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 into the rabbit hole that is the Kansas State offense.
Thompson took a big leap forward from 2019 to 2020, improving virtually everywhere into a complete hitter. He had 15.52 wRC in 78 plate appearances off the back of his above-average 0.406 wOBA. He was doing everything; hitting for power with a 0.523 SLG, walking way more than 2019 with a BB % of 14.10%, and upped his batting average from 0.275 to 0.338.
There may have been some negative regression coming, particularly with his batting average because of his high BABIP of 0.382. But he was hitting the ball really well, hitting for extra bases 12.82% of the time, exactly as often as he struck out. His quality of contact was really strong and given his improvements in plate discipline, I’m inclined to believe in his improvements as a senior.
After the 2019 season, I wrote that Ceballos was a boom or bust guy who had managed to provide positive value to the Wildcats. That changed in 2020 when he only produced 5.61 wRC in 63 plate appearances.
The primary drivers of his standout 2019 campaign were his great batting average of 0.292 and an extremely high HR rate of 16.94%. In 2020, those numbers dropped to 0.212 and a mere 9.09%. I am inclined to believe that there’s some positive regression on his BABIP of 0.244 which would pull everything else, AVG, OBP, and wOBA, up with it, but still not that much. His XBH rate dropped in 2020, indicating that he just wasn’t making good contact anymore.
The most positive sign of his short 2020 season was how his BB rate increased from 4.5% up to 14.29%. Evaluating Ceballos’ 2020 season is really complicated and I think his true talent level lies somewhere in between his 2019 standout season and his bad luck ridden 2020 season, I just don’t know which it’s closer to given the confusing numbers on each side.
Despite being an undersized (only 5’9”, 180 lbs) sophomore, Carinci managed to have a very productive offensive season for the Wildcats, totaling 11.66 wRC in 66 plate appearances. Posted a wOBA of 0.380 because of his contact skills that may be a little bit inflated by the high BABIP of 0.415. Given that Carinci is a sophomore playing a lot for the first time in his career, I’d have bet against that batted ball luck continuing to that extent. Despite that, he did produce an XBH rate of 10.61%, above the 2020 conference average of 8.49%, showing that he did make productive and strong contact with the ball he swung the bat.
Another very promising sign that bodes well for Carinci is his strong K % of just 12.12%, one of the better marks for the conference. That above-average K rate indicates that Carinci wasn’t pressing too much at the plate or trying to hard to hit for power. That’s good because he needs to be patient at the plate in order to get pitches that he can drive. I’d like to see his BB rate of 4.55% increase, but if he’s continuing to drive the ball and avoid strikeouts, that’s something that you can live with.
I didn’t think that Dylan Phillips had much room for improvement power-wise after 2019, but he proved me wrong in 2020, turning into a dynamic and fearsome left-handed slugger. Almost everything he did got better; he started hitting for more average in a way that seems sustainable with a 0.356 BABIP and lots of hard contact from his improved XBH & HR rates.
His wOBA of 0.404 is excellent, only dragged down by a low BB rate of 4.41%, and he ended the season with 13.41 wRC, a per plate appearance basis that was one of the best in the conference. While his wOBA is really good, his OBP was just 0.368, much lower due to the weights of extra-base hits in wOBA. The lower OBP reflects his poor BB rate of 4.41% which is one of the red flags in his profile, along with his increased K rate of 20.59%. However, that’s why using wOBA is nice because we can see that the things that Phillips does well, hitting for extra-bases and HRs, are more valuable than walks.
The K rate isn’t too much higher than average, but that BB rate is worrisome because it potentially signals that pitchers can get him to chase on pitches outside the zone. But if it’s more a reflection of being aggressive early, that’s something you can live with when he’s hitting for this much power.
Kamron Williams, a transfer from Bakersfield College, performed at a little bit below average clip in 2020 and there’s nothing in his statistical profile to assume that’s an erroneous assumption. His BABIP of 0.308 is below average, but so are his XBH & HR rates so he’s not hitting the ball super hard or in the air. He rarely walks, in fact, his BB % of 2.70% was the lowest in the conference in the shortened 2020 season.
A small positive is his K % of 13.51% is above average, but that’s not something you can work with when there’s nothing else positive in his profile. If he sported a league average BB %, maybe you could transform him into a good OBP at the top of the lineup, but unless something drastic changes as he enters his senior year, it’ll be another replacement-level season for the Wildcats.
Terrence Spurlin has always done a really good job of hitting HRs, a trend that he continued in 2020 and also managed to carry over to his XBH rate, both of which were above average. That’s a good start, BUT he struck out 34.25% of the time in 2020, an absolutely absurd K % that completely hampered his performance.
His 2019 K % of 18.5% was about average and allowed him to hit for a little more contact. But that insane 2020 strikeout rate precipitated an OBP drop down to 0.296, a wOBA of 0.301, and a batting average of 0.210 which is only buoyed by his BABIP of 0.306, which seems sustainable considering all that Spurlin does is strike out or get a hard hit.
Zach Kokoska got better at what he was already good at in 2019 and became a very productive hitter for the Wildcats in 2020, posting a 15.52 wRC in a way that seems sustainable for the junior.
He was already a strong contact guy in 2019, but got better, posting a 0.418 wOBA on a 0.404 BABIP that looks sustainable given his above-average XBH % that indicates a lot of hard contact. He also started drawing more walks, 10.81% of his plate appearances, creeping towards the conference average in that category. In 2019, he was already adept at avoiding strikeouts, only going down on strikes 15.5% of the time, but got even better at the plate in 2020, only striking out 13.51% of the time.