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The Outlook for 2017's Underachievers and Overachievers

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By Mark Simon

With the MLB season beginning, there are some things we can count on. Some players will struggle inexplicably. Some will have unexpected remarkable success. But how do we know whether a struggle or success is legitimate?

There are statistical measures that help.

Our defense-independent batting statistics (DIBS) are able to give expected results on every ball in play for a hitter by comparing the ball's trajectory, direction and velocity to other similar batted balls and assigning value based on those results. We can then compare those to his actual offensive numbers to determine if a player underachieved or overachieved.

In other words, these numbers can tell us if a player may have hit into hard luck, played in an unfriendly ballpark, or been the victim of some really good defense. Or perhaps he hit into good luck, got a few ballpark-friendly hits, or took advantage of some poor defense.

Here's a look at six players, three in each category, heading into 2018.

The underachievers

The king of the 2017 underachievers was Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, who had the worst offensive season of his career, hitting .236 with a .725 OPS. Kinsler’s batting average was 60 points lower and his OPS 155 points lower than his DIBS numbers suggested.

Kinsler will get a chance for a bounce-back season in a different home ballpark after his trade from the Tigers to the Angels this past offseason. Angel Stadium is 15 feet shallower in left field and 20 feet shallower in center than Comerica Park (where Kinsler hit .223), which, even as he ages, may turn some of his 2017 outs into 2018 hits.

We project him hitting .259 with a .744 OPS in 2018.

Stephen Piscotty’s numbers plunged from 2016 to 2017, and it was a challenging season with the Cardinals as he dealt with his mother’s health issues. 

Piscotty had a hard-luck season on the field. He slugged .367, a 90-point drop from 2016, and 114 points below his DIBS projection of .481.

That differential was the largest for any hitter with at least 250 plate appearances. By DIBS, Piscotty should have had 15 more hits, 5 more doubles and 5.5 more home runs. He’ll get a chance to regroup both on and off the field in 2018 after being traded to the Athletics, as his family lives in the Bay Area.

Our projection is that he bumps his OPS from .708 to .764.

Mookie Betts had a drop-off from his near-MVP season of 2016, dipping to .264/.344/.459 last season, though he still produced 24 home runs and 26 stolen bases.

Betts may have hit into some hard luck, odd given how well his home ballpark plays to hitters. By DIBS, he should have had a .297 batting average and an .886 OPS, much more in line with his 2016 season. In other words, there’s not much reason for concern, and at 25, he should be an MVP-caliber player.

Our projection has him with an .882 OPS (just shy of his 2016 numbers)

The overachievers

Though Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong impressed many with a .285 batting average, .532 slugging percentage, .857 OPS, with 25 home runs, he may find that performance tough to replicate.

By our Defense-Independent numbers, DeJong should have hit .259, with a .466 slugging percentage, .766 OPS, with 20 home runs. The five home runs above what was expected ranked fifth in the majors (Didi Gregorius led with 7.7 more than expected). DeJong also faces the challenge of reducing a strikeout-to-walk ratio of greater than 5:1 -- a number that produces many more struggles than successes.

As such, our projection for him in 2018 is closer to his DIBS numbers than his actual 2017 numbers, a .254/.767 batting average and OPS combination.

Astros utility man Marwin Gonzalez had a breakthrough season in helping the Astros win the World Series. But there was some overachieving in his performance. Gonzalez had the biggest positive differential between his actual slugging percentage and OPS and his expected performance in those stats of any player who qualified for the batting title in 2017 (78 and 109 points respectively). Gonzalez had 34 doubles and 23 home runs. Our DIBS numbers had him at 26.5 and 18.5.

That’s not to completely discount what Gonzalez did. Even if he hit to his .796 DIBS OPS, it would have been a single-season career high. Still, we have him dropping to a .262 batting average and .757 OPS that fit closer to his career norms.

The White Sox may have had a rough season, but Avisail Garcia’s play was a revelation, as he hit .330 with 18 home runs and an .885 OPS. But look more closely at Garcia’s numbers and you’ll see that he hit .362 on ground balls, which is astronomically high for a player who is not known for his speed.

DIBS assessed that he got 21 singles more than expected, and when factoring in his other hits, he should have hit .286 with 14 home runs and a .781 OPS.

It would behoove some teams (especially those with rangy first basemen) to defend the-right-handed Garcia differently. He hit 84 percent of his ground balls and short line drives to the left of second base, up from 76 percent in 2016. By our evaluation methods, this makes him worthy of shifting much more often than he was last season. Doing so may take Garcia’s numbers down a peg.

Our 2018 projection has him slipping to a .278 batting average and .763 OPS.

Next week, we’ll look at overachieving and underachieving pitchers.


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