Baseball is an unpredictable game. Randomness can and will come into play if we analyze it in small samples. Any given player can go on a 10-for-25 hot streak while hitting mostly bloop singles and perfectly placed weak liners, and any superstar can go 0-for-the-series while scalding balls right at defenders.
That’s why we like large sample sizes, to eliminate some of the randomness and get a better idea of a hitter or pitcher’s real skill level. All of this means that both batters and hurlers can get lucky or unlucky for an extended period of time. The Yankees, as a team, are no exception.
One of the most commonly used ways to determine a hitter’s worth is by looking at his range of outcomes instead of just batting average. For this, we use weighted On-Base Average, or wOBA.
wOBA allows us to evaluate how a player reached base, not only if he did it. wOBA assigns more value to single than an out, a double is worth more than a single, and so on. Nuances like these can elevate more sophisticated sabermetric measures over something like batting average, which treats all hit outcomes as equally valuable, something even the most sabermetrically-hostile fan will tell you is foolish.
Yet, luck can be heavily involved even in wOBA (you can ‘luck’ your way into a bloop double). That’s why I like to sample xwOBA, or expected wOBA, which derives an expected overall figure based on a hitter’s batted ball data, along with his strikeout and walk marks.
Thankfully for the Yankees, they have lots of hitters that consistently hit the ball hard, in the air and draw lots of walks. Unsurprisingly, for this exercise, it was easier to find players who looked unlucky. All numbers are prior to Wednesday’s game.
Who is getting lucky according to xwOBA?
Kyle Higashioka: .398 wOBA - .358 expected wOBA
We all knew Higgy has been playing a little over his head this year, even if there appears to be some degree of skill change. But hey, a catcher with a .358 expected wOBA is an awfully good asset to have, especially given his solid defensive chops.
The .040 differential between Higgy’s xwOBA and wOBA is substantial, and can be attributed to his underwhelming average exit velocity of 86.1 mph and his high strikeout rate (28.8 percent).
Giancarlo Stanton .393 wOBA - .381 expected wOBA
The only reason Stanton appears in this list in the ‘lucky’ side is because there are no other Yankees besides him and Higgy with a xwOBA-wOBA differential higher than .010. But pretty much everything about Stanton’s performance is legitimate.
He routinely leads the league in both max and average exit velocity, but perhaps he is being penalized for his batting style being more of a screaming line drive hitter than a traditional fly-ball slugger (i.e., his average launch angle is not particularly high.) Either way, he is perfectly fine.
Who have been the unluckiest Yankees’ batters?
Rougned Odor .284 wOBA - .354 expected wOBA
We already discussed Odor here, a few days before he got injured. He still hits too many popups, but has improved his chase rate and frequently hits the ball hard. Statcast likes him, and thinks his batting average should be .249, and his slugging .470.
Instead, he currently has a .164 average and a .361 slugging percentage. He shouldn’t see regular at-bats when he is back to full health, but Odor has performed better in 2021 than his actual numbers suggest.
Mike Ford .223 wOBA - .293 expected wOBA
Expected wOBA thinks Ford has been bad, but not a complete disaster. Ford is another hitter whose numbers should improve if he gets more at-bats, but now that Luke Voit is back, that seems unlikely.
Ford is an extreme fly ball hitter who has had notorious strikeout issues this year (30.4 K percent this year), so even though his 52.0 percent hard-hit rate is excellent, xwOBA doesn’t think highly of him because of his elevated number of punchouts.
Gary Sánchez .312 wOBA - .380 expected wOBA
According to xwOBA, Sánchez, who has a healthy barrel percentage of 14%, should be performing far better than his actual numbers indicate. As a fly ball hitter with well-below average sprint speed, Sánchez will always run low BABIP (batting average on balls in play), especially since homers aren’t part of the BABIP calculation. But his .312 wOBA seems low even by the eye test, as the catcher does seem to have slugged a fair chunk of liners right at fielders. There’s hope yet for the beleaguered backstop.