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September 20, 2012
In A Pickle
Introducing the Bloop Factor
For lots of obvious and good reasons, we don't spend a lot of time talking about weak hitters. I don't mean bad hitters, because we actually do spend a lot of time talking about them ("Who's the worst everyday player in baseball?" is a common question, for instance). I mean weak hitters—guys who have an ability to put the bat on the ball but are completely incapable (or unwilling?) of doing so with any force, of causing the ball to travel at extreme velocities, of making a crowd, even a very inexperienced crowd, rise to its feet as it perceives the possibility of a home run.
Before we get deep into it, I want to give full credit to my sources, so I'll tell you about the genesis of this topic: this weekend, I listened to Sam Miller and Riley Breckenridge discuss how well they thought Sam would hit in adult-league baseball against low-80s heat and guys with no breaking stuff, which led to the question of how well reasonably athletic but really not terribly talented adults would do in the major leagues (one hit in 20? 30? 100?), which itself led to the question of which players in baseball have the least upper-body strength. I was along for the ride, as my brain tends to operate on a glacial scale, making me something less than a scintillating conversationalist, but then I got to thinking about weakness.
Specifically: How could we measure it? Game power is one obvious way, but some players have pop because of their legs or perfect swing mechanics, not as a matter of pure physical studliness. Strength is one route to power, in other words, but it's just one.
Alternatively, I could do a survey of which players can bench press or curl the least weight, but everybody would lie:
Me: Hey Juan Pierre, what do you bench?
Well, maybe not everybody:
Me: Hey Eric Sogard, what do you bench?
After thinking about it for a while, I realized the solution to my problem: forget strength, let's measure something else. Let's instead figure out who the bloopiest, bleediest, infield-singlest, defensive-swingest hitters in the league are. And thus we arrive back at the opening paragraph.
Why do we care who these players are? I'd posit that we should always care about types in baseball. Pick a statistical (i.e. outcome) measure, ask what attributes (i.e. input) create the groupings and rankings that arise from that measure, and you might learn something useful, something that can inform how we view the 20-year-old kid in A-ball who happens to bear a lot of resemblance to some group or another that we've studied. Or we might learn that the particular outcome we've chosen is arrived at by a variety of inputs and thus learn something about the difficulty of predicting that particular outcome.
Alternatively, we can look at weak hitters because they're funny. Everybody loves the guy who puts everything in play while simultaneously causing pitchers to turn toward his outfielders and wave at them. "In! In! ... A little more!" Or at least I love him. I love his flippy swings, his waterbug style, his Kate Moss build. (For the disgustingly young: Kate Moss was this model, see, back when I was a lad, and she was famous for being skinny. It was a whole Calvin Klein heroin chic thing. And yes, I'm an old buzzard who hasn't updated his references in decades. Go watch Louie or something, hipsters.)
Having proven to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is a topic of interest, here's what I want: a number that is low when someone has both a low strikeout rate and no power, and is high otherwise. So here's what I did: I multiplied strikeout rate by a slightly modified version of slugging percentage. (I count triples as two bases rather than three on the theory that triples and doubles are the same hit, but the fast guy will make it a triple and his speed will distort the question of power.) This way if you have a very low strikeout rate and a very low slugging, you'll have an even lower... well, I guess we need a name for this. How does "Bloop Factor" sound? You'll have a very low Bloop Factor. And if you slug a lot and strike out a lot, you'll have a very high one.
Just for kicks, as well as for a sanity check, before we get to the peskiest of all of baseball's pesks, here are the top 10, i.e. the guys who whiff a ton and smack hella dongers. (Arbitrary 100 PA minimum, stats through Monday's games.)
Since I can't just give you a table with no commentary, some quick thoughts:
Enough of the sluggos. Let's get to the mighty mites in a little more depth, since they're the point of the piece. Same 100–plate appearance limit, same "stats through Monday" note, presented in reverse order. No skipping to the bottom! (In fact, you can play a game if you want: guess who's no. 1 before you get there.)
Revere is a 5'9", 170-pound theoretical center fielder (he's played mostly right this year because of Denard Span) who had a higher OBP than slugging in both High-A and Double-A. He's still a baby, but he has, in another sense, been in this particular racket for years. His Twitter feed reveals a love of exclamation points and his swing reveals a love of runnin' real real fast. Ben Revere is the prototypical Bloop Factor Hero and the only surprise is that he's not higher on the list.
Scutaro came to prominence as a walk-off legend in Oakland, with perhaps his most notable blast being a three-run doink off the left-field fair pole against none other than Mariano Rivera. He's slugging .451 in San Francisco, so he's not someone you'd necessarily think would make this top 10. Of course, if he keeps trucking on this way, his lumbered exploits might knock him off the list by the end of the year.
Except for his 38-plate appearance 2002 season, Scutaro has never struck out at a higher rate than the league, but he's gone to an extreme this year—while baseball has moved from about a 17 percent strikeout rate in 2006 to a little shy of 20 percent this year, Scutaro has traveled the opposite direction: from 15.6 percent in 2006 to the 7.6 percent figure you see above.
Poor Chris Getz hit the disabled list three different times this year, the last for a broken thumb that ended his season in mid-August. This gives him no chance to hit his way out of the ignominy of appearing in this article. And by "hit his way out of," I mean "whiff his way out of"—he set his career high in slugging this year, so that likely wasn't going to get any higher.
FACTOID: Getz has 10 career triples and two homers in 1309 career plate appearances.
Vizquel isn't so much ageless (he's had two positive-VORP seasons in the last six, and one of those came in at 0.5) as he is a weird charity-case-cum-coach-on-the-active-roster. Maintaining a strikeout rate just above half the league average is impressive, though. Less impressive was the nap Nick Swisher took in the outfield while Vizquel was at bat in a recent series.
