The Texas Rangers are struggling this year in plate appearances that reach 3-0.
Hitters dream of 3-0 counts. Being 1 ball away from a walk and having 3 strikes to work with gives the hitter a lot of options. By the end of last season, every Major League team had walked in over half of the plate appearances that reached 3-0. The average slugging percentage in at-bats that reached a 3-0 count was 0.088 points higher than the average for all at-bats.
So far this year, the Texas Rangers are struggling in these advantageous plate appearances. With a BB% of 48.7%, they are one of 4 teams not getting walked in half of these plate appearances. The bigger issue, however, is plate appearances when they do not get walked.
In 39 plate appearances that reached 3-0, the Rangers have been forced to put the ball in play. They have failed to do so in 11 of these plate appearances. This gives them the top strikeout percentage for such plate appearances. Of the 28 balls put in play, only 5 have been hits. They have 4 singles and a home run.
The statistics look really bad for the Rangers, but they are not nearly as bad as they seem.
With only 76 plate appearances that have reached a 3-0 count so far this year, much of the Ranger’s issue has to do with the oddities of small sample sizes. They have had some bad luck in these at-bats. In fact, they have had at least a couple balls that fielders made rare plays on. That right there would raise their batting average to .179. The difference between them and a team that is doing well in this category could be 2 or 3 hits. You will not find this number in the batting average though. The batting average provides one number to summarize the team’s success but it leaves out the context of the at-bats. It will not tell you if a spectacular catch was made or if the batter got on via a swinging bunt.
The fact that luck plays such an essential role in a team’s season can be very difficult for players and fans to acknowledge. Over the course of 162 games, most things work themselves out. Teams get lucky sometimes and unlucky other times until the net gain of their luck is neutralized.
The playoffs, however, are a prime opportunity for luck to determine a team’s season. A well-hit ball that would go for a hit 90% of the time might be hit right at an infielder. An outfielder might make a diving play on a ball in the gap. These plays often determine who wins and who loses.
Embracing the Role of Luck In Baseball
Luck will always be an essential part of baseball. It will lead teams to stunning comeback wins and difficult losses. Luck will make teams champions and send others home unhappy. Every person that has watched or played baseball has wished luck could be removed from the game at one time or another. This often happens when your team is on the wrong side of a bad hop or a broken-bat single. By definition, luck is unpredictable. There is no way of knowing exactly when or how it will impact a baseball game, yet there are important ways we can prepare for it and embrace it as fans and players.
The Role of Expected Stats
Expected stats have become an important measuring stick for many teams to figure out how good players are. Instead of looking at results for hitters (i.e. singles, home runs, batting average, etc.), expected statistics use data from Statcast about the quality of contact they are making. They allow us to account for some of the luck that affects a hitter’s season.
Expected stats are not all-encompassing, but they do give us a better idea of how productive a batter’s at-bat is. For example, we can look at this 3-0 hard-hit ball by Marcus Semien:
The expected batting average for this ball is .770. This means balls hit with that exit velocity and launch angle fall for hits 77% of the time. Semien did his job and hit the ball hard, it just happened to be right at the centerfielder.
Expected stats can be really helpful when a player is struggling. Well-hit balls not falling for hits is often an important part of a player’s hitting struggles. Jesse Winker is a great example this year. He is currently hitting .213, but the expected statistics say he is closer to a .282 hitter. Additionally, he only has 2 home runs so far this season. A big drop-off from last year. Statcast’s expected home run measure which looks at wall heights, distances, and environmental effects, along with batted ball data, shows that Winker would have about 4 home runs if he played his home games in Cincinnati (he would have 8 if he played all his games at Great American Ball Park). Below is a spray chart of his batted balls in home games:
While Winker’s hitting this year is not on par with last year, he is still making a lot of solid contact. They simply are not falling for hits at the moment. We would expect Winker to move toward his expected stats as the season progresses.
Patience With Top Prospects
To fully acknowledge the role of luck and variance in performance, we must be patient with players. Patience is especially important when looking at top prospects. The first week will not show whether the player will have a good career or not. Even the first few months may not be enough time to accurately gauge where the player is compared to other MLB players. There is often an adjustment period when players first face MLB pitching, but there can also be a lot of variance in results. Julio Rodriguez is a prime example of someone who took a few weeks to start hitting well. It is still far too early to know what his true potential might be, but it certainly looks better than it did a few weeks ago.
Looking at “Lucky” Players
Just as there are players that are performing below their expected numbers for the season, there are also players performing above their expected numbers. We might deem them “lucky” players because they are performing better than their contact quality suggests they should be, but it is important to remember that luck balances itself out in larger sample sizes. This is part of the reason players can hit .380 in 15 games and not get another at-bat for the rest of the year. This can also lead some players to have one or two months that are way better than the rest of their season.
Combining Luck and Expected Stats
With expected stats, we could totally disregard traditional statistics. We could say that a player’s slugging does not matter and simply look at his expected slugging, but I think the right approach requires both.
Expected stats can be used to show a player is making better contact than his traditional numbers would suggest, but we should also celebrate players succeeding in spite of their expected stats. If a player is hitting .350, he deserves praise regardless of what his expected stats say. His at-bats are helping his team win games. Plus, while expected stats are very good measures, a few players have been able to consistently outperform them. An example is Tim Anderson, who seems to outperform his expected batting average each year. It could be pure luck or maybe he has found a way to create his own luck.
On the other side of the discussion, we can use expected stats as a reminder that good players have horrible weeks and/or months sometimes.
Being a Major League Baseball player is incredibly difficult. Why should we use stats to tear these players down when we have the ability to show what their peak performance looks like?
Texas Rangers data via fangraphs.com and their custom leaderboards.
Jesse Winker batted ball data via baseballsavant.mlb.com
Read More: Triples often require a bit of luck. Players have to hit the ball as far away from the outfielders as possible. Everyone in Major League Baseball can hit the occasional triple, but to be good at hitting triples, you need a lot of solid contact and speed. Read to learn about the career triples record and why it will not be broken any time soon.