Legends On Deck

Biggest Surprises and Disappointments of the First Half: Hitters

Now that we’ve reached the All Star break, we can reflect on the first half of the baseball season, which has certainly been an eventful one. Here, we will look back at some of the most surprising offensive performances, as well as some of the most disappointing ones, and try to best predict whether these players’ performance levels will either rebound, decline, or remain constant in the second half.

Surprises:

Aaron Judge (Yankees)
First half stats: .329/.448/.691, 30 HRs, 197 wRc+, 5.5 fWAR

The obvious breakout star of the first half, Judge has amazed fans with his breathtaking power. He also has hit .329, which is a big step up from the .179 mark he posted last year in just 95 plate appearances. His power is definitely here to stay, but let’s take a closer look to see if he can sustain his very high batting average.

The two most obvious differences between his short 2016 stint and his 2017 season are his reduction in strikeouts and increase in BABIP. In 2016 he struck out at an appalling 44.2%. He has lowered that number down to a still high, but much more manageable 29.8%. That number is currently the eleventh highest in baseball, but a big improvement nonetheless. Of the ten players with a higher K% than Judge, only two are hitting above .255, and none above .276. Of course, none of those players hit the ball as hard as Judge, who currently leads baseball in average exit velocity at 97.2 mph. But still, it’s hard to hit over .300 while striking out close to 30%.

That brings us to our second point, which is Judge’s BABIP. Not only does his astronomical .426 mark lead all of baseball right now, but it would actually be the highest mark posted by any player since 1900, right above Babe Ruth’s .423 mark in 1923. BABIP tends to regress to around .300, with some exceptions for speedy players or players who hit the ball incredibly hard with lots of line drives. Judge certainly fits the second criteria, but it’s still unreasonable to expect his BABIP to be nearly that high. So yes, his batting average will probably be closer to the .270 range in the future, but his insane power and high BB% (16.7%, which is second in baseball) should still allow him to be a superstar caliber player, provided his K% doesn’t creep back up towards 2016 levels.

Logan Morrison (Rays)
First half stats: .258/.367/.564, 24 HRs, 143 wRc+, 3.1 fWAR

Morrison, the Rays’ 29 year old first baseman who has never had a season worth more than 1.1 fWAR in his seven seasons prior to 2017, has been worth 3.1fWAR through the first half. This is mainly due to his 24 HRs to go along with a .306 ISO (sixth highest in baseball), as well as a BB% of 14.5% (tenth highest in baseball). Morrison has improved his BB% to a career high so far this season, and his batted ball profile has changed dramatically. He is currently posting a career high 46% FB% (fly ball percentage), and is hitting the ball hard 42.6% of the time (per Fangraphs), which is also a career high by a wide margin.

It seems like most of his 2017 gains have been due to a large increase in power, as his BABIP is still, and has always been, below average. His average exit velocity of 89.6% is solid, but not elite. If he can continue to hit HRs at a pace close to his first half, he could have a successful run as a productive first baseman. However, based on the fact that his previous career of HRs in a season is 23 (way back in 2011), it doesn’t seem likely that he will be able to continue to hit HRs at such a tremendous pace. But if he can sustain a decent portion of the power increase, he can be a productive player going forward.

Cody Bellinger (Dodgers)
First half stats: .261/.342/.619, 25 HRs, 145 wRc+, 2.3 fWAR

Bellinger’s 25 HRs in the first half look impressive at face value, but are even more impressive once you realize that the rookie did not play his first game until April 25th. Bellinger was an elite prospect entering the season, and has not disappointed one bit. Unless he improves on his 29.1 K%, he probably won’t hit much higher than his current .261 rate. But with a solid 11.3 BB%, along with the fact that he hits the ball hard 46% of the time (per Fangraphs), he looks like a good bet to keep us his strong power/OBP combination. He also has an impressive average exit velocity of 91.8%. Bellinger obviously hasn’t been in the big leagues for long, so he doesn’t have previous stats to compare to, but he certainly looks like a star based on his first half performance.

