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

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 11, 2017

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

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Last week, the B/R MLB Metrics 101 took on hitters who've hit into extreme amounts of bad luck.

    Now it's time for a look at the other side of that coin.

    Hello and welcome back. Having covered the unluckiest hitters of the 2017 MLB season, MLB Metrics 101 now turns its attention to the luckiest hitters of the season. Here are the ground rules:

    • The statistical cutoff is May 8.
    • It takes a minimum of 100 at-bats to qualify for consideration.

    Before going any further, please consider two disclaimers.

    One: "Lucky" should not be confused for "bad." Yes, luck can turn a bad hitter into a good hitter. But it can also turn good hitters into even better hitters. Because...

    Two: Hitters arguably have more control over creating good luck than they do avoiding bad luck. There are special skills that make it possible.

    Anyway. Read on for more on how the "luckiest" hitters are going to be uncovered.

Methodology

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    As stated last week, determining a hitter's luck requires starting with the basics:

    • K%: Strikeouts per plate appearance. The MLB average this season is 21.5 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 68.8 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 87.0 miles per hour.

    From these five stats, you can get a pretty good idea of how well a hitter is performing. They tell you roughly how good his approach is and how well he's hitting the ball.

    But just like last week, the question is: Why settle for good enough when there's something better?

    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.

    To find unlucky hitters, last week's MLB Metrics 101 looked for hitters with extreme positive differences between their xwOBAs and their actual wOBAs. This week, it's the opposite end of the list that's in focus.

    On to some honorable mentions and a top 10.

Honorable Mentions

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies

    With a .403 wOBA through May 8, Charlie Blackmon has picked up where he left off after posting a .398 wOBA last season. Makes it look like the dude's carrying on as a much-improved hitter.

    His .342 xwOBA says, "Not so fast." That's a 61-point difference, and it raises nits to pick with his walk and strikeout rates, as well as his inferior launch angle.

    Starlin Castro, New York Yankees

    Starlin Castro is walking more, striking out less and hitting the ball higher and harder. So what's not to like about his .409 wOBA?

    As his .344 xwOBA suggests, this is only a case of a hitter who's been good but not that good. Considering that none of the above rates are impressive relative to league standards, that's fair.

    Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

    Geez, Jose Altuve's wOBA has already declined from .399 to .373 and now he's being called "lucky"?

    Them's the breaks. With a strikeout rate that's way up and his launch angle and exit velocity miles from what they were in 2016, the only surprise is that he has something as good as a .304 xwOBA.

    Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

    The .407 wOBA Kris Bryant has this year is actually an improvement on the .402 wOBA he put up as the National League MVP last season. Yet his xwOBA lags 72 points behind at just .335.

    With good walk and strikeout rates and a good-as-ever launch angle, Bryant's not totally out of whack. But if he doesn't get his exit velocity out of the gutter, he may not escape regression.

10. Steven Souza Jr., Tampa Bay Rays

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    Matthew Hazlett/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    13928.1 12.9 58.311.088.6 .289 .361 -72 

    Steven Souza Jr. has gotten control of an approach that produced a 34.0 K% and just a 6.6 BB% last year. To paraphrase Carl Spackler, it's nice that he has that going for him.

    However, he still has a high strikeout rate and is making contact that ranks somewhere well below Giancarlo Stanton on the "DANG!" meter. There's no getting from this process to his results without a little luck.

    Consider some context. The average xwOBA on non-homer hits is .562 and the average xwOBA on homers is 1.338. If a player's hits register on the south side of those numbers, they're fair game to be called "lucky."

    Survey says that Souza has 15 lucky hits and two lucky homers. One could look at the numbers and see nothing but witchcraft. But as it usually does, the video tells other tales.

    Souza's triple that had a .043 xwOBA, for example, was a bloop to right field that was weakly hit and then misplayed. Then there's the home run with a .298 xwOBA, which was a pop fly to left field that got swallowed up by the ever-gluttonous Green Monster.

    Of course, suggesting that Souza is owed some bad luck is stating the obvious at this point. He went into Wednesday with a .384 OPS over his last 10 games.

9. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

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    Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    13117.6 20.6 61.8 11.291.4.449 .524 -75 

    Let's get one thing nice and crystal clear: Bryce Harper is having a spectacular season.

    Truly. He is. His strikeout, walk and contact rates are all outstanding. Thus, he would be one of MLB's elite hitters even if everyone had their xwOBAs instead of their actual wOBAs.

    So let's go ahead and call this slide what it is: An exercise in nitpicking.

