The 2020 Big 12 Baseball season, like sports everywhere, came to an unceremonious end a few weeks ago after just a month of games. Such a shortened season makes evaluating player performances from that season tricky because of a few factors.
First, the small sample size of at-bats that players received. Dylan Neuse, a Texas Tech CF, led the Big 12 in plate appearances in 2020 with a whopping 89, less than a third of the 289 plate appearances that he had in 2019.
Second, the season got canceled before Big 12 play began, meaning that teams weren’t playing very many marquee matchups against talented foes. The teams that each Big 12 squad were not of the powerhouse variety, leading to drastically different talent levels between Big 12 teams and their opponents, which makes the records and stats skewed.
Despite these issues with the shortened season, player evaluation continues and we’ll use what we have.
Using available stats, pulled from d1baseball.com and individual team websites when necessary, I created a profile for each “qualified” player in the Big 12. The qualifying cut-off ended up with 48 plate appearances being the lowest total, in addition to the requirement of hitting a % of games played number.
From the 64 qualified hitters, I got the conference averages from the 2020 season in order to evaluate the players against their peers in their conference. Here are the conference averages for the (shortened) 2020 season and the 2019 averages.
The 2020 averages are higher than the 2019 averages and I believe the explanation lies in the level of non-conference competition that teams were facing. I wanted to point that out before jumping into the evaluations because some of the Big 12 players had phenomenal performances that wouldn’t have been sustainable once Big 12 play arrived.
Most of these stats are pretty standard, but I want to give a brief explanation for the newer ones and explain why I chose those stats.
We’ll start with wOBA, which stands for weighted on-base average. It’s very similar to OBP and assigns different weights to hits, extra-base hits, walks to give credit to outcomes that are more favorable. OBP treats all times on base as equal when, in reality, they aren’t. In terms of evaluating with wOBA, it uses the same scales as OBP, meaning that a good OBP number is also a good wOBA number and vice versa.
Calculating wOBA weights gets really complicated with run expectancy matrices and linear weights, stuff that I frankly don’t know how to do right now. So, I chose to take the coefficients for the 2019 MLB season from FanGraphs.com, which can be found here. Thus, the formula for wOBA came out to this:
Using MLB numbers for this exercise is not a perfect way to get wOBA for the Big 12 season, but it’s what we’ve got so I’m using it.
I’m also using BABIP, Batting Average on Balls in Play, in this exercise. BABIP is exactly what it sounds like; a measurement of how many times a ball in play goes for a hit. The equation never changes, making it a reliable stat to use.
However, the opposing defense and luck are things that can affect a BABIP and explanations for drastic changes in hitting lines, but the defense and luck factors make BABIP a fickle stat. But it helps as an indication of how often hitters get hits on their batted balls, giving us an opportunity to see what a player’s quality of contact is.
The last stat I want to talk about is wRC or Weighted Runs Created. wRC is an attempt to quantify, with a single number, the total offensive value of a player and is based on wOBA. wRC is a cumulative statistic, rewarding total production, rather than just on a per plate appearance basis which is nice because it rewards those who play more, while also supporting per appearance players by using wOBA. The formula is as follows:
The league wOBA for the Big 12 in 2020 was 0.361, while the wOBA scale was 1.157 (FanGraphs.com), and the Big 12 averaged 0.16 runs per plate appearance. Put that together and you get the formula for wRC that I used. The median wRC total was 10.33 and the maximum was 20.408 to give you an idea of the scale.
This isn’t a perfect way to evaluate college baseball players but with the lack of accessible advanced stats for college baseball, I had to manufacture my own with the tools at my disposal. The small sample size and the lower level of competition are things I want to stress again because I believe that they had an impact on the higher-level performance in the short 2020 season versus 2019. As long as we acknowledge that, we can still proceed with Big 12 Baseball evaluations.
So, without further ado, let’s jump in and talk about the Horned Frogs.
