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Reviewing the “one thing to watch” — position players

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Quirks from 2020 really didn’t fully carry over to 2021, at least not for these Braves hitters

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Back before the season started, I highlighted a bunch of statistical quirks and other trends or numerical doodads that I would be interested in following for the Braves over the course of the 2021 season, here. While these could have potentially been fun to check in on as the season progressed, most of the early part of the season wasn’t really any fun at all, so looking at these things kind of fell by the wayside given that things for the Braves were often more concerning than interesting.

Still, all’s well that ends well, I guess, and I figure with the baseball-less landscape continuing to meander endlessly around us, we may as well do a review of sorts. So, here we go. Again, this isn’t a review of the players in general, just of the one-thing-per-player I thought was worth watching back in March.

Freddie Freeman - Shadow/Edge Success

For much of his career, Freeman derived value from obvious strikes and obvious balls but gave it away on pitches on the edge. (This isn’t weird, it’s what you’d expect for someone with his quality of contact and plate discipline.) Part of his MVP run in 2020 was a career high in run value on “edge” pitches, which included a bonkers .408 xwOBA on PAs that ended on such a pitch.

In the end, this was not something that Freeman carried over into 2021, at least not wholesale. He still finished with positive run value on edge pitches (+2, compared to +7 in the shortened 2020 season) for the fifth time in his career, but his xwOBA was .365 (basically his average in the Statcast era) and he underperformed it by a bunch. What’s interesting is that some of his approach changes from 2020 did carry over — he swung even less at edge pitches than in 2020, but whiffed much more than in 2020 (still less than other years in the Statcast era). The killer for him, though, was likely that he failed to elevate these pitches in 2021, with the worst average launch angle (11 degrees) on edge pitches he hit into play of his career going back to 2015. By contrast, in 2020, he had the highest launch angle on these pitches (which is very impressive given that these are not great pitches to swing at!). In short, some of the approach carried over, some of the execution didn’t, and Freeman didn’t replicate part of the reason he had a monster 60 games in 2020.

Ronald Acuña Jr. — Lotsa walks

In 2020, Acuña gave the Braves somewhat of an apotheosis of their offensive strategy, with less z-swing and more z-whiff, but also more all-around awesomeness stemming from focusing on swinging at pitches that could be murdered, rather than swinging at all strikes or swinging just to make contact. The somewhat-weird part is that this resulted in way more walks despite the increase in called and swinging strikes in the zone (but him chasing far less counterbalanced his whiff rate overall).

While Acuña only played half a season (sad face), this was something that also got moderated a fair bit with a bigger sample. His z-swing rate went back to average-y rather than low, and his z-contact increased. The walk rate fell, but it was still pretty high. Pitchers actually threw him more strikes than in 2020, but hey, it’s their funeral. In short, like the Freeman section above, this was another case where something that looked like a big change as a result of the 2020 season was moderated as the sample increased. Not really too surprising.

Ozzie Albies - Four-seam versus non-four-seam success

Albies missed a chunk of the already-shortened 2020 season with a wrist issue, but part of what was surprising was that he hit fastballs better than before, while hitting non-fastballs worse than before. You’d potentially expect the opposite from someone that played through, sat for a month, and then returned from a wrist problem, so it was odd, but it was also a tiny sample.

In 2021, things basically went back to “normal” for Albies if you dice up his xwOBA by pitch type. His xwOBA on four-seamers was a meh .353 (after .447 in said tiny 2020 sample), but his xwOBA on every other pitch type increased relative to 2020. Performance against some pitches was still short of career norms (e.g., slider) but he improved against others (e.g., curve, cutter). It’s still weird that his 2020 broke like it did, but 2021 didn’t really indicate any kind of evolution or devolution in this regard.

Marcell Ozuna - Defense

There was (and continues to be) squawking about Ozuna’s ability to play in the outfield without bleeding runs. The basis for that squawking has always seemed a little scant. While Ozuna only played about a third of a season in the outfield in 2021, the additional data once again failed to break on the side of “Ozuna’s outfield defense is a dramatic concern.” In 411 innings, Ozuna posted +4 DRS, +0.8 UZR, +0 OAA with an actual success rate equal to his estimated success rate, +3.2 FRAA, +5 from Clay Davenport, etc. etc. His jump remained bad but not awful, and his OAA on anything harder than a Statcast “one-star” play was -1. Note that he even had +1 runs for his arm from DRS and -0.3 from UZR, so this wasn’t even a case of “few opportunities to throw prevented his defense from tanking.”

Ozuna’s sprint speed did fall pretty substantially from 2020 to 2021, as it also did from 2019 to 2020, which lines up to some extent with how we think about aging. Maybe 2022 will be the season when the squawking becomes justified by the numbers (since it seems reasonably likely that, preferences aside, he’ll get the opportunity to appear in uniform), but it hasn’t happened yet.

Dansby Swanson - Zone sliders

Long story short, 2019 saw Swanson pound sliders (.334 xwOBA), while 2020 was a step back (.238 xwOBA) while still being ahead of what he had managed before 2019. What was particularly bad for Swanson in 2020 was his xwOBA on in-zone sliders, which was a pathetic .210 while the league managed .300. Combine that with his highest rate of in-zone sliders ever, and you have a really weird quirk for Swanson’s 2020, which despite this issue, featured a career-best .352 xwOBA.

In 2021, he didn’t get as many sliders in the zone, and his overall xwOBA on them (this shouldn’t be any surprise to you) was between his 2019 and 2020 values, at .281. The zone rate on sliders fell back to 2019 levels. The xwOBA on sliders in the zone? A perfectly reasonable .311. Of course, while Swanson “fixed” this “issue,” his xwOBA for the season fell around .020 relative to its 2019-2020 levels.

