Our newest article series “Fishy or For Real” takes a closer look at players with hot starts to their 2019 campaign, and answers the question, “is their current success is sustainable?”
2019 Stats: 74 AB, .297/.342/.500, 5 HR, 35.4 K%, 2.5 BB%
The Case Against Sustainability! (“Fishy”)
1. Strikeout (K%) and Walk (BB%) Rates
When a player strikes out at the rate of Alfaro (35.4), while also seemingly unable or unwilling to produce a walk (2.5), it is unlikely that his current production can remain stable. An average MLB hitter is expected to maintain a K% of approximately 20%, while walking around 8%-10% of his at bats. Alfaro is well below-average in both measures. This is unfortunate news, as for most hitters, it is the first red flag of projected regression.
Note: Alfaro finished the 2018 campaign with a 36.6% strikeout rate, while walking 4.8% of the time; keep this track record in mind as we begin painting the full picture of Jorge Alfaro.
2. Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)
Although often misused in order to measure a hitter’s “luck” rather than other more meaningful variables of a player’s performance, BABIP at an extreme, such as Alfaro’s (.415) mark, may still be predictive of incoming regression. The average MLB player is expected to maintain a BABIP of .300 without cause for concern, which makes Alfaro’s mark...concerning.
However, it is important to note that certain type of hitters—generally, line-drive and high exit velocity hitters—are able to sustain a better BABIP than their peers.
Similar to his abnormal strikeout rate in 2018, Alfaro finished last season with a .406 BABIP. He’s building a track record of being an outlier in baseball.
3. Out of Zone Swing Percentage (O-Swing %)
Alfaro’s on-base percentage (.342) is due to power and quality of contact, rather than plate discipline. In fact, Alfaro’s plate discipline could be described as sub-par to most of the league, including OF Lewis Brinson who has recently been highlighted in this type of conversation. The percentage of pitches that Alfaro swings at outside of the strike zone is a staggering 50.5%.
Why is this an indication of regression? Because if you show major league pitchers that you are willing to expand the strike zone, most are happy to oblige. Look for pitchers to begin pitching Alfaro with an expanded strike zone until he shows that he can lay off of breaking balls that fall out of the zone.
The Case for Sustainability! (“For Real”)
1. Exit Velocity and Hard Hit %
Kryptonite to Superman. The Avengers to Thanos. A hitter’s ability to produce elite exit velocities and hard-hit rates is the counter to athletic, well-researched MLB defenses. Alfaro strikes out a lot, while not walking much, but every other outcome in the box seems to be a ball scorched at over 90 MPH off the bat (85th Percentile in Exit Velocity and 92nd Percentile in Hard-Hit %).
I stated earlier that line-drive hitters and those that make hard contact can sustain a high BABIP. More so than luck, the frequency of balls falling for a hit is dependent on their ability to produce contact that is unlikely to be caught.
This is what has transpired with Alfaro thus far. He has maintained a high BABIP across three major league seasons due to an elite level of exit velocity and hard-hit rate. When all is said and done, I do not expect his performance to fall off the face of the Earth.
Look for Alfaro to maintain a BABIP between .325-.375 throughout his career thanks to the quality of contact he produces.
Alfaro’s combination of K%, BB%, BABIP is concerning, but I’d be much more inclined to wave the white flag of “Fishy” defeat if he was not only 25. Alfaro, for as experienced as he is, remains a young developmental player that will continue refining his approach. Too often fans look at a player in a vacuum, and lay the false claim that “this is who they are.”
Will he dramatically change and become a player walking at an above-average clip? Unlikely. But further development should take place, which will only make his gift of hitting the ball with the same force of an M1 Abrams tank that much more impressive.
3. Variation of Contact and Location of Hits
Hitting the ball hard is not the only variable that protects against regression; variety in contact and having success to all fields also does the trick. Line drives are better than ground balls, and ground balls are better than fly balls. This tier in quality of contact works in Alfaro’s favor, as he hits more line drives than fly balls (28.3 LD% versus 26.1 FB%) and his ground balls tend to find a hole due to his exit velocity.
In addition to quality and type of contact, Alfaro also finds himself able to hit to all fields.
All five of his home runs are to the opposite field, and this ability to stay center and opposite is not limited to homers. His balanced approach has led to a 30.4% pulled rate, 37.0% to center, and 32.6% opposite field hits.
When a hitter shows that he can take pitches to the field where it’s pitched, they become a much more difficult out.
Verdict: For Real
Alfaro’s immense power, quality of contact, age, and variation of hit outcome suggest that there is some sustainability here. The Marlins are fortunate to have a candidate to fill J.T. Realmuto’s shoes, as Jeremy Taché of Five Reasons Sports Network puts it.
That being said, Alfaro will most assuredly regress when his BABIP stabilizes. Finding players who maintain a BABIP above .400 is as rare as finding Big Foot.
The hope is that by continuing to develop good habits at the plate, Alfaro will become a more well-rounded offensive threat who’s producing in the .285/.340/.500 range moving forward. That is, most definitely, a “For Real” player.