MLB Metrics 101: Can Anyone Keep Up These Ridiculous Stat Paces?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 18, 2017

MLB Metrics 101: Can Anyone Keep Up These Ridiculous Stat Paces?

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    Does Aaron Judge have a path to 63 home runs?
    Does Aaron Judge have a path to 63 home runs?Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    The first quarter of the 2017 MLB season is over. If the next three quarters look anything like it, there are going to be some wild numbers at the end of the year.

    But if ever there was a big "if," that's it.

    Hello and welcome back to B/R's MLB Metrics 101 series. This week's mission is to line up 11 ridiculous stat paces and, in simple "zero" or "not zero" terms, assess their possibility of ultimately becoming reality.

    All stat paces are based on projections from and are current through play on Tuesday. Both individual stats and team stats are fair game, and the stats need not be of the flattering variety.

    Otherwise, that's the end of the ground rules. There's normally a "Methodology" section that explains the analytic method of the week. For this week, it's a case-by-case thing.

Houston Astros: 113 Wins

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Currently At: 28-12

    Last To Do It: 2001 Seattle Mariners

    Comets come around more often than 113-win seasons. Those 2001 Mariners are part of a super-exclusive club that's only ever granted two memberships.

    So let's get right to the heart of this thing: Are the 2017 Houston Astros really one of the best teams ever?

    Well, they're definitely good. They're in the top five of MLB in runs per game and runs allowed per game. Their lineup is both star-studded and deep. They have some star pitchers as well.

    But that good? 

    It's a good sign that the Astros have MLB's second-best run differential at plus-58. But even despite that, Baseball Reference's magic formula claims they've won two more games than they should have. Turn those into losses, and this slide doesn't exist.

    And it's not hard to pick nits that might trip up the Astros. Their starting rotation is no sure thing after Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. Their bullpen has been picking up a lot of slack. That's working fine for now, but perhaps not forever.

    If any modern team was going to take a spirited run at 113 wins, it would have been the practically flawless 2016 Chicago Cubs (who managed 103 wins). These Astros aren't quite on their level.

    Probability: Zero

Mike Fiers: 65 Home Runs Allowed

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Currently At: 16

    Last To Do It: Nobody

    You know that point about the Astros rotation being rocky after Keuchel? Mike Fiers has something to do with that.

    With 16 home runs allowed over 36 innings, Fiers is averaging four dingers allowed per nine innings pitched. That's nearly double the single-season record, and it puts him on track to smash Bert Blyleven's all-time record of 50 homers allowed.

    "I just need to keep the ball in the yard," Fiers said, according to Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. "It's been my thing this year. If I can keep the ball in the yard, I'm sitting pretty good."

    Thing is, Fiers has always had a home run problem. This year's hitters have simply made it worse. It's as if a homer-prone pitcher has been exposed to an extreme home run era that's being driven by a fly-ball revolution and possibly a juiced ball as well.

    It's too bad—not actually, but whatever—Fiers won't get a chance to see this thing through to the end. 

    The Astros could let him go for the home run record if they hated his guts and/or just wanted some cheap amusement. But they're presumably better than that.

    Probability: Zero

Aaron Judge: 63 Home Runs

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Currently At: 14

    Last To Do It: Barry Bonds

    If nothing else, Aaron Judge is larger than Bonds. And Mark McGwire. And Sammy Sosa. And Roger Maris and Babe Ruth.

    In fact, the 6'7" and 280-pound Judge is the largest hitter ever. And with his size comes just the kind of power he needs to follow through on his 63-homer pace. The average ball in the air off his bat is traveling at 101.3 miles per hour. That and a lofty swing are how he's clearing fences at a historic rate.

    Throw in the fact that Judge is playing in the most homer-happy season in history. Throw in the fact that he plays half his games at a home park that, per, is living up to its reputation as a bandbox. And what you get is a scenario that is surprisingly plausible.

    If only Judge had a track record and a better contact habit.

    The latter isn't great, as Judge is striking out in 28 percent of his plate appearances. None of the 60-homer seasons came paired with such a high strikeout rate. And while Judge could adjust, strikeouts have always plagued him. And indeed, his K percentage has actually gotten worse in May.

    Still, even a skeptic has to acknowledge: the whole "historically powerful hitter in a historically powerful era" thing is intriguing.

    Probability: Not Zero

Freddie Freeman: 63 Home Runs

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Currently At: 14

    Last To Do It: Barry Bonds

    Judge has been red-hot for six weeks. Freddie Freeman, meanwhile, has been red-hot for almost a year.

