MLB Metrics 101: Ranking MLB's Unluckiest Hitters of 2017

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 4, 2017

MLB Metrics 101: Ranking MLB's Unluckiest Hitters of 2017

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    Ron Schwane/Getty Images

    All hitters can do is try to take good swings. And even if they do, the baseball gods are under no obligation to reward them.

    Translation: Bad luck happens in baseball. It's also the subject of the latest MLB Metrics 101.

    Hello, and welcome back. This week's topic is the unluckiest hitters of the 2017 MLB season. Here are the ground rules:

    • The statistical cutoff is May 1
    • Hitters must have logged at least 75 at-bats

    In past years, determining bad luck and which hitters were suffering from it required a lot of guesswork. But thanks to new stats that shine light on previously dark areas, there's no longer as much guessing.

    Read on for the juicy details.

Methodology

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    There are three things that are most likely to happen in a given plate appearance: a walk, a strikeout or a ball in play. And if the ball is in play, it's going to have a specific trajectory and speed.

    Thus, the basics for how hitters are hitting:

    • K%: Strikeouts per plate appearance. The MLB average this year is 21.6 percent.
    • BB%: Walks per plate appearance. The average is 8.8 percent.
    • BIP%: Balls in play per plate appearance. This includes both home runs (which aren't technically in play, but whatever) and regular batted balls. The average is 69.6 percent.
    • Launch Angle: The angle of the ball off the bat. The MLB average this year is 10.9 degrees.
    • Exit Velocity: The speed of the ball off the bat. The MLB average this year is 87.1 miles per hour.

    Take a hitter's performance in these departments and cross-reference it with his results, and you can get a fairly good idea of how lucky or unlucky he's been.

    But why settle for that when there's a better option? This involves going to Baseball Savant and looking at:

    • xwOBA: Expected weighted on-base average. Developed by Tom Tango, wOBA is a catch-all offensive statistic that's comparable to OPS, but more carefully calculated. According to MLB.com, xwOBA combines the expected outcomes of batted balls with actual walks, strikeouts and hit-by-pitches. The result is an indication of how well a hitter is actually hitting.
    • wOBA: Actual wOBA. See above.

    This is a lot to take in, but it all leads to a simple solution: finding the difference between each hitter's xwOBA and his real-life wOBA. Unlucky hitters have positive differences. The idea here is to focus on the biggest differences and count down to the biggest of the bunch.

    On to some honorable mentions and a top 10.

Honorable Mentions

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    David Maxwell/Getty Images

    Yunel Escobar, Los Angeles Angels

    With a .279 wOBA through May 1, Yunel Escobar is a good distance away from the solid .327 wOBA he put up last year. 

    But he's still the same hitter. His strikeout and walk rates are par for the course, and his launch angle and exit velocity haven't changed much. Thus, an xwOBA of .336 that's 57 points higher than his actual wOBA.

              

    Neil Walker, New York Mets

    Neil Walker's .351 wOBA made him one of the top hitters on the Mets last year. With a .267 wOBA through May 1, he's been one of their worst this year.

    To be fair, he's not alone there. And while his swing hasn't had as much exit velocity in it this year, he still has a solid xwOBA of .321. The hits should come for him eventually.

                  

    Edwin Encarnacion, Cleveland Indians

    It's not entirely by accident that Edwin Encarnacion had just a .320 wOBA through May 1, putting him 53 points off last year's wOBA. His strikeout rate is 33.3 percent, which is...well, not good.

    On the bright side, Encarnacion is still hitting the ball hard and with loft. His xwOBA is .369, 49 points higher than his actual wOBA.

                    

    Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves

    The word of warning here is that while Swanson has indeed outperformed his .195 wOBA, his .244 xwOBA wouldn't make him a great hitter if it came true.

    Still, it's evidence that the rookie isn't completely overwhelmed. He could stand to improve his walk and strikeout rates, but his exit velocity and launch angle are solid.

10. Nicholas Castellanos, Detroit Tigers

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    11329.28.061.913.593.2 .399.33861 

    Here, right off the bat, is a good example of how unlucky isn't the same as bad.

    Nicholas Castellanos is actually having a good season. The .338 wOBA he had through May 1 isn't amazing by any stretch, but it's safely ahead of the MLB average of .315.

    But just from looking at how he's actually hitting, it should be no surprise to hear he deserves better. He's striking out a lot, sure, but the walks are there and his swing has a higher launch angle and a lot more exit velocity than the average hitter's.

