The Most Surprising Hitter of the Season

There’s no perfect way to do this, because surprises are always relative to expectations, and I can’t speak to general, across-the-board expectations. You might personally expect more from Player X than the next guy, and I can’t quantify that. Given this caveat, it should be obvious the best thing to do is consider the preseason projections. Projections should always be around the center of the expectations, because we’re always projecting, even when we don’t think of it like that, and we all project in similar ways. We think about the track records, and we think about age. Your brain is but an endless series of spreadsheets.

To identify the most surprising hitter of the season, then, we compare actual numbers to forecasted numbers. Who beat the projections the most, basically. And now, try to think about this off the top of your head. The answer’s going to follow, of course, but what players are coming to mind? You’re thinking about Bryce Harper. Maybe, say, Kyle Schwarber, but mostly Harper. It’s not really surprising that Harper got to this level, but the suddenness of the transition was stunning. Harper made the leap, and I can tell you, yes, he’s near the top of the list. By this method he’s actually the runner-up. The winner? He’s so surprising that almost no one even noticed in the process.

I had to make some judgment calls, so I set a lower limit of 250 plate appearances. This has the unfortunate effect of leaving out Franklin Gutierrez, who was most definitely a surprising hitter, and if you personally think he was the most surprising hitter, that’s fine, and I’m not here to change your mind. But I needed to make some rules for myself, so I went with 250+ plate appearances, and I went with OPS. I would’ve liked to go with wRC+, but The Baseball Projection Project doesn’t make that available. So: actual OPS vs. projected OPS, based on Steamer and ZiPS, with at least semi-regular playing time. Behold 2015’s top 10:

Top 10 Most Surprising Hitters, 2015
Player OPS Projected OPS Difference
Andres Blanco 0.863 0.590 0.273
Bryce Harper 1.109 0.854 0.255
Carlos Correa 0.857 0.624 0.233
Francisco Lindor 0.835 0.632 0.203
Jackie Bradley Jr. 0.832 0.646 0.186
Randal Grichuk 0.877 0.693 0.184
Joe Panik 0.833 0.651 0.182
Chris Colabello 0.886 0.705 0.181
Danny Valencia 0.864 0.685 0.179
Nelson Cruz 0.936 0.766 0.170
SOURCE: Baseball Projection Project

There’s a good amount of youth in there. Harper put himself on course for a free-agent contract worth half a billion dollars. Correa burst onto the scene as an unbelievable rookie shortstop, and then Lindor did the exact same thing. Bradley started to show some everyday promise, and Grichuk and Panik made themselves out to be long-term franchise assets. It’s a table defined mostly by youth, and by a 31-year-old Andres Blanco. Blanco beat his projections more than Harper did. Blanco beat his projections more than anyone.

I wonder how many people realized Blanco was active. I wonder how many people realized he was playing so much, and I wonder how many people realized he was doing so well. Off the top of your head, do you know for whom Blanco played last season? Maybe that’s a dumb question — maybe I’m the one who was especially in the dark. I don’t know what you know. But, Blanco played for the Phillies, and he got most of his action in the second half, as a non-prospect on a team going nowhere. Blanco is the easiest kind of player to forget about, and yet here he is, sharing a table with some extremely talented players.

Why such a low projection? Because of this:

Andres Blanco, Career
Time PA BA OBP SLG ISO wRC+
2004 – 2014 707 0.257 0.301 0.342 0.085 66
2015 261 0.292 0.360 0.502 0.210 136

Blanco last year finished with the same wRC+ as Kris Bryant. Between his debut and 2014, he managed the same wRC+ as Chris Getz. Over Blanco’s career in the minor leagues, he’s slugged .328. He’s spent the last two years with the Phillies, but in 2013 he didn’t play a game of affiliated baseball. No one picked him up. The Phillies brought him back into the fold — they had him in Triple-A in 2012 — and, eventually, this past season happened. As far as I can tell, it happened for no foreseeable reason, but the year is in the books, if you haven’t noticed. Blanco posted an ISO north of .200.

Obviously, that’s rare. I looked at all the players with ISOs no higher than .100 over at least 500 plate appearances by the age of 30. Out of all those players who batted at least 250 times at age 31, Blanco’s the only guy to have posted an ISO above Shane Halter‘s .182. In one year, with about a half-year’s playing time, Blanco went from four career homers to 11. He went from 41 career extra-base hits to 73. His wRC+ was double what he’d done before.

I don’t have an explanation. I’m not sure I need an explanation. Blanco had never really hit, and he was in his 30s, and he’s relatively little. The power numbers, and the decreased contact numbers, suggest Blanco was swinging harder. Maybe that’s not true, or maybe this is something Blanco decided to do over the course of his recent year off. What doesn’t help that case is that Blanco didn’t hit in Triple-A in 2014. I can’t tell you why this happened, and because this is Andres Blanco we’re talking about, I’m not going to promise this’ll happen again. But I know this much — a month ago, the Phillies re-signed Blanco, avoiding arbitration. He’ll make a career-high $1.45 million, and they say Blanco is a good presence for the younger players in the clubhouse. There are going to be a lot more of them, and Blanco has himself an uplifting story to tell.

