Tebow or Not Tebow, a Visualization

Will Tim Tebow ever make it to the majors? (via slgckgc)

Tim Tebow will get at least 100 plate appearances at the major league level.

Today, we’ll delve deep beneath the surface of what appears to be a dismal first professional year and look at Timothy Richard Tebow as a baseball player, through the lens of pitch by pitch data, KATOH, and box score numbers, to quantify his performance aside from his enormous marketing appeal.

I am fascinated by athletes like Tim Tebow who demonstrate an elite level of athletic ability, are told by “experts” that they don’t have what it takes to succeed at the highest level, but persevere with every ounce of strength that they have. I’m also fascinated with the concept of cross-sport athletics and how well elite-level athleticism translates across the spectrum of professional sports. While it is possible that my assertion that Tebow will get at least 100 major league plate appearance is born of wishful thinking, it will also be thoroughly supported by data.

KATOH on Tebow

I’m a big fan of Chris Mitchell’s KATOH, as a pure, objective methodology which does a great job of shining light on prospects who don’t get the cred they deserve. So I reached outto him to get the KATOH perspective on Tebow, with one minor tweak  — looking at Tebow at a range of various ages. KATOH effectively grades players on a curve based on their age relative to competition; age is a proxy for both physical and baseball skills development potential.

From a pure skills development standpoint, Tebow is at most equivalent to a prospect straight out of high school; further, one could argue that his years away from the game would put him well behind that, since his baseball-related skills would likely have atrophied over time. On the other hand, Tebow clearly has no physical projection left and has the experience of playing quarterback in an NFL playoff game.  That gives him a unique edge with respect to competing at a high level. Given all this, one could reasonably argue that we should be projecting Tebow as if he were an 18-year-old, or conversely, that we should project him at his current age. Here’s what KATOH spat out:

KATOH on TEBOW
Age MLB% WAR
18 39% 2.2
19 28% 1.2
20 19% 0.5
21 12% 0.2
22  6% 0.1
23  3%   0
24  2%   0
25  1%   0
26  0%   0
27  0%   0
28  0%   0
29  0%   0
SOURCE: Chris Mitchell / KATOH

If  Tebow were a generic prospect who had the same season he just had and  22 or younger, KATOH would give both a non-zero probability of  making the majors and a non-zero projection for actual, above-replacement level value. Thus, if we accept the premise that we should evaluate Tim Tebow as if he’s a fresh-faced, toolsy, 18-year-old prospect, we would project him as having a 39 percent chance of making the majors and a projected value of 2.2 Wins Above Replacement.

As we’ll see below, based on Tebow’s huge marketing impact, if he were to project as even a replacement- level player, he would be a lock to make the majors. Thus, a projection of Tebow as a 21-22-year-old, which for a non-marketable prospect would imply a three to six percent chance of making the majors, makes a hyped-up super-popular player like Tebow a lock to play in the majors.

Tim Tebow’s Crazy Effect on Attendance

That Tebow has had an outsized effect on attendance is not news. However, his impact has been decidedly understated since it has focused on league-wide attendance. This ESPN article quantifies his effect at the team level as a 21 percent rise from 2016 in the South Atlantic League and a 37 percent  increase for Port St. Lucie in the Florida State League.

Here at FanGraphs/THT, we like to delve a little deeper; we’ll use the revolutionary concept of WOWY spawned by Tom Tango. It essentially evaluates  performance of the team with the player as opposed to without the player, which can help to cancel out the variables of other players’ performances. With Tebow, this is much simpler, since we can simply measure attendance in each stadium, split by “Has Tebow” (i.e. Tebow is in the game) or “No Tebow.” I included any game in which Tebow was listed in the box score, regardless of whether he played, since fans would have no way of knowing beforehand whether he’s be in that game.

Tebow’s Effect on Attendance, Florida State League and South Atlantic League (2017 Attendance WOWY)

Aggregated at the league level, in home and away games, Tebow accounted for a 65 percent attendance boost in the SAL and an incredible 113 percent boost in attendance in the FSL. By comparison, when Mike Trout played four  games California League this season it boosted attendance by 65 percent. In other words, Tebow’s effect on drawing attendance to minor league games was greater than that of the best player in baseball. Further, the attendance boost is greater in smaller samples, where there is a large novelty effect, showing that Tebow was orders of magnitudes more marketable than Mike Trout this season.

