This summer, I had to step away from Fish Stripes momentarily to take part in another amazing opportunity within the baseball industry. However, the kind folks at the site have graciously taken me back, and thus, I have returned for you to read my 1000+ word essays on the Miami Marlins. It’s good to be back.
I deemed it appropriate for my first article back to talk about another soon-returning player, Lewis Brinson. This entire summer, I sat quietly and watched the Marlins’ highly touted top prospect struggle mightily, much to the chagrin of fans on Twitter. As the centerpiece of the trade that sent Christian Yelich and his extremely team-friendly contract to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Fish Faithful expected an immediate ROI on Brinson. It’s safe to say that Brinson has underperformed, slashing just .186/.232./.338 in 84 games, before hitting the disabled list. Now, Brinson (bruised hip) is on a timetable to return sometime around September call-ups.
There is, however, a silver lining in Brinson’s performance thus far. In June, I read an article written by former Oakland Athletic, Nate Freiman on Expected wOBA (from here on out, xwOBA). You can find Freiman’s article here, and you can check out more of his work on Fangraphs, as he is this month’s resident writer. He explained what xwOBA was, and how it is finding its niche in sabermetrics as one of the most predictive hitting statistics available to the public.
Remember that wOBA is a completely comprehensive hitting statistic, representing a player’s success in every conceivable batting event. Mathematicians calculate the exact run value of every possible batting event—from a hit by pitch to a home run—and then multiply said weights by the batter’s totals, before dividing by total plate appearances (minus intentional walks). In essence, it’s a more comprehensive and more precise version of slugging percentage.
Expected wOBA is what a player’s wOBA should be given quality of contact. How do we get from real-life wOBA to xwOBA? We bring in exit velocity and launch angle. Usually, these two stats just appear on the screen after a player hits a home run; we say “wow, he hit that one at a 28-degree angle” before the next pitch flits across the screen and the tidbit of info disappears into oblivion.
The more gifted brains, however, have applied exit velocity and launch angle to evaluate just how well a player has hit the ball. Like they do with more advanced fielding statistics, sabermetricians can profile a hit or a hit’s probability based on its launch angle and exit velocity. Thus, in xwOBA, instead of multiplying the weights by how many times the event actually happened, they multiply the weights by how many times the events were supposed to happen, based on exit velocity and launch angle profiles.
As is the case with new and emerging statistics, the jury is still out on xwOBA’s predictive and descriptive tendencies. While Freiman liked xwOBA as a predictor of wOBA in the short term, there are other articles that doubt it’s usefulness in baseball, such as this one written by Jonathan Judge. Ultimately, expected statistics - any acronym with an x in front of it - always have to be taken with a grain of salt because everything is theoretical, and when we’re talking in theoretics, there may be more than one opinion on the correct way to estimate a certain statistic.
However, I think xwOBA is really interesting because of the phenomenon it tends to explain. Freiman sums it up well in his article:
If only there were x-stats! xwOBA is the shiny new eight-figure toy that we hitters can play with after an 0-15 slump. “But I was hitting the ball hard. See, look!” Back in the pre-Statcast dark-ages, a lineout might have had some anecdotal benefit buried in the bottom of a report. Now we have the data.
We’ve all said it before: “the numbers aren’t good, but I think he’s squaring the ball up well.” In the past, we’ve looked to BABIP; if the BABIP is low, but we are sure that a player is making solid contact, then say that the player may just be unlucky. xwOBA takes us one step further, which is why I wanted to find out more about it.
(If you’re still here, 1. thank you, 2. we’re getting to the good part now)
So back in June I looked at Lewis Brinson’s xwOBA and I was shocked by what I saw. Because of my job at the time, I deemed it inappropriate to write the article about it, but since returning to Fish Stripes, I have rechecked the stats, and the numbers are still shocking.
You can find information on exit velocity, launch angle, and expected statistics like xwOBA on Baseball Savant by going to the Statcast leaderboards. Here are Lewis Brinson’s statistics.
