There are players in the majors that far exceed expectations every year. Whether it’s a young rookie blowing away the competition or a veteran player who has finally found “it,” these are the players that draw the most attention.
Let’s look at four of the most surprising performers this season and see if their success can be explained. The numbers never lie, so let’s take an in-depth look at some of the more advanced metrics on these four players and see what they tell us.
1B Yonder Alonso – Oakland Athletics
Yonder Alonso has been a revelation for the A’s this year after a lackluster season last year. He’s put up a .303/.389/.687 slash line in 32 games. He also has 11 home runs and 27 RBIs.
The home runs are more than he has slugged in any of his previous seven seasons. How has Alonso been so productive this season?
Numerous metrics vary widely from the norm for Alonso, and they may just be the reason for his resurgence. Alonso has a fly ball rate of 46.7 percent this season. That is much higher than his 27.5 percent last year.
What does this really mean? It means Alonso is putting the ball in the air almost 50 percent of the time he makes contact. That allows him to utilize his power and drive the ball for more doubles and homers.
He has also lowered his ground ball rate from 44.6 percent last year to 26.7 percent this year, causing him to have more opportunities to turn those hit balls into base knocks.
His improved fly ball rate has caused his home run numbers to increase, and his ability to hit the ball up the middle at a 40 percent clip has helped anchor his average. He is also making hard contact on 41.3 percent of the balls he puts into play, far outperforming his career 31.0 percent.
Alonso is having a career season, and it’s easy to see why. His 41.3 percent hard-contact rate combined with his 46.7 fly ball rate have resulted in Alonso being one of the most productive first basemen in baseball this season. If he keeps it up, don’t expect him to remain in green and gold for long.
SP Jason Vargas – Kansas City Royals
Jason Vargas has had an up and down career, but he has transformed himself into a new player in Kansas City. In his four years in a Royals uniform, he has a 3.35 ERA, a solid mark for any starter.
However, he has taken his play to a whole new level this season. He has a 1.19 ERA in six starts and is striking out 8.4 batters per nine innings. How has Vargas gone from solid to spectacular?
One way he has improved is his ability to leave runners on base. His 87.4 left-on-base percentage is much higher than his career 73.3 percent. By leaving runners on base, he has drastically lowered his ERA.
Vargas isn’t relying on smoke and mirrors to produce his minuscule ERA. Opposing hitters have a .282 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). While that is lower than the average .300 BABIP experienced by pitchers, he is still relatively close to the norm. Vargas isn’t relying on an unsustainable BABIP to produce, meaning his performance is strong and should carry on throughout the season.
Another indicator of his sustainable success is his fielding-independent pitching (FIP). FIP measures a pitcher’s ERA independent of the fielders behind him, leading to a more accurate measure of the pitchers performance. With a 2.15 FIP this season, Vargas is performing at an elite level.
Don’t expect his 1.19 ERA to last throughout the season, but he will keep putting up spectacular numbers throughout the season.
1B Ryan Zimmerman – Washington Nationals
When you’re hitting like Ryan Zimmerman, it seems like luck is on your side. Zimmerman is having a renaissance year in Washington and is currently tied or leading in all three Triple-Crown categories.
His .393 batting average and 34 RBIs lead all of baseball. He is also tied with Aaron Judge and Eric Thames for the lead in home runs with 13. How has a player that hit .218 last season vaulted himself into contention for the Triple Crown?
The metrics are mixed on Ryan Zimmerman’s performance this season. He has an unsustainable .422 BABIP, which has helped loft his batting average to around .400. His BABIP will surely drop as the season continues, and with it his batting average.
Even so, he is getting hard contact on 45.8 percent of the balls he puts into play. He also has a medium-contact rate of 43.8 percent. His hard-contact percentage will surely drop, but it should increase his medium-contact percentage.
Zimmerman’s home-run-per-fly-ball (HR/FB) percentage is also astronomical, hovering around 36.1 percent so far. It will surely regress, but no one is taking away his league leading 13 home runs.
Even with regression imminent, Zimmerman is still performing exceptionally well this season. He has been a key cog in the Nationals lineup, and he shouldn’t experience too much of a drop off in performance.
1B Eric Thames – Milwaukee Brewers
Eric Thames is close to becoming in the U.S. what he was in Korea: a spectacle of epic proportions. His performance this season has been among the best in all of baseball.
His .331 batting average, 13 homers and 25 RBIs are close to the rate of success he experienced in Korea. Surely major league pitching will figure him out soon, right?
If they do, it won’t be any time soon. Thames is tearing the cover off the ball with a 47.1 percent hard-contact rate. His ability to produce solid hits off of the bat has allowed him to increase his batting average as well as his home run total.
However, he may be due for regression in the slugging department. His 36.1 percent HR/FB rate is astoundingly high, and will surely regress as the season moves forward.
His .351 BABIP is also pretty high, and has helped carry his batting average. Even with a regression in BABIP, HR/FB rate and a lower hard-contact percentage, Thames will still be a productive player for the Brewers. Look for Thames to be a key piece in the rebuilding Brewers’ lineup.
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