In the run-up to MLB’s unprecedented 60-game season there has been plenty of musing about the types of chaos such a campaign invites.
That starts with competitive anarchy and the idea that a shortened season will lead to flukier outcomes and a wonky playoff picture. There’s also the idea that individual statistics will be skewed to the point that someone could hit .400 or a significant record (such as Tim Keefe’s ERA mark) could fall due to small-sample-size madness.
While some of that talk is overblown, the notion that what we see in 2020 will be a mirage of sorts has some validity. Almost any major-league calibre hitter or pitcher can have a scorching 60-game stretch, and when this season is done there will be a few performances we’ll have difficulty interpreting. That doesn’t mean this year’s numbers will mean nothing, though. Understanding what’s meaningful and what’s not will just require a slightly different lens than we’re used to applying.
Renowned baseball analyst Russell Carleton has done a lot of work on the idea of stabilization. In shorthand, it’s the sample size required for a particular statistic to be meaningful for our understanding of a player. If Randal Grichuk doesn’t strike out in his first six plate appearances of 2020 that’d be an unusual, but not particularly noteworthy, occurrence. If he takes 60 trips to the plate without a ‘K’ to his name, we’re looking at a transformed hitter.
Some statistics take longer to “stabilize” than others. Batting average, for instance, has a stabilization point of 910 at-bats because it’s subject to a great deal of randomness. It’s worth noting that the concept is oft-misapplied — Carleton wrote an excellent piece clarifying some of the errors here — and it’s not the analytical silver bullet some make it out to be. Even so, it is handy if only to direct us to numbers that mean more in smaller samples.
After all, in 2020 small samples are the only samples we’re going to get. With that in mind, here are a few Blue Jays statistics worth keeping a close eye on in 2020 that should be significant amidst a sea of confusing results, many of which we’d do well to dismiss:
Player: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Stat to watch: Groundball rate
Approximate Stabilization Point: 80 balls in play
Why it matters: There is quite simply no doubting Vladdy’s raw power. The show he put on at the 2019 Home Run Derby, as well as his batting practices throughout the year, made that clear. The 21-year-old has the strength and bat speed combo required to effortlessly clear fences in any ballpark.
What remains to be seen is how consistently he can tap into that power against MLB pitching. For all of his gifts, Guerrero’s 15 home runs ranked 171st in the league last season. One of the biggest reasons for that was his inability to keep the ball off the ground. Guerrero’s groundball rate of 49.6 was the 17th-highest among hitters with 500 or more plate appearances. His launch angle of 6.7 was just over half the MLB average of 11.2.
There is a lane for Guerrero to be a home run hitter who relies on laser beam liners like Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton. That requires elite exit velocity which he has only managed in spurts, and even that duo has career launch angles above the MLB average. The easiest road to more round trippers for Vladdy is elevating the ball with increased regularity. If he can keep that ball off the ground a little more in 2020 that’ll be an excellent sign for his development.
Player: Bo Bichette
Stat to watch: Isolated Power
Approximate Stabilization Point: 160 at-bats
Why it matters: Bichette’s 2019 was so impressive, it’s tempting to think of him as a finished product who can be counted on as a star. He may live up to that expectation, but it’s worth remembering he’s a 22-year-old who played less than one-third of an MLB season and has less than 500 plate appearances above Double-A. Right now he projects as a slightly above-average hitter, not an offensive juggernaut.
Bichette’s not a bad bet to bust those projections, but to do so his power output is going to be particularly important. Last year, the shortstop struck out fairly frequently and walked at a below-average clip, making his extra-base hitting crucial to his production. The problem with leaning on that power is that it’s relatively unproven. Bichette has never topped 19 home runs in a professional season, and until his Blue Jays’ stint he hadn’t posted an ISO above .200 since his time with the Single-A Lansing Lugnuts.
Bichette’s bat looked the part in 2019, but even a truncated 2020 will go a long way in terms of evaluating the thump in it.
Player: Cavan Biggio
Stat to watch: Average Exit Velocity
Approximate Stabilization Point: 40 balls in play
Why it matters: In many ways Biggio has the makings of an offensive star. His patience is elite and his batted-ball profile is extremely compelling. Among the 207 hitters with 400 plate appearances last year Biggio’s groundball rate was the second-lowest. Only Mike Trout elevated the ball at a higher clip. His pop-up rate of 3.7 per cent was also outstanding — good for 19th best in that sample. No one in baseball was better at avoiding the least dangerous kinds of contact.
The problem is that while he avoided making ugly contact, he didn’t stand out at hitting the ball hard. Biggio’s average exit velocity of 88.7 mph was in the 41st percentile in 2019. The result was an inability to convert his extreme fly ball rate into prodigious power.
It’s possible that’s something he’s never able to do, and he doesn’t need to in order to be a productive offensive contributor — just like he was last year. However, if he’s going to take a leap this is the most likely avenue. Considering how quickly exit velocity stabilizes we’re sure to learn more about his power potential in 2020.
Player: Teoscar Hernandez
Stat to watch: Walk rate
Approximate Stabilization Point: 120 plate appearances
Why it matters: Hernandez can be frustrating and difficult to watch at times, but it’s hard to deny his tools. In short spurts he’s also had the production to match. In the second half of 2019, for instance, he hit .259/.346/.592 with 18 home runs. We know he can go on a heater, which is part of the reason even if he explodes in 2020 it will be met with suspicion.
There are a few things we know about the talented outfielder regardless of what he does this year. Firstly, he has outstanding power. Whether you’re measuring exit velocity or HR/FB, the guy can mash. He also has enormous contact issues resulting in sky-high strikeout rates. You can build yourself a great hitter with those ingredients, but you need one more thing: a strong walk rate.
Because Hernandez strikes out so much his batting average will always be low. That means in order to post a palatable OBP he’s got to pile up the free passes. In his strong finish to 2019 he did just that, posting a walk rate of 11.4 per cent. It’s hard to know if that’s predictive or not, but his patience has been improving ever since the Blue Jays acquired him.
Whether that trend continues in 2020 will go a long way towards determining his ceiling as a hitter, and whether he has a future in Toronto.
Player: Nate Pearson
Stat to watch: Strikeout rate
Approximate Stabilization Point: 70 batters faced
Why it matters: Although we tend to think of baseball player’s careers as a series of slow incremental improvements towards a mid-career peak, that’s not always the case. It’s particularly less true with pitchers who tend to make their MLB debuts at the height of their powers — at least in the “stuff” department. Pearson undoubtedly has more to learn about command and pitch sequencing, but he’s never going to have more brute force to call upon than he will in 2020.
Although velocity and strikeouts aren’t perfectly correlated, there is a strong relationship and research on pitcher aging curves by Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs indicates that starters generally see their strikeouts decline over time.
That’s not to say Pearson’s strikeout rate this season is the best he’ll ever manage. The baseline he establishes in 2020 will be significant, though, not necessarily as a peak, but rather as a threshold he’s unlikely to blow out of the water in future years.