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 find out how the Sooner hitters performed at the plate in their shortened 2020 season.
Brady Lindsly kept his 2019 success rolling in 2020, turning in another campaign as a strong, power-hitting catcher for the Sooners. In just 67 plate appearances, Lindsly managed a wRC of 10.63, above the median, on the back of his ability to turn his hits into HRs. His HR/H rate of 18.75% in 2020 nearly double his rate of 9.62% from 2019. He was doing an excellent job of driving the balls that he made contact with, which is backed up by increases in both SLG and ISO.
His batting average did fall from 0.291 to 0.271, precipitating his league average wOBA of 0.359. While it would be nice for Lindsly to maintain a better than average batting average, his BABIP of 0.333 is a little below average, perhaps indicating that he suffered from some bad luck on batted balls. The other explanation is that by selling out on hitting for more power, Lindsly’s contact started to trend towards the extremes: either a long, hard fly ball or short, easy pop-up. With only 67 plate appearances to evaluate, it’s hard to say which it was.
I do believe that the power surge is something that Lindsly was going to be able to sustain and that power makes him an average offensive player and a positive offensively at the catcher position.
Zaragoza was not a good hitter in 2019 and did not make any progress in 2020, instead backsliding in the few areas where he was above average. His BB and K rates of 14.7% in 2019 were better than average and what managed to make him a league-average OBP guy. Yet, in 2020, those numbers changed drastically, with his BB % falling to 7.35% and his K % rising to 22.06%. His walks and strikeouts still accounted for the same percentage of plate appearances as in 2019, but in a much worse combination with tanked his offensive production.
His power was still non-existent and that’s likely a result of many things, including his smaller, 5’11”, 169 lbs frame that makes hitting the ball really far much more difficult. Zaragoza’s BB and K rates were his saving grace in 2019, but with their drastic changes, he’s a far below-average offensive player, as his wRC and wOBA suggest.
Peyton Graham was a freshman last season, but performed like a seasoned veteran and was one of the best hitters in the Big 12 over his shortened campaign.
His wRC of 18.71 was 6th in the conference and narrowly edged out teammate Tanner Tredaway for best on the team. What set Graham apart from Tredaway and others was his combination of patience at the plate and the ability to hit for power.
Graham’s wOBA of 0.443 was a top 10 mark in the conference by virtue of his BB % of 14.81% and XBH % of 13.58%. His propensity to hit the ball hard and in the air surely helped contribute to his above-average BABIP of 0.382, which is above average, but not so high that it’s impossible to sustain.
Graham’s 81 plate appearances were some of the most productive in the Big 12 last season and set the stage for a strong rest of his college career. As he fills out his 6’3” frame, his power numbers should only increase and he’s already got a good feel for balls and strikes, as indicated by his BB% of 14.81% and K % of 12.35%. I’m excited to see how he performs and develops over the next few seasons and becomes an MLB Draft prospect.
Tredaway’s 2019 and 2020 seasons could not be more different. After his 2019 season, I wrote that “Tredaway hits for no power,” as the first takeaway from his statistical profile. Apparently, I was wrong because Tredaway responded with an SLG of 0.689, a HR % of 10.71%, and an XBH % of 16.05%. He also transformed into a phenomenal pure hitter too, posting a wOBA of 0.435 as his AVG of 0.375 (slightly inflated by a BABIP of 0.403) compensated for his BB rate that dropped from 11.9% to 3.7% in 2020.
Ordinarily, that BB % drop is something that would concern me, but the rest of Tredaway’s profile makes up for that drop and offers a potential explanation for it. First, his K % barely changed, with only a slight uptick from 12.5% to 13.58% so he’s not all of a sudden swinging at pitches outside of the zone instead of letting them pass by for balls. Second, he’s making strong contact nearly every time he hits the ball with his high XBH/HR rates. While his AVG may be a little bit inflated by the 0.403 BABIP, if/when that regresses, he’ll still be a phenomenal hitter, all other things remaining equal.
Usually, I’ll lean towards believing 2019 results, but with only 176 plate appearances versus his 81 in 2020, I’m inclined to believe in Tredaway’s improvement. He was another year older and all the underlying stats stayed the same or improved, paving the way to his 18.16 wRC that was 7th in the Big 12.
Hardman’s 2020 season ended up not being as good as his 2019 season was, but there are some areas where he got better, most notably cutting down on his strikeouts. That’s a really positive sign for someone, especially entering their junior draft eligibility because extreme K rates in college rarely bode well for collegiate hitters. He went from striking out 24.7% of the time down to 19.75% which is a smidge more frequently that the conference average was in 2020.
The hitting part of the season is what ended up being confusing. Hardman transformed into a power hitter, converting more hits than ever into HRs and hitting more extra-base hits than previous seasons, showing that he was getting a better quality of contact that 2019. Yet, his BABIP was below average at 0.309, indicating that he was probably getting unlucky or hitting the ball right at the defense, resulting in the lower wOBA and OBP of 0.336 and 0.333. His decrease in BB % didn’t help either, falling from 10.8% to 6.17%.
It’s great to see Hardman improving on his K rate and his power and I think he got unlucky with his batted balls in his 81 plate appearances. The numbers from 2019 in 259 plate appearances speak to his contact ability. If his approach truly went more power-focused, that would explain some of the decrease in BABIP, but I would’ve expected his BABIP & wOBA to rebound had the season continued.