One great thing about baseball: it’s constant, at least from March through some point in October. Another great thing about baseball: it’s constantly weird. Sure, it’s full of really weird stuff, like Dusty Baker seemingly forgetting how to make substitutions, resulting in what felt like a three-hour delay of game, but that’s stuff pretty notable when it happens.
But, there’s a lot of minorly weird stuff that happens each season, too. Not enough to warrant massive discussion, but perhaps just enough to elicit a raised eyebrow or two. That’s what this post is dedicated to. Specifically, it’s focused not on things the team did as a whole, but on individual player performances that were just a little weird.
(Note: for most of these, the cutoff is 200 plate appearances, because that tends to be the point at which you get major league regulars and semi-regulars, as opposed to skewing the data with shorter-tenured players who may end up with smaller-sample-size weirdness.)
Guess who the three best Braves were at avoiding strikeouts this year. You probably won’t get it. Well, you might get number one: Brandon Phillips. Phillips has always been a ball-in-play guy, and has featured a below-average strikeout rate since his rookie season. As he’s aged, he’s become more of a slap hitter, with less power, but also fewer strikeouts. This isn’t weird, in and of itself. But, number two, with a strikeout rate slightly higher than Phillips is... Kurt Suzuki?! Yes, that same Kurt Suzuki with a .251 ISO and a .529 slugging. Only three players this season had similar stats: Joey Votto and Jose Ramirez. That’s pretty great company. (Other players, like Jose Altuve, Justin Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Daniel Murphy had similarly low strikeout rates, but also hit their fare share of singles, lowering their ISO.) Suzuki, is, of course, also a low-strikeout guy for his career, but it’s the added gush of power into his game that makes this a weird fact. Third, another obvious name, but perhaps not the one you were thinking of: Ender Inciarte.
For those of you expecting Nick Markakis to be on this list: his strikeout rate has actually risen steadily since 2011, and he fell out of the top quarter of strikeout avoiders this year.
Power, and a lack of it
For all his comments about “swinging a wet newspaper” following a speedy return from a wrist injury that sidelined him for quite a while, Freddie Freeman presently ranks 11th in MLB in ISO. Even more notable is that even Freeman’s post-injury ISO is still good enough to be around the top fifth of baseball, and higher than his career rate. He’s a monster. So much a monster, in fact, that he’s a top-20 player this season by fWAR/600, a top-25 player by straight fWAR.
On the other hand, though, Dansby Swanson had some of the lowest power production in MLB this year. Most striking are the stats before and after his demotion. Prior to being sent down, Swanson had an .099 ISO and a 52 wRC+. Since he’s come back up, he has a .091 ISO and a 103 wRC+. There’s BABIP shenanigans aplenty happening, too (.266 prior to demotion, .360 after his return), but it’s really weird to see a guy get a comparative 50-point boost in wRC+ while his power production falls.
Matt Kemp’s Unfortunate Tendency
Kemp’s struggles with his hamstrings this season have been well-documented and fairly unfortunate. Something less well-known, though: among players with 200 or more PAs, Matt Kemp had the highest double play rate this year. Note that this isn’t double plays by PA, in which he also rates very highly, because that would be fair, with OBP machine Freddie Freeman hitting in front of him for a decent chunk of the year. No, this is double plays hit into per opportunity to hit into a double play, and the sad fact is, 26 percent of the time that Kemp could have grounded into a double play, he did. For comparison, the league average rate is 11 percent.
Kemp lost nearly half a win off his fWAR for his double play tendencies (four runs), a 25 percent greater demerit than his next-closest competitor. It was the worst value deficit due to double plays since Billy Butler in 2015, and Billy Butler is currently out of baseball. As a small consolation, though: on a rate basis, Wilson Ramos actually had more runs lost due to double plays this year.
Johan Camargo’s Doubles
Johan Camargo has hit 21 doubles in 254 PAs so far this season. Up until Tuesday’s game, that was actually the highest rate of doubles in baseball. He’s since been overtaken by Jose Ramirez, but it’s pretty impressive nonetheless. Even more impressive: in 2017, there have been 1.37 doubles hit for every homer. Camargo has hit 5.25 doubles for each of his four homers. That’s not the highest rate in MLB, and Gorkys Hernandez has 20 doubles but zero homers this year, but it’s still impressive.
The Nightmare of Jace Peterson’s Batted Ball Stats
Jace Peterson, who was once an exciting acquisition oozing with decent potential, is completing his third season in the Braves organization, where he’s mostly become an afterthought. He has been worth 0.1 fWAR in 1,267 PAs, and has most recently been drawing starts in left field because September is a confusing time. Even more confusing, though, are his batted ball stats for 2017. Granted, he has just the bare minimum sample (204 PAs) to qualify for inclusion here, but consider this:
- 2.05 grounders for every fly ball hit, which is about 94th percentile;
- The absolute worst liner rate (12.1 percent) among all hitters with 200+ PAs this season;
- The second-highest groundball rate (63.3 percent); and
- A fly ball rate in the 15th percentile.
Now, in some ways, this isn’t a bad thing. We’ve talked before about Jace Peterson’s fly ball problems, so he’s kind of adjusted to do the right thing. The problem is that the right thing is now the wrong thing. In this new universe, which I have termed “Kurt Suzuki’s Eternal Empire,” fly balls are great. Meanwhile, hitting almost no liners and a bunch of groundballs gives you a 71 wRC+ and -0.3 fWAR on the year. (Also, what’s up with Jace Peterson being a terrible fielder? That’s a separate discussion.) In some alternate universe, where the fly ball revolution occurred in 2015, Jace Peterson is probably a monster. Can he go back to elevating things and become a halfway-reliable offensive player? I have no idea. But I feel bad for the guy: he hit too many fly balls when they weren’t carrying, and now isn’t hitting any when they are. For what it’s worth, though, it’s not like Peterson is doing much even when he does get the ball in the air, however rare that is. His HR/FB rate is still just 5.3 percent, one of the worst in MLB. The fly ball revolution has not only played a mean prank on him, it’s not even letting him reap its rewards.
By the way, Kurt Suzuki has the 26th-lowest GB/FB ratio in the majors, because it’s his world, and we’re all just living in it. Only 16 players have a higher fly ball rate than Suzuki this year, and only 26 players have a higher infield pop rate this year.
Speaking of infield pops, there are only two players that have not yet hit an infield pop this year, according to the Fangraphs batted ball stats. No, Joey Votto isn’t either of them. Wonder of wonders: they’re both Braves!
I’ll give you a second to guess who you think they might be. One is Freddie Freeman. He has a 24 percent line drive rate, a 35 percent grounder rate, and a 41 percent fly ball rate, and has driven over 20 percent of his fly balls out of the yard. The other is Ozzie Albies, who has an 18 percent line drive rate, a 40 percent grounder rate, a 42 percent fly ball rate, and has only driven 7.5 percent of his flies out of the yard. And yet, neither of them have hit an infield pop yet. Pretty cool. And weird.
Matt Kemp also has an infield pop rate of just 3.1 percent, which kind of makes sense given how grounder-heavy he’s been this year.
Spray Chart Stuff
As you already know, Kurt Suzuki is a pull monster. He has pulled nearly 48 percent of his balls in play, which is top 30 in MLB. Here are some things you may not know about the 2017 Braves, though:
- Ender Inciarte has only pulled 30.5 percent of his batted balls, which is closer to the bottom (18th-lowest in MLB) than Kurt Suzuki is to the top.
- However, Suzuki has the 13th-lowest rate of going the other way (just 17 percent), which is a more pronounced deficit than Inciarte’s rank in going the other way (31 percent, 23rd in MLB).
Tyler Flowers has a super-weird spray chart this year. Usually, when a guy has an offensive breakout, you expect to see a lot of hard-hit balls up the middle. After all, what says “he’s on the ball” more than stinging balls back up the box?
What is that, three, four grounders up the middle? And look at that giant, garish gap in deep center? For someone that’s hit a bunch of flies and liners to the wall all around the park, the lack of deep drives to center is really palpable.
