The MVP Batter

In one of the later chapters of The MVP Machine, the authors describe a working relationship between an unnamed position player and a writer at an “analytically inclined” baseball website. The player felt that his club’s advanced scouting data wasn’t granular enough, and asked the writer to supplement the information he was given by the club with additional detail. The writer was eventually performing scouting reports on the player himself, opposing pitchers, as well as the home plate umpires’ strike zones. In terms of evaluating his own performance, the writer summarized that the player was basically looking at three things: “Am I squaring up the ball? Am I swinging and missing? Am I swinging at strikes?”

With the first month of the season in the books, who would be some of the best performing hitters in the league according to this particular player’s criteria? Thanks to Statcast, we have the tools at our disposal to try and figure out just that. The dataset I used for this exercise was all qualified batters as of the morning of April 30th, 2021.

First, we need to decide which parameters to use to represent each of the three questions posed by the player. Two of the three are pretty easy. “Am I swinging and missing?” We can look up a player’s whiff percentage on Statcast. “Am I swinging at strikes?” That information is represented in a player’s chase percentage. “Am I squaring up the ball?” The natural candidates here would be, if we’re using just one number: the average exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and barrel percentage. I decided to go with the average exit velocity, because it takes into account every batted ball put in play by the batter. Let me explain.

The hard hit percentage – defined as the percentage of balls hit with an exit velocity of 95mph or harder – is binary. If a batter puts 6 balls in play at 96mph, and 4 balls at 94 mph, his hard hit percentage will be 60%. Similarly, if a batter puts 6 balls in play at 96 mph, and 4 balls leave his bat at 85mph, his hard hit percentage will be the same 60%, even though the first batter makes a more consistent hard contact. Barrel percentage has the same binary issue, and I couldn’t find anywhere on Statcast what that “perfect combination” of exit velocity and launch angle is.

Now that we have our three parameters – average exit velocity, chase percentage, whiff percentage – I normalized all three to vary between 0 and 1, using the formula:

X_normalized = (x_true_value – dataset_min) / (dataset_max – dataset_min)

X_true_value is the actual value of the parameter, dataset_max is the highest value of that parameter in the dataset, and dataset_min is the lowest value in the dataset. Let’s look at an example. Shohei Ohtani’s average exit velocity – as of the morning of April 30th – was 91.1 mph. The highest average exit velocity in the dataset was 98.7mph, the lowest 81.6mph. Ohtani’s normalized average exit velocity would then be:

(91.1 – 81.6) / (98.7 – 81.6) = 0.5555

Finally, I computed the weighted average with different weights for the normalized parameters. For the normalized average exit velocity, the higher the number the “better,” while for the chase and whiff raters, the higher the normalized value the “worse.” To account for this, I’m actually multiplying the respective weights by (1 – normalized_whiff_rate) and by (1 – normalized_chase_rate). Let’s call the final output “MVP value.”

Base Case

MVP = (1/3) * normalized_exit_velocity + (1/3) * (1 – normalized_chase_rate) + (1/3) * (1-normalized_whiff_rate)

In the first instance, I assigned equal weights to the exit velocity, whiff rates, and chase rates. This is a “baseline” run, if you wish. The top 10 is as follows (excuse some rounding errors):

Last NameFirst NameNorm_EVNorm_OZ_SwingNorm_WhiffMVP
Acuna Jr.Ronald0.78950.11960.33570.7781
JudgeAaron0.92980.35280.52210.6850
LowrieJed0.56730.20250.34500.6733
PhamTommy0.54970.08900.44990.6703
StrawMyles0.27490.07980.18650.6695
SmithWill0.52050.23930.29140.6633
TroutMike0.67840.20860.48020.6632
TurnerJustin0.52630.19330.35430.6596
LeMahieuDJ0.45030.17480.30070.6582
RamirezJose0.59650.40800.22840.6534
Courtesy MLB Statcast

Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular at the plate so far this year, and he is head and shoulders above everybody else in this edition of the made-up metric. Otherwise, we see a lot of players, who have been tearing the cover off of the ball early in the season. Besides Acuna, this would include Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Justin Turner, Jose Ramirez etc.

Where it gets interesting is that we have two guys with sub-70 wRC+ on the list: Tommy Pham and Myles Straw. Let’s take a look at each one in turn.

I’m not going to lie, I had to look up who Myles Straw was. He is making an appearance courtesy of a 15.3% chase rate (MLB average in 2021 is 28.4%) and a 13.4% whiff rate (MLB average 24.4%). Unfortunately, his 86mph exit velocity with a 6.1 launch angle lead to a .325xSLG, in line with his brief major league career. Unless Straw can start making harder contact, his elite contact ability and plate discipline alone won’t keep him in the big leagues.

