While some may choose to debate the validity of his rookie status due to his age, the fact remains that Patrick Wisdom set a Cubs franchise record with 28 homers in his first full MLB season. And it wasn’t even a full season, with just 375 plate appearances after being called up in late May. He’d accumulated only 88 plate appearances in parts of the three previous seasons, so the rookie tag is fitting even if his 29 years of life experience make him practically Hobbsian.
The real issue with Wisdom isn’t so much with semantics, but about whether he can continue to produce at a high enough level for the Cubs to keep him around as they transition to a new phase. Never mind that it should be a no-brainer because he’s still on a rookie deal and can outperform his cost by simply being a warm body who continues to draw breath while hitting the occasional dinger.
Of course, there’s also the small matter of striking out a little too often, which leads to the fear that Wisdom could very quickly get upside-down when it comes to his production. That naturally leads to questions about whether it’s wise to give him playing time that might otherwise go to a younger player who can be a bigger part of the future.
But what if I told you there was more to it than just homers vs. strikeouts and that Wisdom’s batted-ball profile may indicate potential for continued — or even improved — success moving forward? Mind you, I’m not trying to say he’s going to hang out with the family from Tuck Everlasting and play for another decade or more, but there is reason to believe what we saw last year was not a fluke.
That comes from the concept of “damage rate,” a statistical measurement developed by Robert Orr of The Sac Bunt (h/t to Bryan Smith of Bleacher Nation for tweeting that out) that seeks to quantify how productive a hitter’s contact really is. Though the calculation of this number might fly over the heads of more than a few of us, the concept is simple: Not all contact is created equal, and just hitting the ball hard isn’t enough.
We hear a lot about exit velocity and it’s true that higher exit velos produce greater likelihood that a ball will land safely for a hit. There’s also the idea that hitting the ball in the air is better than hitting it on the ground since the latter is usually going to result in singles and groundouts. Then you eliminate very steep launch angles because they’ll just be pop-ups.
So simply using hard-hit rate (95+ mph exit velo) isn’t an effective predictive measure of a hitter’s performance because it varies too much and lacks directional context. Pretty simple so far, right? But where Orr really gets into some genius shit is that he incorporates “spray angle,” or the idea that a batted ball must be hit between -45 degrees (pull-side foul line) and 45 degrees (oppo line). It doesn’t mean a thing if you hit a ball 115 mph off the bat and into the upper deck wide of the foul pole.
There’s also the idea that being able to generate elite exit velos on opposite-field hits indicates a rare level of power. I’ll let you head over to Orr’s blog for the nitty-gritty, but the general idea is that there’s a clear correlation between generating exit velos above the 80th percentile across the spray-angle spectrum and “stickier” production results. Simply put, you can expect hitters who live in that area to put up more consistent power numbers.
This brings us to this simple concept: what percentage of a hitter’s batted balls clear that 80th percentile threshold at each spray angle? Each batted ball that does is an indicator of power that only a small subset of hitters possess. Stretching the idea further, how many batted balls does that hitter have that clear the same threshold applied to the launch angle spectrum, which is another indicator for rare power (and similar to the idea behind DHH)? Using the clearing of either of those 2 markers as our definition of “hard hit” while limiting the balls counted to those hit in the air – to weed out the mostly harmless grounders hit at higher velocities – we can come up with our own well hit rate and use it as a tool for evaluating player potential. Since this boils down to an attempt to measure a player’s ability to hit for power, we’ll call it Damage Rate.
This is where we tie things back to Wisdom, who comes in at No. 9 on the damage rate leaderboard for the 2021 season. That puts him just between Salvador Perez and Bryce Harper, which I’d say is a pretty prestigious spot for just about any hitter. For the sake of additional context, this is on a per-batted-ball basis with a minimum of 50 events.
Now, I want you to understand that this list is not indicating that Wisdom is on par with Ronald Acuña Jr., Shohei Ohtani, or Fernando Tatis Jr., nor am I trying to say anything even remotely close to that. What we can draw from it, however, is that the contact Wisdom produced is indicative of the kind of overall performance that should be more sustainable over time.
Where we’d need to be very concerned is if he had a very high groundball rate and/or a lower hard-hit rate and was producing an elevated BABIP. Wisdom hit fewer grounders than league average, generated more hard contact, and his .318 BABIP doesn’t throw up any red flags, so nothing really stands out as alarming when projecting what he’ll be able to do moving forward.
Even if the strikeouts remain high, Wisdom’s power output should be consistent enough to offset it and make him a productive member of the lineup. And if that’s not enough for you, consider that he was tied for 10th among third baseman in defensive runs saved (4) and ranked sixth in outs above average (6) despite playing fewer innings than almost everyone above him.
If nothing else, damage rate provides a different lens through which to view hitters and I’d encourage those of you with interest in statistical evaluation to check out the piece linked above.