Metrics 101: These MLB Players Are Poised for Big 2018 Letdowns

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 5, 2018

Metrics 101: These MLB Players Are Poised for Big 2018 Letdowns

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    Looking at you, Marwin Gonzalez.
    Looking at you, Marwin Gonzalez.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The baseball gods giveth, and the baseball gods taketh away.

    Along comes MLB Metrics 101 to highlight which players should take that as a warning.

    Hello and welcome back. This week, we're covering 2017 standouts who are in danger of regressing in 2018. They're not bad players. They're simply stand to be knocked down a peg by having good luck turn into bad luck.

    There is no overarching methodology at play this week. Instead, each of the eight players on our radar offers unique statistics that don't pass the smell test.

    We'll start with four hitters and end with four pitchers.

Eduardo Nunez, Boston Red Sox

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Boston Red Sox scored when they re-signed Eduardo Nunez for just two years and $8 million in February. Right now, he's a capable fill-in for the injured Dustin Pedroia. Later, he'll be a capable utility infielder.

    They just shouldn't expect anything like the .313 batting average or the .801 OPS that he put up last year.

    The 30-year-old isn't one to take his walks, and he typically features below-average power. His offensive success relies on making contact and racking up a high batting average on balls in play. This typically isn't a problem, as he's frequently posted below-average strikeout rates and above-average BABIPs.

    There is, however, something suspicious about the career-high BABIP that Nunez posted in 2017.

    The 56-point difference between Nunez's expected BABIP (.283) and actual BABIP (.339) was the highest he's posted since Statcast came into being in 2015. That figure is based on the quality of his contact, which is where the regression of his average exit velocity to 85.5 mph on non-home run batted balls is a red flag.

    To be fair, good directional control and plain ol' speed can help make up for low exit velocity. But it's hard to chalk Nunez's 2017 success up to these things. He bunched his hits to the left of center field and fell from an average sprint of 28.5 feet per second in 2016 to 27.8 in 2017.

    In all, what he did with the bat in 2017 is too suspicious to trust.

Andrelton Simmons, Los Angeles Angels

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Andrelton Simmons won his third Gold Glove in 2017. On account of him being an all-powerful wizard at shortstop, it's a good bet that he'll win his fourth in 2018.

    However, the gripe here is about the power that Simmons gave the Los Angeles Angels last year.

    He didn't challenge Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the slugging arena, but he did rack up a career-high 54 extra-base hits. Like with virtually all other contemporary power spikes, a raise in average launch angle helped drive Simmons' outburst.

    But now for the bad news: Simmons' 1.253 expected slugging percentage on extra-base hits was the lowest among all hitters who collected at least 50 of them.

    One of the ingredients here was Simmons' MLB-low (among the qualifiers) 16.1-degree launch angle on his extra-base hits. Another was his modest 96.7 mph average exit velocity.

    He wasn't the only hitter who didn't crush his extra-base hits, but the better-than-expected slugging of others can mostly be credited to hitter-friendly home ballparks. Angel Stadium hasn't fit the bill in the past. And while the stadium now has a lower right-field fence, Simmons isn't likely to take advantage of it. Right field isn't his power alley.

    On the bright side, he'll still have his glove. And due to the many new additions in their lineup, the Angels don't need a ton of offense from him anyway.

Avisail Garcia, Chicago White Sox

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    It's not totally by accident that Avisail Garcia transformed from a perennial disappointment into an All-Star-caliber hitter in 2017.

    In the past, he'd been too aggressive against pitches outside the strike zone and too passive against pitches inside the strike zone. He changed the latter last year and benefited accordingly.

    "His at-bats in general overall have been much better, more consistent," Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria said last May, per Dan Hayes of NBC Sports Chicago.

    And yet, a frustrating element of Garcia's offensive profile remained: ground balls.

    As per usual, grounders accounted for more than half of all his batted balls. What really changed was his batting average on ground balls:

    • 2015: .232
    • 2016: .216
    • 2017: .370

    That's quite the leap. Ultimately, only Delino DeShields Jr. had a higher ground-ball average (.415) out of all players who hit at least 100 of them.

    With DeShields, that can be written off as a product of some of the best speed in the game. With Garcia? Not as much. It's also tough to make the case that he improved his directional control.

    So if Garcia wants to keep hitting like an All-Star, he'd better have another positive change in store.

Marwin Gonzalez, Houston Astros

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    How did Marwin Gonzalez go from a solid super-utility man to a legit star in 2017?

    A little of this, a little of that and a lot of luck.

    Like all Houston Astros hitters, Gonzalez was tough to strike out last season. He also took more walks and hit for more power than usual. Add these things together, and you get a well-rounded hitter.

    But once again, here comes Statcast to ruin the lovefest.

    The best metric for encapsulating all-around hitting is weighted on-base average (wOBA). This also comes with its own version of "expected" production (xwOBA), and it's not kind to Gonzalez. The 56-point gap between his xwOBA (.326) and actual wOBA (.382) was the largest of any hitter in 2017.

