Author: Connor Loughlin (Medill ’20)
About a quarter of the way through the 2018 MLB Regular Season we have seen some pretty pleasant surprises from big name players who saw their share of struggles in 2017. Given, it is still mid-May, and there is plenty of time for the following players to see some regression towards the mean as the season moves along. But each player on the list is displaying positive trends that make us believe the improvements we see now can last the rest of the season. I will include a glossary of some statistics at the bottom of the article for those who may be unfamiliar with some of the concepts mentioned. Also note that all stats are valid through May 18, 2018. Here are the six players who have shown an impressive ability to bounce back to star status in 2018.
Kyle Schwarber broke onto the MLB scene with the Cubs in 2015 as a guy with a lot of power potential but no definitive position, making some question whether he would be better suited in the American League. He accrued 1.9 fWAR in only 273 PA that season and slashed .246/.355/.487 for a 131 wRC+. He continued his success at the plate into the 2015 playoff run, but was sidelined the almost entire 2016 regular season after tearing his ACL early in April. Schwarber then made an improbable return from injury to participate in the 2016 World Series, hitting 7/17 and capping off an incredible story.
But Schwarber saw his share of hardships defensively and at the plate in 2017. He struggled mightily the first half of the season, resulting in a demotion to AAA. After returning from his demotion, Schwarber returned to form offensively. He finished 2017 with 30 HR, slashing .211/.315/.467 for a respectable 102 wRC+, but his 30.9% strikeout rate was a concern.
This offseason Schwarber completely transformed his body, dropping massive amounts of weight and dedicating himself towards becoming a more complete player, and the results have been fruitful. He is slashing .241/.362/.474 for a 127 wRC+. His walk rate is up from 12.1% to 15.9%, and his strikeout rate has been cut to 24.6%.
As the rest league is trending towards increasing launch angle to find offensive success, Schwarber has actually improved his game by decreasing launch angle and hitting more line drives. His average launch angle is down from 17.8 degrees to 8.6 degrees. The flatter swing is leading to less swings and misses and much more contact. His SwStr% is down from 12.2% to 9.8%, while his Contact% is up from 72.4% to 75.4% and his Z-Contact% is up from 80.7% to 83.4%. Schwarber has also become more selective at the plate. He is swinging at less pitches, particularly less pitches outside of the strike zone. His O-Swing% is down from 28.2% to 22.1%.
Maybe the most surprising part of Schwarber’s turnaround is his success in left field. He has thrown several people out at the plate this year, and his 2.2 Def rating ranks second among LF. Defensive metrics tend to be hit or miss with small sample sizes, but here’s to hoping Schwarber keeps up his success at the plate and in the outfield for the rest of 2018.
It is almost unfair to claim that Mookie Betts is a “bounce back player” in 2018. He was worth 5.4 fWAR last season, and slashed .264/.344/.459 for 108 wRC+, making him solidly above average offensively and a very valuable player overall. These numbers were not quite on par with the monster season he had in 2016, but Mookie has returned to form this season and become nearly unstoppable offensively.
Betts’s fantastic .318/.363/.534 slash line of 2016 pales in comparison to the .364/.438/.734 (207 wRC+) line he has posted through 178 PA in 2018. He is walking at nearly the rate he is striking out and is already worth 3.2 fWAR! His swing habits and contact rates have not changed significantly since the 2017 season, he is simply hitting the ball a lot harder this year.
According to Fangraphs, his Hard% is up from 35.7% to 47.1%. His average exit velocity is up from 88.4 mph to 92.2 mph, and his average launch angle is up from 14.3 degrees to 18.2 degrees. He is barreling 19.2% of his batted balls (11th in MLB) and records a barrel in 14.5% of his PA (3rd in MLB). If you are curious what registers as a barrel, check out the MLB website’s official glossary for clarification.
It’s easy to think Betts is due for some inevitable regression, as maintaining these numbers over the course of a full season has only been done a handful of times in MLB history. But believe it or not, Betts has actually been unlucky so far this season according to Statcast. Hard to fathom, right? Betts’s xBA of .365 is about on par with his actual BA of .364. But his xwOBA of .523 greatly exceeds his actual wOBA of .471, according to Statcast. Betts is a generational talent and flat out superstar. The American League MVP race between he and Mike Trout is shaping up to be an all-time classic.
Gerrit Cole looked to be the man who would anchor Pittsburgh’s rotation for many years to come as a legitimate ace, but the team hit the reset button after the conclusion of the 2017 season and officially entered rebuilding mode. One of the first steps of this rebuild involved offloading Gerrit Cole to a contending team, and the already loaded and defending champion Houston Astros struck gold by claiming his services. Cole was not necessarily bad in 2017. The peripherals indicated a guy that could still be the elite pitcher he was in 2015. Maybe the change of scenery was all Cole needed to hit his stride again.
Cole is obviously due for some regression at some point, but the numbers thus far are flat out ridiculous. His K/9 rate of 13.57 is filthy. The BB/9 rate of 2.04 is the lowest of his career to this point. His 0.79 HR/9 rate is helped by a below league average HR/FB rate of 9.1%, but this number is not far off from his career rate of 9.9%. Add all these up and you get a 1.75 ERA and 1.96 FIP. Cole is already worth 2.7 fWAR, which is fast-approaching his total of 3.1 fWAR all of last year.
