The "By The Numbers" series is meant to not only showcase interesting data that could lead you to hidden player value but to teach you how to take that knowledge to expand your own player analysis. This week the focus will be on offense, especially wOBA and xwOBA, in order to highlight slow starters that may be in for a quick turnaround.
First things first, at least for those unaware, what on earth is a wOBA, and is it contagious? Fear not everyone, wOBA (weighted on-base average) is your friend. Think of it as a more useful version of on-base percentage. Instead of merely counting how many times a player reaches base, wOBA assigns a specific value for each way a player can reach base, specifically its impact on scoring runs. For example, a single is worth less than a double, as it should be. As a rule of thumb, .300 is poor, .320 is average, and .340 is above average if you wish to use that as a benchmark.
Now, xwOBA is simply a player’s expected weighted on-base average. The big difference between wOBA and xwOBA is that wOBA measures actual results on the field. Singles, doubles, walks all have a specified value that goes into the calculation. The flaw in the value is that there are certain variables, such as defense, out of the hitter's control. So xwOBA takes those variables out of the equation, ignores actual batted ball outcomes, and instead measures tangible “skills,” such as exit velocity, launch angle, and sprint speed. The result is a more accurate measurement of a player's skill, which can be useful for individual player analysis.
Just remember that “expected” statistics are descriptive and not predictive. They are meant to view the past through a different lens and are not meant to project future production. Think of them more like a compass that can help point you in the right direction in your data analysis rather than a GPS taking you to a destination.
That being said, let’s take a look at several players who have a wide spread between their early-season wOBA and xwOBA to see if there are some hidden values or buy low opportunities in your league.
Avisail Garcia OF, Milwaukee Brewers
.284 wOBA vs. .399 xwOBA (0.115 difference)
Avisail Garcia has been among the elite (top-two percent) in max exit velocity in six of the last seven seasons. In the one season he failed to be in the top two percent, Garcia still managed to be in the top-10 percent of the league. This season the Brewers outfielder has only reached a max exit velocity of 110.9 miles per hour but has managed to carry the highest average exit velocity of his career (93.3).
The aggressive plate discipline metrics show that the 29-year-old is having issues making contact in addition to chasing pitches outside of the strike zone. However, Avi has always been a bit of a free swinger and a career-best 14.6% barrel rate, 56.3 percent hat hit rate, and .530 xwOBAcon suggest that anything Garcia has managed to hit has been crushed.
Garcia’s batted ball data show a healthy spread of line drives and a typical all fields approach. The issue is purely contact which can be written off as an early season blip, especially for someone with a track record as long as Avisail. If you are patient with Garica the hits will start to fall, and between the health of Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and Jackie Bradley Jr., the at-bats are likely not going to be an issue. Avisail Garcia is a hold/buy in fantasy.
Kyle Tucker OF, Houston Astros
.252 wOBA vs. .360 xwOBA (0.108 difference)
It seems like we have been waiting for the Kyle Tucker breakout season for years, but 2021 was supposed to finally be the year. We are 83 at-bats in and fantasy shareholders are currently saddled with a .181/.205/.398 slash line after investing a second-round pick in drafts. They do, however, have five home runs, 13 RBI, and a stolen base to hang their hat on.
Tucker currently has solid contact metrics, but aggressive out-of-zone chase tendencies that have left a notable scar in the form of a 2.2 percent walk rate. The good news is that this is a very fixable problem for the 24-year-old. Tucker’s 10.9 percent swinging-strike rate and 18 percent strikeout rate are perfectly acceptable over a full season.
If the Astros outfielder can hold close to his current 87.5 percent in-zone contact rate, there is no doubt big things are ahead in 2021. The early returns show a 47.8 percent fly-ball rate and just 17.4 percent line-drive rate. Tucker is currently getting a bit under the ball (31.9 percent) with a 22-degree launch angle which causes many hard-hit balls to stay in the air long enough to be caught. A .156 BABIP for someone who hits the ball this hard is unlikely to hold for very long and it is far too early to worry about batted ball splits from Tucker.
There is one other minor issue to discuss and that is Tucker’s 36th percentile sprint speed at 26.2 feet per second. After posting marks in the 72nd and 70th percentile over the previous two seasons, this is a bit of a red flag for those hoping for speed in fantasy. The issue in taking this too seriously is that Tucker has three doubles and no triples to date so it’s possible there is simply not enough data with the outfielder running full out to justify an accurate reading. Statcast sprint speed is measured on batted balls of two bases or more (non-homers) and home-to-first readings on weakly hit or “topped” baseballs. Kyle Tucker has done very little of both this season between hitting the ball in the air (fly-out or home run) and a career-low “topped” percentage. No worries everyone, the speed has not gone anywhere, it is simply hiding at the moment.
