%
  4. Byron Buxton-MIN-17.7%
  5. Yangervis Solarte-SDP-17.4%
  6. Giancarlo Stanton-MIA-16.9%
  7. Alex Bregman-HOU-16.7%
  8. Jose Bautista-TOR-16.5%
  9. Maikel Franco-PHI-16.3%
  10. Jonathan Schoop-BAL-16%

I should also note that Schoop was number 11 in soft contact. This surprised me, especially considering the fact that he hit 32 home runs this season. But once again, Frazier and Solarte appear on a list they don’t want to appear on for futility. I was surprised at first to see Stanton on this list, but then I got to thinking about it and it started to make sense as, considering the guy was chasing 61 home runs, he probably hit a few pop ups trying to get to that number. Here we have the guys who hit the fewest pop ups in 2017:

  1. Freddie Freeman-ATL-0%
  2. Joey Votto-CIN-0.5%
  3. Shin-Soo Choo-TEX-0.9%
  4. Nicholas Castellanos-DET-1.6%
  5. Domingo Santana-MIL-2.1%
  6. Miguel Cabrera-DET-2.5%
  7. Christian Yelich-MIA-2.5%
  8. Buster Posey-SFG-2.8%
  9. Chris Davis-BAL-2.9%
  10. Dee Gordon-MIA-2.9%

Freddie Freaking Freeman didn’t hit a single popup this season. That’s just unbelievable to me. That’s a guy who is totally fundamentally sound with his swing on every single hack he takes. Not surprised to see Dee Gordon on this list. As a guy who bunted for more hits than anybody else (he had 18 bunt hits, next closest was Buxton at 11), I’m sure he was trying to hit the ball on the ground as much as humanly possible. This is how I imagine a discussion between Gordon and Marlins manager Don Mattingly would go.

Line Drives

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Daniel Murphy has hit .334 since joining the Nationals in 2016 (photo credit: CBS Sports)

This is the last stat we will consider when trying to determine luck. There really isn’t a definitive way to consider a line drive except by the eye test. I’m not going over every single swing to clarify information, so I trust the guys at Fangraphs have these numbers up to par. Typically a line drive is affiliated with hitting the ball perfectly. Here is a list of the guys who had the highest percentage of line drives in 2017:

  1. Daniel Murphy-WAS-27.6%
  2. Domingo Santana-MIL-27.4%
  3. Miguel Cabrera-DET-27.3%
  4. Jed Lowrie-OAK-27.1%
  5. Shin-Soo Choo-TEX-25%
  6. Joe Mauer-MIN-24.9%
  7. Chase Headley-NYY-24.9%
  8. Corey Seager-LAD-24.8%
  9. DJ LeMahieu-COL-24.7%
  10. Nicholas Castellanos-DET-24.5%

Not surprised to see Daniel Murphy on this list. The guy hits lasers and ever since 2015 he’s been one of the most consistently solid hitters in the game. Chase Headley was a bit of a surprise for me, I always knew he was more of a doubles guy but he’d been having his struggles with the Yankees this season. Now we have the worst at hitting line drives in 2017:

  1. Hunter Pence-SFG-13.4%
  2. Javy Baez-CHC-15.4%
  3. Manny Machado-BAL-15.8%
  4. Giancarlo Stanton-MIA-16%
  5. Mark Trumbo-BAL-16.1%
  6. Yasiel Puig-LAD-16.1%
  7. Scott Schebler-CIN-16.2%
  8. Rougned Odor-TEX-16.3%
  9. Yangervis Solarte-SDP-16.4%
  10. Carlos Beltran-HOU-16.4%

Hunter Pence had the lowest line drive rate by a WIDE margin, a full 2% below Javy Baez for the next lowest rate. Yet again, we find Solarte on a list that he REALLY doesn’t want to be on. It was well documented throughout the season that Manny Machado struggled and we may now have the reason why: he’s not hitting line drives, third worst rate in the majors.

And now the moment this article has been building up to: the Luckiest and Unluckiest hitters in baseball for the 2017 season. I don’t have a clear-cut singular number to round all of these stats into, but I tried to find the guys who found themselves ranking highly the most frequently in these specific categories.

Luckiest Hitter: 

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Eric Hosmer was the luckiest hitter in 2017 (photo credit: MLB.com)

Eric Hosmer-1B-Kansas City Royals

This may have come as a bit of a surprise to some of you because Hosmer didn’t appear in any of the Top 10’s for the chosen stats. However he wasn’t far off from making all of them. Hosmer slashed .318/.385/.498 with 25 home runs and 94 RBI, all really impressive numbers for a guy set to become a free agent. However, those numbers were inflated by a .351 BABIP, 14th best in the Majors out of 144 qualifiers. He also was 15th in soft-hit balls at 21.8% and was 116th in hard hit balls at 29.5%. He was 49th in pop-up rate at 7.2%, which isn’t too bad, it’s right around average, and his line drive rate was 22.2%, which ranked 36th. So for any team that is ready to hand Hosmer a $100M contract this offseason, I say buyer beware, he’s due for regression.

Unluckiest Hitter:

Super angry Miguel Cabrera Detroit Tigers 2017_1492802100716_9568344_ver1.0_1280_720

Future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera had terrible luck in 2017 (photo credit: ClickOnDetroit)

Miguel Cabrera-1B-Detroit Tigers

I knew there had to be some explanation as to why Miggy was having such a shitty season. Cabrera’s slash line was .249/.329/.399 with 16 home runs and 60 RBI. It seemed to be the symptoms of getting older (despite remaining one of the most baby-faced players in the game) but it turns out, the baseball gods hadn’t been doing Cabrera any favors. His BABIP was .292, which was 97th in the Majors out of 144 qualifying players, his line drive percentage was third best at 27.3% and his pop up percentage was 6th best at 2.5%. Only Justin Turner hit the ball softly less frequently (9.8%) than Cabrera did (9.9%). Cabrera also hit the ball 7th hardest this season at a 42.5% rate. While the lower home run totals may be concerning, I expect Cabrera to have a bounce back year in 2018. He’s a much better hitter than what his base stats showed this year and these advanced stats proved it to me that his 2017 season was probably just an aberration.

Thank you for bearing with me being a gigantic super nerd with all these stats. I had a lot of fun doing this and it answered a lot of questions for me. I’ve always had a soft spot towards guys with shit luck simply because that was me in high school. I used to hit the ball right at guys so often that I eventually gave up and stopped swinging the bat in the hopes of getting walked. It worked for a little while (I had a two-game stretch where I got walked 7 times in 8 plate appearances. The one appearance that I didn’t walk was when I swung at the first pitch. I hit a hard ground ball right at the shortstop.). Do you want to see more blogs like these? Did you absolutely despise it because you hate nerds? Let me know in the comments section below or on Facebook or Twitter @jimwyman10.

3 thoughts on “Measuring Luck in Baseball

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