Devin Mesoraco hitting

Although the Reds are unlikely to be competitive in 2016, a huge step can be made towards consistent success in the future.  That step involves two things; the reintegration of Devin Mesoraco into the Cincinnati lineup, and keeping the newly reintegrated Mesoraco healthy.

Mesoraco had a fantastic 2014.  Perhaps “fantastic” doesn’t quite describe it effectively.  Mesoraco destroyed the baseball in 2014.  Once you demonstrate a capability, you own it.  Mesoraco has proven he owns the capability of “baseball destruction.”  Injuries, at times, can remove your capabilities. In 2015, Mesoraco was injured and missed most of the season.  In 2016, Mesoraco’s sole purpose will be to prove that he can still destroy baseballs with the best of them.

Before we talk about what we might see in 2016, let’s reminisce a bit about the beauty of a season 2014 was for Mesoraco.  It might interest you to know in the last 114 seasons there have been exactly five catchers who have hit 25 home runs in less than 450 plate appearances while maintaining a .350 OBP.  Those catchers:

Rudy York, 1937
Ed Bailey, 1957
Ivan Rodriguez, 2000
Mike Napoli, 2011
Devin Mesoraco, 2014

That is some decent company.  The year after the season in regard, these men averaged 479 PA, a .371 OBP, and slugged .513.  I think Mesoraco would take that if he could right now.  I know I would.

Let’s talk about 2016 now.  Most of the projection systems are not convinced Mesoraco is a destroyer of baseballs.  I guess that is understandable given his lackluster performance over 536 PA in 2012 and 2013, and the injury that caused him to miss almost all of 2015.  Those projections, along with 2012-2014 for reference:

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The first thing that should pop out is the playing time.  These three systems have Mesoraco missing 63, 67, and 91 games, respectively. Perhaps they are correct, but herein exists my biggest gripe with projection systems.  They all deal in “most likely outcomes.”   When talking about a player with a short track record that missed an entire season due to an easy-to-repair injury, “most likely outcomes” are useless.  If Mesoraco is healthy, he’s going to mash.  If Mesoraco plays injured and misses a lot of time, he’ll probably be even worse than these projections.  In Mesoraco’s case, I don’t think a middle-of-the-road projection has much value, and these projections, unfortunately, look very close to just averaging Mesoraco’s 2012/2013 with his 2014.

The second thing that jumps out at me is the BABIP projections. The three major systems are projecting Mesoraco to have a BABIP about 25 points below league-average.  In 2012 and 2013, Mesoraco had some significant splits between his BABIP and expected BABIP (xBABIP), but was pretty close to expectations in 2014.  Behold:

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Mesoraco underperformed his xBABIP by 37 points in 2012 and by 21 points in 2013.  Finally, in 2014, he was somewhat close to expectations, actually exceeding them by 9 points.   I’d like you to notice, however, that each season Mesoraco’s xBABIP has increased.  xBABIP, since it is based on a player’s batted ball mix and batted ball authority (as well as his speed), is a nice proxy for showing Mesoraco’s quality of contact has increased each year.   The projections above think Mesoraco will revert to a below-average BABIP.  I don’t see that happening in this world with a healthy Devin Mesoraco.  Small sample sizes be damned; Mesoraco is tearing the cover off the ball so far in Spring Training, which is a good sign of his health.

The projections also don’t seem to buy into Mesoraco’s newly-found (circa 2014) power stroke. The main reason for Mesoraco’s fantastic production in 2014 was the authority with which he hit his fly balls.  Consider the following: in 2014, Mesoraco’s 20.5% HR/FB% was 6th best in all of MLB, and of those 6 players, Mesoraco’s Hard% was higher than everyone except Giancarlo Stanton. Let me say that again; among the six most authoritative fly ball hitters in 2014, only the mighty Giancarlo Stanton hit the ball harder than Devin Mesoraco.  Impressive.

My job is to try to figure out if that sort of power is sustainable for Mesoraco.  When thinking about sustainability, it is important to understand what peripheral stats, or indicators, underlie the measure in question.  With that in mind, let’s look at some indicators of home run power and see how Mesoraco has progressed from 2012 to 2014.  The following chart shows the five most highly correlated peripheral statistics to HR/FB%, along with Mesoraco’s 2014 rank across both leagues:

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By definition, HR/FB% has a perfect correlation to itself.  The next two stats, Hard% and K%, are correlated strongly, while the following 3 stats, Soft%, FB%, and Pull%, are correlated, but not terribly strongly.  Regardless of their correlation, these are the five most strongly correlated stats (at least among everything I checked!).  Let’s dig into each a bit deeper:

Hard%, which is the percentage of balls put in play (plus home runs) meeting the criteria for being hit “hard,” is an easy one to visualize.  The harder you hit the ball, the farther it goes. The farther a ball goes, the more likely it is to leave the yard.  As you’d expect, Hard% has a very high correlation to HR/FB% and explains a large majority of the stat by itself.

