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One thing to watch: Braves position players

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I’ll be keeping an eye on these quirks and potential trends

Tampa Bay Rays v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

One of the many reasons baseball is great: an unending roil of waves of “stuff that happens,” crashing against the rocks of “stuff that was likely to happen.” Like the spray of sea foam, the possibilities are endless, but we’ve all seen enough to understand, in general terms, how waves work. Still, 2020 was the weirdest of seasons, which might have crimped our collective forecasting acumen a bit. A lot of things that happened over 60 games will prove to be mirages, while others may end up being brief starts of longer trends. Here’s one thing for each player on the Opening Day roster that I’ll be watching as the season unfolds. Note that many of these things don’t mean anything in and of themselves, they’re just interesting quirks to pore over — these are far less “keys to the 2021 season” than just “stuff that’s interesting to check up on every now and again.” This post is about the position players; another about pitchers will follow.

Freddie Freeman - Thrivin’ on the edge

Baseball Savant’s “swing/take profiles” are an interesting tidbit. They’re cool because they take into account watching strikes and swinging (and missing) balls, both of which are important things for hitters to avoid. But, it’s hard to put too much stock in them as predictive or skill-based measures, because they value contact based on outcome (i.e., wOBA) rather than input (i.e., xwOBA or similar). Freeman was simply monstrous last year, setting Statcast-era highs for himself in pretty much everything, and posting ridiculous metrics like an xwOBACON (xwOBA on contact) above .500, a hard-hit rate (95+ mph) above 50 percent, a barrel rate well beyond twice the league average, etc. There essentially wasn’t an offensive input where he didn’t rank among the elite.

Yet, the thing that caught my eye was this: in years past, Freeman derived his offensive value from A) not chasing, and B) punishing hittable pitches, both obvious skills needed to be a feared hitter. But, he wasn’t notably good or even okay at getting good outcomes on pitches on the edge. This isn’t weird: that’s like the only broad location where pitchers thrive! Yet, in 2020, Freeman flipped the script by turning his performance against pitches in this “shadow” area positive as well.

While he was still above-average in this respect in 2018-2019, it was still a net negative, run value-wise. Relative to past years, he didn’t necessarily hit pitches on the edge much harder, but he: A) swung at any edge pitch far less frequently; B) whiffed on them waaayyyy less frequently; and, C) elevated them far more when he made contact. This dovetailed with broader 2020 tendency to considerably rein in his swinging overall — even at strikes — and focus on offering on pitches he could really punish.

Freeman doesn’t have to keep these gains on “shadow” pitches to thrive in 2021, but if he does, opposing pitchers are going to be very sad.

Ronald Acuña Jr. — Weird walk deluge

In his rookie year, the phenom walked at basically a league-average rate. In 2019, he swung a bit less and whiffed a bit more, with fewer chases and more fouls when he did chase helping to keep PAs alive for a potential base on balls. In 2020, Acuña walked at a rate more than double the league-average rate. In fact, even if you drop the PA cutoff to just 10 PAs, he was still in the top 10 in baseball in walk rate. Suffice to say, this gave him an OBP 25 percent better than league average, and was a big reason for his monster year.

Yet, the way in which he got those extra walks was... a little confusing. Year-to-year, between 2019 and 2020, the huge changes in his plate discipline were A) less swinging at strikes and B) missing strikes more often when he did swing. Those things still extend PAs, for sure, so it’s not like Acuña was doing something that harmed his ability to walk more. But... still, you wonder if this was just a two-month quirk, or if we’re about to see the bizarre case of a low-swinging, high-whiffing guy have a full season’s worth of bombs and bases on balls. (For comparison, Juan Soto, one of the only guys to walk at a greater rate than Acuña in 2020, made tons of contact, with one of the lowest whiff rates in the game. Yet, with pitchers also throwing Soto notably fewer strikes, their walk rates weren’t too different.) Stay tuned.

Ozzie Albies - Wrists and fastballs

Albies’ 2020 was a cut-short shortened season, so there’s not too much to really focus on. His strikeout rate skyrocketed, yet his overall whiff rate barely budged — the difference was mostly that he was getting carved up by two-strike pitches out of the zone in a way he had avoided. Yet, the thing that gave him trouble, especially in two-strike counts, was something he’d never particularly struggled with before: non-fastballs. This chart basically sums it up - it’s rainbow spaghetti but look at what goes down from 2019-2020, and what doesn’t.

Albies has always struggled, in a relative sense, against certain pitch types (curves, splitters), but he had no issues against sliders or changeups. Yet, in 2020, his already-strong performance against fastballs budged up, but he went from dominating sliders and changeups to struggling with them like all the other non-fastball pitches. The weirder part is that his 2020 was hampered by a wrist injury... which has many negative implications for hitting, but “getting specifically worse against sliders and changeups” doesn’t seem like one of them. If you told me Albies had a wrist injury for part of 2020, I’d have expected his production on fastballs and his barrel rate to tail off, yet the opposite of that happened.