Austin Henry was about the conference average in 2019, hovering around average in almost every category. Yet, in 2020, he regressed significantly, posting a mere 2.89 wRC in 54 plate appearances. He slashed 0.133/0.259/0.267 because his BABIP was a miserable 0.147. He just wasn’t converting any batted ball opportunities into base hits, but he sported a 16.67% HR % which is higher than his 2019 mark, but it’s just 1 HR out of 6 hits.
For Henry, I’m mostly going to ignore his 2020 because he was a solid player for the Horned Frogs in 2019 in 276 plate appearances versus a mere 54 in 2020. His BB% ticked up to 14.81%, which is a nice increase, but he also started striking out a little bit more, up to 20.37%. While I think it matters that he performed poorly in 2020, given the horrendously low BABIP, I think Henry’s true talent level is about the conference average, like we saw in 2019.
Connor Shepherd skewed towards an all or nothing guy his short 2020 season. His K% remained super high at 25% while his HR % skyrocketed up to 26.67% and his XBH % rose to 10.94%. Given how hard he was hitting the ball, his BABIP of 0.297 doesn’t seem to make much sense, but sometimes that just happens and your run into bad luck.
I’d expect his BABIP to regress back towards the mean a little more, pulling up his 0.268 batting average and wOBA of 0.368, which was buoyed by his XBH rate. His BB% did fall, from 13.0% down to 9.38% in 2020, but I’d gladly trade that for his increased power. All things considered, Shepherd posted 10.64 wRC, above the conference median despite his 64 plate appearances, meaning he was productive on a per plate appearance basis.
Gene Wood is a graduate transfer from Alabama and made his presence in the Big 12 felt immediately. On a per plate appearance basis, Wood as THE most productive player in the conference, posting 19.33 wRC in just 70 plate appearances thanks to his 0.495 wOBA.
He slashed 0.353/0.514/0.706 with a better than 1:1 BB:K ratio, walking in 17.14% of his PA and striking out in 15.71% of them. He also hit the ball extremely hard, hitting for extra-bases in 11.43% of his plate appearances and sending 27.78% of his hits for HRs. It was a phenomenal 70 plate appearances for Wood and the best part is that it looks sustainable for the most part. I’d expect the HR/H rate to drop a little bit, but he only had a BABIP of 0.361, only a little bit above the conference average.
The only reason that I’d cast some doubt on his torrid start is that it’s a huge departure from the player that he was at Alabama, but this is also the first time that he received extended playing time in a season. Over four years at ‘Bama, Wood received 148 total at-bats and got 51 alone at the start of the 2020 season. With Wood, it’s just really hard to know what’s true because we’re dealing with 2 really small sample sizes. I’m inclined to believe that he’s a good hitter, maybe just not a generational one.
Gray Rodgers, a JUCO transfer, was another newcomer that had a fantastic start to the season for the Horned Frogs. He slashed 0.373/0.464/0.559 with a 0.434 wOBA and 15.41 wRC. He did a good job of driving the ball, hitting for extra bases in 10.14% of his plate appearances and converting 9.09% of his hits into HRs, about a league average conversion rate.
The hard contact and batted ball profile make his BABIP of 0.417, which is really high, seem more sustainable, though I’d still expect it to drop to a little below 0.400. Some regression would have been coming for Rodgers, but he remains a dangerous hitter at the plate, especially given his above-average plate discipline, posting a 13.04% BB and K rates, both marks that are better than average.
JUCO transfers are always an interesting evaluation because of the step-up in competition level and it doesn’t help that Rodgers only got to face non-conference opponents. However, he did hat he’s supposed to against lower talent levels and thrived offensively and you can’t hold that against him.
Hunter Wolfe took a sharp 180 turn from the player that he was in 2019. In 2019, he profiled as your typical DH-power hitter type, slashing 0.301/0.417/0.516 with a 0.215 ISO as one of the best power hitters in the conference. He turned 15.22% of his hits into HRs, plus an extreme rate of his fly balls went for HRs in 2019, along with his high K % of 23.8%. He was a hard swinger and lived for the HR.
