During the first week or so of the MLB season, we all take some joy in the bizarre numbers that transpire. Remember when Trevor Story lit the world on fire, and the Twins couldn't win a single game? Good times. As we near the one-third mark of the 2016 campaign, most of these weird happenings have vanished into larger samples. Story has become a mortal man, and the Twins have won...a few games. But in a few cases, the flukiness lingers.
For these three players — arbitrarily chosen, you'll be happy to know — the first two months have brought some sort of luck, either good or bad. In all likelihood, they'll play at a more normal level for the rest of the year, for better or for worse.
Brad Miller's strikeout rate
The Rays hit home runs now, in case you hadn't heard. Despite playing half their games in cavernous Tropicana Field, they've clubbed 65 long balls, leading the major leagues. The team's new shortstop, Brad Miller, has played an integral role in the power surge. He seems to have made the classic contact-for-power trade — his strikeout rate has jumped from 20.0 to 24.6 percent, while his ISO has spiked from .147 to .202 — and so far, it looks like a prosperous swap.
This narrative has a flaw, though: Miller has actually made more contact this year. In Seattle, according to FanGraphs' PITCHf/x data, he whiffed on 10.1 percent of the pitches he saw; in Tampa Bay, he's done so 9.2 percent of the time. He's both swung less often and missed less often as a Ray, and even better, he's become more aggressive in the strike zone — so far in 2016, he's offered at 67.3 percent of strikes, compared to 64.6 percent before this year. Not only has he cut down on his whiffs, he's also reduced the amount of called strikes he takes.
The changes in his swing pattern seem pretty clear. Miller has started to lay off balls in the dirt, at the same time that he's hacked at inside pitches:
Prior to this year, low pitches had killed Miller — he'd swung and missed at 15.9 percent of them — and he's managed to close up that hole. Meanwhile, swinging at the pitches closest to him has helped Miller tap into his pull power. He's yanked the ball to right field 41.5 percent of the time this season, much higher than his 36.9 percent pull rate for the Mariners, and those hits have accounted for a lot of his ISO surge. Indirectly, this has decreased his looking strikes, which along with the lower whiff rate should give him a better strikeout rate.
Why, then, has his K rate risen by more than five percentage points? Miller hasn't done well under pressure: With two strikes in the count, he has a 14.0 percent swinging-strike rate and 5.6 percent called-strike rate, much higher than the respective major-league averages of 12.3 and 4.4 percent. This is a pretty new development for Miller, though — he's always performed pretty similarly in every situation. In a limited sample, random variation of this sort can inflict a lot of damage. Once he piles up a few more plate appearances, he should see his production line up with his peripherals.
Of course, Miller could always regress back to his old tendencies. If he goes back to chasing pitches that scrape the plate, the strikeouts won't go anywhere. Sticking to these changes, on the other hand, would make Miller a low-strikeout, high-power hitter. For a Rays team that will need every home run it can get in a crowded AL East, Miller will need to put the ball in play as often as possible, and he should begin to do that a lot more frequently.
Collin McHugh's BABIP
BtBS teased this one on Sunday, but it really bears repeating:
Out of 48 AL starters, Collin McHugh ranks:— Beyond the Box Score (@BtBScore) May 24, 2016
-ninth in soft contact (21.7%)
-sixth in hard contact (25.5%)
-46th in BABIP (.365)
Coming into the year, McHugh had a .299 BABIP in 405.2 career innings — in other words, he was a normal pitcher. He had a slight inclination toward fly balls, with a 43.1 percent ground ball rate, and he got popups 4.0 percent of the time, a somewhat above-average mark. In terms of quality of contact, he came out ahead, tallying a 27.4 percent hard-hit rate and 21.1 percent soft-hit rate. This year, most of that has stayed the same.
Hitters still haven't squared him up, as the above tweet lays out. He still gets an average amount of grounders (42.9 percent), and a decent amount of infield fly balls (4.4 percent). By Statcast's data, the story doesn't change. Batters have posted an average exit velocity of 86.6 mph against McHugh; that ranks ninth out of the 120 pitchers with at least 100 balls in play, around the likes of Jake Arrieta and Johnny Cueto. Yet for whatever reason, McHugh has failed to retire his adversaries.
Here, the blame falls solely on dumb luck. While the Astros haven't excelled defensively, their fielding has been respectable enough. McHugh has just hit a rough patch with the BABIP dragons, and not an unprecedented one, either:
Despite an utter inability to make solid contact off him, opponents have battered McHugh. In nine starts, though, a lot of crazy stuff like that can occur. Yesterday, my colleague Nick Stellini called the Astros "a living example of Murphy's Law," and I think that aptly summarizes McHugh's woes so far this season.
When McHugh takes the hill tonight against the Orioles, the odds point toward him limiting his BABIP. He could dish out meatballs, but that hasn't been a problem for him to this point, so I don't see why it should start hurting him now. McHugh's 2016 has handily illustrated the usefulness of DIPS theory — he's done everything that a pitcher can do to limit contact, and he nevertheless hasn't stopped the ball from falling in. Like his team overall, McHugh just can't catch a break.
Mookie Betts's ISO
Where Miller and McHugh have suffered from bad luck, Mookie Betts has reaped the benefits of good fortune. Like many of his Red Sox teammates, Betts has clobbered the ball this year, to the tune of a .219 ISO over 215 plate appearances. That's a notable upgrade from last year, when he notched a .188 ISO in his first full campaign. With that said, Betts has looked a lot less powerful below the surface.
The 2015 version of Betts cracked a ton of doubles and triples, with a smattering of home runs to supplement them. In 2016, he's started to hit the ball out of the park much more often:
So has Betts hit more balls in the air? Quite the contrary — his ground ball rate has risen from 38.2 to 43.5 percent. He hasn't stung too many fly balls, either: Among 178 qualified hitters, his 32.3 percent hard-hit rate ranks 143rd. Admittedly, he has upped his fly ball distance, from 275.0 feet in 2015 to 283.5 feet in 2016. That can't explain everything, however, as the latter mark still hangs around the middle of the pack. Betts has simply gotten lucky, and that luck probably won't last.
ESPN's Home Run Tracker can make this a bit clearer. This site divides all round-trippers into three distance-based categories: "Just Enough," "Plenty," and "No Doubt." (While they have somewhat tricky definitions, for the most part they should be intuitive.) Out of the nine home runs Betts has launched this season, seven fall into the first category, which leads the American League. Only his monster shot against the Rays and his tater against the Royals have left the park with ease. Unless he continues to will the ball into the seats, Betts won't hit many homers with this formula.
Now, Betts does have a solid approach; it just won't grant him many extra bases. August Fagerstrom compared him to Dustin Pedroia back in April, and the analogy is still valid. Pedroia has never hit for much power, and since Fenway Park doesn't inflate home runs — it lags behind most other parks in inflating home runs, meaning Betts won't get much assistance from his domicile. With a low ground ball rate and middling fly ball distances, Betts has set himself up for a power drought; the Red Sox better hope he'll make up for it elsewhere.
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All statistics as of Wednesday, May 25th.