Some of you will be familiar with the work of Ryan Schimpf. For those that aren’t, here is a typical Ryan Schimpf highlight.
Ball down the middle, big uppercut swing with an opportunity to get his arms extended, no-doubt home run. Nick Hundley wants that pitch low and away, and Jeff Samardzija leaves it not quite so low and out over the middle. He very quickly finds out why Hundley wanted it low and away. There are many more plate appearances that feature a similar swing, but don’t end in a highlight, because they’re simply flyouts instead of home runs.
If you’re vaguely familiar with Schimpf, you might have already known that he’s a three true outcomes kind of guy. He walks a lot, he strikes out a lot, and when he actually puts the ball in play, he often hits home runs. In 2016, Schimpf hit .217/.336/.533, with a 31.8% strikeout rate and 20 home runs in 330 plate appearances. Sounds quite like Adam Dunn, right? Major League Baseball is completely on board with fly-ball hitting, high-strikeout, high-walk players these days.
The fact is, Adam Dunn probably looks at Schimpf and thinks that compared to the Padres infielder, he was a tremendously balanced hitter. Schimpf is certainly on course to at least rival Dunn’s three true outcome percentage of almost 50%, but it’s the batted ball profile where the Padres third baseman really sets himself apart.
Last year, Schimpf had the second-highest fly ball percentage (64.9%) and ground ball-fly ball rate (0.30) since batted ball data started being tracked in 2002. Dunn wasted his time hitting line drives and putting the ball on the ground, and therefore didn’t even get his fly ball rate over 50% in any season of his career. Eno Sarris of Fangraphs made the very reasonable argument in the offseason that the 29-year-old couldn’t possibly continue to produce such an extreme batted ball distribution.
So, how extreme has 2017 been so far for Schimpf? Here are some key statistics and their ranks amongst 183 qualified hitters so far this year:
AVG: .148 – 182nd
BABIP: .109 – 183rd
K%: 29.7% – 15th
BB%: 17.8% – 8th
Swing%: 36.2% – 179th
O-Swing%: 18.5% – 179th
FB%: 67.9% – 1st
IFFB% 19.4% – 14th
GB%: 17.3% – 183rd
Launch Angle: 32.7 degrees – 1st (out of 287 hitters with at least 30 batted ball events)
wRC+: 93 – 116th
Many of these numbers, including the average, the BABIP and the fly ball percentage, would be new MLB records. His average is under .150. His BABIP is .109. One-zero-nine! If that sounds incredibly low, it is. It seems inconceivable that it could continue, yet Schimpf is such an outlier at this stage it’s fascinating to watch while it lasts. Only nine hitters have ever had 400 PA in a season and had a BABIP below .200, the worst being Willie Kirkland‘s .185 in 1962. Curtis Granderson – who is currently having a miserable season and ranks dead last in wRC+ at 16 – has a BABIP 60 points higher than Schimpf.
Launch angle is a little harder to parse without something to compare it to. Let’s put Schimpf’s Statcast launch angle chart, courtesy of the excellent Baseball Savant, side by side with a power hitter who’s had similar production so far, but is fairly middle-of-the-pack in launch angle at 14.1 degrees: Edwin Encarnacion.
At 10-15 degrees, where Encarnacion is hitting most of his batted balls, Schimpf is barely registering. The launch angle on the vast majority of Schimpf’s contact is way, way up. It’s not hard to see here how rarely he hits a line drive or ground ball compared to a fly ball. Line drives come off the bat at 10 to 25 degrees, a zone covering nearly all of Encarnacion’s batted balls and just a handful of Schimpf’s. The only other player close to Schimpf’s profile is Trevor Story, who also hits plenty of home runs but only has a .170 average, even in Coors Field. No-other hitter with 30 batted balls is within 5 degrees of Schimpf’s average angle.
These extremes make sense in combination. Fly balls produce the lowest BABIP of any batted ball type, around .125 on average. Almost 20% of Schimpf’s flies have been infield flies, which naturally are turned into outs almost 100% of the time. When a hitter also strikes out nearly 30% of the time and hits two-thirds of their batted balls for flies, we’re left with a relatively small number of batted balls to actually build a batting average with.
At the same time, Schimpf is incredibly patient. He sees 4.31 pitches per plate appearance, well above the league average 3.88, and rarely swings at pitches outside the zone. He’s certainly not a great contact hitter, but he doesn’t strike out a lot because he’s swinging at everything and missing like Story does, he strikes out a lot because he gets deep into counts. As a result, his strikeout to walk ratio is far better than the Rockies shortstop, even though their batted ball profiles aren’t so different this season.
His looking strike percentage is tied for fifth-highest in the league. Schimpf waits for his pitch, quite often not getting it or missing it when it arrives, but when he identifies it and connects fully – as with Samardzija’s missed spot in the video above – he can produce spectacular results. This is how an extreme, all-or-nothing batted ball profile is created.
Yet one of those statistics is not at the extreme end. Schimpf’s Weighted Runs Created Plus is just 7% below league-average, and was almost exactly average before he went 0-for-4 on Wednesday night. Somehow, the Padres are getting average production out of a hitter who’s batting .148. There are only 15 seasons of at least 100 plate appearances in which batters hit below the Mendoza line and were still within 10% of league average. Schimpf is on that list right now; the second-worst average on the list is Dan Uggla in 2013 at .179.
That might be the weirdest part of all of this. For all the categories in which Schimpf is at the tail ends of the distribution – the strikeouts, the fly balls, the average, the called strikes – Schimpf is providing an ordinary-looking .717 OPS, based on those walks and the occasional power outbursts. Depending on what you think about his defensive abilities, he’s somewhere between a decent role player and a clearly above-average regular. Based on the extremely small sample, DRS prorates him out as a plus-17 run defender at third over the course of the year, while UZR has a much more conservative plus-2.
Calling Schimpf an average baserunner also seems fair right now; he was slightly above-average in 2016, and has been slightly below so far in 2017, but when 7 of your 12 hits are home runs, not an awful lot of baserunning is required. If you look away from the batting average, this is a league-average player, albeit one who is in danger of leaving infielders almost entirely redundant every time he comes to the plate.
Going into the year, Schimpf seemed like a player with the potential for a lot of volatility. A repeat of his 2016 form over a full season would put his WAR at an All-Star level, but with a profile that tends towards such a low batting average, it seemed like there was significant risk that he would suffer prolonged slumps and get taken out of the lineup. That could still turn out to be true, but right now it seems like Schimpf is slumping when in reality he’s been a productive major leaguer. Strip out the average and everything looks fine. Not spectacular, but fine.
It still feels like this can’t continue, one way or another: either Schimpf’s profile will correct to something at least a little more normal, or the current approach and resulting batting average won’t keep him in the lineup. It’s early, and most of what we’ve seen so far isn’t real, at least in the sense of being sustainable. Small samples lead to extreme results. Sometimes, though, we just don’t want to believe things we haven’t seen before. We haven’t seen Ryan Schimpf before. He’s unique, extreme and, at least right now, pretty average.
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