Welcome to the fourth edition of The Weekly Walk, in which I look at the kooky goings-on of Major League Baseball. You can find the first, second, and third editions of this series here, here, and here, respectively. Today, we'll use ISO z-scores to analyze the power of three different hitters, and its relation to another skill (or lack thereof) of theirs.
Note: z-scores are not park-adjusted. Park factors are hard. :(
Without further ado:
Part I: Power Without Potency
First, we go to Houston, where one designated hitter has struggled despite a plethora of pop. Chris Carter has always possessed the ability to hit the ball far: As a 19-year-old in rookie ball, he posted a .271 ISO, a figure he would later match in AAA. That ability has certainly carried over to the show, where Carter's career ISO of .230 ranks 18th since his 2010 debut. When you recognize that he's done this in two parks — the O.co Coliseum and Minute Maid Park — that generally don't have affinities for hitters, his accomplishments become even more impressive.
Of course, that power has come at a cost — namely, pitch recognition. His 34.2% strikeout rate over that span tops all other players; this year encapsulates that pretty well, as only his teammate George Springer can best his 32.7% strikeout rate. As such, he isn't a particularly great hitter overall, with a career wRC+ of 108 that doesn't differ much from his 2014 mark of 105.
For now, we'll focus in on the current year. Adjusting Carter's power output for the quality of qualifed hitters, we see that his ISO z-score is 1.90 standard deviations above the mean; if we can believe ZiPS, he will end the season with an ISO of .252 (which would be, theoretically, a z-score of 1.76) and a 109 wRC+. So, the question: How many hitters since 1920 have had both a wRC+ below 110 and an ISO z-score above 1.5? Aside from Carter, only six:
Strikeout and walk rates included to clarify how these players struggled.
Carter has a rare, albeit undesirable, thing going for him in 2014: He hits for a lot of power, but provides little else with the stick. To some extent, this is true of his entire team, as their batters own the majors' ninth-highest ISO, in addition to the ninth-lowest wRC+. Regardless, the Astros will play well eventually, and if Carter can improve his game in other areas, he could be a part of that.
Part II: Brawn And Brains
Now, we depart to Motor City, where another designated hitter has coupled formidable power with magnificent plate discipline. Since coming to Detroit on a four-year, $50 million contract following the 2010 season, Victor Martinez hadn't done a whole lot. He contributed 2.5 WAR in 2011, then tore his ACL in January of 2012. In 2013, he played as well as you'd expect for a 34-year-old coming off a knee surgery — which is to say, he was only worth 0.9 WAR. As he entered his walk year, many fans of the Tigers felt grateful that his time in their city would soon end.
Then, he began the season. Then, he hit for an unprecedented level of power (.272 ISO) while avoiding strikeouts at an unbelievable rate (6.8% K%) and playing half his games in a stadium (Comerica Park) that abhors power. By now, everyone — from Neil Weinberg to August Fagerstrom to Dayn Perry to John Lowe — has taken note of this intriguing development. However, none of the aforementioned analyses have put this in historical perspective. Remember, strikeout rates have never been as high as they are now, a fact that makes Martinez's achievements all the more incredible.
Let's return to z-scores. By those numbers, Martinez's ISO is 2.11 standard deviations above the average for qualified hitters, while his K% is 1.99 standard deviations below the average for qualified hitters. Among qualified player seasons, going back to 1920, how many have had ISO and K% z-scores above 2?
Of course, it's highly unlikely that Martinez will, either. We can deduce this from the eye test, and ZiPS can substantiate our skepticism, with its updated projection of a 7.5% strikeout rate and a .232 ISO. Those would translate to z-scores of -1.87 and 1.39, respectively. Nevertheless, we'll be pessimistic, and assume that he declines even more.
Only 194 of those 1920-to-now seasons have had a fan rate z-score of -1.75 or lower, so attaining that is uncommon in and of itself. What's even more uncommon is doing so while compiling an ISO z-score of 1 or higher, which only one other man has done — twice:
Suffice to say, most comparisons to Brett are good things, and this is no different. This tale has no caveats, no "he'll have to maintain an unsustainable performance" statements — just a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and in a contract year. When Martinez can take his talents to wherever he chooses, prospective teams should keep in mind how historic he has been.
Part III: Clout, Sans Control
Finally, we reach the Windy City, where a first baseman has done a lot of mashing, but has little else to show for it. Jose Abreu's six-year, $68 million deal has left few regrets in the minds of Chicago faithful, chiefly because of his breathtaking power: His .339 ISO leads the majors by a wide margin. While phenomenal, this does obfuscate some of his shortcomings in other areas.
At first glance, Abreu has taken free passes at a respectable clip — his 6.3% walk rate isn't much below the major-league average of 7.8%. However, when we take into account intentional walks (of which Abreu has 9, tied for fourth in baseball), we realize that his unintentional walk rate sits at a pathetic 3.8% — nearly half of the 7.3% rate for all hitters.
Z-score time! Abreu's ISO becomes a z-score of 3.32, while his unintentional walk rate becomes a z-score of -1.35. Now, this is where park factors come into play; while Carter and Martinez both play in parks that favor pitchers, meaning their ISO z-scores would most likely rise with park adjustments, Abreu resides in a park — U.S. Cellular Field — that's decidedly hitter-friendly.
So let's say the Cell, unlike the parks of the previous two players, plays as an extreme hitter's park (and it does — it had the seventh-highest park factor in MLB last year). Furthermore, let's say that Abreu drops off a bit as the season progresses (and he will — ZiPS has his ISO at .260 from here on out). To compensate for these, we'll lower our threshold to two standard deviations. How many other players have met this, while also accruing unintentional walks at a rate one standard deviation below the league average?
Only six, whom I've listed below, along with Abreu himself:
*You'll notice that Armas appeared on Carter's list as well. The moral is, he had a weird 1984 campaign.
These six men combined Delmonesque plate discipline with Pujolsesque power, and for the most part, they excelled at the plate as a whole. We could interpret this as a sign that Abreu can succeed with this approach; we could also interpret the brevity of this list as a sign that not many hitters, if any, can succeed with this approach.
The White Sox can't complain about the net result of this — Abreu's 159 wRC+ ranks seventh in MLB — nor should they have much to gripe about come season's end — his .400 uZiPS wOBA ranks fifth in MLB. For the future, though, he may want to consider laying off the unhittable pitches, so his career ends up like that of the fifth guy on the list, and not like that of the fourth guy.
That's all I have for this week. On the one hand, I could run out of ideas for this piece pretty quickly; on the other hand...
. . .
All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Thursday, July 17th, 2014.
Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.