Among all players with 130 or more batted ball events (to keep the same similar to the 200 PA sample), Ender Inciarte has achieved the fifth-lowest maximum exit velocity this year, at just 102.8 miles per hour. And he has 200 hits. Go figure. Inciarte also has one of the lowest average exit velocities this year, at 81.4 miles per hour (12th-lowest in MLB). This is one of the reasons why he’s such a huge xwOBA overperformer: he hits ‘em weakly where they ain’t, and beats it out with his speed here and there too. The more you think about it, the more impressive it is that Inciarte has managed to put up a league-average batting line despite some of the worst exit velocity in baseball. And it’s not just that it’s one type of batted ball that’s underwhelming: he’s consistently a bottom-30 exit velocity guy whether you’re talking about all batted balls, fly balls, ground balls, and so on.
Here’s something you’ll never guess: among all players with 130 or more batted ball events, which Brave had the highest exit velocity? No, not Freddie Freeman. Or Matt Adams. Or Matt Kemp. Or Kurt Suzuki. Nick Markakis, at 114.4 miles per hour, tied for 34th-highest in MLB. Sure, it was just one swing, but pretty weird, right?
Apparently Brandon Phillips and Tyler Flowers had the deepest homers for the Braves this year, at 447 feet. Not Freeman, Adams, or Kemp? Go figure. Freddie Freeman did have one of the best average batted ball distances, though, at 211 feet (sixth in MLB). Freeman is also going to finish with a top 10ish barrel rate in MLB, at just around nine percent of his PAs resulting in a barreled ball. Meanwhile, Adonis Garcia (remember him?), Jace Peterson, and Brandon Phillips are all bottom 30 as far as average batted ball distance. Kind of a weird juxtaposition of Phillips both having an average batted ball distance of just 142 feet, yet hitting the deepest homer for the Braves this year.
(For comparison, only 0.4 percent of Ender Inciarte’s PAs have ended in a barreled ball so far this year, but I bet he doesn’t even care.)
Freddie the Productive
We’ve already been over how Freddie Freeman is a top-30 position player by fWAR, even though he missed a bunch of time. Only Josh Donaldson, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper have been more productive while accumulating fewer PAs. But, here’s another cool thing: he’s also been incredibly productive when you put context back into the equation.
By WPA, which cares both about base-out state and game score, Freeman has accumulated 3.1 wins, 20th in MLB. By RE24, which cares about base-out state but not the game score, he’s accumulated about +36 runs, (shorthand, 3-4 wins), 25th in MLB. He also has 3.7 wins using WPA/LI, which is a measure of WPA that backs out leverage (because a player isn’t necessarily responsible for the leverage of the situation in which he finds himself, even if he is responsible for what he does in that situation).
The counterpoint to Freeman is Dansby Swanson. Swanson has been about as bad as Freeman has been good, but part of what’s warped it is that Swanson has actually done decently in higher-leverage situations. Swanson’s had 272 low leverage PAs, 208 medium leverage PAs, and just 50 high leverage PAs, but his wRC+s across those three cuts are 53, 76, and 122, respectively. Yes, the latter is drive by a .371 BABIP, but he also has a BB/K ratio above 1.00 in high leverage situations. Now, this isn’t that weird in some ways, because higher leverage tends to mean more runners on base, which tends to mean a worse pitching performance happening, but I bet you’ll be surprised when I tell you that Swanson actually has positive WPA on the year as a result of this quirk. Was I right? Are you surprised? However, Swanson’s WPA/LI is among the worst in baseball, because, well, he’s been a pretty poor hitter for most of the year. Better luck next time, Dans.
I’m honestly not sure whether this one is surprising, or weird, or not, but I wasn’t aware until looking at the stats just how swing-happy this Braves team was. The entire team swings at the second-most pitches out of the zone in MLB, the most pitches in the zone, and the second-most pitches overall. Note that they’re not a bunch of hackers with holes in their swing, though: contact rates are above average, and whiff rates are just about average for the team.
With that said, it’s interesting to see which players are driving this.