    Although Gonzalez was a genuinely tough out in 2017, he just didn't hit the ball as well as his final numbers indicate. To do a quick comparison:

    • Marwin Gonzalez: 10.9 degrees LA, 87.5 mph EV, .382 wOBA
    • Steven Souza Jr.: 10.9 degrees LA, 88.1 mph EV, .348 wOBA

    The obvious explanation is that Gonzalez was helped by Minute Maid Park while Souza was hurt by Tropicana Field. But Gonzalez was actually better on the road (.396 wOBA) than at home (.368 wOBA).

    It all reeks of an unsustainable breakout. Luckily for the Astros, they have enough excellent hitters to withstand the regression of one.

Jose Urena, Miami Marlins

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    B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images

    Jose Urena was a bright spot for the Miami Marlins in 2017. They sorely need him to be an even brighter spot in 2018.

    The 26-year-old has the arm for the task. His 95.5 mph fastball was one of the hardest thrown by any starter last year. He also has a hard slider to lean on.

    But while you'd think that a guy with weapons like these would be elite at missing bats, Urena was downright bad at that in 2017. He allowed an 81.9 percent contact rate. That was the same as Clayton Richard, whose arm is decidedly less electric.

    Any hurler who pitches to that much contact had better be good at minimizing risk by refusing to issue free passes and, ideally, by keeping the ball on the ground where it can't do damage.

    Urena came up short in these regards, too. He finished 2017 with an above-average walk rate. He also ceased to be a ground-ball magnet and suffered the consequences in the form of an elevated home run rate.

    In light of the stadium's huge dimensions, it's not surprising that Urena was better at Marlins Park (3.21 ERA) than he was on the road (4.50 ERA). But if he can't get his performance to more closely align with his stuff, even that could be tough to repeat in 2018.

Andrew Cashner, Baltimore Orioles

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Andrew Cashner put up a 3.40 ERA for the Texas Rangers in 2017. Only eight other American League qualifiers did better than that.

    But judging from how Cashner lingered on the free-agent market until the middle of February, teams weren't buying it. 

    Teams generally don't like pitchers who leave a lot to chance. To this end, Cashner was arguably the worst offender of 2017. In 166.2 innings, he struck out only 22 more batters (86) than he walked (64). That netted him by far the smallest strikeout-to-walk rate of any AL starter.

    One thing in Cashner's defense is that contact off him was softer than usual. The average exit velocity off him tumbled from 89.3 mph in 2016 all the way down to 86.8 mph. It helped that he was drawing more contact than ever on pitches outside the strike zone.

    But in light of how Cashner also drew a career-low rate of swings outside the zone, the latter development looks like a fluke. He'll need to suppress exit velocity within the zone if that comes undone in 2018. That's something he wasn't as good at in 2017, as his in-zone pitches were hit at an average of 88.6 mph. 

    Cashner, 31, could also be undone by his new threads. The Baltimore Orioles weren't as efficient on defense as the Rangers in 2017. They also play in one of baseball's least pitcher-friendly ballparks.

Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers

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    Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

    The 4.20 ERA that Cole Hamels authored in 2017 isn't impressive at first glance. But relative to the AL's average ERA of 4.37, it was actually good.

    That shouldn't have been the case, though.

    At his peak, Hamels was one of the better pitchers in baseball at missing bats, limiting walks and avoiding hard contact. No so much in 2017. His strikeout rate plummeted below average. His walk rate was a hair above average. And his exit velocity rose to 87.6 mph. 

    Much of this had to do with how his weapons just aren't what they used to be. He mustered only 92.0 mph on his fastball, marking his worst velocity since 2009. Meanwhile, his trusty changeup continued its downward trend as a swing-and-miss magnet.

    So far in 2018, Hamels appears to be trying something different. He's barely thrown any fastballs (36.2 percent) in his first two starts. The 18 strikeouts he has in 10.2 innings are evidence that this approach has potential.

    However, Hamels has also walked seven batters and given up three home runs, and his exit velocity is up to 89.6 mph. To boot, what fastballs he has thrown have averaged just 89.5 mph. 

    So, the alarm bells are still ringing. This is a 34-year-old who likely can't reclaim what he's lost.

Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Gio Gonzalez had one of the best seasons that nobody seemed to notice in 2017.

    His 201 innings marked the first time he'd crossed the 200-inning threshold since 2011. He also logged a 2.96 ERA that placed behind only four other National League qualifiers.

    Gonzalez did a few things differently to earn those numbers. One change involved throwing his curveball more often, which helped drive down his exit velocity to 84.9 mph.

    On the not-so-bright side, he also led the NL with 79 walks. And despite the extra curveballs, his strikeout rate barely budged.

    He thus didn't do everything possible to keep runners off base. If that alone doesn't make it seem odd that he stranded runners at an elite 81.6 percent clip, perhaps these splits will:

    Gonzalez's contact management stayed the same when he was in trouble. Otherwise, his walk and strikeout habits got worse. That doesn't add up to a skilled escape artist.

    If that act falls apart in 2018, then so will Gonzalez's return to acehood.

            

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus.