One of the things that makes baseball difficult is just how much of the game is random nonsense. Sometimes, screaming line drives find gloves and others, squibbers squeak through for a hit. Sometimes, everything breaks right (looking at you 2018 Kyle Freeland), and others everything breaks wrong (looking at you 2019 Kyle Freeland).
Below are five hitters who did their jobs at a satisfactory level, but were the victims of a disproportionate amount of bad bounces.
Robbie Grossman is not a slugger, but that’s not what makes him a good hitter. Grossman is an on-base machine, possessing a 12.7 percent walk rate. In 2019, he was about 44 percent better at drawing walks than league average while also keeping strikeouts to a minimum. In his first year with the A’s, however, that didn’t coalesce into the sort of production he put together in Minnesota. Grossman is coming off a disappointing season in which he slashed .240/.334/.348 for an 88 wRC+. Grossman is often close to pulling a Kelby Tomlinson and having an on-base percentage higher than his slugging, but not this close.
The good news is that this was mostly bad batted ball luck. A .288 BABIP isn’t shockingly low, but it’s an unjust result when Grossman posted a career-high hard-hit rate and posted his highest average and maximum exit velocity. I’d be shocked if Grossman hit 20 homers next year, but with more singles and doubles falling in next year, he should be back to being above average at the plate.
Shortly after Nicholas Castellanos was traded from the Tigers to the Cubs, Bob Nightengale wrote that “Castellanos has his own spray charts showing those balls he was hitting into right-center field would have been homers if his home games weren’t played at Comerica Park.” Brandon Belt is another hitter who until now, has played his games at a home park with a 420+ gap where most of his power lies. Let’s say, hypothetically, Belt was traded to the Cubs before the 2019 season started. Here are all of Belt’s fly balls and line drives hit at home overlaid on Wrigley Field.
Now, these spray charts aren’t perfect. Not all of those dots are going to turn into homers, but even if half of those did, Belt would have had a decent shot at a 30-homer season. What actually happened is that Belt had his first below-average year at the plate despite walking 13.5 percent of the time and barreling the ball at about the same rate as 30-homer hitters Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, and Paul DeJong(!?). Out of the 190 players with at least 20 barrels, Belt ranked 190th in wOBA on barrels, and only one player came with 100 points of him: Nicholas Castellanos’s good friend Miguel Cabrera.
Belt, of course, will continue to play his home games at Oracle Park, but the fences in Triple’s Alley will be brought in by about five feet and they’ll be shortened from eight feet to seven feet. Much of Belt’s power is to straightaway center, so while Oracle Park might be friendlier to dead pull hitters than its reputation would suggest, Belt has been uniquely hosed by the modern day Polo Grounds. As such, he stands to benefit most from the new dimensions.
José Ramírez’s descent was as unlikely as his rise, but the worst seems to be over now. From the end of the 2018 All-Star break to the beginning in 2019, Ramírez slashed .218/.333/.378 for an 86 wRC+, a far cry from his usual MVP caliber self. The good news is that Ramírez got out of his funk which was apparently the result of him trying to beat the shift. In the second half of 2019, Ramírez posted a 176 wRC+.
Ramírez should be back to his usual self which is great news for Cleveland who wound up missing the playoffs by a Ramírez-sized margin. The bad news is that Cleveland is now without Corey Kluber and Minnesota is now with Josh Donaldson.
A lot of things went wrong in 2019 and Khris Davis failing to hit .247 again was no exception. Worst of all, Davis didn’t even do better than that. Davis went from hitting 48 homers in 2018 to just 23. His wRC+ fell from 136 to 81. Davis engineered his own bad luck to an extent. He pounded more balls on the ground and barreled far fewer. The power didn’t evaporate completely. Davis simply went from being elite at barreling the ball to being above average at it.
Pitchers around the league threw Davis far more sliders than he had ever seen. Throughout his career, Davis has struggled with that pitch the most. Over the last three seasons, Davis has whiffed on 40 percent of the sliders he has swung at. Almost predictably, those sliders have come at the expense of sinkers which Davis has feasted upon.
Khris Davis might not get back to his 2018 self. Steamer projects him for a .339 wOBA and 115 wRC+. That would be an improvement over 2019, but it would also be his second-worst season since 2014. Whether he gets back to his usual .247, 40-homer self depends partly on whether he can adjust to how pitchers are handling him.
Like Robbie Grossman, Cain has never been a slugger, but where the two differ is that Cain has depended more putting the ball in play to get on base. The problem with being average dependent is that the results are going to be highly variable. Sometimes the hits will fall in like in 2018, and sometimes they won’t, like in 2019.
Not much about Cain’s profile changed in 2019. He didn’t chase more than his career average, and he made the same amount of contact. The quality of contact remained the same, as did the direction. Still, his batting average on balls in play was 38 points lower than his career average and his xwOBA of .330 wasn’t too far off from what he’s put up recently.
Cain doesn’t have to change anything to be a threat at the plate again. That’s at once reassuring and troublesome. If there were an obvious flaw, it could be fixed. Luck doesn’t necessarily have to improve especially for a hitter entering his age-34 season.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.