Two Reds players offer an excellent lesson for how variance in defense and luck can dramatically skew batting statistics. Scooter Gennett is having a terrific season. In fact, he was named the NL Player of the Week today for last week’s performance. On the other hand, Adam Duvall is struggling at the plate.

In 2018, Gennett is batting .329, Duvall just .179.

Duvall walks and strikes out more. The power numbers (ISO) of the two hitters are even. Gennett has hit more line drives and ground balls. Duvall has hit more fly balls. Duvall is swinging at a slightly higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone, although Gennett’s swing rate overall is higher. Duvall has a slightly higher contact rate.

But wow, that batting average. Gennett is really hitting and Duvall isn’t, right?

Not so fast.

Batters do have a little control over how hard they hit a ball and what kind of ball — ground ball, fly ball, line drive — they hit. But once it leaves the bat with a certain trajectory and exit velocity, batters have little to zero control over whether the ball lands for a hit or is caught relative to similarly hit balls.

Hitters can be victims of great defensive plays or beneficiaries of short-range or weak-armed defenders. They also have varying degrees of luck. The idea that batters take great aim at where they hit the ball is a myth. Even major league hitters don’t have the skill to accurately target ground balls between the third baseman and shortstop. Some happen to go to defenders and some go between. Same goes for hard-hit balls to the outfield. Sometimes it’s Billy Hamilton out there, sometimes its not.

Take ground balls for example. In 2018, Scooter Gennett has hit more ground balls than Adam Duvall overall and more grounders into the shift. Duvall has hit his ground balls harder, giving defenders less time to react. Given average defense and luck, you’d expect Duvall to have a higher batting average on ground balls this season. But you’d be wrong.

Scooter Gennett has a .292 batting average on ground balls while Adam Duvall’s is just .129. Again, it’s not because Duvall hits into the shift more. Or that Gennett hits it harder. It isn’t running speed either, as Duvall has a slight edge there. No, those factors out of hitters control have broken in Gennett’s direction and that accounts for the huge difference in batting average.

Same for fly balls. This season, Adam Duvall has hit fly balls with a higher exit velocity than Scooter Gennett. His fly balls have gone further. But Gennett’s batting average on fly balls is considerably higher than Adam Duvall’s.

Duvall has hit line drives harder than Gennett this year, but Scooter’s batting average is significantly higher. Duvall has been really unlucky.

Statcast classifies certain hit balls as “solid contact” and those become hits at an average rate of .406. Gennett’s solid contact balls have fallen in for a .444 average, while Duvall’s outcome is well below average. Again, keep in mind these are similarly hit balls.

Statcast also has a category of hit balls deemed “flare/burner” where the batter trades off speed for loft and vice versa where balls land in between fielders. League average on those kind of balls is .662. But Gennett’s average is more than 100 points higher than league average and Duvall’s is, astonishingly, nearly 300 points below.

When you put everything together and look at how each of those two batters has struck the baseball this year, it turns out that Duvall has actually hit balls better than Gennett. The statistic xwOBA is based on looking at every actual hit and figuring out what the average run production of that hit is, across the league. (Here’s a primer on the stat from last season.)

Adam Duvall has a higher xwOBA than Scooter Gennett. That’s in contrast to what their respective hit balls have actually produced without holding defense and luck constant. Gennett’s wOBA (actual, not expected) is .377 and Duvall’s is .269.

338 major leaguers have had at least 50 plate appearances. Here’s a chart showing where all the Reds stand in xwOBA (how they have hit the ball) relative to those 338 players.

Joey Votto is top ten. That’s remarkable considering his horrible start to the season. Eugenio Suarez is right behind and that’s no surprise. He’s the #13 hitter in baseball. Then there’s a big gap to Tucker Barnhart. His number is higher than you might expect because this statistic does credit hitters for walks. Then there’s Jesse Winker, well above league average AND above Redleg Nation platonic love interest Christian Yelich. At the bottom are Billy Hamilton and Jose Peraza. Yes, Jim Riggleman is batting one of the least productive hitters in baseball #1 or #2 every day.

One last stat – average distance that home run balls travel. Gennett’s home runs stand out as being really short. In fact his average distance ranks in the bottom 3 percent of major league batters with at least 25 batted balls. So yes, he’s hit 6 home runs, but maybe he’s been a bit lucky about where they’ve gone.

Scooter Gennett’s hits for the Reds this year have been real. And they are as welcome as can be. Likewise, Duvall’s lack of production has hurt the Reds. Those are actual results based on where the balls landed and how they were fielded. They describe what happened with 100 percent accuracy. Gennett has hit .329 and Duvall .179.

But unless you account for how their balls were hit, you won’t have the complete picture. Including the positive production from walks, Adam Duvall has hit the ball better than Scooter Gennett. The latter has been quite lucky and the former quite the opposite. That information is about the future. Those numbers — the real data about how the balls were hit — argue for caution both in overestimating Gennett’s future contribution and underestimating what Adam Duvall might provide.

16 Responses

  1. Michael Smith

    Steve is this line of bad luck for Duval a continuation from the second half of last year?

  2. JB WV

    Duvall’s SO rate, 29%, is killing him. Scooter’s is slightly below 20%. In an high leverage situation I’m cringing when Duvall comes to the plate. If he would ever learn to lay off that down and away slider things will look up for him.