I was thinking the other day about the purpose of everything. I didn’t solve the problem — sorry — but I reminded myself how much more there is to this than the ultimate reward. It’s true in life and it’s true in baseball, where you can’t just be a fan for the championships, because then 97% of the time you’ll be miserable. You have to be a fan of the good and a fan of the bad, a fan of the bad during the good, and a fan of the good during the bad. For Phillies fans last year, Andres Blanco was good during the bad. Blanco did as much as he could to distract observers from the broader reality, and he did it as a complete and utter surprise, which is always a treat. Phillies fans last year got to watch the most surprising hitter in baseball. And the most surprising hitter in baseball did enough to keep himself employed in the only line of work he’s ever known. The story of the Phillies is one of prospects, one of rebuilding. One, currently, of losing. That’s the story most people want to tell. It’s not the only story to be told.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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francis_soyer
Member
francis_soyer
4 months 21 days ago

Where did David Peralta show on this list / are the 2015 projections available anywhere ?

francis_soyer
Member
francis_soyer
4 months 21 days ago

Never mind, you provided a link

proj: .747 act: .893 diff: .146

Good, not top 10 …

MGL
Member
4 months 21 days ago

One of the “explanations” for Blanco is 261 PA. You should standardize the differences between the projected and actual based on standard errors given the number of PA.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 21 days ago

MGL – glad you keep posting here, and even happier that Fangraphs now has the mandatory log in for the posts. A couple of times over the years I’d seen some obvious fake “MGL” posts, which wasn’t fair to you or any newcomers to this site.

Paul22
Member
Paul22
4 months 21 days ago

250 PA is way too low, you are running into SSS territory there as the variance from true talent increases quite a bit under 400 PA.

Any list not including Arod and Teixeira is lacking IMO

McKay
Member
McKay
4 months 21 days ago

Bartolo Colon had an OPS of .305 in 2015. While his career high was admittedly a 1.000 mark, that was way, way back in 1998. His career total is a much more pedestrian .202 OPS. Thus I would justify calling his recent .305 OPS mark as “surprising”.

Nats Fan
Member
Nats Fan
4 months 21 days ago

I seem to have read in the past on this site that not playing regularly should dramatically lower a guys hitting stats more dramatically than even being a DH does. In fact, didn’t I once read that guys even hit worse after a single day off on average than they did regularly. I am sure I read that somewhere! Probably here. Anyway a guy goes from less than 100 plate appearances in a season to playing everyday so his stats should dramatically improve. .273 better in his OPS is more than I think is reasonable to expect, but nonetheless I would expect a dramatic improvement. Good for Blanco!

MustBunique
Member
Member
4 months 21 days ago

Looks like there may be some sort of conscious decision on Blanco’s part to change his approach. Career low contact rate and career high swinging strike rate is a story that can often lead to a higher ISO (See Matt Carpenter). Blanco checked both those boxes in 2015, and not by a trivial amount. Career averages prior to 2015 Con/SwStr: 86% and 6.5%, and in 2015 79.5% and 9.8%. Maybe there is something to this. SSS caveat of course, but I give Jeff credit for not just shrugging this off.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 20 days ago

A couple more quick observations:

– His HR/FB and BABIP both were on the high side of the range of probable outcomes, meaning a good part of his 2015 numbers was due to the SSS effect

– He did have a 115 wRC+ and .170 ISO for AAA Iowa in 2009, so there was a little more pop potential than say, Juan Pierre

– Finally, to your comments and Nats Fan’s point above: here’s a guy who got a chance to play every day, with a hitters park for a home field, who was about to hit the 2-year service time threshold and be arbitration eligible. Why not try to change your approach to see if you can get the kind of numbers that would get you a nice payday? The $1.4 million he got from Philly for 2016 is probably close to what he’s earned in total for his pro career up to this point. Good for him!

tz
Member
tz
4 months 21 days ago

I’ll be the first to confess that I (1) had forgotten that Andres Blanco existed (2) that he played for the Phillies in 2015 and (3) that he got over 250 PA.

In other words, he’d probably be the most surprising answer to any 2015 trivia question you could have posed.

maguro
Member
Member
maguro
4 months 20 days ago

Are we sure he’s not the same person as Gregor Blanco?

Hurtlocker
Member
Hurtlocker
4 months 20 days ago

Matt Duffy???

tramps like us
Member
tramps like us
4 months 20 days ago

that’s the name I guessed, too

ElJimador
Member
ElJimador
4 months 20 days ago

Duffy might have topped the list if the methodology was different. If it were me I’d have set the bar at 400 PA and then taken the difference between projected and real OPS and divided by the projection to get a % above projection, rather than just the raw difference of subtracting the projection from the real. The way Sullivan does it here, the projections would have had to mistaken Duffy for a pitcher for the .762 OPS he posted to have registered as a bigger surprise than Nelson Cruz. Which is fine. I just think % above projection would get closer to who the real surprises were.

LakeShow
Member
LakeShow
4 months 20 days ago

I’d rather see the comparison done based on offensive WAR than OPS. Weed out the SSS. Perhaps even do it based on % that projection outperformed. Seems to me that would be more useful.

Come Down Easy
Member
Come Down Easy
4 months 20 days ago

The word “surprising” in your title suggested that both surprisingly good and surprisingly bad players might be included. It’s hard for a player to get 250 plate appearances if he is playing badly but Victor Martinez at .193 below his Steamer projection would have made the list (I don’t have access to ZiPS). Sandoval just missed at .153 below projection. They may not have been nice surprises, but they were surprises.

brett
Member
brett
4 months 20 days ago

Not really a full explanation, but digging a little deeper:

What’s contributing to that ISO? Looks like the rate he hit doubles at is the big difference. So how’d he hit almost a double every 10 PA?

http://www.fangraphs.com/spraycharts.aspx?playerid=1907&position=2B/SS&type=battedball&pid2=1907&ss1=2014&se1=2014&ss2=2015&se2=2015&cht1=hittype&cht2=hittype&vs1=ALL&vs2=ALL

By hitting lots of balls down the lines.

A .335 BABIP (especially lucky given his relative lack of speed and LD%) can’t hurt either.

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