Disappointments:

Hunter Pence (Giants)
First half stats: .252/.300/.360, 6 HRs, 78 wRc+, 0.0 fWAR

Pence, who has posted a wRc+ of at least 121 in each of the past three seasons (despite missing time due to injuries in both 2015 and 2016), has seen that mark drop to 78 so far in 2017. He has also so far posted career lows in ISO, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage, as well as the lowest BB% since his rookie year. It seems like most of his decline is due to a strong decline in power. His average exit velocity of 89.9 mph is still above league average, but his average launch angle of 6.31 degrees is well below the average of 12.46 degrees. Pence has always been a groundball hitter, but his 56% GB% (groundball %) is a career high, and is currently sixth highest in baseball. His HR/FB ratio of 8.8% is the lowest of his career by a wide margin, as is his 11.1% LD% (line drive %). At age 34, Pence may be hitting the downside of his career, which is leading to less HRs and hard hit balls. Hopefully he rebounds in the second half, but it looks like he’s just not hitting the ball as well as he has in the past.

Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies)
First half stats: .221/.299/.338, 6 HRs, 49 wRc+, -1.5 fWAR

At -1.5 fWAR so far, Gonzalez has been the worst position player in baseball this year by a pretty wide margin. At only 31 years old and playing half of his games in Coors Field, it’s surprising to see such low numbers from him, even though he has been in decline since 2013. His strikeout and walk rates have been in line with career norms, but his BABIP has dropped all the way down to .264 (he posted a .346 BABIP in 2016), and he has posted a career low ISO of .118.

As we further examine his lack of power, we see that his average exit velocity of 86.6 mph is below league average, as is his average launch angle. Per Fangraphs, he is only hitting the ball hard 28.6% of the time, which is his lowest since he was a rookie, and way down from his 37.1% mark in 2016. He has also posted the highest GB% (groundball %) of his career, and his lowest FB% (fly ball %) since 2012. It genuinely seems like Gonzalez just isn’t hitting the ball hard anymore. Although his .264 BABIP might tick up with better luck, leading to a slightly higher batting average than his current .221 mark, he’s going to need to see a reversal of his batted ball profile trends if he’s going to be anything near the hitter he once was.

Albert Pujols (Angels)
First half stats: .241/.288/.387, 13 HRs, 79 wRc+, -0.9 fWAR

Father time takes its toll on all athletes, and even the great Albert Pujols is no exception. However, despite being aged 37 and having been in steady decline since his days as a Cardinal, Pujols’ BB% of 6.5% isn’t that much lower than his rates in recent seasons, and his 15.8 K% is still pretty impressive, despite both marks being the worst of his illustrious career. His .146 ISO is a career low, and he will need to improve on that if he wants to equal the solid but flawed player he’s regressed into in recent seasons. This is especially important since his power has been the one tool that has stayed strong in recent years, and we will need to examine this to see if he will improve upon his poor first half.

He has posted an average exit velocity of 88.6 mph, which is above league average, as is his average launch angle of 14.47 degrees. Looking at his batted ball profile, there are few changes in recent seasons, as he is hitting roughly as many fly balls in 2017 as he did during the last two seasons, in which he hit 40 and 31 HRs. He is also pulling the ball slightly more than in recent years (and hitting to the opposite field slightly less), but nothing really out of the ordinary. Based on all of this, I predict Pujols will hit for a little more power in the second half. Unfortunately, low batting averages and OBPs, along with the exceptionally high offensive burden placed upon a full- time DH will prevent him from being anything more than an average regular at best, and most likely a slightly below average one in the second half.

Steve Berlin

Steve Berlin

Steve is a diehard baseball fan (Lets Go Mets!) who lives in New Jersey. Originally from Brooklyn, hegraduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor's Degree in Economics. Steve loves to focus on the sabermetrics side of baseball, as he grew up in the so- called "Moneyball era".He is also an avid music listener, and is always willing to debate music or sports.
Steve Berlin