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An early-season glance at the xwOBA leaderboard

Mookie has been bonkers, and Leonys Martin has been weirdly good

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Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Of all the new-age stats we have in baseball these days, the one I find myself perusing the leaderboard of most often is xwOBA.

Most BtBS readers will be familiar with its definition, but for total inclusivity, here’s a link to the full, official definition. For the uninitiated who are also too lazy or skeptical to click that link (which: I feel you), it’s as simple as this: a metric on a scale where .320 is right around league average and is calculated using launch angle and exit velocity.

Just as BABIP attempts to strip luck out of the equation, so does xwOBA - it just does it in an even more precise manner, since instead of all balls in play being equal, we now know how hard and at what angle the ball was put into play. Because baseball stats are awesome.

As such, xwOBA tends to be an outstanding stat for judging overall hitter and pitcher performance. Granted, we are only about a quarter of the way through the season, but it doesn’t mean we can’t take a peek, just to see if there are any interesting names at the top of the leaderboard:

Let’s tackle these players one-by-one.

Mookie Betts: About a week ago I was having a conversation with a friend who is a Red Sox fan, and he merely intoned that Betts might actually be better than Mike Trout. I came in hard on my high horse, rather condescendingly scolding him for being infected by the local sports talk radio into speaking baseball heresy.

While I still am not ready to say Betts is better (Betts would need to keep this up over a couple seasons to catch up to how great we know Trout is), I do need to issue a mea culpa for just how aggressively I came down against that opinion. What Betts is doing is straight up bonkers right now. I’m waiting for the Ben Lindbergh article to drop any day now in which he shows that what Betts has done to start 2018 has basically never been done before, because it certainly feels that way.

Mike Trout: Like I said, we’re not bumping Trout from Greatest Player in Baseball for a while.

Joey Votto: On March 23, FanGraphs had the headline: “How Long Can Joey Votto Hold Off Decline?” On April 20, 2018, FanGraphs had the headline: “The Reds’ Slump Has Extended to Joey Votto.” By May 12, Votto has officially answered those headlines with: “Forever,” and “FOH.”

Bryce Harper: You know a stat is good when your top four are Betts, Trout, Votto, and Harper. Anyone worried about the fact that Harper has a .228 batting average should be reading a far different website than this one.

Matt Adams: Our first real surprise, and it’s a doozy. A player relatively obscure enough that I still confused him with Adam Lind when starting this very article (I was devastated to not be able to link to the infamous fart cloud, which, I guess, I now need to link to regardless - mission accomplished).

However, Adams has quietly been a very productive hitter every year since 2013, with the exception of 2015. His career OPS+ is 115, and the player once tasked with replacing Albert Pujols at first base in St. Louis is now finding a career renaissance in the NL East. He slashed .271/.315/.543 in 100 games with Atlanta last season, and he is now slashing an even more robust .298/.410/.702 in 32 games with Washington. The Nationals have been wise to use Adams far more against righties than lefties, and when the Nats are fully healthy, Adams might not even have an everyday role, but for now, Adams has been a fun story.

Tommy Pham: There were many folks who were curious as to whether Pham’s 2017 breakout could be repeated in 2018 given his relatively old prospect age. It certainly would appear so.

Kris Bryant/Freddie Freeman/J.D. Martinez/Manny Machado/Jose Abreu/Robinson Cano/Nolan Arenado: These are very good professional hitters who are hitting the ball very professionally good this season. It’s more fun to talk about the other guys.

Eugenio Suarez: Similar to Pham, Suarez’s recent breakout was questioned over the offseason, and 22 games in 2018 (he missed 16 games to a fractured thumb) is certainly not enough to rule in favor of Suarez. That being said, we now have 178 games since the beginning of 2017, over which period the Reds infielder has an OPS+ of 121 and has been worth 5.3 WAR. Most of the rebuilding experiment isn’t going too well in Cincy, but Suarez is one of the bright spots. The Reds just have to hope he doesn’t reach his 100th birthday before they become relevant again.

Teoscar Hernandez: One of the early-season Statcast darlings, Hernandez is just the type of player to make this list. Long a KATOH darling as well, he hits the ball as hard as anyone in baseball (his Statcast Hard Hit % ranks 6th in baseball, and his 93.7 average exit velocity ranks 14th), and he is adept at getting his barrel on the ball (second in baseball in barrel percentage). The only thing to keep an eye on is his .307 OBP. Although given his improvement in cutting down on strikeouts, improvements could be around the corner in terms of OBP as well.

Jose Martinez: One thing that has been interesting to track since the inception of the newer Statcast-based stats is the year-to-year consistency in the players that appear atop the leaderboards. Last year Martinez ranked fifth in xwOBA among hitters with as many at bats (behind only Aaron Judge, J.D. Martinez, Votto, and Trout). He’s another who looks like the real deal.

Now that we’re outside the top ten - and before this article turns into 5,000 words - let’s choose a few more select players to focus on:

Leonys Martin: This was the name that stood out most obviously to me when perusing the top 50 or so. Martin is a 30-year-old coming off a season in which his OPS+ was 38! How on earth is there a stat in 2018 in which he is one spot behind Manny Machado and five spots ahead of Aaron Judge?

There doesn’t seem to be a lot backing this hot start (according to Ashley MacLennan of Bless You Boys, the decision of Rod Gardenhire to bat Martin leadoff drew plenty of scorn from the locals), and now that he is on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, we’ll have to wait a bit to see if his devil magic can continue in 2018. I’d be highly skeptical.

Matt Kemp/Joe Mauer: It’s very cool to see these two veterans hitting the ball like it’s 2009 all over again.

Brandon Belt: The Franz Kafka of baseball. No one is going to appreciate this guy until he’s retired.

Francisco Cervelli: This is the best non-Martin candidate to draw a chuckle when I look back at this article at the end of the season.

Franchy Cordero: @JeffZimmerman.


Jim Turvey is the author of Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, a baseball history-stats fusion that is available now on Amazon. He is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and DRays Bay.