Austin Riley - Fastball performance

This particular blurb/section feels pointless. The original post had a ton of discussion and analysis about Riley’s various fastball struggles. In 2021, Riley just became an absolute monster, punishing fastballs and non-fastballs. Among players a reasonable sample of PAs ending in a given pitch type, he finished with a 64th percentile xwOBA against fastballs, a 73rd percentile against offspeed pitches (mostly changeups), and in the 82nd percentile against breaking pitches. I wrote that he was hitting almost everything in late May, and he finished the season with an xwOBA above .300 on every single pitch type. But of course, it was the near-.400 xwOBA on four-seamers that likely made this all possible, because pitchers attempted to adjust to his past struggles by throwing him more of the type of stuff he was now primed to crush.

Cristian Pache - Phenomenal defense?

Well, we didn’t really get any useful data here. Pache played two weeks, got hurt for two weeks, played for two more weeks, and then went away to Triple-A for good. Still, for anyone hoping that Pache would somehow display celestial-level defense from the get-go, I’m sorry for the disappointment. While fewer than 200 innings (168 1/3, to be precise) of defensive play is meaningless for assessing defensive aptitude or forecasting, Pache’s metrics in those innings included 0 DRS and -0.1 UZR, with his arm costing him about a run in both metrics. Pache did post +1 OAA with a +2% catch percentage added, and showed a well-above-average jump, so it isn’t like anyone has grounds to get salty about false advertising or anything.

We’ll have to punt this one to 2022 (and probably really over the next few seasons), to really see whether the scouting grades were warranted.

Travis d’Arnaud - So much oomph

Okay, assessing this one got ruined by injury, so it’s kind of unfair. In 2020, Travis d’Arnaud hit the ball super-hard, finishing in the top 20 (around 90th percentile or better) in average exit velocity, exit velocity on grounders, exit velocity on non-grounders, and hard-hit rate (where hard-hit rate means rate of balls hit at 95+ mph).

d’Arnaud missed most of the season with a thumb issue, and while his 2021 exit velocity and hard-hit rate were above-average, they weren’t anywhere near what he did in a smaller set of PAs in 2020. (Despite returning from the thumb injury, looking before/after the injury for his 2021 stats doesn’t really change this dropoff). His xwOBACON was .388 before the injury and .359 after, and unlike many Braves, his overall 2021 approach was the opposite of what the Braves have done — in contrast to his 2020, he seemed to prioritize contact over power in the zone, cutting his whiff rate but at the expense of super-hard contact. It’s hard to say whether he could’ve righted the ship, but returning from the thumb injury may have put those plans on hold if d’Arnaud didn’t feel like he could generate sufficient power to make his whiff-and-oomph-oriented approach from 2020 worth it.

Ender Inciarte - Sprint speed

Inciarte did not have a resurgence in 2021, a year which saw his tenure with the Braves eventually end. His sprint speed dropped dramatically from 2018 to 2019, and then further still in 2020. The good news in that regard is that it rebounded to 2019 levels in 2021, and his OAA did as well. He’s still aging, but the potential for defensive value is probably still there. The bad news is that that rebound had nothing to do with any kind of offensive resurgence, as he posted one of the most pathetic xwOBAs and xwOBACONs for pretty much for any non-pitcher in the Statcast era. Interestingly, his jump didn’t actually rebound like his sprint speed, so there’s probably something more complex going on, but I’m not sure that we’ll ever figure it out given that he may have run out of major league opportunities at this point.

Ehire Adrianza - Batted ball profile (vertically)

In 2020, Adrianza started hitting the ball in the air more, which was a potentially-questionable approach for him given how softly he hits the ball in general. 2021, however, made any kind of batted ball profile trend or shift hard to assess, because... yes, Adrianza his lowest-ever “topped” rate, but he also posted something very close to his lowest-ever “hit under” rate. How did he manage this? In part because he had an astronomical “weak contact” rate that was more than 2.5 times the league average, while also hitting a higher rate of flares than ever before. In the end, I don’t think we really saw a continuation of his 2020 batted ball profile, but more just kind of an amalgam of his entire career, with way more swinging bunts and the like than anyone should really have.

Pablo Sandoval - High whiff, not-so-high strikeout

This has been kind of a hallmark of Sandoval’s career, perhaps due to some kind of specific two-strike approach. Whatever the reason, Sandoval has run above-average whiff rates but not above-average strikeout rates.

...Aaaaand that stopped in 2021. Sandoval set a career-high in strikeout rate for any season in which he more than seven PAs, and not by a little bit, either. His prior career high was striking out 22.6 percent of the time in 2019, and that rose to 29.1 percent in 2021. He posted the lowest o-contact rate of his career, the second-lowest z-contact rate, the lowest overall contact rate, second-highest whiff rate, etc. etc. So much for that whole phenomenon. It was a cool run, though.

Alex Jackson - Framing translating (from the minors)

Like Pache, this gets graded as an “incomplete” given that Jackson only tallied 151 major league PAs in 2021, with most of those coming after he was traded to Miami for Adam Duvall. For all the minor league framing data from Baseball Prospectus, though, things in the majors didn’t look particularly rosy. Jackson’s framing metrics for his tiny sample of 324 2/3 innings caught in 2021 include:

  • -1.5 runs, Jared Cross/Steamer
  • +/- 0 runs, DRS
  • -3 runs, Baseball Savant
  • -1.0 runs, Baseball Prospectus

Again, the sample is small enough that it’s very possible that this is all just noise, but just like in the case of Cristian Pache, Jackson’s framing didn’t exactly hit the ground running in 2021. We’ll need a bit more time to see what kind of framer he ends up as.

We’ll check in on the pitchers at some point later; maybe there’s more of a throughline there.