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A Few Offseason Data Points to Consider

The winter months in baseball is the perfect time to do some research.

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MLB: ALCS-Tampa Bay Rays at Houston Astros Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite hobbies during the offseason is to scour leaderboards for any interesting data points. There are instances when one of those searches is fruitful while others ultimately conclude in a dead end. That is just the nature of the exercise. Time spent could range anywhere from a couple of minutes to multiple hours. But it is something fun to pass the time, especially during the offseason when free time is more readily available. Heck, I can’t even tell you exactly how many Excel downloads I have from FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference in my download folder. Probably too many. I am also in the process of (slowly) learning different data science software packages such as RStudio and Python, so that has been a fun challenge this offseason.

Thus far, I have a running list of data points that I am currently in the process of researching further. I do have plans to eventually write about some of those topics in finer detail, however, I feel as if a few are worth writing about at a base level today. To bring awareness or start the conversation, if you will. This offseason is moving at a snail’s pace, after all, and there is only so much about potential free-agent fits and financial implications that I can actually write about. Those types of posts, although worthwhile in their own right, do eventually become redundant unless there is a new wrinkle to the context. Right now, there is very little to update unless I am completely unaware of some sort of development.

As it pertains to content, the Astros truly don’t have a lack. The sign-stealing scandal is the gift — rather a curse — that keeps on giving. You can also throw in the strange nature of the 2020 season, which has wreaked havoc on how to properly analyze the data. Catcher defensive data illustrates the limitations of the data quite well. As pointed out by mhatter earlier this offseason in a discussion we had about blocking and framing figures, the fact that the umpires worked in the same region all season in addition to the sample size of only sixty games, it is difficult to parse anything meaningful from the data. In other words, it is probably worthless. But there are some figures worth exploring and later expanding upon in greater detail. This post is meant to start as that foundation.

Point No. 1

Much has been made about the Astros propensity to not swing-and-miss often and make plenty of contact since 2017. In fact, there wasn’t a better team in this regard. Some of those gains are viewed as byproducts of sign-stealing, which was analyzed as beneficial when accurate. As detailed here by Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus nearly one year ago, the scheme employed by Houston “was a fantastic aid to their hitters when it was accurate, but a powerful stumbling block when it was wrong, as it frequently was.”

Needless to say, the Astros and their offensive metrics were under a microscope in 2020. But, once again, the club led the majors in contact rate — 79.9 percent — while also posting the lowest swinging strike rate — 9.3 percent — as an offense. I’ll let you, the reader, draw your own conclusions from that tidbit. That said, Houston’s lineup wasn’t all that formidable last year as various hitters were generally ineffective, and their collective power appeared to evaporate a bit compared to recent seasons.

Point No. 2

It is no secret that the Astros pitching staff faced a depth issue for all of the 2020 campaign. The bullpen, in particular, prominently featured multiple rookies all season long. One of those rookies was Andre Scrubb, who Houston acquired from the Dodgers for Tyler White in 2019. The interesting thing about Scrubb was the general success he had based on his 1.90 ERA, although he walked 19.6 percent of the batters he faced. For those wondering at home, that walk rate is in the bottom one percentile.

Not good.

Scrubb was possibly the luckiest pitcher on the staff last year, although he had great success limiting the damage when it came to batted balls. For example, his 22.4 percent hard-hit rate from Statcast was in the top one percent in baseball. He was also one of the better pitchers about leaving runners on-base (orange dot) out of all qualified relievers in 2020 compared to his .246 BABIP. That said, I am sure part of that high LOB% of 89.3 percent was tied to his propensity to issue walks before escaping an inning.

There is some correlation between LOB% and BABIP (r-squared = .27) out of that sample size from a shortened season. I’m also sure there are other metrics that have stronger correlations to LOB% and/or BABIP that would better serve the purposes of what I want to specifically analyze. Not to mention that BABIP is notoriously fickle from year to year and doesn’t measure the quality of contact; a hit is a hit or an out is an out. But, as I stated previously, this is meant as a starting point. In short, Scrubb walked plenty of batters to only limit the damage by either a strikeout or generating weak contact. By his xERA (4.06), which is fed by xwOBA that does take into account the number of walks issued, there should have been more carnage when he was on the mound.

In the long-term, I have my doubts about Scrubb as it always comes back to the walk rate. That high walk rate, which was also there in the minors, is too difficult to ignore. But if the 25-year old can tame that beast to something manageable and that weak contact trend continues, there is enough there to warrant a longer look.

Point No. 3

The struggles of Jose Altuve in 2020 are well known to any ardent baseball fan. I would even contend that casual baseball fans probably heard or watched the second baseman’s struggles at one point or another last summer.

Jose Altuve’s 2020 Decline

Season Pitch BA xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff%
Season Pitch BA xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff%
2020 Fastballs 0.248 0.259 0.421 0.417 0.312 0.310 17.3%
2019 Fastballs 0.319 0.306 0.634 0.592 0.414 0.402 12.7%
2020 Breaking 0.135 0.151 0.135 0.178 0.138 0.165 21.4%
2019 Breaking 0.260 0.230 0.405 0.343 0.299 0.271 22.2%
2020 Offspeed 0.263 0.266 0.421 0.418 0.370 0.373 9.1%
2019 Offspeed 0.242 0.230 0.403 0.391 0.295 0.291 18.0%

Based on the first glance of the data, it is clear that Altuve’s struggles at the plate were directly related to his performance against fastballs and breaking pitches. It is at this point that I’d expect a trash can joke or buzzer comment to that effect. But, as Tony Adam’s research indicates, Altuve was among those on that 2017 roster who utilized the banging scheme the least. Interestingly enough, some of his plate discipline metrics last season do not have a large deviation from his 2019 figures. For example, his contact rate in 2019 was 80.8 percent compared to 80.2 percent in the shortened season in addition to his swinging strike rate having just a 0.8 percent jump.

But the area that I am especially interested in is there any discernable differences to how opposing pitchers threw to Altuve last season. The one plate discipline stat that catches my eye is the large jump of 5.5 percent in outside swing rate. As indicated in the table above, Altuve did see a large jump in his whiff rate, especially against fastballs. My eventual plan is to dig deeper to see specifically what was thrown to make Altuve chase more often and if that correlates to the increase in fastball whiff rate. Something to also keep in mind, in my opinion, is what Eno Sarris of The Athletic ($) recently wrote about the lack of access to video rooms during games as mandated by the COVID-19 protocols. Although Altuve isn’t specifically mentioned, I can’t help but wonder if that development prevented him from adjusting his approach at the plate during games.