Lewis Brinson xwOBA
Again, there is nothing positive I can say about the .244 wOBA. Brinson paces the team in strikeout percentage with 30.2%, while bottoming out the leaderboards in walk percentage at just 4.5%. These, along with his on-base percentage, say enough about Brinson’s plate discipline, but if you need more, Brinson leads all Marlins with at least 100 PA’s in percentage of outside -the-zone swings, with 39.3%. (Lower the threshold to 50 PA’s, and Magneuris Sierra takes the lead in the clubhouse with 50.7%; more on that another time). Brinson’s view of the strikezone and his approach need to be completely retooled if he wants to succeed in the Major Leagues.
But when he’s not striking out, the silver lining is that he is making really solid contact. Until he hit the DL, Brinson put up decent power numbers, ranking fourth on the team in homers with 10, and fifth in Isolated Power with .152. For reference, league-average ISO sits just ten points higher at .162 today. The peripherals definitely suggest that there is still more to see with Brinson.
xwOBA however really drives home the point. Based on his quality of contact - his exit velocities and his launch angles - xwOBA tells us that Brinson’s wOBA is “supposed” to be fifty-five points higher than what his wOBA actually is. I almost fell out of my chair when I read that back in June.
In layman’s terms, .055 points is the difference between .245 batting average and a .300 batting average. Ignore the inadequacies of batting average for one second; .055 points is the difference between .243 AVG/96 wRC+ Brett Gardner and .298 AVG/172 wRC+ Jose Ramírez.
Allow me to further illustrate the point: league average wOBA this year is .315. That’s old friend Marcell Ozuna. Fifty-four points better than Ozuna at .369 sits Matt Chapman, one of the best hitters on one of the hottest teams in baseball. Fifty-four points below Ozuna, you’ll find Scott Kingery, who all-in-all is batting 41 percent worse than average according to wRC+.
The departure from Brinson’s xwOBA to his actual wOBA is both substantial and important. Brinson’s difference in xwOBA and wOBA is the 12th-highest in the league, and the highest on the Marlins. This should give you reason to believe that Brinson is still holding onto some untapped potential. If he isn’t seeing the ball, the pitcher might as well be throwing a golf ball. But when Brinson is locked in, he is seeing cantaloupes in the strike zone.
In the end though, the concept of xwOBA may just be a whole lot of “shoulda, woulda, coulda.” Are there people that match their xwOBA with their wOBA? Sure there are; Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison’s quality of contact projects him to have an xwOBA of .290, and sure enough, that’s exactly what his wOBA is.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should hit their xwOBA, and therein lies the beauty of advanced statistics. Recently, Jayson Werth gave us the quintessential old man quote on advanced statistics in baseball:
“They’ve got all these super nerds in the front office that know nothing about baseball but they like to project numbers and project players... I think it’s killing the game. It’s to the point where just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We don’t even need to go out there anymore. It’s a joke.”
But with the right frame of mind, you’ll see that these theoretical, high-brow statistics computed by science nerds everywhere can actually improve your appreciation of the game.
The plays that we love to see are the very plays keeping Lewis Brinson’s wOBA down and driving his xwOBA up. When Lewis Brinson pulls a screeching line drive down the third-base line and the man on the hot corner lays out to rob him, the xwOBA goes up, and the wOBA stays down. When Lewis Brinson laces a ball into the gap, and the center fielder goes full-extendo to make the web gem, the xwOBA goes up, and the wOBA stays down. That’s the beauty of the game of baseball; the computer can always tell you what the hit should be, but it’s the human element—the “Jeter throw” from the hole or the over-the-wall robbery—that defy the odds and take your breath away.
Anyway, the bottom line is that Lewis Brinson is getting ripped off somewhere. His .234 BABIP also supports the notion that he’s either facing extremely gifted defenses, or he’s just getting plain unlucky.
If Brinson’s wOBA matched his xwOBA at .299, would it change the public’s perception of him? I’d assume so; .299 is just 16 points shy of league average, and while average also isn’t what you want out of your biggest offseason haul, it would certainly be more serviceable than what he has contributed thus far. If you’re on DEFCON-1 for Brinson’s return, it’s okay to come down to DEFCON-2.
As mentioned earlier, Brinson has a long way to come in terms of plate discipline, but if he makes said changes, he could become the supernova that the Marlins bargained for.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com and Baseball Savant