In 2020, his contact picked up, but power decreased, leading to a 0.341/0.442/0.477 slash line with an above-average 0.399 wOBA. The 2020 version of Wolfe is still a good and productive player, but without the power, his increased K % of 30.77% gets harder to stomach.
I do think that he was due for some negative regression in 2020 because he was sporting a 0.519 BABIP, one of the highest marks in the conferences. A lot of that has to be luck inflated, especially since his batted ball profile got worse, only hitting for extra-bases 7.69% of the time and only sending 6.67% of his hits for HRs. It looks like Wolfe retained his hard-swinging tendencies, but stopped hitting the ball in the air as much, which is a problem. As the season continued, I expect that his numbers would have ticked back up, but it’s confusing regardless.
Phillip Sikes is another JUCO transfer that played a lot for the Horned Frogs in the early 2020 season (they had a lot of JUCO guys show up). Unlike his fellow newcomers, Sikes was bad at the plate in his 57 plate appearances. Slashed an astonishing 0.167/0.298/0.188 and posted a wOBA of 0.238.
He rarely hit the ball hard, only hitting for 1 extra-base hit. You could argue that his BABIP of 0.242 indicates that he was victimized by bad luck, but I disagree when his batted ball profile looks the way it does. He struck out a lot, 26.32% of the time, probably an indication that he was pressing and swinging at everything.
The only slightly redeeming sign is that his BB % of 12.28% is above average, but barely. As a junior, that’s going to be hard to work with.
Porter Brown, much like teammate Phillip Sikes, did not have a great start to his 2020 campaign, but in Brown’s case, there are some encouraging-ish signs. They have pretty similar slash lines, 0.189/0.283/0.302, except Brown actually hit for a little bit of power and even had a lower BABIP of 0.231 despite his 6.67% extra-base hit rate and HR conversion of 10%. Those numbers are encouraging and indicate that Brown was indeed the victim of some poor batted-ball luck which hopefully would’ve reversed course as the season continued.
His plate discipline was a little bit below average, with a BB % of 10% and a K% of 21.67%, which is fine. Neither of those numbers is terrible and you can work with that. Overall, Brown got hit with some bad batted ball luck, but there’s reason to believe that positive regression was coming his way. Hopefully, he can build on some of his tools to be more productive in the future.
Tommy Sacco, a switch hitter, is another one of those JUCO transfers for TCU who was productive in his first season. He hit 0.304/0.437/0.464, but only had a wOBA of 0.389. That’s because of his reliance on walks, with a 19.72% BB % that is great, and relative lack of power, with above-average extra-base hit numbers and below-average HR numbers. Regardless, that didn’t stop him from being a productive hitter with 13.09 wRC in 71 plate appearances.
It’s a really good sign that he only had a K% of 18.31%, right at the conference average, and that his BB rate was higher than his strikeout rate. His BABIP of 0.372 looks sustainable and there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t be able to sustain his production as a contact/doubles guy.
After his 2019 season, I thought that Zach Humphreys had significant room for improvement in the power department, gains that he seems to have started to make in 2020. His slash line overall improved to 0.295/0.418/0.477 which is a good improvement. However, this is where I’d typically start getting worried because of his BABIP of 0.448 which is extreme and not likely sustainable. That is something that I’m keeping an eye on, but I think that his slash line numbers are sustainable.
He had a good batted ball profile hitting for extra bases in 14.55% of his plate appearances which means he was driving the ball and hitting it hard, two things I like to see. The 0.153 gap between his BABIP and batting average is one of the largest in the conference due to the fact that he puts the ball in play only about 55% of the time, meaning that he has to convert a lot of those batted balls into hits to be successful.
Staying afloat for Humphreys is as simple as cutting down on his K% and taking a better selection of pitches, which it does seem he was doing as his BB % more than doubled, from 7.2% to 16.36%. I think the increased K rate is due to harder swings and trying to drive the ball, which caused him to press at the plate and swing at pitches that are better left untouched. I recognize that saying that cutting down on his K rate is a “simple fix” isn’t necessarily accurate, but a change in approach could help drop that K rate a few points, making it more palatable with increased extra-base hits and power numbers.