Going Deep: Using Plate Appearances to Decipher Hidden Value
On the surface, plate appearances appear a mundane topic, especially with flashy stats such as xwOBA, exit velocity and whiff rate dominating the fantasy analysis landscape. Yet we shouldn’t forget that most fantasy scoring systems are primarily composed of counting stats, meaning that understanding a player’s expected average or slugging percentage is simply a means to unlocking the players with the highest potential for runs, home runs, RBI and steals.
Plate appearances play a large role in these counting stats. An enterprising fantasy manager could be spot on in terms of their rate-stat expectations; however, if a hitter’s plate appearances move up or down significantly, most of that analysis is for naught. Let’s outline the factors that influence plate appearances and identify some hitters that are poised to capitalize off increased opportunities in 2019.
Determinants of Plate Appearances
Outside of player health, which is inherently hard to predict, there are three main determinants of plate appearances: batting order position, platoon arrangements, and team offensive production. These factors tend to influence a player’s plate appearances per game (PA/G) significantly, while also in some cases affecting the overall amount of games played.
Most baseball fans should intuitively understand that hitting higher in the batting order will lead to more plate appearances. However, the magnitude of the impact might surprise some. One spot in the batting order is worth between 15 and 18 plate appearances in a season, based on 150-game participation.
This means that the difference between hitting first and ninth is equivalent to roughly 130 plate appearances in a season. Put another way, the hitter batting first is given 23% more opportunities to get on base and drive in runs. Realistically, very few players will oscillate between first and ninth in the order. However, it’s quite feasible that based on a series of trades or signings, a player could move from seventh to fourth or vice versa. This three-spot difference equates to 50 plate appearances and an 8.3% change in plate appearances.
The graph below displays how run and RBI production would vary for a hypothetical .340 OBP/.480 SLG/.820 OPS hitter (think someone such as Travis Shaw or JT Realmuto) across different batting order positions. I derived these figures by using MLB average conversion factors for times on base to runs (37%) and total bases to RBI (30%) and adjusting for how proximity to better or worse players in the lineup affects the factors. For instance, the total base to RBI factor at fourth in the order is 14% higher than the average because the fourth hitter gets more opportunities to hit with runners on base.
Positions one through four in the lineup are fairly equivalent in terms of their R+RBI potential, with the first and second hitters benefiting from increased plate appearances and the third and fourth hitters gaining from more RBI opportunities. Then there is a stark drop off at the fifth spot with another large drop at seven. Take note that the seventh through ninth positions are equivalent in terms of R+RBI opportunities, so hitting higher in the order only becomes relevant once the hitter gets to the five or six range.
All told, this hypothetical .820 OPS hitter could expect an increase from 148 to 179 R+RBI if he were promoted from seventh to fourth in the batting order over a full season. Put another way, that’s the difference between 81R/98RBI or 71R/77RBI seasons. Just because of the batting order. Let that sink in.
Platoons are broken into two main categories: strict platoons and team platoons.
Strict platoons are the more traditional variety, where two players, often of differing handedness, share the duties of one position. For instance, Oakland left-handed hitting OF Matt Joyce often ceded at-bats to righty Mark Cahna in 2018 when an opposing southpaw was on the bump. With proper knowledge of a team’s roster and managerial style, these platoons are fairly easy to anticipate, and participating players can be avoided for fantasy purposes.
The more pressing issue in terms of plate appearance projection these days is the fairly new concept of team platoons. Championed by the Chicago Cubs several years ago and most recently by the Los Angeles Dodgers, team platoons are built upon a selection of versatile players who allow managers to create a variety of different lineup combinations on a given day. While this is a great element of team strategy, these platoons tend to crimp individual plate appearances and are a corresponding drag on fantasy values.