This all might be a small sample quirk, and I kind of doubt it means anything either way. It’s just kind of odd, in the way any 124 PA season looks odd, but I guess it’s something to watch.

Marcell Ozuna - Bleeding defensive runs

Most of these tidbits are not very material. This one might be. We don’t really know, but as potentially meaningful as it is, we probably won’t know by the end of 2021, either. In short: Ozuna’s defense has been lamented far and wide, yet the defensive metrics themselves have not been particularly penurious. Ozuna did have -2 DRS and -2.7 UZR in the field in just 162 innings last year, but A) it was 162 innings and B) most of that damage was due to his arm, not so much his range. Guys like Austin Meadows (horrible defensively 2018, less bad 2019, actually positive DRS in another small sample in 2020), Cedric Mullins (horrible defensively in 2018, neutral in a bigger sample since), Jesse Winker, Kyle Tucker, Bryce Harper, blah blah blah you get the idea, have all had bad-to-horrible small stints in the outfield that weren’t replicated in subsequent seasons. Ozuna’s OAA (-1) also came in too small a sample to do anything with, and doesn’t include anything relating to his throwing, so it isn’t super-helpful in this regard either.

The general expectation is that Ozuna will be a notably above-average bat that’s either somewhat above average or average as a corner outfielder, giving him projections around 3.0-3.5 wins on the season. If he’s notably worse because he can’t function as an outfielder anymore, he could drop into average player territory. If he can somehow be above-average via positioning and the like, the way he was each year in 2017 through 2019 (yes, that -11 OAA in 2019 came with positive UZR and DRS, go figure), then he could be a production monster.

Dansby Swanson - Sliders in the zone

Swanson’s offensive profile has had a lot of moving parts — too many to quickly sum up. He was ineffective and bad through 2018 (though in 2018, this may have been due to playing through an injury for most of the year), great but unlucky in 2019, compounded by again playing injured in the second half, albeit in a way that didn’t completely implode his line like in 2018, and finally a high-quality offensive producer in 2020 (same xwOBA as in 2019, but no underperformance). Yet, even across 2019 and 2020, there’s a ton of within-period variation, and despite a similar xwOBA, he got there in different ways, with more swing-and-miss in 2020 being buoyed by a bunch more flares to prop up his contact. The whiffs are their own thing, but I want to focus on something a bit different with him for 2021.

Through 2018 (setting aside questions about how well he would’ve done if not hurt in 2018), Swanson had real issues with sliders. His three xwOBAs were .163/.202/.202 (league: .258), his wOBAs were even worse, even though his chase rate (24/26/34 percent, league: 33 percent) and whiff rate (35/39/37 percent, league: 35 percent) were not that notable. He was just awful when he made contact on them (league: .346 xwOBA; Swanson .253 xwOBA). The turnaround happened in 2019 (Swanson xwOBA: .338!), and to a lesser extent, 2020 (Swanson xwOBA: .238), despite elevated chase and whiff rates, because, as you can probably guess, Swanson creamed the sliders he actually hit, including a .436 xwOBACON on sliders in 2019 — he went from bottom five in baseball to top 30 in a season in this regard. Yet, in 2020, despite some decent results on slider contact, his overall performance went back — for this weird reason:

He also saw his highest rate of zone sliders ever. In short: the league had a .300 xwOBA on in-zone sliders in 2020 (including strikeouts and the rare mis-called walk); Swanson was at .210, after .367 in 2019. Can he go back to damaging hangers the way he jumps on fastballs? It may end up mattering quite a bit.

Austin Riley - Yeah, it’s still fastballs

Riley’s 88 wRC+ in 2020 was disappointing, and sadly for him, it came in a season where he had an above-average xwOBA. Overall, this:

is not really the hallmark of a poor offensive producer, even though Riley has little to show for it given that he had -0.1 fWAR in 2020. It’s just a shame for his .026 xwOBA improvement from 2019 to 2020, his wOBA didn’t budge at all. It happens. On the surface, Riley’s big improvement came against sliders — in 2019, when he got a slider with two strikes, he made an out on that slider 34 percent of the time, but in 2020, that rate halved to 17 percent. Yet the xwOBA on contact didn’t change much, nor did his whiff rates (modest improvements), though at least his rate of PAs-ending-on-sliders ending in a strikeout also halved. Yet, even with all that, Riley didn’t make any gains in fastball-mashing, and that was the biggest issue with his 2019 collapse.

