May 10, 2017
Beyond the 90th Percentile
I know it’s still too early in the season to draw meaningful conclusions about much of anything because my beloved Twins have a winning record, but we are far enough along that only seven hitters with 100 or more plate appearances are beating their 90th percentile PECOTA projections by at least 200 points of OPS. Two of those seven, Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman, are great hitters off to especially strong starts, leaving five genuine, out-of-nowhere surprises among full-time position players. By the end of the season they may all have turned back into pumpkins, but in the meantime my curiosity is piqued.
PECOTA is designed to produce a wide range of projections for each player, from the 10th percentile all the way to the 90th percentile, with the weighted mean typically drawing the most attention as the “official” one-stop-shopping projection. For instance, Mike Trout is so great that even his 10th percentile projection had him hitting .270/.368/.496 and totaling 4.2 WARP. Drew Butera, meanwhile, still slugs below .400 in his 90th percentile projection. Each player has a spectrum of reasonable outcomes, but 30 games in these five players have decidedly unreasonable numbers and explanations of varying plausibility.
Zimmerman was a good hitter and plus defensive third baseman from 2005-2013, averaging 4.2 WARP per 150 games. Injuries caused him to miss more than half of the Nationals’ games in 2014-2015, forcing him across the diamond to first base and then dragging his hitting down to .218/.272/.370 last season. At age 32 and with three years remaining on a $135 million contract he looked washed up, to the point that the Nationals signed Adam Lind to potentially platoon with him or send him to the bench. Six weeks later Zimmerman leads the league in hits, homers, doubles, batting average, slugging, and OPS.
Zimmerman has given a lot of credit to teammate Daniel Murphy, who shared the knowledge gained in fueling his own 2016 breakout by getting heavy into launch angles, exit velocity, and other new-school data. Murphy told Jamal Collier of MLB.com in February: “If I can take [Zimmerman’s] already elite skill of bat-to-ball and exit velocity off the barrel, but get it at the right angle, now we're really starting to do some serious damage.” Sure enough, Murphy is again thriving and he’s turned Zimmerman into a fly ball-hitting, hard contact-making monster whose current slugging percentage (.855) is higher than his career OPS (.819).
Translating numbers from any league is tough, but because of the scarcity of data points going from the Korean Baseball Organization to MLB—and vice versa—getting a handle on Thames’ incredible dominance there was especially difficult. PECOTA projected him for a .700 OPS, which is very similar to his .727 OPS in 181 games for the Blue Jays and Mariners before going to Korea at age 27. There was plenty of reason to believe that Thames could beat that projection if things went well in his return to MLB, but what he’s done so far is … well, six months ago the Brewers signed him for $5 million per season.
Zach Crizer got his hands on Thames’ pitch-by-pitch data from Korea and found that he made several key adjustments while posting video game-like numbers for three seasons. Crizer also put forth a theory that, regardless of the league/level/country, hitting (and being pitched to) like Barry Bonds for an extended period of time simply changes a player. You learn things that aren’t unlearned, and in Thames’ case he dramatically improved his plate discipline—not chasing, and forcing pitchers to put themselves in danger to get outs from him—and figured out how to take full advantage of mistakes he can punish.
PECOTA actually liked Judge a lot, projecting him to be a two-WARP rookie despite his ugly showing in a 27-game debut last year. He narrowly missed the list of 10 hitters PECOTA viewed as most likely to have a breakout 2017, and his 90th percentile OPS of .867 is the highest on this list. PECOTA did not, however, see Judge leading the league in homers, runs, RBIs, slugging percentage, and OPS in mid-May. Stupid computers. So how does a 25-year-old rookie go from ranking a solid but unspectacular 63rd on BP’s top-101 prospect list to hitting .317/.413/.760 through 29 games?
Judge’s power has never been in question. He’s massive, standing 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, and he hit 27 homers in 154 games at Triple-A. He’s always been capable of destroying pitches, but the big change so far has been his ability to put together good at-bats and make contact. Judge has struck out 28 percent of the time, compared to 44 percent in his debut, and as Rob Mains noted he’s been one of MLB’s most disciplined hitters when it comes to chasing non-strikes. In fact, his eye at the plate is unprecedented for rookies during the past decade. Judge is hunting better pitches and catching them an awful lot.
One of the worst-hitting first basemen of this era, Alonso came into the season as a career .269/.334/.387 hitter with just 39 homers in 2,343 plate appearances for three teams, including .253/.316/.367 for the A’s last year. However, during spring training the 30-year-old former top-10 draft pick talked to Eno Sarris of FanGraphs about an effort to change his approach at the plate aimed at “trying to punish [the ball] more, get it in the air.” Alonso had a monster spring training, hitting .389/.500/.648 with four homers in 54 at-bats, but because of his long, underwhelming track record his breakout potential wasn’t obvious.
Now it is. Alonso hit his 10th and 11th homers of the season last night, flying past his previous career-high of nine in 510 fewer plate appearances. True to his word, he’s getting the ball in the air far more often. In fact, his fly-ball rate of 52 percent is the seventh-highest in baseball and bears no resemblance to his career rate of 33 percent. Alonso’s strikeout rate is predictably also up, from 14 percent to 22 percent, but that’s certainly a smart tradeoff and his BABIP is reasonable. He’s been lucky in that one fourth of his fly balls have gone for homers, which isn’t sustainable, but Alonso looks like a legitimately changed hitter.
Cozart is the most surprising name on this list. He’s been the Reds’ starting shortstop for six seasons, and for the first half of that time, 2012-2014, his .643 OPS was the lowest of any MLB hitter with at least 1,500 plate appearances. His production jumped 100 OPS points in 2015-2016, as Cozart put the ball on the ground less and homered 25 times in 658 at-bats on either side of a crushing knee injury. This season he’s taken things to another level by reducing his in-zone and out-of-zone swing rates and by getting very lucky on balls in play.
Cozart’s career BABIP is .279, with a high of .285, yet right now he’s fourth among all qualified hitters at .427. That obviously won’t continue, but he’s definitely improved over the past three years by becoming more patient, making more solid contact, and getting more lift. Cozart credits a stance adjustment that keeps him from worrying about hand position, telling Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer: “I don’t think about the stuff I used to think about. When you think about stuff, you just start swinging. You don’t really see the ball as well.” Now maybe he has enough to bat to keep going after his range declines.