Tebow’s Effect on Attendance – South Atlantic League (2017 Attendance WOWY)

Thanks to the Mets promoting Tim Tebow midseason, we have WOWY data for Tebow at all the stadiums he played in, including his home stadium in the SAL, where he was responsible for a 33 percent increase in attendance. However, in smaller samples where he represented more novelty, his marketing potential was off the charts, especially at Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, where he drove a 422 percent increase in attendance, from  1,081 to 5,645. There wasn’t a single ballpark that didn’t see a Tebow boost of at least 33  percent and three parks saw their attendance double for games when Tebow was playing.

Tebow’s Effect on Attendance – Florida State League (2017 Attendance WOWY)

In his home state of Florida, he had an even more outlandish effect on attendance for his away games. For home games, he was responsible for a 34 percent boost in 2017 games; when Tebow Time hit the road, he was responsible for attendance increases that ranged from 95 percent to 462 percent.

Novelty Factor

Interest in Tebow in the SAL steadily increased over time, as measured by his home attendance, which remained consistently above average throughout his stay there. In the FSL, however, the novelty appeared to drop off in August. Some of that is seasonally driven (the team saw an attendance drop of 300 per game from July to August in both 2016 and 2015). It’s hard to quantify how well this would translate to the major leagues, but I would argue that Tebow’s popularity has never been about his talent level, as evidenced by his huge popularity when he played in the NFL. A Tebow road show in the major leagues would create intense hype and likely drive an attendance boost wherever he played.

Scouting Tebow Pitch by Pitch Data

We’ll begin our analysis of Tebow’s first professional season with a breakdown of pitch outcomes to determine if he looks like a “normal” baseball player.

Tebow or Not Tebow by Pitch Outcome
SAL SAL FSL FSL
Not Tebow Tebow Not Tebow Tebow
Ball 34.5% 37.5% 35.1% 35.8%
In Play 18.9% 16.3% 19.2% 18.9%
Foul 17.7% 15.8% 17.3% 20.2%
Called Strike 16.5% 16.8% 16.0% 12.9%
Swinging Strike 11.7% 13.1% 11.7% 11.5%
SOURCE: MLB Advanced Media

We see an encouraging distribution for Tebow, especially considering the progress he made in terms of swing and miss stepping up from the SAL to the FSL. Tebow displays the type of approach that implies he’s not a fish out of water, specifically that he’s not just swinging at everything, or trying to hit everything out of the ballpark. He’s also able to consistently put the ball in play at league-average levels.

Tim Tebow’s Swinging Strike % by Month and League

We see a consistent swinging strike rate for Tebow of roughly 13 percent, other than the small samples of June and September in the FSL. Interestingly, the average for players 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, like him, in those leagues is… 13 percent.

Swinging Strike % by Height and Weight, SAL and FSL 2017

Tim Tebow Fly Ball + Line Drive %

Tim Tebow is a big, powerful guy; his ability to provide value will be primarily determined by his ability to lift the ball, specifically his ability to hit line drives and fly balls. I’ve grouped flies and line drives together since there can be a lot of measurement bias between them, but rarely with ground balls and pop-ups.

Here we see some very interesting data. In his first two months, Tebow struggled to get the ball in the air, hitting only 30 percent of his balls for either a line drive or a fly ball — well below league average. However, in June, he began to resemble a league average hitter and was subsequently promoted to the Florida State League, where he kept some of those gains, before falling off the table in August. These data lend credence to the assertion by the Mets organization that Tebow had earned his promotion to the FSL, specifically Mets general manager  Sandy Alderson quoted as saying “His recent last three weeks are actually trending pretty well. Given all the other circumstances, age and so forth, we thought this was the right time to promote him.”

Home Run + Fly Ball Distance

We’ve established that Tebow has normal-looking at-bats, as well as a respectable ability to hit the ball in the air, but can he hit the ball with any sort of authority? If we were to look at his home run total of eight, we would conclude that he isn’t hitting the ball very hard. The pitch-by-pitch data, however, tell a different story:

Tim Tebow Home Run + Fly Ball Distance vs. League

Tebow demonstrated an above-average HR+FB distance for most of the year, before collapsing in August, indicating that he is taking full swings and that his average SwStr% isn’t due to him taking smaller swings. The August swoon is definitely cause for concern, but it’s hard to say if it has to do with pitchers figuring him out, or a football player whose body is used to four-month seasons wearing down in month five.