    There are 16 nits to pick with Harper's non-homer hits. Included within are a pair (one and two) of softly hit singles that turned into hits courtesy of where defenders were playing and little else. If anyone was wondering how Harper could have a career-high .375 average on ground balls, there you go.

    As for the homers, only two rate as lucky and the worst of the bunch actually looks good to the naked eye. But between its modest 97.1 mph exit velocity and 350 feet of distance, that particular homer wouldn't have fared as well in a less forgiving stadium—Kauffman Stadium, for example—than Citizens Bank Park. 

    So let the record show that even hitters as great as Harper benefit from a bit of luck now and again. They don't need it, but they'll take it.

8. Eric Thames, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    13022.3 15.4 60.8 13.1 89.4 .407 .484 -77 

    From Russia with Love, meet From Korea with Luck.

    In fairness to Eric Thames, there's more than just good luck going into his triumphant return after three years abroad. He's shown off elite plate discipline and has generally hit the ball well.

    In fact, only seven of Thames' 23 non-homer hits qualify as lucky. Go figure, as the descriptions on many of those hits include the phrase "sharp line drive."

    Oddly enough, it's actually his home runs that are a different story. Seven of his first 12 dingers register as lucky. A couple of those are right on the border. Others are well below it. Case in point: a high, arcing 357-footer that just cleared the Miller Park fence.

    It points to how Thames hasn't been skating by on his raw power. He's more so getting by on his pull habit. And while that is indeed a skill, it's a skill that pitchers can fight back against with sequencing and location.

    If the .724 OPS Thames had over his last 10 games before Tuesday is any indication, they may already be doing so.

7. Corey Dickerson, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    12920.9 7.0 72.114.284.7.311.392 -81

    Corey Dickerson has gone from a .325 wOBA in 2016 to a .392 wOBA this season. With better walk and strikeout rates and plenty of loft in his swing, it's not a total accident.

    That exit velocity, though...yikes.

    That's Dickerson's lowest mark of the Statcast era, as well as one of the lowest marks of any hitter this season. That's a bad look on a guy whose best tool is his power.

    Dickerson has collected 16 lucky non-homers and three lucky homers. The usual caveat of there being some borderline lucky hits applies. But it's harder to make excuses for other hits, such as a double that landed in medium-depth right-center field and another that landed in shallow left field.

    And with an xwOBA of just .120, Dickerson also owns one of the luckiest home runs of the season so far. That was a 335-foot fly ball that just barely landed beyond the short left field fence at Tropicana Field.

    Dickerson is still going strong with a .310 average in his last 10 games. But in light of all of the above, it's not surprising that he has only one extra-base hit in this span.

6. Josh Harrison, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Justin Berl/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    12216.44.1 73.8 17.8 84.3 .283 .364 -81

    True to form, Josh Harrison is going to the plate looking to swing, as opposed to attempting to draw more walks. But he's still making enough contact to justify that, and this year he's getting under the ball more than usual.

    But the same "Yeah, but" that applies to Dickerson also applies to Harrison: His exit velocity is bad even by his standards, as well as one of the worst marks among qualified hitters.

    The twist is that not all of his 14 lucky hits were actually that lucky. They include a handful of infield hits, which have as much to do with his speed as anything else. It's hard to fault a guy for doing what he can to put one of his best tools to use.

    His home runs, on the other hand...

    Harrison has five of them this season, and all five fall below the lucky threshold. The luckiest of the bunch (.161 xwOBA) was a 349-foot fly ball that barely crept over the right field wall at Great American Ball Park.

    Harrison hasn't been outright bad. But sort of like in 2014, his lofty production this season is a bit too good to be true.

5. Cesar Hernandez, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    13823.2 5.8 70.3 1.884.7.297 .381 -84 

    Based on his production, Cesar Hernandez is one of the better offensive second basemen in MLB this season. 

    There is, however, quite the discrepancy between his production and his process.

    He's struck out too often and drawn too few walks. And when he has put the ball in play, he's done so with a swing that's been flat and punchless.

    Surprisingly, only two of the four homers he's hit qualify as lucky. Where he's really felt the touch of Lady Luck is on his non-homer hits. Of the bunch, 21 fall below the lucky threshold. Included within are soft ground balls that turned into hits by barely evading defenders or finding bad defenders.

    Like Harrison, Hernandez does have some speed to put to use when he hits the ball on the ground. But this early performance reeks of unsustainability. He has a .327 average on ground balls that's miles away from his career average of .273.

