Daily Report Primer Part II: The Stats That Matter

Per local media, pitchers Matt Bush and Greg Holland and IF Charlie Culberson have made the team. The Rangers also may appear of a state of mind to upgrade OF Joe McCarthy from his current minor league contract to a 40 spot. If the move doesn’t also include an active roster spot, I’m not sure what that’s about. I seriously doubt McCarthy, who has very limited MLB experience, has an opt-out clause. Perhaps he has a gentleman’s agreement. I’m missing info and context and the time gather them, so I’ll leave it there.

Garrett Richards, IL’ed with a blister. Glenn Otto, optioned. Spencer Patton, optioned (but on the taxi squad, which I found out was still a thing about five minutes ago). Brandon Workman, released. Not all moves are official; I’ve only seen the Rangers themselves issue the Otto and Workman transactions.

So, at present the Rangers require four 40-man moves assuming McCarthy joins, too. As I tweeted over the weekend, If Texas’s thinking jibes with mine, moves 1 and 2 are easy, moves 3 and 4 (as needed) will make me sad but I get it, and moves 5 and beyond (if needed) get into interesting territory. Yes, that’s vague. No, I’d rather not elaborate right now. All in due course.

AAA: Jake Latz vs. El Paso

Wednesday and Thursday will feature Kohei Arihara and AJ Alexy on the mound, respectively. Beyond that, including Cole Winn’s first start, I cannot say. The strange timing of the Rangers beginning their season after Round Rock has left the Express without an official roster a mere four hours before the first pitch. I’ll be in Round Rock tonight, and if you’re interested in my thoughts during the game, follow on twitter @scottrlucas.

The other teams begin Friday.

Part II of the Daily Report Primer: Stats I Love and Loathe

The best prospects tend to receive aggressive assignments and are young for their levels. Down the road, they’re often omitted from my annual 40-Man / Rule 5 preview because they forced their way onto the MLB squad months earlier. If all you know about a player is his age, you actually know quite a lot. So, for example, when the Rangers assign 19-year-old OF Evan Carter to high-A, they’re were telling you something.

One shouldn’t get carried away with age, though. Of course, players drafted out of college will be older, and dismissing them for being (gasp) 23 by the time they reach high-A would be ridiculous. However, those players are expected to perform better at the low levels and are on shorter leashes. (Incidentally, that a good many college players don’t handle A-level ball reinforces just how hard the pro game is.) Catchers tend to take more time, as do many pitchers.

The Rangers aren’t quite as aggressive with promotions as a decade ago. Promotions feel more player-tailored and less driven by organizational culture. Even so, they had the youngest hitters in the Triple A West and youngest pitchers in the Low-A East in 2021.

Slash Stats (Average / On-Base Percentage / Slugging)
In the Majors, batting average isn’t a useless stat, but it matters far less than on-base percentage and slugging. In the minors, I like to keep an eye on it. Putting the bat on the ball with frequency and authority is what gets players noticed and moves them up the ladder.

Let’s look at a couple of made-up players with 500 plate appearances. Both have a .360 OBP and .440 slugging percentage:

A)    100 hits, 10 doubles, 25 homers, 80 walks, 160 strikeouts
B)    150 hits, 33 doubles, 8 homers, 30 walks, 60 strikeouts

Same OBP, same slugging percentage, very different hitters. Player A is kind of a cut-rate Joey Gallo, batting .238 with huge number of walks and good-but-not-elite power. Player B batted .319 but doesn’t walk much or offer much more than doubles power. There aren’t many Player B type nowadays. Michael Brantley last year. Elvis Andrus in 2016. Point is, knowing the batting average in addition to OBP and slugging can be surprisingly informative. That said, even in the minors, OBP and slugging are much more useful.

These stats mean the least at lower levels and gain importance as players advance. They also matter more to offense-oriented positions. Except at the extreme margin and probably not even then, a first basemen cannot compensate for weak hitting with outstanding defense. He has to hit.

Walks (Hitters)
Laying off iffy pitches can be career-defining. Walks mitigate inevitable slumps. In the Luisangel Acuna example from yesterday, he drew six walks and an HBP during that 0-for-30 slump. That’s a .189 OBP. Not good, of course, but reaching nearly 20% of the time without a hit means he’s at least giving his teammates some chances with a runner on first.

Walks are a means, not an end, though. I do worry about players who rely too heavily on walks, which is easier to do at the lower levels where control is often absent. Selectivity is great. Passivity, not so much. Eventually, the hitter will rise to a level at which most pitchers not only have control but a semblance of command, and the hitter will have to adjust.

Automated strike zones are coming to the Pacific Coast League in 2022. I am very much looking forward to seeing robo-umped balls and strikes called in person.

Strikeouts (Hitters)
To some extent, we can ignore hitters’ strikeouts. What really matters is how they perform when they don’t. Not to be flip, but strikeouts for hitters don’t matter until they do. At some point, they reach a level that forces a herculean batting average on contact just to get by. For example, Adolis Garcia. Early last April, I gamed out what he’d need to reach a .300 OBP with so many strikeouts. As I tweeted: “Let’s say he can manage a 5% BB+HBP rate (well below league average) and a 30% K rate (well above, even in 2021). That means he needs to bat .263 for a minimum .300 OBP. And with all those Ks, that requires a .376 average on contact, about 50 points above the league average and better than what he’s done in AAA.”

Garcia ended up with a 6% BB+HBP rate and struck out in 31% of his plate appearances, close to my guesses. He also batted .364 when he made contact, roughly the 75% percentile among AL batters with at least 400 plate appearances. So, very good in that respect. And what did that high average on contact get him? A .286 OBP, 9th-worst among that same set of batters.

