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Ryon Healy isn’t as good as his 2016 numbers would lead you to believe

Why the A’s didn’t find the next late-blooming superstar

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals
Oakland A’s third baseman Ryon Healy
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The title of this article isn’t much of an original thought, I know. Oakland Athletics’ third baseman Ryon Healy hit .305/.337/.524 — only 11 other major leaguers had as good of a slash line in at least 100 plate appearances. For the 72 games, he played, Healy hit like a superstar.

But because he did it in Oakland, the general baseball-watching population has barely heard of him. He is, therefore, one of the hottest sleepers in your fantasy baseball league. And while I’m not here to tell you to you to dismiss him entirely, I am going to encourage you to exercise some caution.

Now, even if you were optimistic about Healy coming into this year, you still probably weren’t expecting to repeat his 2016 slash line over a full season. That’s good; you shouldn’t have been. But you may be thinking that he could be a definitely above-average hitter: someone who can put up a wRC+ around 110 or 115 and ride his bat to a solid 2 WAR season.

Even that could be wishful thinking, however. Let me explain why.

The main reason to be skeptical of Healy’s numbers is his plate discipline. His strikeout numbers aren’t terrible — 21.2 percent is slight below average, but you can live with that — but almost every other plate discipline number starts to send off alarm bells.

We can start with the 4.2 percent walk rate. That’s a putrid percentage for just about anyone, but especially for a below-average defender who’s ability to survive in the big leagues depends on his ability to be an effective hitter. The fact that Healy doesn’t walk significantly narrows his range of possible outcomes. If he gets unlucky from a BABIP perspective and isn’t supplementing it with an ability to get on-base in other ways, how playable is he over the longer-term?

It’s not even a problem of Healy wanting to swing at everything. In fact, his Swing% — 44.6 percent — was below the league average of 46.5 percent. He isn’t Adam Jones, hacking away indiscriminately.

Rather, it seems to be a weakness of identifying balls and strikes. Essentially, Healy had a very difficult time discerning between pitches in and out of the zone when he did make the choice to swing. He overcame it in that half-season, but perhaps this table will give you a better idea of why I think he could be in for a big step back:

Z-Swing%-O-Swing% bottom 10

Name Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Z-Swing%-O-Swing%
Name Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Z-Swing%-O-Swing%
Jose Iglesias Tigers 36.10% 53.60% 17.50%
Jorge Polanco Twins 33.50% 55.00% 21.50%
Ryon Healy Athletics 34.50% 56.80% 22.30%
Tyler White Astros 32.30% 57.10% 24.80%
Javier Baez Cubs 42.90% 67.90% 25.00%
Kevin Pillar Blue Jays 37.10% 62.30% 25.20%
Xander Bogaerts Red Sox 33.80% 59.10% 25.30%
J.J. Hardy Orioles 23.60% 49.30% 25.70%
Salvador Perez Royals 44.20% 70.10% 25.90%
Chase d'Arnaud Braves 33.30% 59.40% 26.10%

That is a measurement of the ten players with the smallest different between their Z-Swing% — how often they swing at pitches in the zone — and their O-Swing% — how often they swing at pitches out of the zone. Just take a brief look down that list: how many of those guys’ approaches would you want to replicate? Maybe Bogaerts, but even he isn’t as good of a hitter as his reputation. Any list that includes Javier Baez and Salvador Perez probably doesn’t say good things about your plate discipline.

So if Healy doesn’t walk, and swings at a disproportionate amount of bad pitches, how can he continue to be an effective big league hitter? The answer, obviously, is power, which he displayed in bunches last season. But once again, there are reasons to believe that those numbers might be overselling Healy’s true talent.

On average, Healy hit the ball 89.4 miles per hour in 2016. That’s just 0.2 MPH better than the league average for all hitters. For a corner guy, it’s not very impressive. If he’s not walking, that means he’s putting the ball in play a lot. And if he’s putting the ball in play, but not hitting it hard, can he sustain a .352 BABIP like he had last season?

My guess would be probably not, but here is where we can actually talk about something positive in Healy’s approach for a change. As FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris covered last September, Healy started doing that thing all the cool kids were doing and changed his swing to intentionally hit the ball in the air more often.

Even if he is not hitting the ball as hard as his peers — even his combined fly balls and line drives were 0.2 MPH slower than the league-average — hitting the ball in the air more often should allow Healy to tap into his power more often. If intentionally elevating the ball allows him to maintain an above-average HR/FB rate, then perhaps he will be a bit better than some of his underlying stats would suggest, but I don’t really have any evidence that that would necessarily be the case.

But you don’t just have to rely on my assumptions. Let’s also take a look at his projections, as they also think a fairly substantial drop-off is in store for Healy:

Ryon Healy 2017 projections

PECOTA 460 12 0.259 0.290 0.404 0.2
ZiPS 615 21 0.267 0.305 0.466 1.6
Steamer 561 17 0.274 0.312 0.432 0.8

Decent power, but otherwise those aren’t very inspiring lines. He has a place in the majors, especially in Oakland, but between the plate discipline issues, the inflated power numbers from last season, and that fact that he’s a poor defender, he’s probably a marginal starter at best.

That’s all fine and good, of course, but for someone who has been receiving his fair share of hype coming into the season, now is probably the time to temper expectations. Ryon Healy can play — just not as well as you might think.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.