For example, versatile players such as Cody Bellinger (3.9 PA/G), Max Muncy (3.5 PA/G), and Kike Hernandez (3.1 PA/G) enabled manager Dave Roberts to get very creative with both his pregame and in-game lineups. Fantasy owners would often have to wait three hours before game time to see if their players were in the lineup, but even if they were, the managers couldn’t guarantee they’d stay the entire game. The plate appearance-depressing effect of this strategy was magnified even further with the 40-man roster expansion in September. Astoundingly, the Dodgers only had four players eclipse 500 plate appearances in 2018 and only one season-long player, third baseman Justin Turner, exceeded 4.0 PA/G.
Unfortunately for fantasy owners, this type of mixing and matching will continue to gain prominence as more teams increasingly use analytics to find exploitable matchups. The aforementioned Cubs and Dodgers were the trailblazers; however, teams such as the Milwaukee Brewers are staking their claims. While star players are relatively immune to the effects of team platoons, a surprising amount of strong hitters from OPS, wOBA, and wRC+ standpoints are experiencing large value reductions from the associated decrease in plate appearances.
Team Offensive Production
Team offensive production is a notion that gets thrown around a lot in terms of its effect on a player’s stat line; however, its true impact on plate appearances is lower than one would anticipate. The Cubs paced the league by averaging 4.34 plate appearances per game per player, while the Detroit Tigers trailed at 4.13. The median team averaged 4.22. As a result, unless a player is moving from the best team to the worst or vice versa, there isn’t much to discuss in terms of plate appearance changes.
One issue suppressing this factor is that high-scoring teams are typically good teams, and good teams often don’t bat in the bottom of the ninth inning when they’re at home, thus reducing plate appearances for its hitters.
Now that we’ve covered the theory, how can we apply it? Which players will likely see increases in their plate appearances heading into 2019?
Very quietly, Yasiel Puig produced a strong 2018 season, with a .267/.327/.494 triple slash and 123 wRC+. However, his final counting stat line, with the exception of 15 steals, was relatively unimpressive at 60 runs, 23 home runs, and 63 RBI. The reason? Puig’s measly 3.6 PA/G figure with the Dodgers, which was primarily a result of hitting low in the batting order and Los Angeles’ late-season team platoons. Fortunately, Puig was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds in December, where he stands to serve as a permanent fixture in the outfield. With better health, Puig could easily eclipse 600 plate appearances in 2019, which could result in a 30-homer, 20-steal season. That’s a fantasy stud right there.
David Dahl sat out all of 2017 and was limited to a mere 77 games in 2018 because of injuries. Moreover, competition with Gerardo Parra and Carlos Gonzalez further limited Dahl’s opportunities to 3.5 PA/G last season. The end result was a scant 271 plate appearances, though Dahl utilized them efficiently with 16 home runs, 48 RBI, and five steals. Given that Parra was nontendered and that Gonzalez is a free agent, Dahl figures to open 2019 as Colorado’s starting right fielder. While projecting Dahl for a full season’s worth of plate appearances would be ill-advised given his injury history, he has the potential to do serious damage with a full-time, middle-of-the-order batting spot at Coors Field. The Depth Charts projection system has Dahl at 76 R/24 HR/82 RBI/12 SB in 609 plate appearances next year; however, if things break right and Dahl accrues 650-plus plate appearances, there is additional upside.
While the power-hitting Randal Grichuk has seduced and subsequently disappointed many fantasy managers at this point, he’s worth another look in 2019. Grichuk quietly belted 25 home runs in only 124 games last year, a pace that would have been worth 35 over a full season of plate appearances. A May injury and a consistent spot in the bottom third of the Toronto Blue Jays’ order through mid-July suppressed his plate appearances, leading to a meager 3.7 PA/G on the season. There is strong competition for outfield spots in Toronto among Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, Kevin Pillar, and Billy McKinney, yet Grichuk asserted himself ahead of the pack with 195 plate appearances over the final two months of 2018. If he can keep that pace in 2019, 160 R+RBI and 30 home runs is a lock.
