Evaluating West Virginia Baseball’s 2020 Offense

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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 close look at how the Mountaineer hitters fared at the plate in 2020.

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Austin Davis, a sophomore for the Mountaineers, is one of the smaller players in the conference, with a 5’10”, 165 lbs frame. The downside of that is how much more difficult it is for a guy like him to drive the ball consistently, an issue that he had in 2020, hitting 0 HRs and only hitting for extra-bases on 7.46% of his plate appearances, with a below-average wOBA of 0.344.

On the flip side, Davis appears to maximize his contact and speed skills with a 0.322 batting average and going 6–7 on stolen bases in 2020. His BABIP of 0.373 is above average, but not so high to be worrisome. He puts the ball in play a lot too, only striking out in 11.94% of his plate appearances, which gives him more opportunity to get on base.

However, while his K % is promising, his BB % is also low, just 7.46%, perhaps an indication that Davis is not a patient hitter and swings early in the count at anything he can hit. Pitchers could exploit that opening with breaking balls and off-speed pitches to catch him early in the count. I would like to see Davis improve on his BB % and the pitches he chooses to swing at, but his 2020 campaign was successful, especially since he only hit 0.220 in 59 at-bats in 2019 versus his much better 2020 line.

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Braden Zarbnisky had a very strong start to his 2020 season, slashing 0.431/0.486/0.538 in 76 plate appearances with 17.11 wRC, one of the top marks in the conference. However, I’m struggling to see much of that success translating at the next level or even as the collegiate season would’ve progressed. Zarbnisky was hitting 0.528 on balls-in-play, the highest mark in the conference, while not hitting the ball very hard, with an XBH % of 6.58% and no HRs.

Zarbnisky’s profile looks extremely-luck driven and hard to sustain, especially for a redshirt sophomore. Back in 2017, he posted a 0.336/0.417/0.384 slash line, but I just don’t feel very strongly about his continued success. It doesn’t help that he posted a below-average BB % of just 9.21% in 2020. Zarbnisky is not a power guy and his BABIP bubble was going to burst at some point; the only question was how well he’d be able to stay afloat as a pure contact guy. We won’t know how that would’ve played out in 2020, but, as a redshirt senior, that’s not the profile you want for a guy at the next level.

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In 2019, Brophy was an extreme power hitter who struck out a lot and didn’t get on base if he wasn’t hitting a HR. In 2020, he cut down on his K %, dropping it from 31.9% down to 25.37%, a manageable figure for a power guy. However, he did not keep up the power in his first 67 plate appearances, only hitting 6.67% of his hits over the fence and only 5.97% of hits plate appearances went for extra-base hits. It’s not even something that you can attribute to bad batted ball luck since he was hitting 0.326 on balls in play, a figure that’s below-average, but he never was a contact guy anyway.

His BB % fell as well, down to 5.97%, a poor mark for anyone, but especially a senior, power-hitter who needs to walk to support his massive power fluctuations. The improvement in K % is a positive development, but it apparently came at the expense of the only thing he did well: hitting home runs.

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Matt McCormick had a phenomenal start to his collegiate career, hitting for power and average. He slashed an excellent 0.364/0.470/0.60, posting a 0.449 wOBA and 15.59 wRC. He did receive some batted ball luck, with a BABIP of 0.486, which would regress as the season continued. However, there is still reason to believe that McCormick could maintain a higher BABIP than normal given his XBH % of 10.61% and ability to hit the ball hard.

In terms of his plate discipline, McCormick struck out in 25% of his plate appearances which is a lot. But he was also walking more often than normal, drawing a walk in 15.15% of his plate appearances. The K %, while a little high, is digestible considering McCormick was one of the premier power hitters in the conference through the first month of the season.

Since he is a freshman, we would have learned a lot about McCormick in conference play and when his batted ball bubble presumably burst. The metric I would’ve been glued to would be his K % to see if he started pressing and chasing bad pitches once he started to struggle a little bit. However, time will tell and McCormick performed like an excellent hitter through 66 plate appearances as a freshman; I’m excited to see how he develops over the next few seasons.

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Paul McIntosh started striking out less in 2020, only going down on strikes in 19.05% of his plate appearances, and converting more hits into homerun, up to 25%, but everything else he did got worse. His batting average plummeted to 0.207 and he posted a meager 0.266 wOBA because his BB % also halved, down from 9.7% to 4.76%, one of the worst marks in the conference.

Given his success with 217 plate appearances in 2019 versus a rocky start in 2020, I’m inclined to believe that McIntosh is much more his 2019 self than what 2020 portrays him as because of the horrid batted ball luck he had.

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Tevin Tucker was not a dangerous hitter in 2019 and got even worse in his brief 2020 stint. His batting average fell to an abysmal 0.170 even with a 0.242 BABIP. The little bit of power that he had in 2019 never reared his head in 2020 and his one redeeming quality in 2019, drawing walks at an 18.8% clip deserted him as his BB % dropped down to 7.55%.

There’s not a whole lot to say about Tucker and his recent performances, which are in line with each other, don’t really warrant very many words anyway.

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Doanes was a good hitter last season, slashing 0.316/0.398/0.500 with power despite only standing 5’10”, 175 lbs. In 2020, the power dried up, but he still managed to be an average hitter, slashing 0.279/0.366/0.344 with a 0.316 wOBA, indicating his reliance on singles since his XBH % dropped down to 4.05%. I don’t know how much regression would be coming either since he managed a BABIP of 0.362 despite a poorer batted ball profile.

The biggest change from 2019 to 2020, was his increase in strikeout rate, from 14.23% in 2019 up to 20.27% in 2020. That jump, from a guy who’s not hitting for power, is hard to reconcile. I think Doanes is in the middle of these two seasons somewhere, but I don’t think there’s a start hiding under the surface, waiting to break out.

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Victor Scott, a freshman for the Mountaineers, didn’t do a whole lot in 2020 besides hit for some power. His XBH % and HR/H ratios of 10.2% and 10% were both above average, as was his ISO of 0.222. Given his ability to hit for power, I’d expect some of an increase in his BABIP of 0.281 as Scott progress which should boost his wOBA and on-base numbers.

However, what is disconcerting is his poor plate discipline. He walked in a mere 4.08% of his plate appearances and struck out in 26.53% of his trips to the plate. Some of that can hopefully be attributed to his first few collegiate plate appearances, but it’s not a great way to start your career. Hopefully, it’s not a sign of his need to swing hard and chase pitches.

Sophomore studying Sport Management and Economics at the University of Texas. Writing about Baseball from an analytical and scouting perspective

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