    Go back to last June, and Freeman is a .331/.435/.669 hitter with 40 homers. It's nothing new to see him hitting for average, but in a previous life, his power was somewhat disappointing. Now he's among the best at "barreling"—defined as an ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity—the ball.

    And where Judge has a whiff problem, Freeman's K percentage is generally about average and is now below average

    But is he even trying to hit homers?

    He told this spring that he has "zero idea" why homers have started to come for him. In fact, the big change he made last season wasn't even designed for dingers: "I changed my batting practice in June by trying to hit line drives to the shortstop and it turned my whole season around." 

    Freeman's launch angle is actually down a few ticks in 2017, resulting in fewer balls in the air. To boot, the brand-new SunTrust Park is more homer-neutral than homer-friendly.

    Freeman should have a career year in the power department. But one for the books? Probably not.

    Probability: Zero

Milwaukee Brewers: 263 Home Runs

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Currently At: 65

    Last To Do It: 1997 Seattle Mariners

    A few teams have taken aim at the 1997 Mariners' home run record over the last 20 years, most recently the 2016 Baltimore Orioles. Alas, none were equal to the task (the O's finished with 253).

    Leave it to the Milwaukee Brewers to say, "Hold our beer."

    With 65 dingers through 40 games, Milwaukee is on track to brush right up against the '97 Mariners. And it's been a true group effort. Eric Thames leads the way with his 13 homers, but he's just one of seven Milwaukee hitters with at least five homers.

    However, just one of those guys has a major league track record as a home run hitter. That would be Ryan Braun, who's hurt now and who's at an age (33) where he may keep getting hurt.

    Elsewhere, the Brewers are the hardest-hitting team in MLB in results only.

    Twenty-two teams are better at getting the ball off the ground, and 10 teams hit fly balls and line drives with more exit velocity. They've been one of MLB's luckiest homer-hitting teams, and not even Miller Park appears suited to keep the luck coming.

    Guess this means they're now out a beer.

    Probability: Zero

Billy Hamilton: 81 Stolen Bases

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Currently At: 19

    Last To Do It: Rickey Henderson

    Billy Hamilton has peaked at 58 stolen bases in a big league season, but let's go ahead and clear one thing up: He's fast enough to do better.

    "Hamilton's speed is the stuff of legend. Multiple scouts describe him as the fastest player they've ever seen," wrote J.J. Cooper of Baseball America in 2014. In 2012, Hamilton stole 155 bases across two minor league levels. 

    After getting caught stealing a league-high 23 times in 2014, Hamilton needed to be more efficient. That mission has long since been accomplished. He was successful with 88 percent of his steal attempts in 2015 and 2016 and he's at 90 percent with 19 successes in 21 tries this season.

    This part is important, because Hamilton only gets so many chances to steal bases. His career on-base percentage is .298. He's only at .310 this year. Since he's not great at hitting for average and isn't going to scare pitchers into walking him, he's probably stuck there.

    However, an OBP that low isn't necessarily a barrier between him and 80-plus stolen bases. Vince Coleman and Omar Moreno topped 80 steals with sub-.310 OBPs back in the 1980s.

    Since Hamilton is probably faster than both of them, he could be on to something.

    Probability: Not Zero

Greg Holland: 69 Saves

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Currently At: 17

    Last To Do It: Nobody

    Disclaimer: Saves are dumb.

    Other disclaimer: But they're a window into an excellent season in this case.

    The Colorado Rockies were supposedly taking a chance when they signed Greg Holland. He had missed the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery and endured a rocky (no pun intended) 2015 before that.

    But you'd never know it. Holland has pitched 17.1 innings in 18 appearances and has allowed only nine hits and five walks while striking out 23. Not a lot of contact is being made against him.

    That's one explanation for the saves. The other is how the Rockies are breaking from their usual script. They normally rely on using their offense to bludgeon the opposition. This year their offense is just OK. Instead, they're winning close games with good enough starting pitching and an elite bullpen.

    However, this may be a tenuous mix. If luck doesn't kill Holland's run at Francisco Rodriguez's record of 62 saves, the Rockies offense and/or starting staff reverting to their usual norms could.

    These are the reasons the Rockies have only ever had one 40-save closer. Holland has a shot at becoming the second, but anything more than that is asking a lot.