    Alas, bad luck is the rub. The average xwOBA on a field out is just .216. Castellanos has 25 outs that registered higher xwOBAs than that—let's call these unlucky outs from here on—including a whopping 12 that he hit at more than 100 mph off the bat.

    The biggest robbery among the bunch was a fly ball that was 104.4 mph off the bat and traveled 391 feet before Jackie Bradley Jr. snagged it at the wall. Not a whole lot a guy can do about that.

    Oh well. Give Castellanos some time, and more hits should come.

9. Justin Bour, Miami Marlins

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    9423.49.667.06.593.9.370.30763 

    Justin Bour is one of several hitters the Miami Marlins need to get going. Fortunately for them, that shouldn't require anything more than being patient.

    Bour is striking out a tad too much and is also hitting the ball at a lower angle than a slugger like him should be. But the patience and the punch are still there. In fact, his average exit velocity is only 0.3 points away from that of Aaron Judge.

    Although only 16 out the outs Bour has hit into can be classified as unlucky, this next part is quite astonishing: 13 of them have come on balls that he hit at least 100 mph.

    The hardest was a 114.4-mph smash that found Alen Hanson's glove. That registers as one of the hardest-hit outs of the season so far. 

    A better launch angle would help some of these balls find daylight. But even if Bour changes nothing, his luck should turn around eventually.

8. Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    11114.4 18.9 66.79.092.8.472.40567

    Don't feel too bad for Corey Seager. The .405 wOBA he had through May 1 put him among MLB's top 25 hitters.

    But since he should be doing even better, it's OK to feel a little bad for him.

    His strikeout percentage is only a modest improvement from last year's 19.4. But his walk rate is nearly double last year's 7.7 mark. And while his launch angle is down, his exit velocity is about two miles per hour faster than his average from 2016.

    Seager has hit into 22 unlucky outs, including nine that left his bat at over 100 miles per hour. Albert Almora shoulders a good chunk of the blame. In a game at Wrigley Field earlier this year, he flagged down two Seager smashes that traveled 390 feet and 407 feet, respectively. How rude.

    Of course, Seager hasn't needed any of these hits to fall in order to keep his place as one of baseball's elite offensive shortstops. That's how good he is.

7. Kendrys Morales, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    11020.06.472.78.490.5.368 .29771

    Kendrys Morales has taken a step back in all the important departments. He's striking out more and walking less than he did in 2016, and balls have come off his bat lower and slower.

    But sort of like what's going on with Lester, none of the figures Morales has in those departments this year are terrible. They're just not as good.

    Morales has hit into 19 unlucky outs this season. Seven outs have left his bat at over 100 mph. That includes a 109.8-mph ground ball that he hit at the last fielder any hitter wants to test: Andrelton Simmons.

    One word of warning is that Morales underperformed his xwOBA last season, too. But it wasn't quite to this degree, and the big difference this year is that he no longer has to tangle with the huge dimensions of Kauffman Stadium.

    So, that makes one thing that should start going the Toronto Blue Jays' way. Gotta start somewhere.

6. Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    10122.8 8.9 66.310.288.6.378.302 76

    Carlos Correa is another case of a guy who's practically asking for bad luck.

    It's good news that his launch angle is up, as he had previously been holding back his raw power with a flat swing. But his K% and BB% are worse than they were in 2016, and he's not matching his launch angle improvement with more exit velocity.

    However, he's not to be mistaken for a guy who doesn't have any hard hits in him.

    Correa has hit 21 balls at over 100 mph this season. Most of those have gone for hits, but eight of them haven't. That includes a 106.3-mph bullet in Tampa Bay that hung up just long enough for Shane Peterson.

    That's one of 17 unlucky outs Correa has hit into. If a few more of those balls had found daylight, his 2017 season suddenly doesn't look so disappointing.

    As it is, he's turning things around with a .997 OPS in his last 10 games anyway. Watch out.

5. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles

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    Adam Hunger/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    10617.015.167.916.0 94.7 .422.344 78 

    Manny Machado has been knocking the crud out of the ball.

    That launch angle is the highest of his career. Through May 1, his average exit velocity ranked behind only Miguel Sano, Khris Davis and Miguel Cabrera. His strikeout and walk rates aren't too shabby either.

