The Yankee with the rabbit foot

A long time ago I learned not to trust my eyes.  I think one of our biggest weaknesses as humans is our tendency to believe our eyes, feelings, impressions, instincts, etc. even when there is evidence that proves that our opinions are inaccurate.  Frankly, I think it’s what separates good MLB General Managers from poor ones – the ability to use data, information and evidence to make baseball decisions rather than trusting vague and faulty personal judgments and observations that are likely to be wrong.

I’m prefaced this blog with that ramble because my eyes tell me that Didi Gregorius is a very good player.

In 2016, he was average at pretty much every skill that could be measured with one exception.  This is not a criticism – an average shortstop is a valuable asset to your team.  An average short stop will help you win more games than a slightly better than average first basemen, for example.

Didi’s power last season was the exception.  He ranked near the top of MLB short stops in slugging percentage and actually lead the Yankees in SLG.  That of course, is more of an indictment of the Yankees than anything else, but still, an average shortstop with some pop is a valuable player.

This season, Didi seems to have improved.  My impression is that there is the upper echelon of shortstops and that Didi was on the level just below that.  Even though his defense is rated around average more or less, he sure looks like he gets to everything in addition to making the normal “6-3”.

His On Base Percentage rose to above league average while maintaining his “pop”.  Again, if you play a good short stop and have above average offensive ability, you’re a valuable player.

To be even more specific, both his Batting Average and OBP are 34 points higher than they were in 2016, while his SLG is 52 points over his 2016 number.

And if I step away from the evaluation for a moment, he’s just damn fun to watch play baseball.  He has quick hands with the bat, has a laser of an arm, always hustles, and clearly has fun on the field (without letting that deteriorate into acting like an ass…).

So what ‘s the problem?

The problem is, I may be wrong.  He may not be that good, and he may not have improved.  The fact he’s fun to watch and he appeared to improve may have clouded my (our?) judgment.

Some information, for thought and discussion’s sake:

Among 153 Major Leaguers with enough at bats to qualify, he hits the ball softly on contact more frequently than all but 10 other players.  Among Yankees, only Jacoby Ellsbury and Todd Frazier hit the ball weakly more frequently than Didi.

Among the same 153 qualifiers, Didi hits the ball hard less frequently than all but five.  148 players out of 153 hit the ball hard more frequently than Didi.  On the Yankees, only Ronald Torreyes has a lower percentage of hard hit balls.

I’ll pause so you can re-read that last sentence.  The guy who we confuse with one of the bat boys, is the only player who hits the ball hard, less frequently than Didi does.

But how does he compare with other short stops?  Fair question, because as I said, that’s a factor.

Among shortstops, Didi hits the ball hard a lower percentage of the time than all but one short stop – 20th out of 21 qualifiers.

And it’s important to note – I’ll come back to this in a moment – that his percentage of hard hit balls is down from his own number in 2016, while his percentage of weakly hit balls is up from his own number in 2016.

Even more relevant info:

Didi leads the Yankees in in swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, while coming in 7th out of 153 in the majors in that dubious stat.  I don’t think we need a 1,000 word analysis on how this is a very bad characteristic that makes the opposing pitcher’s life very easy and would also explain the frequent weak contact.  And if you’re curious, as you should be, he swings at pitches outside the zone only 1% more often than he did in 2016.  Not a good thing obviously, but a minimal difference at most.

After all of this, the obvious question to be begged is…(Insert Lt. Caffey voice…)

If he’s hitting the ball that weakly that often, then how does he have an improved BA, OBP and SLG?

There’s no explanation other than he’s getting damn lucky.

Luck is hard to quantify in baseball.  But Batting Average on Balls In Play is a decent barometer, and probably the best we have.  The theory is a batter can’t control where a ball is hit, he can only hit it.  Once it’s off the bat, where it goes is luck.  I.e., if it goes where there are defenders or not is luck.  If a defender makes a great play or if he has no range is luck.  If the ball takes true hops to defenders or if it ricochets off a base, a rock or the edge of the grass – is luck.

So a decent manner in which we can tell if a batter is getting lucky is to compare his BABIP to other seasons in his career.  If he has a significantly higher BABIP one season over others, a strong case can be made his batted balls are finding holes between defenders or having some other serendipitous intervention that aids the batter’s statistics.

In 2016, Didi’s BABIP was .290 – that was his career high to that point.

In 2017 it’s .321.

Significantly more batted balls are becoming hits for him this season despite him making weaker contact.

He’s getting lucky.

You may think this is unusual, but it is not.  As much as we try to nail down every variable, there will always be an element of randomness (“luck”) involved in players’ performances.  It isn’t unusual for players to have entire seasons where there is no explanation for a precipitous drop or rise in performance other than random luck.

Wade Boggs went a six season stretch where he didn’t hit below .357 – except for one year he hit .325.  I’ll go with a lot of balls being hit at defenders over the Wade Boggs forgot how to hit extremely well argument.

Greg Maddux went an 11 season stretch without having an ERA over 3.05 – except one season when it was 3.57.  I’ll go with the batted balls found many holes theory over the Maddux forgot how to pitch theory.

Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe there’s another explanation about Didi.  I hope so, because if I’m not, there’s a Gregorius crash coming.  Don’t say I didn’t tell you.

Thanks again to Fangraphs for the statistics.


One thought on “The Yankee with the rabbit foot

  1. Just another informative, superbly written essay by and for the true baseball Fan. It is a must read for GM,s who expect their scouts/staff to do more than chart mph of each pitcher and rotation level of sliders and breaking balls. These blogs need/must be read.


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