Fundamentally, on a pitch basis, the way baseball currently works is that fastballs get mashed (+.030 xwOBA in PAs that ended with a fastball) while sliders are particularly devastating (-.050 xwOBA on PAs that ended with a slider), and in general, non-fastballs are what upend hitters (-.040 xwOBA on PAs that end with non-fastballs). Among fastballs, these days, four-seamers and two-seamers sinkers are basically the same level of mashed (+.040), while cutters help bring down the fastball total (basically neutral relative to league-average). Yet, here’s a fun kicker: if you look at mashed pitches... the harder they’re thrown, the worse the outcomes for the batter, but they’re still not bad outcomes. Yet, harder pitches have been to Riley’s detriment, as shown below.

In the past, I’ve said that Riley’s issue has been harder fastballs. Actually, when breaking it down by the above, it’s clear that I’ve been wrong. Riley’s issue is kind of harder fastballs... but it’s also just fastballs. When he raked, he outpaced the league on slower fastballs by a lot, was at par when looking at 95+, and then had issues with some of the higher velocities. When he stopped raking, his ability to hit anything 90+ was terrible across the board. He made essentially no gains in this department in 2020 despite the improvement against sliders. He’s not going to stop seeing slower fastballs (or harder fastballs), he needs to figure something out. Given that fastballs from 90-97 are where hitters compensate for harder fastballs and breaking pitches, there’s no way Riley can hit those for only a league-average rate and come out on top, as evidenced by the chart above.

Cristian Pache - Phenom(enal) Defense?

There’s at least some talk, perhaps even a lot, that Pache has a high floor because of his [insert praiseful adjective here] defense in center field. However, I don’t really know how to feel about this. I looked up various lists of prospects from 2016-2018 who were most-praised in terms of defensive acumen, and the names that consistently came up were guys like Manuel Margot, Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, J.P. Crawford, Dansby Swanson, and Amed Rosario. The actual defensive value these guys have accrued since their debuts has been mixed — they fare better, as a group, when you look at positioning-neutral OAA, which makes sense. Still, when Margot’s track record defensively can be described as “solidly above-average” and Margot himself has been an average-at-best producer, it leads one to wonder exactly how effusive praise of Pache’s defense is going to intersect with his production.

Sadly, we’re not actually going to have a great answer to this question for a while — even one season of Pache defensive data isn’t going to tell us that much, unless it’s so good that even regressing it makes him look fantastic with the glove (or so bad that the opposite happens, which is terrifying), but still, it’s the thing to watch.

Travis d’Arnaud - Baseball Murder

In 2020, among players with 180 or more PAs, d’Arnaud had:

  • A swing rate in the top quartile (i.e., he swung more than around three-quarters of hitters);
  • A contract rate in the bottom quartile (i.e., he missed on swings more than around three-quarters of hitters); and
  • A top-30 overall whiff rate.

None of those seem... good. They seem kind of awful, or at least the kind of stats tailored to one-dimensional sluggers, or wannabe sluggers. (Worst whiff rate in this group: Luis Robert; the two guys closest to d’Arnaud were Edwin Encarnacion and Renato Nunez.)

Yet, d’Arnaud finished 2020 with a fantastic .386 OBP, a walk rate right around league average, and oh yeah — a 144 wRC+. Sure, he outhit his xwOBA, but by less than .010. So, how does this all come together? In short, he pounded the snot out of the ball. While he didn’t elevate super-well, which dampened his still-great xwOBA, all of his “oomph” stats were pretty insane.

Among players with 100+ batted balls in 2020 (nearly 200 of ‘em), he finished fourth on average exit velocity (right behind Trout, only Yelich and Tatis Jr. ahead of them), 18th in airborne exit velocity, 12th in grounder exit velocity, and second in rate of balls hit at 95+ mph. I’ll be watching to see if “swing super-duper-hard because you will indeed hit it” remains a viable strategy going forward.

Ender Inciarte - Running

I wish I knew what was going on with Ender Inciarte, but I don’t. As 2020 unfolded, I really thought he might be injured... but nothing ever developed on that front, and he kept playing and flailing and failing. One thing that I couldn’t get out of my head, initially, was his decline in sprint speed — from 2015-2018, he was average-to-above, and a weird dip in 2017 was erased with a 2018 rebound to 2016 levels. In 2019, amid a series of injuries, his sprint speed dipped into below-average territory for the first time. And then in 2020, it fell further still, putting him in the bottom third, running-wise. As commentariat member True2Atlanta pointed out a while ago, though, this isn’t necessarily a pure reflection of his fleetness of foot: sprint speed is measured only in certain situations, and if Inciarte is rarely in a situation where he has to run quickly because he’s making routine outs and rarely on base, the number can get skewed. Is that all there is to it?