    Yet Machado's .344 wOBA is nowhere near the top of the charts. He's hit into 21 unlucky outs, including 14 in which the ball left his bat at over 100 mph. One of those made Kevin Pillar risk life and limb.

    However, Machado's bad luck is fading like Correa's.

    He's collected a pair of doubles and a trio of home runs in his last seven games. Those homers haven't been cheapies. Each was absolutely obliterated, but none more so than the one that traveled 470 feet at Yankee Stadium.

    So despite what his surface numbers may indicate, Machado's bat has really never been better. Throw in his excellent defense, and he's quietly working on his best season yet.

4. Hanley Ramirez, Boston Red Sox

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    9016.78.974.4 11.691.4.408 .32187

    With four homers in his last five games, Hanley Ramirez is starting to collect on outstanding good luck.

    And to hear him say it, he's not even locked in yet.

    "Not yet, not yet. I'm getting close," he said, according to Ian Browne of MLB.com. "I've just been working to stay short and more compact with my swing."

    There's nothing wrong with Ramirez's swing or his approach as is. His strikeout and walk rates are fine. His launch angle and exit velocity are better than what he's used to.

    Luck is really all Ramirez has been missing. He'd only hit into 16 unlucky outs through May 1, but four had xwOBAs over 1.000 and seven left his bat at over 100 mph. Jordy Mercer is fortunate one of those didn't punch a hole through his glove.

    This is not to suggest that Ramirez is on his way to replicating the monstrous production the Red Sox got from David Ortiz last season. But if he keeps this up, he could actually come close.

3. Maikel Franco, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    10412.58.777.9 8.1 91.1 .375 .284 91 

    Maikel Franco may only have four home runs, but two of them have come with the bases loaded. At least he has that going for him.

    Now all he needs is some better luck.

    Franco is doing almost everything right. He's taking his walks and putting the ball in play when he swings, and his exit velocity is his best yet.

    Alas, he's been marred by 20 unlucky outs. Including eight hit over 100 mph.

    The one nit to pick is that Franco's launch angle is down from his previous norms. He's become more of a line drive/ground ball hitter. That's no way for such a powerful hitter to go through life, as it's a habit that can make even scorched ground balls and line drives find leather.

    Nonetheless, Franco's poor surface-level stats overstate his demise as a budding star. If he keeps doing what he's doing, he should reemerge as a piece for the Philadelphia Phillies to build around.

2. Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    857.15.987.112.489.9.355.248 107 

    One thing that's not a good sign at all is Joe Mauer's walk rate. 

    This is a guy who typically draws free passes at a much higher rate than the average hitter. Now he's barely taking any walks, thereby zapping a much-needed safety net for his on-base percentage.

    That swing, though? Yeah, it's still sweet.

    To see Mauer making so much contact is nothing new. His exit velocity is also par for the course. What's new is his launch angle, which is suddenly much higher. He typically looked to hit line drives before. Now he seems to be trying to hit dingers.

    This new approach hasn't been met with much luck so far. He's hit into 19 unlucky outs, including 10 that left his bat at over 100 mph. For perspective, he had 37 such outs all of last season.

    One thing Mauer could do to force the issue is pull the ball more. He's still favoring the opposite field, and Justin Upton isn't the only left fielder who seems wise to the act. Mauer hasn't gotten much past them.

    Or, he could just keep doing what he's doing. That could work, too.

1. Devon Travis, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
     87 18.46.974.7 10.8 87.9 .322 .197125 

    Disclaimer: Devon Travis hasn't been great this season.

    His strikeout rate is just OK. His walk rate is subpar. His launch angle and exit velocity are fine, but only fine. So even if his xwOBA was indeed his actual wOBA, it would only be tied for the 89th-best mark among qualified hitters. Sounds about right.

    All this being said, Lady Luck still owes the guy a solid.

    Travis has hit into 23 unlucky outs. And while few of those had high xwOBAs, they do reveal a pattern of good contact that went for naught. Case in point: a seemingly sure-thing single that found Steven Souza Jr.'s glove.

    Struggling like this is is a new experience for Travis. It was easy to lose sight of him amid all the big boppers in Toronto's lineup, but he was quite good when he was healthy in 2015 and 2016. He hit .301 with an .811 OPS over 671 plate appearances.

    Although he hasn't been that guy yet this season, it hasn't been for lack of trying. He just needs time.

    And obviously, luck.

    Date courtesy of Baseball Savant and FanGraphs.