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:
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||0.832||0.646||0.186|
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:
|2004 – 2014||707||0.257||0.301||0.342||0.085||66|
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.
Print This Post