Going Deep: Cavan Biggio Is Laying the Foundation, Part 2

Matt Wallach takes a second look at Cavan Biggio to see what else about his profile as a hitter stands out and what it could mean for his future.

In early September, I penned this post on Cavan Biggio. I mainly looked at his batted-ball metrics and determined he had a profile that could translate into more success for him down the road, assuming a few adjustments. I also looked for an explanation for his oddly high strikeout rate, despite his not being a frequent swinger, or a frequent swing-and-misser. In that, I saw that the vast majority of Biggio’s strikeouts were of the looking variety and that a lot of his Ks are the result of his truly elite plate discipline, and came to the conclusion that if Biggio were to swing more at pitches in the zone, with his outstanding batted-ball skills, he has the potential to be a very useful player in the future.

All Biggio did in September was have the best month of his season, posting a 160 wRC+, which was one of the best in the game, and he hit for the cycle, joining his father, Craig, to become only the second father-son duo to hit for the cycle. All of this is really cool, and I was so excited that we were maybe seeing what I wrote about him in action and that the Biggio hype train was going to be really picking up steam. He must have been making changes that were paying off for him, right? Let’s take a look at some of his plate-discipline splits:

Cavan Biggio – Plate Discipline Splits

OK, maybe not. As evidenced by this table, Biggio was swinging only slightly more, but at 38.2%, his swing-rate was still among the 10 lowest in baseball in September. In fact, he was swinging less at pitches in the zone and was making less contact on pitches in the zone, and less contact overall, with an increase in swinging strikes to go along with it. Maybe he got a bit lucky in September, with a .426 BABIP, and this was just a really good BABIP month for him, despite few meaningful improvements. Overall, though, I would say that this was a successful rookie season for Biggio, who as a prospect was never highly touted, but he has inserted himself into the conversation for a spot in the starting nine for the Jays for the foreseeable future. Even though he didn’t swing as much as I would like, he still was pretty good in 2019, and we should highlight that. In fact, there were only a handful of hitters who walked as much as Biggio did who also had an isolated power mark of around .200 or higher:

High BB%, Good ISO (min. 400 PA)

A 114 wRC+ for a player with Biggio’s prospect status in his rookie season is a great thing. While he’s not quite at the .200 ISO mark, it’s clear that he has the potential and that he exceeded expectations in his rookie debut. He has the potential to get more in line with some of the hitters above him on this table. I still enjoyed watching him succeed to end the season, and I’m still plenty excited for what he can be in the future.

One thing I hadn’t considered at the time of my first post on Biggio was his launch angle. There are some really interesting things going on with Biggio’s launch angle. To start, let’s look at a Statcast metric called sweet-spot percentage (SwSp%). It’s a measure of how often a hitter’s batted balls leave the bat at a range of eight to 32 degrees. For context, major league hitters post an average wOBA between .515 and .849 on batted balls in that range. SwSp% on its own isn’t necessarily super useful, but it does help provide additional context, combined with other metrics such as exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and batted-ball distributions to get more of the full story on each hitter.

While dissecting Statcast leaderboards, I noticed something really interesting as it relates to SwSp% and Biggio when looking at hitters with at least 200 batted-ball events:

Biggio is, at least with a minimum of 200 batted-ball events, the slight leader in SwSp% over Mike Trout. Interesting. In my first post about Biggio, there were multiple instances when Biggio was right in line with and compared well to some of the best hitters in baseball, Trout included, and this is another aspect of Biggio’s game that compares well to other top hitters. I’m starting to see a running theme when evaluating Biggio.

So what this means is Biggio is the next Trout, right? We should pencil him in for about eight WAR next season, right? All right, I’m all-in…oh wait:

Yeah, neve rmind. What this instead should prove is that SwSp% isn’t everything. Biggio does have some promising aspects to his batted-ball profile of course, and he isn’t a slouch when it comes to hitting, but he still has ways to go if he wants to match some of the best hitters in baseball. We can take something away from his great SwSp%, though. His high SwSp% makes sense, as his average launch angle is about 20 degrees, so he is already at an average rate that is inside the sweet spot. A 20-degree launch angle generates an average wOBA of .725, one of the highest average wOBA marks at any launch-angle slot.

