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 look at how Texas Tech’s hitters fared in the short 2020 season.
Braxton Fulford’s surface-level hitting stats regressed in 2020, albeit with just 58 plate appearances. His average, OBP, and SLG fell. He posted a 2020 wOBA of just 0.305 with a BABIP of 0.270, way below average. If the season had continued, I would have bet against Fulford regressing all the way back to his 2020 numbers. While the 0.270 BABIP is low, so is his contact quality, only hitting for an extra-base hit 3.45% of the time he came to the plate. Even in 2019, he averaged an XBH in 6.1% of his plate appearances so above-average power has never been his thing.
The most positive sign in Fulford’s 2020 profile is how much better his BB & K rate got. His BB % doubled, going from 9.5% in 2019 up to 18.97% in 2020, one of the better marks in the Big 12 conference. His K % underwent a similar change, dropping from 24.2% down to 15.52% in 2020, the combination of which allowed Fulford to post a 0.379 OBP, just about league average. Of course, the reliance on walks hurt his wOBA, but as a below-average power guy, that’s not something that he was relying on in the first place.
Contact remains the name of the game for Brian Klein, who earned my nod for Big 12 Hitter of the (shortened) Year. He posted some of the best marks in the conference, slashing 0.391/0.494/0.580 while posting a wOBA of 0.452 and 20.28 wRC, the second-best mark in the conference by a hair.
While I believe that these are the best to-date marks in the conference, I don’t think they’re sustainable simply because these numbers are phenomenal. The fact that Klein posted great numbers in 2019, slashing 0.320/0.412/0.447, makes me confident that he’d still be one of the best in the Big 12, but that BABIP of 0.464 is simply unsustainable. He was hitting more extra-base hits, nearly doubling his 2019 rate of 6.8% up to 12.94%, but hitting 0.464 on balls-in-play is not sustainable.
He did make a leap in another area, one that looks sustainable, walking more, up to 17.65% of the time and more than he was striking out, 15.29% of the time. I would’ve been hard-pressed to see a drastic improvement for Klein post-2019, but he got better at drawing walks and hit for extra-bases more often, becoming a truly fearsome hitter for the Red Raiders.
Cal Conley burst onto the scene in a dramatic way for the Red Raiders, posting a phenomenal 0.371/0.444/0.643 slash, with a wOBA of 0.447 and 19.02 wRC. And, whereas his teammate Brian Klein’s scorching start seemed unsustainable, Conley’s looks a little more sustainable, with a BABIP of only 0.390. There was still regression coming from that as Tech entered Big 12 play, but since that never happened, we don’t know what would’ve happened.
Hits for a lot of power, with an XBH % of 14.81% and an HR % of 11.54%, both above average. His BB % of 9.88% is below average, but it’s fine considering it’s almost 1:1 with his K % of just 11.11%. I’m fascinated to see what would’ve happened in Big 12 play, but we don’t get that this year. Conley hits the ball really hard and in the air a lot and has a great command of the strike zone. He’s definitely a player to watch in the coming seasons for Tech.
Stilwell built on a promising freshman season and got even better, albeit a little bit lucky on batted balls. He posted a BABIP of 0.472, enabling a gigantic jump of 0.268 to 0.345 in batting average. He did improve his power, driving the ball for an extra-base hit 11.11% of his plate appearances, but 0.472 is simply unsustainable.
Another area where he jumped up is BB %, improving from 15.7% up to 19.44%, even as his K % saw a similar increase from 2019 to 2020. It looks like Stilwell took advantage of his first collegiate offseason to boost those powers numbers and become another fearsome bat in the Red Raider lineup.
Seemingly every year, Tech has a couple of freshmen show up and make their impact felt immediately. In 2020, Dillon Carter was one of them. He was mostly a contact guy, posting a 0.373 wOBA and a 0.448 OBP, the large difference attributable to his above-average BB % of 18.84% and below average XBH % of 5.8%.
Maintaining a BB:K ratio of 1:1 as a freshman is impressive and gives Carter a strong foundation to build off of heading into the offseason. His BABIP of 0.368 is a little above average and there’s no reason that he can’t improve on that as his power and strength grow. If he follows the Cole Stilwell plan, he’s going to be another stellar bat in the Red Raider lineup.
Dru Baker fell victim to some poor batted-ball luck in 2020, but it didn’t really hurt him anywhere besides his batting average. He hit for more power, hitting for extra-base hits in 8.86% of his plate appearances and turning 11.76% of his hits into HRs. Despite an excellent batted ball profile, his BABIP was a mere 0.306, below average.
But it didn’t matter *too* much; Baker still turned in an above-average wOBA of 0.366 and had 13.04 wRC. He was hitting for more power which boosted those two stats in addition to his improvements in plate discipline and control, upping his BB % to 17.72%, identical to his K % of 17.72%.
Baker’s power and strength shot up after another year of workouts, as did his BB % as he got better at driving the ball. Poor batted ball luck hurt some of his rate stats, but everything points to Baker rebounding and posting an even higher wOBA.
I was really high on Neuse following the 2019 season, the only two questions being his smaller frame and how that could maintain power numbers as well as a slightly higher than average K %. He answered by cutting down his K % to 13.48%, identical to his BB %, and below how often he struck out in 2019.
The power question probably needs some more time to be answered. His XBH % and HR/H were down from his 2019 numbers, but he still posted a 0.487 SLG. What’s a little more worrying is that he was having excellent batted ball luck, posting a BABIP of 0.406 en route to his 0.355/0.438/0.487 slash line. Given his 2019 success, I’m inclined to believe that he can be an above-average BABIP guy because of his contact ability so that’s not a huge red flag from that perspective. However, it raises the question as to whether or not his 2019 was a fluky power season. Short answer: I don’t know because we’re comparing 289 plate appearances versus 89 plate appearances. If he isn’t the 2019 XBH/HR guy and profiles more as the 2020 version of himself, that’s okay because that’s still a very valuable player.
Jace Jung seems to be fitting right in a Tech following his brother Josh, who was drafted in the first round a year ago. Jace was one of the premier power hitters in the conference last season, posting a 0.604 SLG with a 0.340 ISO and a wOBA of 0.424. That production resulted in 15.87 wRC despite his BABIP of 0.294, which was below average, part of which can be explained by his extreme HR/H rate of 28.57%.
In addition to posting astounding power numbers for a freshman, Jung walked in 24.32% of his plate appearances, a mark far above average. Of course, he also had a K % of 22.97%, but when you’re hitting and walking the way that Jung is, you can do that.
I’m really excited to see how Jung fares in a full season, especially once he gets to face Big 12 pitching and the higher talent level there, but we’ll have to wait until 2021 to see that.
Brian Klein may have been my Big 12 Hitter of the Year, but Nate Rombach wasn’t too far behind him after a blistering start to his collegiate career. A phenomenal power guy, Rombach posted an SLG of 0.677 and a wOBA of 0.449, marks near the top of the conference. He hit for extra-bases in 13.10% of his plate appearances and turned 30% of his hits into HRs, an unprecedented mark that he wouldn’t have been able to sustain through Big 12 play. He does have a great build at 6’4”, 225 lbs and I’d expect strong power numbers from him still, just not at that level.
It’s nice to see in a freshman, but particularly one as power-oriented as Rombach, but he posted an average K % of 19.05% and an above-average BB % of 14.29%. Everything in Rombach’s profile indicates that what he was doing in his first 84 plate appearances is sustainable and that he may be the next great Texas Tech slugger.