Some hitters are exceptionally good at avoiding strikeouts, but not particularly to their benefit. Most of the time, weak contact on marginal pitch isn’t any better than a strikeout.

Runs, Runs Batted In

I do list ERA when recapping pitchers. Much of the time, it’s a handy stat, but it’s not the end-all and sometimes is lying to you. Let’s take two pitchers in low-A last year:

Player A: 4.28 ERA, 43% SO rate, 7% BB rate, .272 opposing OBP, 16.5 pitches per inning
Player B: 3.68 ERA, 33% SO rate, 23% BB rate, 429 opposing OBP, 23.5 pitches per inning

Player B had the better ERA, but I’d pick Player A in a critical situation without question. B had a terrific strikeout rate but a bunch of innings marred by walks (mostly stranded, luckily) and elevated pitch counts. Pitcher A combined good control with an otherworldly strikeout rate, but the batters that reached were much more likely to get home. Usually, situational performance (such as runners in scoring position) tends to even out in the long run.

Sometimes a single terrible outing can wipe out a reliever’s ERA. My favorite example is John Smoltz back in 2002. He allowed eight runs in 0.2 innings in early April and needed three months of quality outings (including 37 saves!) just to drag his ERA below 4.00.

So, you’ll occasionally read something like “h;e spitched better [or worse] than his ERA would suggest.” If Players A and B continue to pitch as they have, Player A is far more likely to have the lower ERA eventually.

Wins and Losses
A pitcher’s win-loss record was a decent stat when horses kicked up dust in city streets and laudanum was available over the counter. In the modern game, it’s meaningless.  

Homers, Walks, Strikeouts (Pitchers)
These are better indicators than ERA, which is often tied to luck on balls in play and how well relievers strand runners left behind.

Homers are trickier to analyze. More fly balls equal more homers, of course, but HR rates can bounce around crazily from year to year for no other reason than variance. Walk and strikeout rates tend to stabilize more quickly.

Walk rates ballooned in Low-A in 2021, courtesy of a missed year, the eradication of short-season ball, and hundreds of max-effort throwers with control in various stages of (under)development. Also: robo-umps:

Low-A Combined Walk/HBP rate:
2019, human umps: 10.5%
2021, human umps: 12.2%
2021, robo-umps: 14.3%

For 29 years, the worst combined BB/HBP rate in low-A (14.5%) belonged to the 1991 Augusta Pirates. Six teams were worse last year, five of them in the robo-umped Low-A Southeast. The other was Down East’s division opponent in Fayetteville, a Houston affiliate. The Woodpeckers walked or plunked 17.1% of opposing batters and set a all-time record of 196 wild pitches despite a schedule shortened 20 games by the pandemic. (Fayetteville also used an amazing 55 pitchers in 2021, including 30 different starters.)

There seems to be more pitchers who can abide the higher walk rate because they’re darn near unhittable otherwise.

Strikeout have risen so much that I constantly have to remind myself what constitutes an acceptable rate. In 2007, my first year on the job, the best team in the Midwest League (which contained Texas-affiliated Clinton) had a strikeout rate of 21.3%. Last year, the worst team in Texas’s low-A league had a rate of 22.6%. The league average has increased 6% in that span, about 2.2 strikeouts per game per team.

HBPs are kind of an afterthought in typical stat-watching, but they’ve risen greatly in recent years, and some pitchers are plunk-prone enough to seriously degrade their performance.

I tend to refer to these stats in rates per batter faced rather than per nine innings. Per-nine accounting can be skewed by the number of runners allowed. If two pitchers strike out a batter per inning, they obviously are striking out an identical amount per nine innings, but if one is allowing one runner per inning and the other two, the stingier pitcher has a 25% strikeout rate compared to the other guy’s 20%. That 5% is meaningful.

Opposing Slash Stats
The opposing batting line relates closely to the pitcher’s core peripherals. I mention them often and think they’re interesting. Opponents batted a minuscule .146/.239/.259 against Cole Winn last year. Essentially, Winn turned everyone into a hitter in danger of losing his job. Winn’s combined walk/HBP was so-so, but really suppressed hits and power. Incidentally, Winn’s opposing average on balls in play was .199, which I seriously doubt is sustainable over the course of his upcoming time in Round Rock. Nothing against Winn, but some of those balls are going to find an opening.

Fielding is trickiest to evaluate from an outsider’s perspective. Fielding percentage rarely tells the whole story.

For example, over the course of a season, let’s pretend two infielders share shortstop duties equally. On their first 400 grounders, they’re identical statistically. But then on their next 20 grounders apiece, Shortstop 1 never a single one, but Shortstop 2 reaches all of them and turns 15 into outs and throws 5 into the stands, allowing those hitters to reach second. Shortstop 2 will have a worse fielding percentage, but he also turned 15 more balls into outs. Would you rather an opposing batter reach first safely 20 times, or reach second 5 times but get put out the other 15 times? Shortstop 2 is far more effective despite making more errors.

Even with no stats, you can learn plenty simply from where someone plays. For example, Frisco had a quartet of Bubba Thompson, JP Martinez, Josh Stowers and Steele Walker for last season’s first 80 games. Who played CF the most? Thompson with 40 starts, followed by Martinez with 28. Walker made about three-quarters of his corner outfield starts in right, while Stowers worked each corner equally. The guy getting the most starts in center might not necessarily be the best on his team in that role, but at the least he’s who the front office wants to see there the most. (In this case, Thompson is actually is the superior defender.)

Clubs have advanced stats (exit velo, launch angle, spin rate, etc.) on minor leaguers, but to date they’re not readily available to the public. I’m hopeful that some info will be available for the robo-umped Pacific Coast League. If so, I’ll incorporate it into the reports.