That’s fine and all, but another aspect that adds context is launch angle tightness or spread. Whatever you want to call it, it’s essentially just the standard deviation of a hitter’s launch angles. This first came to my attention from a post here, and I began doing my own calculations of each hitter’s standard deviations of launch angles. Additional write-ups going more in detail on launch angle tightness can be found here and here, and I highly recommend checking them out. Reading through these posts and seeing the results myself, I wonder why this wasn’t something we considered until now. The reason is that the standard deviation, or tightness, or consistency, or whatever you wish to call it, of launch angles can help explain BABIP and contact quality. BABIP is nice and all, but for Biggio, we might not expect a high BABIP because he hits more fly balls than any other batted-ball type. But if we look at launch-angle consistency and contact quality for Biggio, this is where I would get excited.

The great research that’s been done by Alex Chamberlain of RotoGraphs and included in the third link above shows that, simplistically speaking, the most ideal average launch angle in terms of BABIP and xwOBACON may be around 19 degrees. Knowing that is the case, looking for hitters with an average launch angle of around 19 degrees would likely be beneficial. Not only that, but looking for hitters who can consistently repeat that launch angle, and not stray too far from that launch angle would likely have more success than hitters who don’t. That being said, let’s take a look at the hitters with a minimum of 400 plate appearances in 2019 who had smallest launch-angle standard deviations:

Smallest Standard Deviations of Hitter Launch Angles – min. 400 PA

Well, look at that. Biggio was one of the best in 2019 at maintaining his launch angle. There are some interesting names in this table too. J.D. Martinez is one of the best pure hitters in the sport, Aaron Judge makes a ton of great contact, Freddie Freeman is always solid, J.D. Davis was the most underappreciated Statcast monster from last season, and oh yeah, there’s Mike Trout again. Even Joey Votto, who had a down 2019, has usually kept his launch angle consistent in his career, which has brought him great success in the past, and I don’t think his down 2019 can be blamed on his launch-angle profile changing. Other names on this list such as Miguel Cabrera, the recently non-tendered Domingo Santana, and Brandon Belt are all interesting cases, and their lack of recent success is more due to other issues that aren’t related to launch angle alone, and as Chamberlain notes, both Cabrera and Belt have been among the best at maintaining their launch-angle consistency during the Statcast era.

Getting back to Biggio—remembering that he is the leader in SwSp%—knowing that so many of his batted balls leave the bat in the “sweet spot” and now knowing that he should be able to do that consistently sounds quite OK to me. But going further, we should consider the actual launch angles. Since it appears that the optimal launch angle is around 19 degrees, launch-angle consistency doesn’t mean much on its own without some additional context. Let’s look at the hitters from the above table, but this time let’s include their average launch angles:

AVG LA of the Smallest Standard Deviation LA Hitters

If we’re looking for hitters who are the closest to 19 degrees on average, Biggio is the closest of them in this group. It’s interesting to see Trout here again since we saw earlier how similar these two are in terms of their SwSp%; Trout and Biggio also share similar launch angles and launch-angle standard deviations. We can take a closer look at the two and break both of their batted-ball distributions out by 10-point intervals:

Biggio vs Trout – LA Interval Rates

Biggio and Trout are pretty similar to each other here. Focusing on the highlighted intervals, Biggio is again extremely similar to Trout, as Biggio launches his batted balls at angles between zero and 29 degrees nearly half of the time—48.93% to be exact—and Trout does the same at a 48.31% rate, essentially the same. This is significant because batted balls in that range have an average wOBA mark of .656. Being able to do that consistently should be a good indicator of future success, and Biggio matches up well to the best player in the game in that regard. Keep in mind, though, that we saw that Trout is significantly better at making better contact and getting barrels than Biggio is earlier in the post, so I’m not suggesting Biggio is as good as Trout, but instead that Biggio is doing yet another thing well that should lead to good results.