Tommy Pham, on the other hand, is about to go on a hot streak here soon. The underlying metrics are solid across the board, he’s just been unlucky so far. The average exit velocity is at 91.6 mph, and Pham’s wOBA sits at .256 as opposed to .380 xwOBA. Similarly, Pham is slugging .203, compared to a .483 xSLG, a 280(!!) point difference.

Let’s change the weights on the normalized values a bit. Maybe we’d like to emphasize not chasing, staying within the strike zone. We’ll bump up the weight on the normalized chase rate to 50%, and decrease the weights on exit velocity and whiff rates both to 25%.

No-chase

MVP = (1/4) * normalized_exit_velocity + (1/2) * (1 – normalized_chase_rate) + (1/4) * (1-normalized_whiff_rate)

Last NameFirst NameNorm_EVNorm_OZ_SwingNorm_WhiffMVP
Acuna Jr.Ronald0.78950.11960.33570.8036
StrawMyles0.27490.07980.18650.7322
PhamTommy0.54970.08900.44990.7305
MuncyMax0.35670.00000.51750.7098
LowrieJed0.56730.20250.34500.7043
LeMahieuDJ0.45030.17480.30070.7000
TurnerJustin0.52630.19330.35430.6964
TroutMike0.67840.20860.48020.6953
SmithWill0.52050.23930.29140.6876
GrossmanRobbie0.32160.10120.38460.6836
Courtesy MLB Statcast

We see a lot of the same names from the table above. Jed Lowrie has been another recipient of tough luck. His average exit velocity is up over 90mph for the first time in his career, yet his slugging percentage sits at .406 compared to .546 xSLG.

Max Muncy is one of two players to make an appearance in this table after not being in the top 10 in the base case. His average exit velocity of 86.8mph is at its lowest level since 2016, and his 49.2% ground ball rate is at its highest level since 2016 as well. Yet even he might “heat up” in the near future, as his .365 SLG vs .460xSLG would suggest. Muncy’s chase rate of 11.9% is the lowest in the majors, and is a major contributor to his 24.1% walk rate and a .422 on base percentage. No need to press, Max.

Let’s do one more iteration, this time emphasizing hard contact; the weights in this iteration will be 50% on the normalized exit velocity, and 25% on the whiff rates and chase rates respectively.

Hit-it-hard-somewhere

MVP = (1/2) * normalized_exit_velocity + (1/4) * (1 – normalized_chase_rate) + (1/4) * (1-normalized_whiff_rate)

Last NameFirst NameNorm_EVNorm_OZ_SwingNorm_WhiffMVP
Acuna Jr.Ronald0.78950.11960.33570.7809
JudgeAaron0.92980.35280.52210.7462
AlonsoPete0.94150.58280.58280.6794
TroutMike0.67840.20860.48020.6670
StantonGiancarlo1.00000.55830.79020.6629
Guerrero Jr.Vladimir0.74850.25150.61310.6581
LowrieJed0.56730.20250.34500.6468
FreemanFreddie0.66080.33130.41260.6444
PhamTommy0.54970.08900.44990.6401
RamirezJose0.59650.40800.22840.6391
Courtesy MLB Statcast

That would be 3-for-3 for Ronald Acuna Jr. as the top dog. Besides him, some of baseball’s most powerful sluggers make an appearance on the list. I’d like to touch on two of them, Pete Alonso and Giancarlo Stanton.

Pete Alonso’s average exit velocity jumped to 97.3 mph in 2021 from about 91mph in 2019 and 2020. He is doing more damage in the zone – his whiff and chase rates are in line with his career averages, but his zone swing rate jumped 10% from mid to high 60s in 2019/2020 to 75.8% so far in 2021. Alonso swings more in the zone than before, and makes more contact in the zone as well; his zone contact rate is at a career high 85%. That’s a recipe for success and Statcast seems to agree; Alonso is sporting a healthy .500 SLG, yet his xSLG is at .597.

Giancarlo Stanton is hitting the ball as hard as anyone, but there might be trouble lurking on the horizon. Stanton currently has the lowest zone contact percentage of his career, along with a 30%+ chase rate for the first time since 2016, and highest whiff percentage since 2015. Moreover, he has been destroying four-seam fastballs this year, having an xSLG of .773 against the pitch. Looking at breaking balls and off-speed stuff, his xSLG against sliders is .438, against curveballs it is .515, and against changeups .224. So far, Stanton has been seeing about 60% fastballs. It will be interesting to see if he starts seeing more breaking balls going forward and ends up closer to a 50-50 split for fastballs vs non-fastballs.

Besides learning that Ronald Acuna Jr. is an alien, looking at the three underlying “MVP” metrics combined seems like a good starting point to dig deeper into a player’s offensive profile. Adjusting the weights on the individual parameters emphasizes different skillsets of the batter, and allows us to identify candidates for regression or improvement in some of the surface stats.

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