A glance at Pavin Smith’s 2022 numbers would tell you that the Diamondbacks’ corner outfielder is off to a nice start. Smith’s .344 wOBA is the best of his young career. Smith has had stretches of success in the past, but could this be the year he takes a step forward? Smith’s peripherals tell an intriguing story: although he’s had similar stretches in the past, he’s made significant improvements to both his plate approach and his quality of contact. If not for the deadened ball and league-wide offensive decline, we might be talking more about the D-backs’ nascent breakout.
xStats in 2022
One of analysts’ biggest difficulties this season is a new run environment; offense is down across the league. According to reporting by Eno Sarris and Ken Rosenthal, the implementation of new storage systems may be affecting the shape of the ball, resulting in elevated seams and increased drag.
In a normal season, we could look at a player’s “expected stats” (like xwOBA, xAVG, xSLG) to gauge their luck so far. We might see, for example, Smith’s .373 xwOBA and conclude that he’s actually been underperforming so far. But there’s a problem with this approach: xStats are built on Statcast data from past seasons. If the ball isn’t acting the same way, then we can’t accurately expect the same level of production from batted balls in 2022.
What we can do, though, is look at Smith’s batted ball quality this year and compare it to his previous seasons. A good xwOBA in 2022 won’t produce its equivalent wOBA, but xwOBA still tells us how a player’s batted balls measure up to previous seasons. Smith has a .362 xwOBA on the season, well above his .319 career average. While we can’t expect his wOBA to match his xwOBA, we can see just how much better his raw performance has been so far.
But is there any reason to think that this is more than a nice hot streak? In any given season, xwOBA has significant peaks and valleys. Players will perform very well for a stretch before coming down to earth. Smith’s 2022 xwOBA, though, is supported by a massive jump in the quality of his contact. One of the league’s best, quick-to-stabilize metrics is barrel rate. Among qualified hitters, Smith’s 12.1% increase in barrel rate from 2021 to 2022 is the best in baseball.
Barrel rate begins to stabilize after only 50 balls in play, a number already reached by most regulars. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Smith will sustain his current barrel rate (he almost definitely won’t), but it does mean that his barrel rate is now more signal than it is noise. To the extent that barrel rate can indicate improvement this season, Smith’s is second to none.
Another key piece to consider is how the Diamondbacks’ home field might be affecting Smith’s numbers. Let’s take a look at league wOBAcon and xwOBAcon by park, with the caveat that expected stats will necessarily look inflated because of the unique 2022 offensive context.
As we would expect, there are a lot of negatives here. That’s because, as noted above, xwOBA is built on past seasons and hasn’t yet been updated. But we can also see that Chase Field is suppressing offense at a well-above-average rate. In recent years, Chase Field has generally sat just above league average in wOBAcon, but that isn’t the case this year.
The drop-off this year is partially explained by bad offensive performance over a small sample, but that doesn’t seem to account for everything. Chase Field is generally a park that suppresses home runs while increasing extra-base hits, owing to its cavernous outfield. Perhaps increased drag is taking away some of those extra bases. Time and a bigger sample will tell. Whatever the reason, though, it’s reasonable to suspect that Diamondbacks hitters have been at an added disadvantage so far this season.
Another big factor to consider is plate discipline. Plate discipline metrics are some of the fastest to stabilize, which means that they are especially helpful early in the season. At first glance, we might think that Smith’s plate discipline has been a big part of his gains. He’s walking more than he has in the past and he’s swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone. But these changes are part of a larger trend in Smith’s profile – he is simply swinging less in general. In 2021, the outfielder swung at 42.1% of the pitches he saw. In 2022, that number is just 35.2%.
One way to look at optimized plate discipline is to subtract O-Swing% from Z-Swing% (helpfully suggested by Alexander Chase and Jordan Rosenblum). In fact, looking at zone and out-of-zone swings in conjunction like this is more predictive of future production than either in isolation. That alone may not bode well for the sustainability of Smith’s success.
Fewer swings have been a successful approach for many hitters. In fact, there is reason to think that in general swinging less is a good thing. But the approach also comes with an increase in called strikes. Smith is already striking out more often than he has in the past, although his K% is still quite good.
Since 2015, there have been 38 hitters who posted an O-Swing – Z-Swing between 30 and 35% over a season of 400 or more plate appearances. That list includes massively productive seasons, like Mike Trout’s 2015, as well as truly bad offensive performances, like Mike Napoli’s 2015. On average, though, these hitters put up a 121 wRC+. If we narrow that list down to hitters with a 10% or lower swinging strike rate, we are left with just 6 hitters:
What does a comparison like this serve to show? To be clear at the outset, it definitely doesn’t help us project anything about Pavin’s future production. The list above shows complete season stats and Pavin’s 2022 is only 94 plate appearances young. What it does show, though, is that success with this approach is possible.
It may be that Smith’s contact skills make him the perfect candidate for this kind of passivity – Smith can make contact on a lot of pitches, so it makes sense to minimize swings that might lead to poor contact. Whatever the case may be, Smith’s quality of contact is the best it has ever been. It may just be that his lower Swing% is an integral part of these improvements.
When it’s all said and done, we won’t know whether Pavin Smith can sustain his current success until he does it. There’s good reason to suspect that his end-of-season numbers will fall where projections currently have him. Derek Carty’s projection model THE BAT X makes heavy use of Statcast metrics, making it one of the more reactive and useful models in-season. The model currently has Smith hitting just around league average rest of the season. That would and should give anyone pause. But the 26-year-old hitter might be paving a way toward consistent offensive production with his rare blend of contact, passivity, and power.
Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Drew Wheeler (@drewisokay on Twitter)