Five Surprise Statistical Studs Of 2020 by IBWAA Writer Ahaan Rungta
This post is from by Ahaan Rungta of the IBWAA. Shared with SSTN by permission.
This article ran in the IBWAA newsletter Here’s The Pitch on October 23, 2020
Am I the only one that has spent way too much time, more than usual, during the pandemic browsing baseball statistics and graphics for recreational purposes? No? Excellent, so I’m not embarrassed sharing with you the hidden statistical gems of the short 2020 regular season.
Today, I’ll give you five dudes that you might not have realized were dominant statistically in the 2020 regular season. I’ll show you their under-the-radar statistical prowess, brought to you by the likes of Statcast via Baseball Savant, FanGraphs, etc. This is not the place for the standard Tatises, Sotos, or Bauers of the world — instead, it’s an appreciation post for those that stood out in the short season on the stat leader-boards but not necessarily in the media.
Brandon Belt: Playing Rocket League
Before 2020, the former all-star and lifelong San Francisco Giant, Brandon Belt, was a career .261 hitter and hit a home run about once every 28.3 at-bats. In 51 games this year, Belt hit at a .309/.425/.591 slash line, all career-highs throughout the board. His career high in a season in OPS prior to 2020 was .868 in his all-star campaign in 2016. This year? All the way at 1.015. How did he do it?
According to the Statcast glossary, a batted ball is denoted as a barrel of comparable hit types (by exit velocity and launch angles have led to a batting average and slugging of at least .500 and 1.500, respectively, since Statcast data has been available in 2015. A sweet spot denotes a batted ball event deterministically between 8 and 32 degrees.
In 2020, Belt was Top 10 among qualified hitters in barrels per plate appearance and top 20 in sweet spot percentage. In 2019, he was outside the top 100 in barrels per plate appearance but sixth place in sweet spot percentage.
Belt had an outstanding year hitting the ball with authority into the gaps and often over the fence, taking it to the next level especially at home, posting insane home/road splits — in San Francisco, Belt .383 at a staggering 1.246 OPS. He also hit 7 of his 9 home runs on the season at home.
This wasn’t Belt’s first year hitting the ball on the barrel and being amongst the league leaders in exit velocity. In 2017, he was in the “elite” scale in exit velocity, hard hit percentage, xwOBA, xSLG, and barrel percentage. It took a couple of years for him to get back to that kind of consistency hitting, but the key may have just been about timing to not just hit the ball hard but also in the right spots on the bat to produce numbers.
Tyler Rogers: Submarine Commander
Did you know that dominant Minnesota Twins reliever Taylor Rogers has a twin who is also a major league pitcher? They are identical twins by appearance but their styles differ severely. San Francisco Giant Tyler Rogers is a submariner who doesn’t throw gas and seemingly doesn’t need to. In fact, in 2020, his average four-seam fastball velocity of 82.4 mph was lowest among all qualified pitchers. Yet, he can still do stuff like this:
A good example of how funky Tyler Rogers is. Mike Trout swung through an 84 mph fastball. pic.twitter.com/thkHNCd9u0 — Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) August 20, 2020
What’s Rogers’ secret sauce? In 2020, while he didn’t awaken the radar gun one bit, he was at the top of another leader-board. His 55.9 inches of horizontal plus vertical break was the highest total among all qualified major-league pitchers in 2020. Combined with his mantle-deep release point, his delivery gets the job done.
The 100-mph fastball is the equivalent of a no-doubt home run these days so you already know I have to give a shoutout to the submariners of the world who can still dominate major league pitching. Tyler Rogers was no scrub and the Giants realized it — in 2020, his 29 appearances in the 60-game season led baseball as well after an impressive rookie campaign in 2019 where he posted a 1.02 ERA in 17 appearances. Rogers will look to join his brother as one of the big-name relievers of the game and do so without possibly ever hitting 90 mph.
Brett Gardner: Running Wild
Probably my favorite aspect of the game is base-running and seeing slow guys steal bases or fast guys master the art of stealing bases or sliding. But sometimes you just have to give out awards just for being a timeless classic — I’m doing just that and recognizing the wheels of former all-star, Gold Glover, AL triples leader, AL steals leader, and World Series champion Brett Gardner. In 2020, Gardner went 3/6 on stolen base attempts, but I don’t really care about that.