    After he hit .294 with a .371 OBP last season, it is fair to call Hernandez a good hitter. He's just not this good.

4. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    13020.813.1 64.6 13.287.8.392.478 -86 

    (Checks and sees that Mike Trout is still the best baseball player on the planet.)

    Welp. This is awkward.

    But not too awkward, thankfully. It stands out that Mike Trout's walk rate and exit velocity are down, but I've already covered how the trade-offs include the right kind of aggressiveness and more use of the whole field. Maybe he's not as dangerous, but he's more of a complete hitter than he's ever been.

    Even still, Trout can't be given too much credit for some of the hits he's gotten.

    He likely didn't mean to get a triple on a pop fly to right field that Jose Bautista biffed in every which way. He probably didn't mean to get a single on a soft ground ball that was in a perfect spot to avoid Yu Darvish's glove. And without the short porch at Minute Maid Park, he'd have one less homer.

    Those are pieces of a collection that includes 15 lucky non-homers and three lucky homers. It may not be the most outrageous collection, but it does go to show that even the best need a little luck.

3. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    12220.5 6.6 72.1 12.793.5.456 .550 -94 

    According to his results, Ryan Zimmerman has been raking in 2017.

    According to his process, same thing.

    It would be nice if the 32-year-old's walk rate was a little higher. But next to his passable strikeout rate and the rockets coming off his bat, that's the nittiest nit anyone's ever picked.

    It's the same story with his home runs. Sure, four of the 13 he's hit qualify as lucky. But one of them is barely on the other side of the line, and all four have xwOBAs over 1.000. So, end discussion.

    The real good luck he's received is pretty much confined to his non-homer hits. He's had 15 that make the grade as lucky, including six that had xwOBAs under .200. Four of those were infield singles.

    At his age, Zimmerman's likely not going to keep those coming. That'll help chip away at a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) that's way overpowered. His HR/FB (home runs per fly ball) should also come down.

    Zimmerman shouldn't crash and burn, however. He'd be an elite hitter even if he had his xwOBA instead of his actual wOBA. Not that he needed it, but that's encouragement to keep doing what he's doing.

2. Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

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    Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    1129.8 6.3 82.11.685.7.266.363-97 

    Xander Bogaerts isn't punting on walks and is making a ton of contact. That's not a bad dynamic to have.

    Otherwise, FanGraphs' Dave Cameron nailed it: "Bogaerts is hitting the ball with the kind of authority that makes you something like an offensive zero."

    Bogaerts wasn't exactly a slugger before, but even this is out of character for him. His launch angle and exit velocity are usually higher. So, what gives?

    The answer is in the eye test. At a time when most hitters are looking to drive the ball at all times, Bogaerts has settled into a less crowded niche of bat-control artists. Wizards arrive precisely when they mean to, and Bogaerts hits the ball precisely where he means to.

    Of course, he's still needed some good luck here and there.

    For instance, that time he got a triple on a pop fly that was misplayed by Robbie Grossman. Or that one single he got on a pop fly to shallow left field. And so on down the line of the 24 non-homer hits (i.e. he has no homers this year) he has below the lucky threshold.

    Bogaerts is safe in his niche for now. But eventually, bad luck should start closing in.

1. Mark Reynolds, Colorado Rockies

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
    PAK%BB%BIP%LA (°)EV (MPH)xwOBAwOBADifference
    12421.88.9 69.46.587.7 .335 .435 -100 

    The production the Colorado Rockies have gotten out of Mark Reynolds has been a godsend. Without it, it would have been a long and painful wait for Ian Desmond to recover from his broken hand.

    So if nothing else, this is well-timed good luck. But how much longer can it last?

    Coors Field will help. It unsurprisingly has an extreme wOBA-boosting effect, and Reynolds has indeed been helped by it.

    His swing, however, isn't built to maximize the Coors Field effect. Balls are coming off his bat as hard as usual, but nowhere near as high as usual. He plays in an elevated park that rewards elevation, yet he's not elevating.

    Not all the homers Reynolds has hit with this swing have been lucky. But eight of them fall on the wrong side of the line. There are 15 other lucky hits in his collection. Included within are a couple infield singles and assorted well-placed ground balls and soft line drives.

    Some of this is clearly by design. Reynolds is no longer the strikeout maestro he once was, which is an expected benefit of a swing like his. More fortuitous hits is another.

    Still, it's a good thing Desmond is back. The Rockies are going to need him when Reynolds' luck runs out.

    Data courtesy of Baseball Savant and FanGraphs.

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