That’s not to say that hitters who appeared on the earlier tables like Martinez, Judge, Freeman, or Davis are inferior to Biggio because their launch angles are lower, because they aren’t inferior—hitters do quite well as a whole in terms of wOBA on those launch angles. What would make a 19-degree launch angle more optimal, is that when a hitter with a launch angle closer to 19 strays away from that average on the negative side, i.e. their launch angles drop; they drop to a range where they would still usually get good batted-ball results. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at hitters with average launch angles that are more in line with Biggio’s. We already know that Trout is going to be there, but who else?

There were 44 hitters with at least 400 plate appearances in 2019 who had an average launch angle between 17 and 22 degrees. We can further weed it out by including each hitters’ launch angle standard deviation (which is also kind of the point, after all). Filtering down to look at which hitters from that group of 44 had standard deviations of their launch angles that were less than 26, we get a group consisting of the following 19 hitters:

Optimal LA and Small Standard Deviation

While this group of hitters looks solid for the most part, this doesn’t really tell much because we are ignoring batted-ball profiles. Instead, this just tells us that these hitters do a good job of maintaining their strong angles. Factor in batted balls, and now guys like Christin Stewart, Omar Narvaez, and Jose Peraza would fall off, considering they don’t necessarily hit the ball well just by looking at their rate of barrels per batted-ball event (7.4% for Stewart, 5.3% for Navarez, and just 0.8% for Peraza). If we add in things such as exit velocity and barrel rate, and only look for hitters with an average exit velocity greater than 88 mph, we now have a group of 12 hitters who could be considered, at least on a preliminary level, launch-angle and exit-velocity comps for Biggio:

Launch Angle & Exit Velocity Comps

While Trout, Eugenio Suarez, and to a lesser extent Anthony Rendon, and Cody Bellinger are essentially in their own tier and aren’t necessarily good comparisons to Biggio on account of their uniqueness, and extremely great barrel rates, the rest of this group looks extremely solid. With Biggio, there’s also always room for improvement. Remember, this was just his rookie season, and he is still a work in progress while the majority of the hitters in this table are established hitters and in the prime of their careers. For a 24-year-old rookie, this is excellent company to keep, and while it doesn’t mean he’ll end up as good as some of these hitters, the makings are there for Biggio to make more of an impact soon.

With his excellent batted-ball rates and distributions, as mentioned in my first post, there was already a lot to like about Biggio’s profile as a hitter that didn’t necessarily show up in his slash line. Now add in this previously overlooked dimension in his outstanding launch-angle tightness combined with his good exit velocity, and now it looks like Biggio should be the real deal. Biggio does so many things well: He draws walks at one of the best rates, he has good speed, he hits the ball well, and hits those batted balls at a rate that should play well, and now adding these launch-angle factors that show that’s he able to consistently stay in the area of the launch-angle spectrum that generally produces good results, I’m struggling to see any kind of major weakness in his game.

Sure, he’s a little too passive at the plate, but that should be easier to correct than some of the other major faults in young players’ games. Maybe the power won’t develop as much as we’d like to see and he never hits much more than 20 homers in a season, but with everything else positive in his profile, he should still be a very valuable player. I’m very excited to see what Biggio does in his sophomore campaign to see if he can reach the potential that his hitting profile would suggest he has.

Full Launch Angle Standard Deviation data can be found here 

Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by James Peterson (@jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Matt Wallach

Matt writes for Pitcher List and Rotoballer and is a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees. He can be found always talking baseball on Twitter @Wallach18.

  • Avatar LucasGiolito'schangeup says:

    Matt,

    Have appreciated your comments in the Fangraphs members section for several years. I just read your two research articles on Mr. Biggio. They are well researched, with easily understood graphs and charts to further explain Cavan’s possible future improvement at the stick. Well done and a belated congrats on obtaining your undergraduate degree.

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