At Gardner’s advanced age of 37, no outfielder in baseball was older than 37 other than Shin-Soo Choo. Still, Gardner posted a sprint speed of 28.2 feet per second, good for 83rd percentile among all qualified base-runners and he was the fastest player among all players older than 33 on competitive runs on the basepaths in 2020. Old man may have a temper but he can still run and you just have to appreciate that.
Caleb Ferguson: Expected Star?
The idea of the Expected ERA (xERA) statistic is to quantify contact made by hitters against a pitcher and factor out parameters that should not be under the pitcher’s control, such as defense, his park, etc. In addition, it is intended to normalize outcomes that are heavily influenced by luck while still crediting the pitcher for the quality of hit he gave up. Statistically, the thought process of spotting major differences between one’s xERA and their ERA is to identify if someone has the potential to normalize in the positive or negative direction moving forward.
The Dodgers may have a hidden gem in reliever Caleb Ferguson. Of course, a solid bullpen arm doesn’t get as much spotlight on a team that is in the World Series, considering he shares a clubhouse with Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Walker Buehler, etc. But that’s what I’m here for.
In 2020, Ferguson made 21 appearances, 20 of which were in relief, and posted a 2.89 ERA in 18.2 innings pitched. He struck out hitters at a 9.00 K/9 and only walked 3 batters all year long. What’s more impressive is that among qualified pitchers in baseball this season, Ferguson had the second-best xERA. His xERA of 1.95 was 0.94 lower than his actual ERA and was only worse than that of rookie Devin Williams, who is a finalist for National League Reliever of the Year. Looking into the contact stats further, he was also fifth place against all qualified pitchers in wOBA minus xwOBA, proving that he just might be even more dominant than we realize.
Using xERA as a predictive metric can often be valuable if you are looking to target young pitchers in a dynasty league or relievers such as Ferguson that make appearances near the top of such leader-boards. Can Ferguson be one of the game’s dominant relievers going forward? The Dodgers already have stacks of talent all over the roster — do they have another stud who isn’t even a household name yet?
Yandy Díaz: Taco Twenty-Twenty
It’s only right that I end with two guys playing in the World Series right now. In his few years in the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays, Yandy Díaz has been reputed as a tough at-bat and a veteran presence in a lineup. Not much of a flashy power hitter, Díaz’s knack of getting timely hits has been a huge reason the Tampa Bay Rays lineup has had the boom needed to make it to the World Series. His likely secret? Going to right field as a right-handed hitter, often at the top of the lineup.
In Díaz’s first two years in the big leagues (2017, 2018), he was 14th and 8th, respectively, among all qualified hitters in percentage of batted balls hit to the opposite field. In 2019, he got more playing time and his power numbers went up a notch but his batting average dipped from .312 to .267 and despite driving in runs, his season OPS only went up from .797 to .816 and he struck out at a career-high rate. Notably, he was 33rd among qualified hitters in opposite field percentage.
Lo and behold, here comes 2020 and Yandy Díaz played in 34 of the Rays’ 60 regular season games. In those games, he walked more than he struck out for the first time in his career and he hit at a .307/.428/.386 line. And yes — he was back to his old ways of hitting the ball to right field. In 2020, Díaz’s opposite field percentage and increase in opposite field percentage from 2019 to 2020 both led the majors.
Slashing hits the other way is well-known to be one of the less sexy things to do in 21st century baseball but Díaz returning to his elite ways of going oppo came off to me as one of the most interesting observations of the season.
Fun fact: Díaz’s teammate, Hunter Renfroe, had the lowest opposite-field percentage of any qualified hitter in 2019 when he was on the San Diego Padres. In 2020, in his first year with the Rays, he increased that percentage from 13.4% to 27.9% — his 14.5% uptick was good for fourth in the big leagues.
Those were your stat tidbits of the 2020 regular season — some more informative than others, some more entertaining than others depending upon your views. For those of you who aren’t already hooked up with the standard baseball data tools, I want to give a quick thank-you to Baseball-Reference.com and its research tool, Stathead, as well as Baseball Savant and FanGraphs that provide Statcast data.
Happy World Series week, everybody!
Ahaan S. Rungta is a sports podcaster (Count It), YouTuber (xCheese Baseball), and writer for both Red Sox Life and Fantrax. He is active on Twitter at @AhaanRungta, where he is posting more historic and statistical tidbits during the remainder of the 2020 #WorldSeries.