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An ode to non-power hitters in the power age

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 09: Atlanta Braves catcher Tyler Flowers (25) grounds out while teammate Nick Markakis scores in the tenth inning to take the lead during an MLB game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves on April 09, 2017 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, PA. Pittsburgh won the game 6-5, coming back twice to beat the Braves in 10 innings. Pittsburgh won the 3-game series against Atlanta, their first sweep against the Braves since 1994. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)

*All stats through the All-Star break*

We live in a power age. Everyone is hitting doubles and home runs. Yes, the ball is most likely juiced, but 2017 also the tipping point for the notion that damage on balls in the air is the best pathway to offensive success.

What about the guys who aren’t taking extra bases or getting the ball over the fence? Are there any who are hitting well, and adding value to their lineups? Sure! Here are four such gentlemen.

For the purposes of this exercise, I narrowed the list to hitters who have logged at least 160 plate appearances (super arbitrary, but you’ll see why), have run a .170 isolated power percentage or lower (league average is .171 so far this season), and have kept their wRC+ above 120 (the threshold where a hitter goes from “decent” to “very good”).

A quick stat explainer: Expected Weighted On-Base Average, or xwOBA, measures what a hitter should have done based on his walks, strikeouts, exit velocity, and launch angle on batted balls. It isn’t park-adjusted, but it does strip defense and a lot of luck out of a hitter’s ability to hit the ball well or not. The league average xwOBA is currently .315.

Honorable Mention: Russell Martin, C, Toronto Blue Jays
241 PA, .168 ISO, .353 xwOBA 115 wRC+

Martin doesn’t quite make the cut, thanks to his production being off the pace. However, he deserved mention because he bucks a couple trends that will emerge in this list. First, he walks a ton. Martin’s 16.2 percent walk rate is a top-10 figure in the majors. Martin’s plate discipline has kept his bat valuable since his offense began to decline in 2015.

It’s also unusual among high-performing, low-power hitters. Usually, in order to stay productive without power, hitters have to make a lot of contact and poke the ball all over the field. Martin doesn’t do that. He makes league-average contact; it’s just not that powerful.

The other thing that makes Martin weird is that he’s running a low .276 BABIP. As you will see, the other guys on this list are getting balls to drop in. Martin, if anything, has been unlucky, and is probably the only one on this list who will manage to keep his season afloat in the second half.

4. Tyler Flowers, C, Atlanta Braves
224 PA, .135 ISO, .339 xwOBA, 126 wRC+

It’s patently ridiculous that Flowers was passed over for NL All-Star consideration in favor of Yadier Molina, who is currently in the middle of his worst season in a decade, while Flowers is not only having a career year, but is also probably the best catcher in baseball. Flowers’ snub proves to me that baseball’s framing wars are far from over, no matter what other learned men might say.

Flowers has also spoken loudly with his bat. He has hit the ball on average about three miles per hour harder than the league average. He’s also getting some loft on the thing. However, his xwOBA is 34 points lower than his raw wOBA. Combine that with a league-average walk rate and a .373 BABIP, and Flowers will probably settle down at the plate down the stretch. Still, he has been one of the most fun players to watch this season, and as a Flowers hipster since 2015, it makes me very happy.

3. Ben Gamel, RF, Seattle Mariners
283 PA, .126 ISO, .305 xwOBA, 127 wRC+

If Aaron Judge didn’t exist, we might be talking about the 25-year-old Gamel as the presumptive AL Rookie of the Year. Shipped from the Yankees in a waiver deadline deal last August, Gamel has helped brighten an otherwise dreary Mariners season.

He might also be the luckiest hitter on this list. Gamel is right at the league average in terms of walk rate and average exit velocity. He also strikes out a couple ticks above the league average, while making league-average contact. A nearly 60-point difference between his xwOBA and his raw wOBA, plus a stupidly high .422 BABIP, scream regression.

Gamel has speed, to be sure. Without the ability to make more contact, however, there’s just no way he can outrun the BABIP gods, especially since the contact he does make isn’t particularly loud. Judge makes fielders work only if the ball is coming right at them. Gamel will make some opposing leather very happy down the stretch.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 10: Seattle Mariners Outfield Ben Gamel (16) takes a lead off of second in the fifth inning during the game between the Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies on May 10, 2017 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

2. Jean Segura, SS, Seattle Mariners
273 PA, .133 ISO, .321 xwOBA, 138 wRC+

What a journey Segura has been on. The shortstop bounced back with the Diamondbacks last season before getting shipped to Seattle with Mitch Haniger over the winter. He has maintained his resurgence, staying aggressive and making lots of contact.

Segura is probably closer to a league-average producer, though. He has the largest xwOBA-wOBA split of any guy on this list, and while he is still above average on contact, the margin is tiny. Plus, given his aggressive, high-contact approach, he doesn’t draw free passes.

A .399 BABIP isn’t Gamel territory, but it’s close. Segura has also slowed down considerably, losing about a foot per second of sprint speed. His baserunning is net negative now; it once was a real skill. It’s doubtful he can beat out a lot of balls with his legs down the stretch. His contact skills will keep him afloat, but he will start coming back to earth quickly.

1. Eric Sogard, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers
162 PA, .154 ISO, .353 xwOBA, 145 wRC+

Sogard is the reason for the plate appearance threshold fudging. The ex-Athletics infielder is backing up Jonathan Villar this year, but is hitting out of his mind. While he isn’t making hard contact, he is getting the ball in the air. A .353 xwOBA from a guy who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn two years ago is nothing short of miraculous.

A couple caveats: The .372 BABIP is high. A 56-point split between his xwOBA and raw wOBA is massive. Sogard is getting lucky, make no mistake.

Plus, he’s getting platooned. He has faced lefties only 34 times this year. Manager Craig Counsell is putting him in the best position to succeed, but also doesn’t trust him enough to take more at-bats against same-handed pitching.

However, a .353 xwOBA is nothing to sneeze at. Sogard is one of the few hitters who is walking at an above-average rate and is keeping his walk rate higher than his strikeout rate. The company he keeps in that category includes Joey Votto, Justin Turner, Adrian Beltre, Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts, and Anthonys Rizzo and Rendon. Not a shabby group.

Will Sogard regress? Probably, but even if he finishes the season with a 95 wRC+, that will make 2017 the best of his career. Can’t complain about that.

What have we learned here? For the most part, hitters with really good results without generating power don’t walk a lot. They run super-high BABIPs, and are overperforming their contact quality. It’s not a great offensive profile, to be honest.

Even so, they make some pretty good stories.

*****

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