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 take a look at Oklahoma State’s imposing offense.
Alix Garcia was one of the most prolific power hitters in the conference last season, but also one of the luckiest and his luck ran out in 2020. He hit 20.5% of his fly balls for HRs last season, resulting in a HR % of 16.67% despite only hitting an extra-base hit 7.6% of the time (he hit 8 HRs in 2019 vs 7 doubles so he got very lucky). Up to the end of the 2020 season, he was hitting a HR 5.88% of the time that he landed a hit and only produced an extra-base hit 3.7% of his plate appearances. However, he still managed to produce 9.85 wRC by virtue of his 81 plate appearances; his per plate appearance wRC was quite abysmal. He wasn’t hitting the ball very hard anymore and it showed in his BABIP of 0.308 which was below average.
Despite a poor batted ball profile, Garcia held steady with his plate discipline. His BB rate held steady at the above-average clip of 12.35% and he actually got better about striking out, only going down on strikes 18.52% of the time, a conference average rate. Considering the decreases in Garcia’s power numbers I think it’s worth wondering if he changed his approach to try and avoid strikeouts and, in the process of doing so, cut down on his power because he didn’t swing as hard. And if that’s the case, he made contact on more pitches, but at a weaker exit velocity, resulting in his lower BABIP and batting averages.
Cade Cabbiness had a notable 60 plate appearances in 2020 because his HR power went down, but so did his massive K rate. His 2019 K % of 35.6% was horrendous and absolutely needed fixing, which he did, bringing it down to 20%, a respectable rate slightly above the conference average. (The only problem is that his BB rate also decreased from 8.7% to 5%, but hey, take what you can get and the decrease in K rate NEEDED to happen).
His batting average, and consequently his OBP, ticked up despite a lower BABIP of 0.326. The low BABIP is interesting because he had a pretty good batted profile in 2020, hitting extra-base hits at a 10.00% clip per plate appearance as well as 12.5% of his hits going for HRs.
Cabbiness appears to have arrived in a sweet spot with his approach that allows him to hit for above-average power while maintaining respectability with his plate discipline and contact skills.
Caeden Trenkle wowed as a freshman in his first 80 collegiate plate appearances and it looks there’s even more room for him to flourish. He produced 16.53 wRC and a wOBA of 0.415 thanks to his above-average XBH & HR rates. It’s those same XBH & HR rates that make me think that Trenkle, despite his 0.333/0.387/0.623 slash line, had some bad luck on batted balls with a BABIP of 0.333 despite how hard he was hitting the ball.
His BB & K rates are both really small, just 5% and 7.5% respectively, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing that his BB rate is super low (it’s a good thing that his K rate is). With how he hit the ball in 2020, you want a guy like Trenkle swinging the bat because good things happen when he does. However, it would be nice to see Trenkle refine his approach in the coming seasons to be a little pickier because his insistence on swinging at everything may have been the culprit of his 0.333 BABIP.
Trenkle’s 2020 season was a phenomenal start to his collegiate career and I’m really interested to see how his power and contact skills continue to play in the Big 12.
Carson McCusker absolutely fascinates me as a player given his enormous size, standing 6’8”, 235 lbs (that’s an NBA small forward body). In 2019, his numbers reflected that as he was a good power hitter, but an even better contact guy, posting a 0.313/0.385/0.526 slash line.
On the surface, his short 2020 season looks like he really fell off, which he might have? It’s confusing. What’s notable is that his K % decreased from 27.1% to 11.67, from horrendous to really good. His BB rate held fairly steady at 10%, just below the conference average rate.
His power numbers got better; he hit for extra-bases at the same rate as 2019 and converted even more hits into HRs in 2020, something that you’d expect to be the norm for a guy standing 6’8”. That’s a lot of good, hard contact which is why this is so confusing. McCusker slashed 0.235/0.322/0.451 in 2020, a sharp drop from his 2019 line. However, all that decrease is solely due to his poor batted-ball luck and his 0.233 BABIP, a tiny number for the amount of hard contact he was producing. His 2020 ISO was 0.216, nearly identical to his 2019 ISO of 0.213, indicating that his power is at the same level as 2019.
I’m not particularly worried about the batted ball luck that McCusker faced and I’m encouraged by the massive improvement that he made in terms of strikeout %. We’ll see what happens and whether he had significant pro prospects or returns for another year to Oklahoma State.
Morrill was Oklahoma State’s OBP/contact hitter in 2019 but reversed course on that role in 2020. One of the biggest improvements he made was improving his plate discipline, cutting his K % from 21.8% to 11.76% and upping his BB % from 13.0% to 15.29%.
He produced 13.74 wRC with a wOBA of 0.362 despite his average dipping down to 0.258, likely a factor of a 0.273 BABIP. He managed to produce that 0.362 wOBA because he made better contact in 2020, hitting more extra-base hits and turning more hits into HRs. The combination of those skyrocketed his SLG up to 0.470 and doubled his ISO from 0.107 in 2019 to 0.212 in 2020.
Morrill’s 2020 season was not necessarily one that I saw coming based on last season’s stats, but it’s an interesting surprise. He got better at the plate and seemed to focus more on driving the ball deep which really paid off for him. It would have been really interesting to see how his BABIP and batting average would have fluctuated over the remainder of the season, but unfortunately, we’ll never know.
Kaden Polcovich, a JUCO transfer, had, by my estimation, the second-best offensive season in the Big 12. He produced 20.41 wRC, which led the conference and was one of the best per plate appearance rates. He posted an extremely high wOBA of 0.447 by driving the ball for extra-base hits and hitting HRs at an average rate. It also helps that he had a crazy BB:K ratio, walking 21.84% of the time and striking out 11.49% of the time.
All in all, I do believe that Polcovich’s statistical profile and 0.344/0.494/0.578 is mostly sustainable because his BABIP of 0.370 is reasonable and he’s just super good with great control of the plate. His size, only standing 5’8”, 180 lbs, makes him a little bit of a risk to continue to be such a strong power hitter at the next level, but I believe that his production warrants a shot.
Max Hewitt, a senior, finally got a chance to see significant playing time for the Cowboys and made the most of his opportunity, producing 15.95 wRC. However, if the season had continued, Hewitt was going to plummet back to earth as his production and 0.428 wOBA was built entirely on a BABIP of 0.490 that’s not sustainable. Hewitt wasn’t hitting the ball super hard, only hitting for extra bases 8.22% of the time, below the conference average and had 0 HRs when the season ended. With such weak contact, eventually, that batted ball luck was going to run out.
He did decently at the plate in terms of discipline, with a BB % of 9.59%, a little below average and striking out less than the conference average, only sitting down on strikes 15.07% of the time. His ISO of 0.115 indicates that he isn’t the raw power hitter that his SLG of 0.525 indicates, another sign pointing to the bubble that was going to burst imminently.
Sifrit performed at a pretty average level for Oklahoma State in 2020, accruing 9.51 wRC in 58 plate appearances. He doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, XBH % of just 3.45%, and isn’t that much of a contact guy with his batting average of 0.279 inflated by a 0.400 BABIP that looks tough to sustain without much hard contact.
Looking at Sifrit’s OBP of 0.439 indicates a fantastic season while his wOBA of 0.365, just above the conference average, tells another story. The massive difference between the two lies in his BB % of 17.24%, which is a great walk rate. We just see that it’s reflected more when it’s weighted equally to everything else, rather than counting for less than extra-base hits as wOBA does. The BB rate is fantastic and I’m not knocking it, but without much power ability to drive the ball, Sifrit’s options and baseball ceiling are pretty capped.