Sunday, 20 December 2020

I Thought Cavan Biggio was Overrated but he's Probably Not

2021 will be Cavan Biggio's third season in the bigs, kind of.  2019 was a 100 game debut, and 2020 was obviously a shortened year, given Covid.  He's played 159 games, totalling just shy of 700 plate appearances, the equivalent of a single, full, normal season.  One season doesn't exactly tell us a whole lot about a hitter!

Granted, those 700-ish PA's have been pretty good for the most part.  Among qualified hitters since the start of the 2019 season, Biggio ranks tied for 7th in walk-rate, behind names like Trout and Soto, and ahead of some pretty good hitters like Freeman, Votto, Yelich and Donaldson.  He ranks 7th in Fangraphs-WAR among 2nd basemen (sidenote- that list of 2B includes Max Muncy, who played just 82 innings at 2B this year,  as well as Whit Merrifield who played 92; Biggio himself plays a few different positions obviously) with 4.0, and he's closer to 5 for B-Ref.  He's a quality baserunner, even beyond the 20 SB/0 CS ratio, which is excellent for someone who walks so often and is at the top of the order.

Now I realize that I'm kind of cherry-picking complaints here a bit, but I like Keith Law.  I quite enjoy board games, and food, and baseball, and Keith is fairly well-versed in all of that stuff, so I read his stuff a lot.  Keith REALLY doesn't think Biggio is good.  He's been vocal about it, and when Biggio does good stuff, Jays fans are quick to shit on Law on twitter or in his chats or wherever else they can find him.  To wit, in no particular order:

Klawchat, 2/27/20 

lucas: Will Cavan Biggio ever hit enough to be a regular? The sky high walk rates make me believe he at least has a good approach at the plate?
Keith Law: No, I don’t think he will.

Klawchat- 5/31/18
Cavan Biggio's breakout reminds me of Kingery adding HR pop out of nowhere last year.   
Do you buy Biggio as a regular in the bigs?
Keith Law
Where does he play? Kingery is a 7 runner and 7 defender at second. Biggio is none of those things.

Klawchat- 8/27/20

cool guy
what did scouts miss about cavan biggio?
Keith Law
Nothing. This season so far is such a tiny sample that there are weird outlier results all over the place -
unless you think Mike Trout is really a .333 OBP guy.

So yeah, he doesn't like Biggio.  But Biggio's been good! What should we believe?!?  Is there something he's seeing that we're not?

I think the obvious factor that we'd need to look at is whether or not he's good at stuff aside from drawing walks.  He's not a great defender, but he's at least competent and can play multiple positions without creating panic (sample size!).  He doesn't hit the ball particularly hard, per statcast, and the walks are at least somewhat cancelled out by the strikeouts.

We've certainly got to keep in mind that being good at baseball/being a good hitter isn't entirely correlated with big exit velocities, and the ability to play 2B (or multiple positions, for that matter) certainly has a lower threshold for success with the bat than a 1B or LF.  As Biggio is able to provide value beyond just walks with his baserunning and with his glove/arm, the threshold of what is acceptable in terms of the value he provides with his actual hitting lowers, naturally, even if the baserunning value is tied directly to his walk-rate and/or hitting ability.

So, then, if he's not a particularly good hitter (i.e. bat-to-ball), but has an elite-level plate discipline, what should we expect moving forward?  Shouldn't we assume that he'll walk less if he's not as much of a threat to hit the ball with authority?  Pitchers would be more likely to attack the zone and less likely to nibble, right?

Well... First of all, it wasn't exactly a secret that Biggio was patient.  Teams had plenty of time to scout Biggio after his 2019 rookie year, but he didn't stop walking in 2020.  You could do the bare minimum like checking his baseball card stats as an advanced scout and see that he walks a shitload.  Every team has access to the Statcast data and probably lots more, and those front offices are all full of people way smarter than I who do this for a living.  Second, he actually sees slightly more pitches in the strikezone than the average batter. It's close, and the sample is small, but it's there for now.  Within that same link, however, we should notice that he's seen fewer first-pitch strikes than average, and I wouldn't expect that to continue.  Pitchers probably will attack him harder on the first pitch.  Afterall, he's only swung at 18% of first pitches (scroll to plate discipline), vs. 28% league average.  They'll just groove BP fastballs down the middle on 0-0 and get ahead, then he won't walk as much, right?!

Orrrrr?  Looks like he swings at approximately as many first pitches that you'd expect him to, given the amount of first-pitch strikes he's seen.  I think we can expect him to see more first-pitch strikes moving forward as the small sample catches up, but I also think the chart above would indicate that his walks aren't necessarily a matter of him seeing fewer pitches in the zone, or getting ahead in the count early, but rather staying patient and catching up in the count when he gets behind.  It's hard to throw strikes! He doesn't see a notably different distribution of pitches down the middle or in the borderline area than anyone else, and doesn't even do much damage on pitches over the heart of the plate anyway.

I had honestly come in to the number crunching thinking that he was due for some regression since so much of his value is tied to his walk-rate and I expected the walk-rate to fall, and that if, say, Cleveland insisted on Biggio being included in a Lindor deal, that we not hesitate.  I'm not so sure now.  That's probably a bad example, because yes, Lindor for Biggio is something we should be happy about if it were to happen.  Steamer projects .237/.354/.406, a 14.6% walk-rate, and strikeouts in 25.2% for his PA's, and ZiPS is even less optimistic, but they're still seeing 2.5-3 WAR.

I'm fairly certain that those projection systems cite historic examples of players that are similar and then correct for anomalies in their statlines, and I think projection systems are a lot more likely to dislike Biggio given how few players have historically fit the same mould.  Someone who strikes out as often as he does is historically not getting many at-bats until recently.

There are just relatively few batters who walk anywhere near as often as Biggio does who also have as low a wOBA.  I've done my damndest to find a player who walks as much that has an xwOBA as low as his, and, well, it's just not there.  That one dot right above Biggio is Yasmani Grandal, who shows up 3 times in the general area; he's of course a really good catcher who actually does happen to hit the ball with authority, but is otherwise probably the best comparison I can find for Biggio offensively.

I was able to take the statcast leaderboard, sorted by BB-rate, download the CSV and filter all qualified batters who, in single seasons since 2015, walked in 14.5 to 16.5% (i.e. +/- 1% of Biggio's 2020 season) of their at-bats in that given season.  I count 32 players within that range, and Biggio has the lowest xwOBA (which takes in to account steals!) of all of those players, one of the lowest isolated power totals, and one of the lowest average exit velocities.  We're really just comparing Biggio with some of the more elite hitters in baseball and confirming that he's not as good offensively as they are... not exactly a groundbreaking discovery!

Having said all of that, we probably shouldn't expect the 4 WAR pace that he's started his career on, and we certainly shouldn't expect even more that that from Biggio.  If he has room to grow offensively, it would likely involve swinging the bat more, especially at pitches down the middle, which almost certainly means that he's bring more aggressive and chasing slightly more, trading walks for hits and outs.  The thing with that, though, is that he doesn't swing at many bad pitches, which would be the pitches that typically get put in play softly.  Keith Law says he's not worth a roster spot, which I think we can pretty confidently dismiss at the moment; at his absolute worst, he's still a competent defender who can get on base with empty power, and at his best, provides an above-average super-utility player who can play multiple positions.  He's more than worth a roster spot if he's able to maintain a walk-rate anywhere near what we've seen, and I've not seen any data that would indicate that he isn't.

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