  3. Stefan Games

    Out of curiosity, does Duvall hit significantly more fly balls than Scooter? I noticed that you listed percentages of ground balls, but not percentages of fly balls or line drives for each of the players. Seeing as the league average babip for fly balls is .110 and that the league average for babip for ground balls is .251, is it possible that part of Duvall’s problem is that he is just hitting significantly too many fly balls?

  4. Mike Adams

    Wow, Steve. That was an excellent statistical and mathematical analysis resulting in the conclusion that Duvall has hit the ball better than Scooter this year.
    I still think Scooter has been better because my old school, eyeball test says he hit them where they ain’t.

  5. Cullen Leugers

    I’m still high on Duvall but I don’t believe any of these metrics take into consideration productive ABs. He needs to be more reliable in sac fly situations. With that being said, I like rotating the 4 OFs and potentially having a guy like Schebler, Duvall, or Winker around for PH situations late in games.

  6. Bill Hedges

    I’m right there w/ JB WV. The slightly higher Duvall contact rate is throwing me big time. Now I’m starting to question my own “eye test.”

  7. Mike Adams

    Old-School, I hope they both bust the cover off the baseball hitting 35-40 home runs apiece, helping the Reds to a record setting winning percentage the rest of the year.

  8. Sliotar

    The problem with giving Duvall the opportunities to get his BABIP up and OBP above league average is….

    He is taking away ABs from Winker, in the position he probably needs to be in permanently (LF)

    And, Duvall turns 30 this season.

    Even if he does become better than league average, which is doubtful, where are the Reds going with playing him? Trying to reach 75 wins this year?

    Hamilton apparently is a permanent fixture because of Havoc! and he is the darling of Castellini.

    Duvall? Feels like a road to nowhere.

  9. Sliotar


    Excellent stuff. Your work in breaking down statistical concepts and walking through their importance, in an easy-to-understand reading format, is second to none.

    However, count me out on platonic love for Yelich. He, and all other NL Central players, especially those of the Devil Magic persuasion, are the enemy.

  10. Phil

    Below are the wRC+ of Reds players from the start of the 2016 season through today.

    Scooter: against right handed pitching is 117 and against left handers is 89.
    Hamilton: against right handed pitching is 81 and against left handers is 47.
    Winker (in 278 PAs since his call up last year): against right handers is 139 and against lefties is 30.
    Barnhart: against right handed pitching is 97 and against left handers is 76.
    Peraza: against right handed pitching is 76 and against left handers is also 76.
    Schebler: against right handed pitching is 105 and against left handers is 92.
    Votto: against right handed pitching is 167 and against left handers is 137.
    Suarez: against right handed pitching is 97 and against left handers is 146.
    Duvall: against right handed pitching is 93 and against left handers is 119.

    I really hope that Duvall’s results start matching the quality of his hits because he is one of the few guys in the lineup that hits left handed pitching.

  11. Ghettotrout1

    I think you can look at enough stats to almost tell any story you want. Not saying these aren’t legit points but I would agree with a lot of the comments on here Duvall strikes out way too much and he hits fly balls way too much and he doesn’t hit to the opposite part of the field like Scooter does.

    I would much rather have Scooter at the plate.

  12. Ethan L

    Are these stats available to the general public like on Fangraphs? Or do you need a subscription to a site to obtain this. I am most fascinated with the expected(enter stat) concepts. I would love to look at those.

    • Ethan L

      Thanks for sharing this info. I can’t wait to delve into it.

  13. Steve Hesmath

    Obviously people that have never played the game at the highest level are fascinated with meaningless stats! A smart baseball mind knows that a player may have some bad luck for a week or two but if your making good contact eventually those balls will start falling in for hits! Somebody batting .170 after 150 AB’s isn’t having bad luck! They are just struggling!! If Duvall was playing on any other team he would be a reserve! He is platooning now with the worst team in baseball! You can create numbers to fit any agenda but at the end of the day production numbers don’t lie!! Duvall hasn’t produced whatsoever and Scooter has for the last year and half!

  14. Steve Hesmath

    There is no such luck involved when your batting below the Mendoza line! Or I’m sure sybermetrics guys have a new word for Mendoza line now! Everybody always wants to change things and invent new methods but at the end of the day Day it’s worked for 100 years! The real numbers in baseball don’t lie!!! Your trying to find excuses for a below average player that can’t hit!!

  15. Da bear

    “The idea that batters take great aim at where they hit the ball is a myth.”

    Really enjoyed the article Steve. My eye test has been confirmed – Duvall has been very unlucky on some of his hard hit balls. However, strikeouts matter, and the situation when one strikeouts matters greatly. Part of the reason the Reds stunk so much in the beginning was the strikeout rate of Votto, Scooter, and Duvall with runners in scoring position in close games. They were collectively horrible.

    The sentence above is true with most major leaguers. However, there are exceptions. Ichiro most definitely with his arsenal of different swings took aim at where he hit the ball. Luck is still involved, but Ichiro did more than all other batters to enhance the probabilities in his favor. Same with a batter like Pete Rose.

    Finally, with our current Reds, I would suggest as cringe worthy viewing an experience as it can be sometimes, Jose Peraza often intentionally aims to land the ball softly the other way in between the fielders. Not an ideal #1 or #2 batter currently, but if he could develop a better eye for strikes/balls and not swing at some of these pitches several inches off the plate or in the dirt or at his eye level, he most definitely could jump his OBP another 50 to 100 basis points and justify batting at the top of the order.