What’s behind all the success? Even though teams are hitting the ball harder off of Cole this season, they are simply making so little contact that it does not matter. His SwStr% is up from 9.5% to a ridiculous 16.0%. Opponents’ Contact% is down from 79.5% to 67.2%, and their Z-Contact% is down from 85.5% to 75.9%. Cole is also getting more hitters to chase pitches out of the zone, and opposing hitters are rarely making contact with these pitches.
Cole has gotten back to throwing his fastball much more often than he was in 2017. He is throwing his fastball 50% of the time compared to 41.9% last year. His curveball percentage is also up from 12.3% to 18.4%, while his sinker percentage is down from 18.1% to 5.3%.
Cole appears to be the frontrunner for the American League Cy Young Award at the moment. Hopefully he can keep up his masterful work on the mound and keep his name at the top of the list as the season continues.
It would be tough to count the number of players better than Miguel Cabrera over the last 10 or 15 years on more than one hand. In fact, you could easily consider him one of the three best hitters of the past generation. At the age of 35, his career is coming to its conclusion, and 2017 was not kind to him. In fact, Miguel Cabrera was not nearly as bad as his 2017 numbers indicate. He slashed .249/.329/.399 for a 91 wRC+ and was worth -0.2 fWAR. Dig beyond these numbers, however, and you will find that Miguel Cabrera was maybe the unluckiest player in the league last season.
According to Statcast, Miguel Cabrera’s xBA in 2017 was .292. Of players with at least 200 PA, he had the largest difference between xBA and BA in the league. Cabrera also had the largest difference between xwOBA and wOBA, with a difference of 0.073. In other words, do not read much into his struggles last season, if you want to call them that. Cabrera is still a great hitter, and he has proven as much so far this season.
Cabrera is slashing .323/.407/.516 so far this season for a 145 wRC+. He has done this by cutting his strikeout rate from 20.8% to 15.7%, and has raised his walk rate from 10.2% back up to 13.0% as well. Cabrera is simply hitting the ball harder than he was last season as well, with a Hard% of 49.4% up from 42.5%, and an average exit velocity of 95.3 mph. It is also interesting to note that his average launch angle is 5.6 degrees, whereas in past years it has always been at least 12 degrees. Even at age 35, Miguel Cabrera is still one of the game’s most feared hitters.
Rick Porcello shocked many in 2016 by bringing home the AL Cy Young Award. To be fair, the American League was not very top heavy in regards to starting pitching that season, but Porcello impressed with 3.15 ERA and 3.40 FIP to go along with a 22-4 record, swaying enough voters to give him the trophy over Justin Verlander. 2017 was a different story however, as the walks and strikeouts spiked up, and in turn so did his ERA and FIP.
But Porcello has seen a return to his Cy Young form in 2018 and looks to keep the momentum rolling through the rest of the season. He has a career high 8.43 K/9 rate, and has brought his BB/9 rate down to 1.25, on par with his 1.29 BB/9 rate of 2016. He is also giving up significantly less hard contact this season, as his Hard% allowed is down from 38.3% to 29.5% according to Fangraphs.
It remains to be seen whether Porcello will be able to maintain his career low HR/FB rate of 7.4%, which is most certainly helping his numbers. But should he continue striking out hitters at a high rate while giving away fewer free passes, it should not matter much whether that number regresses towards the mean. Rick Porcello is looking a lot like his 2016 self, and this should make Red Sox fans giddy about their playoff hopes.
It’s a near certainty that Manny Machado will be traded to a contender at some point before this year’s deadline. It’s also not hard to fathom Machado getting a $300 million contract this winter. He’s one of the game’s brightest young stars, and despite a down year in 2017, Machado has exploded out of the gates in 2018. Machado was another victim of bad luck in 2017, with his xwOBA and xBA both greatly exceeding his actual numbers.
2018 has been much kinder to Machado. He is currently slashing .339/.418/.661 (182 wRC+) and has already accumulated 2.4 fWAR, near his total of 2.5 fWAR in 2017. His walk rate of 12.2% is near his 12.7% strikeout rate, as he has improved in both of these areas this season. Machado is also hitting the balls to every field, with a 36.6% Pull%, 33.8% Cent% and 29.6% Oppo%. His average launch angle is up from 13.5 degrees to 16.3 degrees while his average exit velocity is up from 90.9 mph to 92.7 mph. Machado’s case is very similar to that of Mookie Betts. His plate habits and contact rates have not varied much, he is simply making much better contact with the baseball and barreling more balls.
It’s unclear which uniform Machado will be sporting come August, and even more uncertain where he will end up after the conclusion of this season. What is clear is Machado’s place among the game’s best at the age of 25. It’s scary to think what he might accomplish over the next decade.
wRC+: Weighted runs created plus (league average scaled to 100)
SwStr%: Swing and misses/total pitches
Contact%: Pitches on which contact was made/swings
Z-Contact%: Pitches on which contact was made on inside the zone/swings on pitches inside the zone
O-Swing%: Swings at pitches outside the zone/pitches outside the zone
fWAR: Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement
wOBA: Weighted On Base Average
xwOBA: Expected Weighted On Base Average (based on Statcast Data)
xBA: Expected Batting Average (based on Statcast Data)
Hard%: Hard hit Percentage (used by Fangraphs, calculated by Baseball Info Solutions)