- By o-swing%, which measures swings at pitches outside the strike zone, Brandon Phillips is 8th in MLB, Matt Adams is 14th, Kurt Suzuki is 21st, and Matt Kemp is 29th. Meanwhile, Jace Peterson is the only player on the squad with a notably low o-swing%, and Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson, and Tyler Flowers are the only other players on the roster with a below-average chase rate.
- Freddie Freeman has the highest z-swing% (swings at pitches inside the strike zone) in baseball, and Matt Kemp is fourth. Brandon Phillips also appears on this list at no. 24. Basically, Matt Kemp and Brandon Phillips have swung at everything this year. Having a low z-swing% is actually kind of a bad thing, and that’s where Nick Markakis finds himself. Markakis has swung at under 60 percent of strikes this year, 30th in MLB by this measure.
- The Braves place five in the top 30 in overall swing rate, which shouldn’t be surprising due to the bullets above. Phillips is 11th, Kemp is 18th, Matt Adams is 23rd, Freeman is 24th, and Suzuki is 29th. Inciarte and Camargo are two others who swing at more than half the pitches they see, something done only by about a quarter of the league. Meanwhile, Jace Peterson, Nick Markakis, and Dansby Swanson are the guys that don’t swing that much, relative to the league.
In light of the above, contact stats are interesting and weird. As far as contact on pitches outside the strike zone, you have a bit of a mix in that Inciarte (swings at many things outside the strike zone) is 8th in MLB, but Nick Markakis (rarely swings at things outside the strike zone) is 11th. Kurt Suzuki (swings at everything) is 24th. Some different approaches, with similar contact results. Jace Peterson, meanwhile, rarely swings at pitches outside the zone, but he also rarely makes contact on them, whiffing on literally half of his chase swings. (That’s really bad.)
Inciarte also appears towards the top of the z-contact% (contact on pitches in the zone) list, at no. 28. Suzuki and Markakis also rate relatively high here. For their free swinging ways, though, no one on the team is abominably bad at making contact inside the zone, which is good for offensive production and for fans’ sanity. Matt Kemp has had the worst season in this regard, missing about 20 percent of balls in the zone, 38th-worst in MLB.
Again, the overall contact stats shouldn’t be surprising. Inciarte and Markakis are near the top, and Kemp is towards the bottom. Kemp has the 22nd-highest whiff rate in baseball; Markakis has the 18th-lowest. They have a 100 and a 96 wRC+, respectively, this season. Different paths, same mediocre production.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, pitchers have been somewhat loath to throw strikes to the Atlanta Braves sluggers. Freeman has the second-lowest zone percentage in baseball: under 40 percent of the pitches he’s seen would have been called strikes. Matt Adams is ninth on this list, and Matt Kemp is 12th. Hey, I guess if they’re going to swing at everything, that’s less reason to throw them a strike.
Minor Stuff about Pitch Type
Just a hail of bullets here:
- Johan Camargo sees more fastballs than most hitters. That may not be surprising, as pitchers don’t know much about him at the moment, and also because he’s pounded curveballs in his stint to date. Perhaps he’ll see fewer fastballs as the book on him goes around more; it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts.
- Matt Kemp sees the second-fewest fastballs in baseball. This makes sense, and vindicates all those Game Thread posts when Kemp would homer off a fastball, and people would post, “I don’t understand why people still throw Kemp fastballs!” Indeed.
- Ozzie Albies, Johan Camargo, and Matt Adams have all seen a ton of changeups this year. The first two names maybe make sense (do switch-hitters see an inordinate amount of changeups? That would be an interesting short research question), and Matt Adams... because he struggled with them last year, I guess? It’s strange.
- Unsurprisingly, both Matt Kemp and Dansby Swanson have seen some of the highest proportion of sliders in the league — nearly a quarter of all pitches to them have been of that variety. Meanwhile, neither Albies nor Camargo see many sliders at all — again, because they’re switch hitters and pitchers don’t want those breakers tailing into the barrels of their bats, I suppose. So this isn’t weird at all.
- No one throws Kurt Suzuki curveballs. This actually makes sense, since he’s historically been a good curveball hitter, but he’s also so different now than before that you wonder why no one has tried to test whether he can still mash ‘em.
Regaled? Mystified? What’s your favorite minorly weird position player stat for 2017?