Note that Inciarte’s Statcast “jump” measure ties in to his foot speed:

Dipping to below-average burst is not surprising, if he’s really lost about two feet per second of running ability. Note, however, that Inciarte was just as good in terms of OAA in 2017 as in 2016 or 2018, so “jump” isn’t the be-all, end-all of making outfield plays — but perhaps not even Inciarte’s stellar reactions can make up for whatever’s slowing him.

A while ago, I strung together Statcast sprint data across the available years to see whether this sort of decline was particularly weird. That finding wasn’t very conclusive of interesting — sprint speed decline happens sometimes, even around age 30. So, I still have little idea as to the very specific why of Inciarte’s collapse, but given that he might be limited to pinch-running and defensive replacement duty on this roster, I’ll be looking at his jump and sprint speed to see whether they might even hint at a possible resurgence.

Ehire Adrianza - Batted ball profile

It’s hard to find something specific to focus on for Adrianza, because he’s been a consistent part-time player with erratic inputs (and outputs) year to year. Essentially no input (or output) shows a trend for the 31-year-old, and while 2019 was his only above-average offensive year (backed up by xwOBA), his inputs and profile that year, relative to 2018 and 2020, don’t show any kind of consistent difference. It’s worth noting that every projection has him right around 75 wRC+ and a .290 wOBA offensively, yet his actual marks are 89/.305 over his last two seasons (334 PAs) and 86/.299 over his last three seasons (703 PAs). Even his career mark is a bit better (82/.292).

One reason why the projections might be slightly “down” on him is that his 2019 offensive success wasn’t really driven by anything you could hang your hat on. He didn’t hit the ball harder or focus on getting it in the air, he cut down on his strikeouts but only to a level where he hadn’t succeeded before anyway, he made more contact when chasing but chased a bunch more, he didn’t barrel or even make solid contact at a good clip, you get the idea. Essentially the reason why his 2019 was strong was because he hit a lot of flares, which have a high xwOBA — but it’s not clear whether flare-hitting is a replicable ability, and his 2020 rate dipped down to career levels in that regard. So, there’s just not much to go off of when expecting him to yank another 2019 out of his hat, basically.

When it comes to 2020, though, one notable change, was his broad plane of contact. He set career lows in grounder rate and “topped” rate, while setting a career high in “under” rate. There’s a definite question as to whether this is wise for Adrianza, who makes fairly weak contact and may not benefit from this approach (unlike tons of other hitters). But even before that, we should see whether it keeps up, given how erratic his seasonal lines have been to date. If it does, then we can start asking questions about whether the current blanket philosophy warrants an exception in this case.

Pablo Sandoval - Whiffs but no strikeouts?

Like Adrianza, Sandoval has one above-average (partial) offensive season in the Statcast era, and it was 2019. Unlike Adrianza, his success that year is fairly easy to diagnose: not much was different relative to other recent seasons, but in those 296 PAs, he hit the ball at an “optimal” launch angle more frequently. transferring both some “topped” and some “under” into solid contact or barreled balls. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that he has enough control of that to maintain it, since he didn’t in (an even smaller sample in) 2020.

With that said, something somewhat related to watch is this bit of minor weirdness: in his career, Sandoval ran very low strikeout rates — he’s basically struck out only at 75 percent of the rate of the average batter going back to his debut. It’s gone up recently, but going back to the start of his very dark period (2016-onward), he’s still marginally below average with a 96 K%+. Yet, his whiff rates... not so much. Over his career, his whiff rates have been slightly above-average. From 2016-on, they’ve been notably above average. His swing-and-miss spiked a bunch in 2019 (when he was decent!) and only climbed further last season. This probably speaks to some kind of differential two-strike approach, but it’s all something to focus on across his sure-to-be-limited playing time: is this differential going to keep up? Will whiff rates keep climbing? Will he abandon the approach and just sell out for power in all counts?

Alex Jackson - Framing translation

Yeah, yeah, the real thing to watch is whether Jackson can make sufficient contact to tap into his power in games, or whether he’s going to be so overmatched that even his rate of running into one will be too greatly diminished to make him a passable hitter. But, that seems pretty obvious. Instead, I’m interested in exactly how his reputation as a now-good framer is going to play in the majors. Baseball Prospectus has minor league framing numbers, and by those, his framing, on a rate basis, was as good in Triple-A as a top five or so framer in MLB.

The track record of minor league framing translating to major league framing is pretty mixed — my quick glance identified Kyle Higashioka as a guy whose framing value stayed consistent across the divide, but other guys like Chad Wallach, Reese McGuire, and Grayson Grenier where that wasn’t the case. This might actually be more of a referendum on minor league framing numbers rather than actual framing talent, but keep an eye on it all the same. If the framing returns aren’t good, it’s hard to see Jackson making a real go of it as a backup catcher.