You know what? Nah. Y'all on your own.
I'd say "that's more like it" except that Keppinger has been the Rays' starting cleanup hitter in 18 games this year and has hit fifth in 28 more. In theory, you might want an extremely high contact hitter like Keppinger batting behind your players who get on base, but in practice, here's our RBI report showing the Rays ranked by percentage of others batted in (min. 100 PA again). Even if you sort by percentage of runners on second base knocked in (because dinging Keppinger for not knocking in runners on first is unfair in the sense that he isn't expected to do that at all), he's just in the middle of the pack.
This isn't to say it's necessarily a bad idea to hit him there! The samples are small enough that a handful of bad or unlucky at bats can swing the numbers significantly, and the odds, as the kids are saying, might very well have been in Joe Maddon's favor.
I don't want to cause an uproar, but here's Omar Vizquel in 2963 career games: 286.2 VORP1, +14 Fielding Runs Above Average, 29.3 career WARP. Here's Polanco in 1809 career games: 227.8 VORP, +54 FRAA, 28.2 career WARP. Of course, after the show that Polanco's put on in 2012, notching a career-low slugging percentage and registering no fewer than eight separate entries in the Injury History section of our player card (albeit with just two DL trips), he may not get to make up that 1100-game gap. You might also think that FRAA underrates Vizquel. Which is fine. I can't express a hard and fast opinion on this. I'm just noting. Cough.
Anyway, Polanco's made a career of this: he never strikes out (his K/PA this year, despite being ridiculously low, is actually below his career average) and he's slugged just over .400 in his career despite spending his prime seasons in the "Go Go Gadget Homers" years in baseball. His career Bloop Factor is just about the same as his mark this year.
And he'll have made at least $50 million in salary before he retires. Basically because he, through some combination of birth and sweat, has a freakish ability to put the bat on the ball. Here, check out basically his only offensive highlight this year:
Looooopy single! (And Barmes-Rollins hug! Awwwwww.)
Before I opened Izturis' player page, I challenged myself to guess what team he was on. I went with the Blue Jays. Turns out I managed to pose myself a trick question: he was designated for assignment by the Nationals a month ago and hasn't signed on with anyone else. That was a pretty shitty thing for me to do to me.
I like the contrast of Placido Polanco to Izturis. Where the former provides a lesson in how to be a successful Bloopie, Izturis has had a replacement-level career. A replacement-level career over the course of 1247 games, though, which is intriguing as a matter of pondering what we might not know about players' actual value at the same time that we avoid giving front offices so much credit for mystical knowledge that we abandon all sense of objective tests.
Izturis has made $20 million in career salary.
Coghlan's kind of boring. He makes the list by virtue of being absolute pants for just long enough to qualify by my chosen standard.2 If I raised the limit to 106 plate appearances, who would qualify as the new no. 11 on the list? Munenori Kawasaki! Who has 112 PA, so that was kind of a lame exercise. Sorry.
Seriously, what is there to say about Juan Pierre being first on this list? I think I have to try my hand at the GIF thing to really do Juan Pierre justice.
Here is Juan Pierre's swing:
Here is what it takes for Juan Pierre to get a double with that swing:
What do we see in this list? I count three outfielders (i.e. the same proportion as you find in a baseball starting lineup), which I wasn't entirely expecting. The corner outfield spots are often filled with strapping power hitters. Perhaps with the rise in interest in putting quality defenders on the field, we're seeing smaller, speedier players in the pasture, and not just in their native habitat of center field. The list is a perfect example of that, as all three outfielders are corner men, at least at this stage in their careers. (Revere was a minor-league center fielder and Pierre has over twice as many career innings in the middle as he does in left.)
The infielders are all second base/shortstop types except for Carlos Lee, though their general utility-man status means there's a chunk of third-base innings represented as well. There are no catchers. The highest (lowest?) ranked catcher is Brayan Pena, who comes in with the 20th lowest Bloop Factor this year (though it's worth noting that numbers 21 and 22 are Ryan Hanigan and Gerald Laird). The next full-time first baseman on the list is 33rd, and his name is James Loney.
These patterns are not unexpected.
Since I know you were wondering, here are some facts:
At this point, I could make a joke about "hey, insight! Guys who don't hit the ball hard are small and old!" but I think it's worth confirming (to whatever degree this non-study confirms anything) our assumptions and common sense sometimes. There are, after all, the Ryan Sweeneys and Michael Saunderses of the world, these big, tall, strapping players who take Juan Pierre hacks all day, and it's in the realm of possibility that those types could appear directly beside Omar Vizquel on a list like this. (Neither, as it turns out, has a ranking close enough to either extreme to be worth mentioning.)
Baseball seems in some ways the most approachable, the most accessible of the major American sports. The human-sized players in the NBA have world-class leaping and running ability, not to mention their actual basketball skills (except Derek Fisher), and football is filled with brutally large (and brutally brutal) human beings, many of them with the capability to run much faster than anybody that size should be able to. Baseball, by contrast, features Dustin Pedroia, MVP.
And yet! Genetics and childhood nutrition and physical environment and whatever else goes into giving us the frames onto which we pack our fat and our muscle clearly still play a major role in determining, at the very least, what type of player we're going to be. Again, I don't say this expecting you to find it groundbreaking, for you to slap your forehead as you finally realize why it is you didn't make it past American Legion ball, but given that we can't actually measure the relative effects of nature and nurture on the development of professional baseball players, I think that finding little openings onto the issue every once in a while is important to our growth as people who take an intellctual, analytical approach to the game.