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 see how the Baylor Bears performed at the plate in 2020.
Thomas had one of the strongest 2019 campaigns in the Big 12, posting extremely strong contact and power numbers across the board over 216 PAs. And then, through 62 plate appearances, he’s been one of the worst hitters in the conferences. But I’m still betting on his 2019 talent level because he’s had rotten luck in 2020 and his underlying rate stats remain excellent.
Andy Thomas had a BABIP of 0.200 in his 62 PAs in 2020, one of the lowest marks in the conference and the reason for his 0.213 batting average. But, despite terrible luck on batted balls, Thomas managed an OBP that was nearly average, 0.371, because of an increase in his BB % up to 17.74% while cutting his K % down to 11.29%. His wOBA of 0.320 is less impressive than the average OBP, but that’s due to the relative weights of walks in wOBA vs hits.
But his HR % of 20% indicates that he’s still making fairly strong contact on batted balls, which would give me hope for the rest of Thomas’ non-existent season. I don’t think that his batted ball skills evaporated overnight and the improvements that Thomas made in BB & K % are great signs.
Wehsener thrived as a contact hitter in 2019, posting a mere 0.348 SLG, but in his shortened 2020 campaign, he did not behave anywhere near the hitter that he was in 2019. His batting average fell from 0.298 down to 0.224, precipitated by a below-average BABIP of 0.233. Okay, that’s probably some bad luck there in the 62 plate appearances that he had in 2020.
But, his XBH % and HR % both skyrocketed from where they were in 2019, plus drastic changes (and not for the better) in his BB % and K %. As near as I can tell, Wehsener made a concerted effort to change his approach at the plate, looking to hit the ball in the air more than he did in 2019. If that’s the case, his poor BABIP luck could be the result of breaking in a new approach or a result of not being very good at hitting the ball in the air.
I’m the most worried about the drastic drop in BB %, from 11.5% down to 3.23% which makes me think that he was pressing at the plate, more of an indication that his approach changed. With a skinnier frame and questionable power skills prior to 2020, I’d prefer to see Wehsener play to his strengths as an OBP guy, even though he may never have a huge wOBA/wRC total due to the nature of his game.
Esteban Cardoza-Oquendo’s first year at a Bear only consisted of 62 plate appearances but might represent the upper reaches of his skill level. He posted a 0.240/0.377/0.340 slash line, lacking in both power and contact skills, but did manage to post a respectable OBP by virtue of getting hit by 5 pitches in addition to his 6 drawn walks, boosting OBP and wOBA.
His below-average BABIP of 0.324 is not good, but it’s also not so bad that I’m convinced that there’s positive regression coming. Esteban’s power numbers, XBH %, and HR % are both below average, indicating that he doesn’t hit the ball very hard, making it tough to get hits. Furthermore, his plate discipline skills are below average. He walks infrequently, only 9.68% of his plate appearances, and strikes out too often, 20.97% of the time, a bad combination considering he doesn’t do anything else at an above-average rate.
With his smaller frame, 5’10”, 180 lbs, and being a junior, I don’t know how much room there is for Esteban to grow and substantially improve his game.
Jared McKenzie was Baylor’s best hitter in 2020, posting 14.37 wRC on a 0.394 wOBA. He’s not a power hitter, as his ISO of 0.043 and low XBH % indicate, but he gets on-base at a phenomenal rate, sporting an OBP of 0.453. Now, his OBP is mostly bolstered by his batting average of 0.406 since his BB % of 6.58% is below average and, unfortunately, there’s reason to believe that McKenzie was experiencing some batted ball luck in a short 2020 season.
His BABIP of 0.467 is extremely high and pretty much unsustainable, precipitating a drop in his batting average, wOBA, OBP, and overall offensive production. However, given McKenzie’s profile as a singles hitter (28 hits, 25 singles, and 3 doubles), I think he’s got a shot to have a higher than average BABIP in the future.
In addition, he’s young, only a freshman, and posted a K % of 11.84%, a phenomenal rate for anyone, but especially for a freshman like McKenzie. He has plenty of time to get stronger and bigger before the next Big 12 baseball season where his contact and plate discipline skills should start converting more hits into extra-bases.
Mueller had a really exciting 65 plate appearances in 2020 as one of the most prolific power hitters in the Big 12. He ended up posting a wOBA of 0.387 and 11.87 wRC despite below-average contact numbers and walk rate. That’s because he as hitting for extra bases in 12.31% of his plate appearances and 25% of his hits went for HRs.
He did have a low BABIP with only 0.273 of his batted balls going for hits, but that’s likely due to his extreme HR rate and the fact that he didn’t really leave many hits to chance. If any, given his quality of contact, he’s due for some positive regression with his batted ball luck.
When it comes to plate discipline, Mueller grades out as above average. His BB % of 10.77% is a smidge below average, but his K % of only 13.85% is a great way to make up for it. Mueller was a very good power hitter for Baylor and his above-average plate discipline only augments that power, making him a viable hitter.
Loftin is a rare player who somehow had a seemingly “down” year in 2020 that was really encouraging for his all-around development and hitting skills. In 2019, Loftin was already a really good extra-base hit guy, but he improved on that in 2020 and started to hit HRs more frequently. His BB & K rates, already low, stayed similar to his 2019 rates, which is an excellent sign.
What changed is that Loftin didn’t get on base as often as in 2020, posting a league-average wOBA of 0.361 and an OBP of just 0.339 after posting a 0.391 OBP in 2019. Loftin’s never been a guy who walks a ton at the plate, only walking 7.1% and 6.45% of the time in 2019 and 2020 respectively, but he buoyed his 2019 OBP with his batting average of 0.331. His 2020 batting average fell down to 0.298, but he was only hitting 0.294 on balls in play, another victim of bad luck on batted balls. The power surge is really nice to see from Loftin and I believe that his 2020 numbers were skewed by some bad luck in his mere 62 plate appearances.
Martinez is a tough eval because he only had 48 plate appearances in the short 2020 season, yet still managed to be a productive player with a 7.17 wRC. He posted a 0.293/0.362/0.463 slash line that is about average, despite his low BABIP of 0.324.
His saving grace was his power skills, hitting for extra-bases in 10.42% of his plate appearances while only striking out 14.58% of the time, a combination that is good to see because he’s not selling all the way out to hit for power.
Martinez was just a sophomore for Baylor in 2020 and posted a pretty good season, albeit in an extremely limited sample size. Maybe we’ll never know what Ricky Martinez’s hitting skills are, but his 2020 looked promising.