Some say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Luck is actually defined as “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.” Luck is, by definition, basically the exact opposite of preparation meeting opportunity; luck is random at its core.
Baseball is a game that relies heavily on luck. And just as we continue to develop tools to help us understand players’ skills, we also have at our disposal metrics that can explain if a player has been overly lucky or unlucky when a round bat tries to hit a round ball.
Let’s explore some of the players who have been on the wrong side of the luck factor through the season’s first few weeks.
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This one is already a bit outdated after Cruz homered twice in the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader, but heading into Saturday’s action the 38-year-old was hitting .268/.412/.415 with one homer in his first 51 plate appearances. The big day was supported by the numbers: to date, Cruz has been on a tear, ranking among the league leaders in exit velocity (94.6 mph), expected batting average (.328) and expected wOBA (.450), among others. What’s more, he’s actually been more selective this year, swinging at a less than 40 percent of the pitches he sees as compared to a career 47.2 percent rate, and when he does swing almost all the contact is hard. If there exists a buy-low window for the designated hitter after Saturday’s outburst, it will close quickly.
Thor has a frustrating 5.63 ERA in four starts, and on the heels of an injury-shortened season in 2018 some fantasy players may be experiencing buyer’s remorse. Fret not, friend -- you didn’t get scammed. Syndergaard’s surface numbers belie the fact that he’s been virtually the same pitcher he’s always been, just with a few worse outcomes to start the year. He’s still striking out nearly 30 percent of the batters he faces while walking just over 5 percent, and his expected stats per Statcast rank among the best in his career. Well-timed hits and an unusually low strand rate -- just 54.6 percent of batters are left on base, compared to 74.3 percent for his career -- seem to be the biggest perpetrators. With a little more luck on his side, Thor should be bringing down the hammer -- er, ax? -- sooner than later.
There’s a reason Reyes was a popular pick among fantasy players this spring -- he hits the ball hard. Like, really hard. Reyes is in the top 4 percent of the league in both barrel frequency and exit velocity, and unsurprisingly he’s also expected to have stats that reflect a guy hitting the ball really hard. What is surprising, though, is the real-life results: through Saturday he’s slashing just .193/.273/.439 in 57 at-bats. A cursory glance might lead one to expect strikeouts to play a big role in that line; he did, after all, strike out in more than 28 percent of his plate appearances in 2018. On the contrary, Reyes has actually cut his strikeout rate when upping his walks. He’s just hitting it hard at people, or his long fly balls are dying at the wall instead of clearing it. A microscopic .175 BABIP speaks to that, despite the fact that he’s stinging the ball. The Padres still have a crowded outfield picture and the 23-year-old’s perceived struggles surely don’t help his cause, but don’t lose faith in Reyes yet. His breakout may come yet, with some better fortune.
This early in the year, the sample sizes for starting pitchers are small enough, let alone for relievers. So to put Iglesias on this list is a bit unfair in the first place, but he held a 5.19 ERA entering Saturday’s action and has been scored upon in four of his nine appearances to date. That’s not good. What is good is the pitcher himself, and while those early outings can’t be written off, Iglesias has actually been better, not worse, than the pitcher he’s historically been in his career. That includes a career-best swinging strike percentage over 16 percent, and an expected .198 batting average and .294 slugging percentage. He seems to be trending in the right direction, too -- after Saturday’s dominant save against the Padres, the 29-year-old has now struck out the side in three of his last four outings. Those early struggles may not be forgotten, but they certainly appear to be gone.
Alonso is a guy we sort of write off as having had one good season a few years ago, but there may be something here after the first baseman has put together a decent first few weeks at the dish. Not outwardly, necessarily -- he’s hitting just .200/.325/.369 in 77 plate appearances -- but his hard-hit percentage is above 50 percent and Alonso is also being more selective at the dish, walking as often as he’s striking out. That selectivity is paying off, too, because when he does swing he’s making good contact, although a .200 BABIP has sabotaged some of that. Whereas some of these examples are guys who have just fallen on some tough luck, Alonso actually appears to be a case of a player who’s had poor results despite a real change in his approach. If the numbers were overly positive, we’d be asking whether his early success was legitimate. I think the answer would be, ‘Yes,’ so if the question now is, ‘Are better days ahead?’ I think the answer is, ‘Undoubtedly.’
Rodriguez owns an unsightly 7.20 ERA and 1.65 WHIP through four starts, but his underlying numbers say he’s actually been largely the same pitcher he was last year when he had a 3.82 ERA and 146 strikeouts in 129 2/3 innings of work, and even a bit better in some areas. For instance, opposing batters are swinging less often thus far, which is usually a decent strategy against Rodriguez, but the southpaw is actually throwing just as many strikes as he did last year while also getting more swings and misses when batters offer at his pitches. Home runs -- he’s allowed one in each of his four starts -- have been the biggest driving force behind his inflated ERA, but two of those have been three-run homers. You can’t erase those, but if you’re willing to believe the majority of his homers allowed this year won’t be three-run shots or grand slams, you can feel pretty good about Rodriguez overcoming some ugly early numbers.