K%, or how often you strike out, is an interesting stat to occupy 2nd on this list.  For many years, people have attributed this to the mantra “swing for the fences.”  The harder you swing, the more likely you are to hit the ball hard, the more likely you are to swing and miss, and the more likely you are to hit a home run.  Another thing to consider is plate discipline.  It is easier to hit a ball hard if it is in the strike zone.  Thus, power hitters may end up taking borderline pitches (which are hard to hit with authority) in hope of the next pitch being in the zone where it can be punished.  With this approach, the amount of called strikes would increase, thus increasing strikeouts, but also increasing the rate of home runs due to an increase in swinging at pitches in the zone.

Soft%, like its much cooler cousin, Hard%, is another easy one to understand.  If you avoid hitting the ball softly, you are more likely to hit homers.  This isn’t the exact inverse of Hard% because another category (Medium%) exists, and sometimes balls with just the right trajectory that are pulled down a line can turn into home runs without meeting the “hard hit” criteria.

FB%, the percentage of batted balls hit in the air, is one you may think as being more highly correlated to HR/FB% since they share a common variable.  Essentially, you must hit the ball in the air to hit home runs.  If your contact quality isn’t superlative, however, you end up with lots of fly outs.  Chris Carter, now of the Milwaukee Brewers, has the highest FB% over the last 4 seasons.  This is why he’s hit so many home runs yet almost couldn’t find a team to play for.  If you amass your home runs by selling out to hit fly balls, the rest of your stat line suffers, as Carter could attest.

Finally, Pull% has a decent correlation to HR/FB%.  This one is easy to visualize for anyone who has watched a lot of baseball.  When a ball is pulled, it just seems to jump off the bat more so than a ball hit the other way.  I’m sure there is some physics behind this involving angular momentum and impulse, or some farmer’s logic involving the phrase “buggy whip,” but I’m too lazy to research that for this single sentence; perhaps in a later article.

(Note: The above correlation numbers were calculated from the data of all MLB players who accrued 900 PA between 2012 and 2014; a sample of 312 players.)

Now, a quick visual reminder of what things look like graphically when they are correlated and uncorrelated.  The first graph is Hard%-vs-HR/FB%; the second graph is Line Drive%-to-HR/FB%:

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Variables that have a good correlation are somewhat tightly packed and have a definite direction.  Variables that don’t have a correlation (or a very, very weak correlation) look very scattered and random, like the 2nd graph shows.

Ok, back to Mesoraco! With the above chart about Mesoraco’s ranks for the HR/FB% indicators, we can see that it was no fluke in 2014 when Mesoraco knocked 25 home runs in only 440 PA.  He excelled at every facet of home run hitting.  It’s only natural he would hit home runs.  Now let’s look at his trends in each category.

The below chart shows an indexed (to 100) view of each HR/FB% indicator for 2012, 2013, and 2014.  I added BABIP and xBABIP as the aforementioned proxy for overall contact quality.  I chose to index this chart because the actual values don’t matter; what matters are the increases Mesoraco has shown in each category.

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In every case, Mesoraco had a superlative 2014 when compared to the rest of his career.  He pulled more balls, he hit those balls harder, and he put more balls in the air. A player is certainly in control of his fly ball and pull rates, as they are a function of his swing and approach.  At the same time while doing this, his overall quality of contact increased, as evidenced by his monotone increasing BABIP and xBABIP figures.  I think Mesoraco has an inherent understanding of all this.  He’s the one on the front lines making the adjustments and analyzing the results in real-time.  Mesoraco has seen what worked in 2014.  More of the same should follow in 2016.

I suppose I used a lot of words and numbers to show a fairly simple concept, but I think it’s important to think deeply about things like this.  Many smart people created the projection systems we use these days, but they don’t always have the time to devote this level of thinking to an individual player.  Thankfully, we do!

Perhaps they think Mesoraco’s injury is likely to recur.  Perhaps they didn’t read Steve Mancuso’s exhaustive article. Perhaps they think Mesoraco’s home run rate was unsustainable. Perhaps they think he’ll revert back to the bad-luck-low-BABIP player of 2012 and 2013. Perhaps they think he can’t continue to trade strikeouts for power.  Perhaps they just don’t believe in Devin the Destroyer.

Perhaps they are wrong.

(Most stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com)