Average Fly Ball Distance + Line Drive/Fly Ball Rate in Tebow’s Leagues

We see that he’s hitting the ball hard, but not quite hitting it into the air as often as the average hitter at that level, indicating that if he learns how to get loft into his swing, he may start hitting a decent amount of home runs.

Avg. FB Distance + Swing Strike Rate in Leagues Tebow Played In

Tim Tebow is the orange circle, right at the average Swing Strike percentage line. He’s hitting for above average power, without a tremendous amount of swing and miss.

Conclusion

Tim Tebow will almost certainly get at least a cup of coffee at the major league level; his enormous impact on attendance in the minor leagues, coupled with the attention he got while he was in the NFL, all point toward him having a substantial marketing impact for whichever major league team (likely the Mets) brings him up.

The financial incentive to play Tebow at the major leagues, especially for a team that isn’t risking losing a playoff spot, will largely outweigh the potential negative impact, even if Tebow were to strike out in every at-bat. Surprisingly, if we treat him as if he were a prospect straight out of high school, his first professional season was actually quite respectable. Further, his approach and underlying metrics all point to a player who looks and feels like a legitimate ball player, the only question being whether he can continue to look like a legitimate ball player as the level of competition increases. If Tebow keeps improving as a baseball player, there is no question in my mind he’ll get at least 100 plate appearances in the majors.


Eli Ben-Porat is a Senior Manager of Reporting & Analytics for Rogers Communications. The views and opinions expressed herein are his own. He builds data visualizations in Tableau, and preps data in Alteryx. Follow him on Twitter @EliBenPorat.
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NickGerli
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NickGerli

Very informative post. But I would disagree with your assertion in the opening paragraph that it “appeared to be dismal”. I think anyone with a modicum of baseball knowledge would be impressed by Tebow’s 96 wRC+ in High A in his first season playing baseball in over a decade.

The real test will be AA, where I imagine he’ll start next year.

Either way, Tebow showed that he could hang, which vindicated the decision. I’ll be tracking him with great interest next year.

LHPSU
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LHPSU

He hit a heck lot better than Michael Jordan, for sure.

WARrior
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WARrior
“If Tebow were a generic prospect who had the same season he just had and 22 or younger, KATOH would give both a non-zero probability of making the majors and a non-zero projection for actual, above-replacement level value. Thus, if we accept the premise that we should evaluate Tim Tebow as if he’s a fresh-faced, toolsy, 18-year-old prospect, we would project him as having a 39 percent chance of making the majors and a projected value of 2.2 Wins Above Replacement.” Given how few players, even ones with great stats in the minors, actually make it to the majors, I’m… Read more »
slane35
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slane35

“…but persevere with every ounce of strength that they have.”

Surely you don’t mean that this applies to Tebow.

WARrior
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WARrior
The FB/LD distance vs. % graph indicates that only 35% of Tebow’s BIP are in the air, vs. 45% average. But even if he were to increase his rate to the 45% average rate, that would be just an increase of about 30%, or an expected 2-3 more HR. It could be that an unusually large proportion of the FB/LD were infield/shallow outfield LD. OTOH, the preceding graph indicates that if you don’t include the August swoon, his average HR + FB distance was nearly 355 ft., which I guess put him in the top 10% in the league. So… Read more »
bly
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bly
There is a pretty big problem with your methodology. It’s a mistake people used to make with tax analysis, so don’t feel bad. I mean, only very serious and boring people analyze taxes, and they are paid a lot, and they did it this (wrong) way too. So, a person might be sitting at home thinking, “what should I do tonight?” And then come up with some options. And these options might include a baseball game as well as other things to do with their night. And, if that was a good model for entertainment decisions, your estimates would be… Read more »
Richie
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Richie

First of all, I’m impressed and even a touch humbled. A Hardball Times, of all places, article on Tebow, and not one snarky comment. I’d a never predicted that.

Next, bly has it exactly right. I’ve made less use of my MA in economics even than Cameron did his, but it does help when the financial aspects of baseball come up. Well, other than still not putting a penny in my or anyone else’s pocket. But anyways, the economics of entertainment spending do work pretty much just like bly says.