wOBA Flippers and the Playoff Charge

Early on in a season, we get to talk about eye-popping numbers that players put up. We warn of sample sizes, though, and almost crave stability. We wait impatiently for the season to steady itself and almost breathe a sigh of relief when it happens — when we can start to buy into what an individual is doing.

But as the season wades on and we move toward the postseason, the biggest stories often come from singular moments. And while we can’t predict who, exactly, will define his team’s season with a single play, we might be able to take a pretty good guess.

With weighted on-base average, we get to see just how much a player is contributing each time they step to the plate. With expected weighted on-base average, we get to see how well their results line up with their approach.

woba flippers

The differences in expected and actual wOBA for these players in the early going is no small thing. The 20-to-45 point gap would have put them in a completely different class of players had things gone as expected. Manny Machado figured to rank ahead of Kris Bryant; in reality, he lingered above Freddy Galvis. There’s an example like that for each of the other three, too. While the early performances of these guys might have lasted long enough to make us feel like they were a certain kind of reliable this season, their recent play highlights how fast things can change.

The rankings associated with each player give a sense of what their teams would have enjoyed had circumstances fell more in their favor. Rankings aren’t included since the start of July because the sample size may emphasize a gap that could be misleading — Kyle Seager, for instance, has the smallest difference of the four in wOBA-based production but drops 76 spots because of it.

That’s also to intentionally emphasize something else: all of these players’ teams are in the playoff hunt. Seager’s Mariners are tied for the Wild Card lead and Machado’s Orioles, despite abysmal pitching, are only 1.5 games out. Moreland’s Red Sox and Santana’s Indians each lead their division by four games. And for better or worse, their turnarounds could be playing a big role in who’s playing in October.

So consider the implications. Do the Mariners possibly lead the Wild Card at this point if Seager’s production more closely matched what was expected? Are the Orioles smashing expectations again if the same were true for Machado?

Could Santana have delivered a more comfortable divisional lead for Cleveland earlier? Is he doing that now by exceeding expectations with a white hot bat? Moreland broke his toe in June — what impact has that had on the Red Sox building similar divisional comfort, and how big of a role could him simply being able to put pressure on his back foot play?

The answers to these questions may or may not be rhetorical, but all of these players are having a string of moments that could help define their team’s season. While we’ve longed for stable samples to dig into, their turns in production are showing us the ebb and flow of a game that remembers snapshots more than anything. As we come down to the wire, the big picture is telling us how it’s constructed of little ones.

wOBA numbers from Statcast. Featured image from Zimbio.

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