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The Mariners had baseball’s most surprisingly unlucky hitter

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Statcast has words of encouragement for one unlucky flow bro.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros
I swear Tee didn’t even do this one.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The 2018 Mariners are currently a ship built out of 99% Peruvian bounceback wood, but one golden-maned Mariner in particular stands to regress to the mean positively.

Taylor Motter hair-flipped onto the 25-man roster with an explosive Spring Training that carried into April. Jean Segura’s injury forced Motter into action early and often, and for a month it appeared Seattle had a breakout star. Motter hit five home runs, played all over the diamond, and posted a 116 wRC+ in his first month as a Mariner. There were Motter Pop graphics, a rush for Motter jerseys, and envious encounters with future MVP’s.

“Give me your BABI-, er, barber.” ~ Jose Altuve
Cut4/MLB

And then it all fell apart. The league adjusted to Motter’s pull-happy approach and fed him a diet of pitches low and away. Motter struggled to generate power for the rest of the year, and he was demoted to Tacoma in July. Triple-A pitching was no match for Motter, and a scorching 172 wRC+ during his demotion earned him a return to the majors, but that success didn’t follow him north on I-5 to Seattle. He finished the season with a grisly .198/.257/.326 line, earning a 57 wRC+ and -0.6 WAR from Fangraphs.

This spring, Motter will likely compete with veterans Andrew Romine and Gordon Beckham, along with a few potential non-roster invitees for the utility role. Given Motter’s mostly disastrous 2017, it’s tough to be enthusiastic about his future, but he still has the highest ceiling in Seattle’s UTIL stable.

In addition to that high ceiling, luck stands to be on his side, because it’s difficult to imagine him being unluckier than he was last season.

Eleven hitters had >250 plate appearances last year for the Mariners. None had a worse batting average on balls in play (BABIP) than Taylor Motter..

Fangraphs

Not only was Motter’s BABIP far worse than the rest of his team’s, it was the seventh-worst in all of baseball last year. What made that happen?

BABIP is sometimes treated as a measurement of pure luck, but we know there’s more to it than that. League-average BABIP is around .300, but guys like Kyle Seager will usually have a lower average number due to their limited foot speed and higher home run totals. Players like Dee Gordon and Jean Segura, on the other hand, consistently run sky-high BABIPs thanks to their fleet feet. Motter isn’t as fast as his stolen base total suggests, but he’s no slouch.

Motter was measured at 26.7 ft/sec by Statcast’s Sprint Speed measurements, which you can read about here. 27 ft/sec is defined as average, so while Motter shouldn’t be expected to run a league-leading BABIP, he’s no Albert Pujols. Fangraphs’ BsR stat is another way of measuring speed, and it gives us a similar answer. Motter’s base-stealing acumen appears to be based on technique, rather than pure speed, but his 0.6 BsR (0 is average) suggests decent athleticism. Speed isn’t the only factor in BABIP, though, and a different Statcast metric, xwOBA, makes Motter’s struggles even more confounding.

The three phrases most frequently flung around this year, among baseball analysts, have been “exit velocity,” “launch angle,” and “spin rate.” This can get understandably exhausting for some fans, but in this last stretch I’ll only call on those first two terms, as they are what make up Statcast’s xwOBA metric (eXpected Weighted On-Base Average).

Many of you are familiar with wOBA (and if not, you can get acquainted here), which is measured on the same scale as OBP and is the basis of our beloved wRC+. Statcast allows us to see what types of contact (measured by launch angle and exit velocity) elicit the best outcomes on average, with greater precision than ever before. Using those data they’ve created a metric called xwOBA (explained plainly here).

The core of the metric is intuitive - if you hit hard line drives, you should get hits, if you hit soft fly balls, you should create outs - but in those numbers we can better find players whose results don’t match the contact they’re making. Jake Mailhot looked at the Mariners’ exit velo/launch angle numbers last spring and concluded Taylor Motter wasn’t just hitting the ball hard, he was hitting it hard at the right angle. Jeff Sullivan came to a similar conclusion - Motter was doing something right, and getting results.

As with BABIP, faster players are more likely to exceed their xwOBA, and slower players often underperform. However, because we know the quality of the contact being generated, speedy players who are experiencing worse results than their xwOBA suggests may rebound. Meanwhile, if someone like Nelson Cruz was dramatically outperforming his xwOBA we might peg his lovably-sluggish self for regression. Simply put, xwOBA removes defensive influence from the equation and gives us an excellent partner to BABIP in determining who was lucky and unlucky.

Now back to Taylor Motter. Statcast, by way of Baseball Savant, allows us to sort players by the discrepancy between their xwOBA and their actual wOBA. The cellar is a group of iron-footed sluggers and, in a nightmarish turn of events, “La Pesadilla” himself.

xwOBA-wOBA Sufferers

Player xwOBA - wOBA Sprint Speed (ft/sec) Sprint Speed MLB Rank (out of 451)
Player xwOBA - wOBA Sprint Speed (ft/sec) Sprint Speed MLB Rank (out of 451)
Miguel Cabrera 0.060 25.5 411
Mitch Moreland 0.036 26.3 344
Victor Martinez 0.033 24.3 446
Alex Avila 0.033 25.8 387
Kendrys Morales 0.032 24.5 444
Albert Pujols 0.032 23.0 451
Brandon Moss 0.031 26.7 290
Taylor Motter 0.029 26.7 289
Baseball Savant

Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Kendrys Morales, and Albert Pujols are the type of slogging sluggers who would be expected to dramatically underperform their xwOBA. Not only are they failing to beat out infield singles, their plodding pace turns lasers in the gap into singles. Taylor Motter and Brandon Moss are the lone players at the bottom of this list with nearly average speed, and neither could buy a break once they put the bat on the ball.

Breaking it down even further, Motter drastically underperformed on line drives and grounders in particular, including an actual wOBA on groundballs was 75 points lower than his expected production. For a player of Motter’s speed, that’s more than unlikely, it’s unsustainable. Motter was unlucky to a degree that is all-but-guaranteed to regress.

With these misfortunes Motter’s overall xwOBA was just .283, (xwOBA is measured on the OBP scale, so .320 is about league-average), but there’s a place on the roster for a player with that bat, solid base-stealing, and defensive capabilities at seven different positions. Don’t expect April 2017 Taylor Motter to return, but he is a better hitter than most of last year suggested. For these Mariners, every little bit matters.