Like Grichuk, the 26-year-old Hunter Renfroe‘s name is a bit passe in fantasy circles. The husky outfielder was relegated to bench duty for much of 2018’s first half because of a combination of poor play and stiff competition from the San Diego Padres’ other outfield options. However, Renfroe finished the season with a robust 26 home runs in 441 plate appearances and a slugging percentage north of .500. While San Diego’s outfield will be equally crowded in 2019, especially with Wil Myers likely moving there full time, consider that Renfroe accrued 220 plate appearances in August and September of last season, a 650 full-year pace. That kind of action could easily result in a 35-homer, potentially 95-RBI batting line, making Renfroe an intriguing fantasy option. Pay attention to the Padres’ outfield situation, as someone—perhaps Renfroe himself—might get dealt.
People don’t truly appreciate how good Max Muncy was in 2018. His 162 wRC+ was within four points of NL MVP Christian Yelich, while his .319 ISO led baseball. This rate-stat dominance allowed Muncy to produce 35 home runs and 154 R+RBI in only 481 plate appearances. Yet his inclusion on this list is a risky one considering he still plays for the Dodgers, the MLB equivalent of plate appearance kryptonite. However, there are several reasons for optimism: First, Los Angeles didn’t retain second baseman Brian Dozier, clearing infield space for the versatile Muncy, who can play first, second, and third. Second, Los Angeles cleared two spots in the outfield by dealing Puig and Matt Kemp, which indirectly helps Muncy by giving more lineup space to the versatile Hernandez and Chris Taylor. The end result is that the Dodgers will likely have a more stable lineup to start 2019, which should be a boon for Muncy. If he can clear 550 plate appearances in 2019 over 145 games (an improved but still reasonable 3.8 PA/G projection), a 40-homer, 100-RBI line is within reach.
Some other players who will likely experience increases in plate appearances from their 2018 levels are Joey Gallo (3.9 PA/G), Brandon Nimmo (3.8), and Tyler White (3.6).
Not all players will benefit from these dynamics. I’ve outlined three players who are probably being overvalued heading in 2019 based on inaccurate plate appearance expectations.
Andrew McCutchen‘s plus plate discipline and bat speed make him a dependable player; however a likely regression in plate appearances will lower the fantasy floor of the newly minted Philadelphia Phillie in 2019. Consider that McCutchen accrued 682 plate appearances last year—the second-highest total of his career—on the back of a likely unsustainable 4.40 PA/G figure. These inflated per-game opportunities were the result of McCutchen never hitting lower than third in the batting order and spending the last two months of last season leading off. Now McCutchen is moving to a roster with high on-base players such as Cesar Hernandez, Jean Segura, and Rhys Hoskins, who will likely get the first crack in the top three of the order. The logjam would also increase if Philadelphia were to sign either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. That makes McCutchen more of a No. 5 hitter in 2019, which will likely lower his plate appearance count by 50 and his counting stats correspondingly.
It’s probably unfair to characterize Joc Pederson as a “faller,” but it’s necessary to put the brakes on a Pederson hype train that has gained speed since his strong finish to 2018 and the departure of Puig and Kemp. Pederson’s 3.0 PA/G in 2018 was microscopic, and it’s natural to assume that will rise with less of a logjam in Los Angeles’ outfield. But it’s important to remember that Pederson, unlike Muncy, is horrible against left-handed pitching, with a brutal 38 wRC+ against southpaws in 2018. As a result, Pederson will continue to sit against lefties, who represent about 25% of the arms in baseball. Unless Pederson can remedy his problems against same-handed pitching, it’s difficult to envision him cracking 500 plate appearances again, especially with the Dodgers.
The Atlanta Braves made a sneaky good signing by inking Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million “rebound” contract this offseason. However, fantasy managers should be mindful that Donaldson hasn’t played more than 136 games at third base since 2015. Given Donaldson’s recent injury history, the lack of a designated hitter in the National League, and the presence of utility man Johan Camargo on the Braves roster, it’s likely that Donaldson will rest at least once per week, which would cap his max games played around 135-140 (and that’s assuming he’s healthy). While Donaldson’s PA/G might nudge up from last year’s 4.2 if Atlanta does consistently bat him in the two-hole, it likely won’t be enough to overcome the plate appearance ceiling constructed by his games-played limitations.
Graphic by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)