Bobby Dalbec 1B, Boston Red Sox
.287 wOBA vs. .392 xwOBA (0.105 difference)
Bobby Dalbec had a bit of helium in spring training after batting .298 with seven home runs. Unfortunately, the Red Sox slugger also struck out 21 times in 47 at-bats. Most analysts had the first baseman pegged as someone who, in the regular season, could potentially put up 30-plus home runs, but with a poor batting average. His .298 average in the Grapefruit League was impressive, but it’s hard to overlook the plate discipline issues, especially after Dalbec put up a 42.4 percent strikeout rate in 2020 over 63 plate appearances.
This season has been somewhat stale for the Boston prospect, who is batting .241 with zero long balls so far. The interesting part is that anyone who drafted Dalbec would have likely taken the .241 average with a smile on their face if you guaranteed it to them in draft season. However, no one expected an early-season power outage to this extent.
The light is easy to see at the end of the tunnel when you notice things like a .576 xwOBAcon (expected weight on-base on contact) and 16.2 percent barrel rate, but Dalbec still carries a 33.3 percent strikeout rate and abyssal contact metrics. When contact is made, the ball tends to travel. The issue is making contact in order to generate production.
You could look at the .105 difference between Dalbec’s wOBA and xwOBA and hope for a turnaround, especially with a .241 average that one would assume could stick or improve. That is a trap though considering the .378 BABIP that is currently propping up Dalbec’s current slash line. That .241, which is not ideal to begin with, could be closer to his .304 xBA but it also could be closer to .210 with a normalized BABIP.
The decision here is if you need a power boost and can afford to stash Dalbec on your bench. The good news is that the cost to acquire should be minimal if you are looking to buy, but if you are looking to sell the market is unlikely to return anything of value in redraft. The power is coming, no doubt, but there will be a ton of stress-inducing streaks along the way.
Nick Senzel OF, Cincinnati Reds
.279 wOBA vs. .384 xwOBA (0.105 difference)
Through 54 at-bats (only 54 at-bats) Nick Senzel has a slash line of .222/.323/.278 with zero home runs and one stolen base. However, the biggest issue fantasy shareholders have with the 25-year-old is not his poor performance but his ability to stay on the field. This is compounded further when Senzel is finally on the field and not performing to expectations. It is a vicious circle and does not allow for much breathing room or a margin of error.
This could create a buying opportunity for those with the patience, and space on their bench, for the former top prospect to find his footing. Senzel has an elite 92.2 percent Z-Contact rate this season with strong plate discipline across the board. It’s unfair to judge anyone based on just 54 at-bats, but sometimes a prospect who has failed to reach a perceived ceiling has a short leash. This is especially true early in the season when fantasy players are eager to make moves just for the sake of it. The question is, should look to buy, hold, or sell Nick Senzel?
The answer may depend on roster construction and league size due to the volatility of rostering an oft-injured player, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that is not an issue. Senzel currently holds a 14.5 percent strikeout rate and 12.9 percent walk rate. Both marks are career bests through a small sample, but when considered with the metrics discussed earlier this makes a strong case that Senzel should be performing much better. Expected statistics agree with a .300 xBA and .505 xSLG.
The other, and more important issue, is playing time. Nick Castellanos is guaranteed everyday playing time in the Cincinnati outfield, but Senzel has to worry about a platoon split with left-handers Jesse Winker and Tyler Naquin. Cream rises to the top and these things tend to work themselves out, but a logjam cannot be dismissed, especially in regards to keeping Senzel healthy. It’s a tricky situation to project, but one thing seems likely. If Nick Senzel is given the opportunity to play everyday, he has breakout metrics if he can stay healthy.
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Ozzie Albies 2B, Atlanta Braves
.275 wOBA vs. .378 xwOBA (0.103 difference)
Ozzie Albies is batting .164 with a .148 BABIP folks (.306 xBA). Honestly, we can probably just stop the analysis right there, but for posterity we will take a closer look.
The Atlanta second baseman is making excellent in-zone contact with plate discipline metrics that lineup with his career benchmarks. Albies has a healthy 22.8 percent line drive rate without any glaring defects in this other batted ball data. The 24-year-old does have a slightly elevated launch angle early this season at 22 degrees which has led to an increase in hitting under the baseball (36.8 percent), which is nothing that should be a cause for concern but a possible explanation beyond bad luck.
All things considered, this looks like a common case of bad luck. Albies is a screaming buy low candidate that bats at the top of a lethal Atlanta Braves lineup.
Joey Votto 1B, Cincinnati Reds
.300 wOBA vs. .402 xwOBA (0.102 difference)
Joey Votto stated in the offseason that he wanted to “hurt” the baseball this season. Some worried that this would lead to a drop in batting average, and so fast they are correct with the 37-year-old batting just .217 but with four home runs through 83 at-bats. However, Votto has come through on his promise to hurt the baseball, setting a career high in max exit velocity (113.6 miles per hour) for the second year in a row.