    Probability: Zero

Joey Gallo: 231 Strikeouts

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    R. Yeatts/Getty Images

    Currently At: 57

    Last To Do It: Nobody

    At least this much is certain: Joey Gallo isn't going to stop striking out.

    He's striking out less now than he did in 2015 and 2016. But at 38.5 percent, his K rate is still on track to be a single-season record.

    There's not much he can do about the large strike zone that comes with his 6'5" frame. And while he could cut down on his violent and powerful swing, he doesn't want to.

    "The kind of player I am, I go up to the plate and I'm looking to do damage every at-bat," Gallo said, per Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today.

    All Gallo needs to break Mark Reynolds' single-season record of 223 strikeouts is playing time.

    Adrian Beltre's impending return off the disabled list is a potential wrench in that equation. But because Gallo offers so much power to offset his whiffs, the Texas Rangers do have the incentive to keep him in the lineup. They can do so by rotating him around third base, first base, left field and DH.

    That arrangement wouldn't guarantee a straight path to the strikeout record. But it would keep some kind of path open.

    Probability: Not Zero

Chris Sale: 362 Strikeouts

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    Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

    Currently At: 85

    Last To Do It: Randy Johnson

    Chris Sale is attempting to go where only Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax have gone before in the modern era. Recording 370-plus K's is the baseball equivalent of an astronaut trying to reach the monolith orbiting Jupiter.

    It sure helps Sale's cause that it's not just Gallo striking out at a historic rate this year. The entire league is. What also helps is that he has a special magic trick for making strikeouts. It involves:

    1. Launching an all-out assault on the strike zone.
    2. Throwing stuff that's so nasty that hitters can't even make contact with his strikes.

    But to get to Johnson, Ryan and Koufax territory, Sale's workload will need to go further than it's ever been.

    He's projected for 247.2 innings, which is 21 more than he's ever pitched. It can't hurt that, at 28, he's still in his prime. What won't help, however, is that the conventions of modern baseball dictate that starting pitchers aren't supposed to work that much.

    Odds are Sale will have to be content with a mere 300-strikeout season.

    Probability: Zero

Bryce Harper: 179 Runs Scored

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Currently At: 42

    Last To Do It: Nobody

    Because the whole idea of baseball is to score runs, Bryce Harper is basically having the best season ever.

    He owes his teammates a debt of gratitude for this. He's been hitting in front of Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon. Zimmerman has been one of the top hitters in MLB, and Murphy and Rendon have been safely above average.

    But while he's patting backs, Harper is entitled to pat his own.

    Power and speed are good ingredients for scoring runs. Harper has oodles of the former and is no slouch with the latter. And the first step toward using one's speed is getting on base. Harper is getting on more often than not, as he's on track for what would only be the 15th OBP better than .500.

    That's reflective of Harper's overall skill in the box. It's also, however, the product of some luck. And this just isn't the right time for a .500 OBP to last a whole year. The league's OBP of .322 is well below the peaks that accompanied the .500 OBPs of players like Ruth, Bonds and Ted Williams.

    Harper should regress toward something more like his 2015 season. That would involve "only" a .460-ish OBP with "only" 40-ish homers and "only" 120-ish runs scored.

    Probability: Zero

Ryan Zimmerman: 453 Total Bases

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Currently At: 106

    Last To Do It: Babe Ruth

    Total bases, in case anyone needs a refresher, is how many bases a player reaches on his hits. You get one for a single, two for a double, three for a triple and four for a home run.

    This stat favors hitters who get a bunch of hits and also hit for power. So, basically Ryan Zimmerman.

    Zimmerman leads MLB with 52 hits and 15 doubles, and his 13 home runs put him just one shy of the league lead. This is his life with a loftier, more powerful swing. As well as good, old-fashioned health.

    "I think he just needed to stay healthy," Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu told Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. "With him being healthy, it's a lot easier to stay consistent."

    But that's also a red flag. Zimmerman averaged only 90 games per year between 2014 and 2016. And at 32, he's at an age where past injuries aren't obligated to stay in the past.

    If the injury bug doesn't take Zimmerman down, Lady Luck will. Like Harper, he's been outperforming his expected results. The slump he's fallen into over his last seven games was inevitable.

    Zimmerman's pursuit is thus like most others on this list: fun, but futile.

    Now if everyone will excuse me, I have about 1,247 other parades to go rain on.

    Probability: Zero


    Data courtesy of ESPN.comBaseball Reference, FanGraphsBaseball Savant.


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