The Reds' first baseman has seen a drop in his walk percentage as a result of this new approach (8.8 percent) but oddly has not seen an increase in his strikeout percentage. Votto is simply being more aggressive and putting the ball in play, which is evident by his 42.1 percent swing rate (up from 37.4). So why is his 13.7 swinging strike rate, which is double his career average, not affecting Votto’s overall strikeout rate? The answers are actually all related. As stated above, the veteran is swinging more thus decreasing the amount of called strikes he is taking. Votto is taking fewer walks, but he is also taking fewer strikeouts looking. His overall CSW (called strikes plus whiffs) is currently close enough to recent marks where overall strikeouts numbers remain unchanged for the time being.
Expected stats are interesting to use as a gauge when researching a player, but it is important to note that they do not predict the future. Expected stats merely describe what has already happened. Many confuse this as a crystal ball for future production rather than a way to dig through past production for clues. For instance, Joey Votto is currently batting .217/.286/.398 but with an expected batting average of .291 and expected slugging percentage of .612 (top nine percent in the league). This does not mean you should expect those metrics moving forward, but they are a great indication that Votto has performed better than the surface statistics suggest.
Votto is currently carrying a career best barrel rate of 13.8 percent with a hard-hit rate of 46.2 percent. He is doing this while retaining his typical spread between line drives, fly balls, and ground balls. So while this may seem like a boring conclusion, the answer may simply be good old bad luck. Votto currently holds a .230 BABIP with a career average of .344, but that is not a benchmark that seems appropriate at this point in his career. Last season the Reds leader also carried a low BABIP (.235) across 186 at-bats and a mark of .313 the year before. It may be difficult to predict what the new norm for Votto may be, but it stands to reason that he is likely to outperform what he has shown to date. Just remember that while Votto had similar struggles last season with BABIP, his .226 average was accompanied by a .253 xBA as opposed to a .291 xBA this season. There is room for optimism.
Fantasy shareholders, especially in on-base percentage leagues, may need to accept that Votto is a very different player. He may provide surprising value as an inexpensive option at corner infield, but he could also be droppable if his new approach will leave him as a low BABIP hitter.
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Yasmani Grandal C, Chicago White Sox
.274 wOBA vs. .374 xwOBA (0.100 difference)
Grandal is off to a brutal start at the plate, batting just .130 with two home runs and nine RBI through 46 at-bats. The veteran catcher still carries a 17.5 percent walk rate, which is top six percent in all of baseball, but still accounts for a mere .286 on-base percentage due to his low batting average.
The 32-year-old is making plenty of in-zone contact along with a 51.4 percent hard hit rate, so what seems to be the problem? Grandal’s 10.8 percent barrel rate is more than acceptable, but his sweet spot percentage is sitting at 24.3 percent. That is actually rather low considering marks of 37.5 and 38.1 percent the previous two seasons.
What is sweet spot percentage you ask? This statistic accounts for how often a batter strikes a ball at a “good” angle (between eight and 32 degrees of launch angle). A “barrel” is measured through a combination of launch angle and exit velocity. To “barrel” a ball you must reach at least 98 miles per hour exit velocity and hit the ball between 26-30 degrees of launch angle. For every mile per hour above 98, that the range of launch angle expands to accommodate.
So getting back to Grandal. The White Sox catcher is still hitting his fair share of barrels, but the other batted balls are suboptimal. This can be easily cross checked by looking at batted ball data on FanGraphs or batted ball profile on Baseball Savant. Grandal’s “topped” percentage (Savant) is sitting at 40,5 percent, which is well above his career average, this leads to a vast jump in ground balls. This is an issue for obvious reasons, but to further drive home the point the league batting average for ground balls was .229 last season. If you are wondering, which I am sure you are, the batting average on fly balls was .239 and .684 on line drives.
When you see an O-Swing rate of 20.1 percent that is usually a sign of a patient hitter, and it usually is. However, that does not tell the entire story. If you notice in the chart below, Grandal is fairly locked into the strike zone with the exception of pitches well below the zone. This certainly explains the increase in topped baseballs.
Grandal is making contact, and hitting the ball hard. Unfortunately, he is simply making the wrong kind of contact at the moment. Line drives have dropped from 22.9 percent to 13.9 percent (FanGraphs) while ground balls have jumped from 36.2 percent to 50 percent. Early bat control issues are common and are almost always overcome by veterans. His stat line looks very bleak, but there is light at the end of the tunnel for Grandal, who plays at a very thin position. If you are in need of a catcher, you may consider trying to buy low here.