- It's the time of year where we discover this year's perfectly league-average players!
If each baseball season is a chapter in a greater volume—or a few seconds in an eventual mammoth documentary project from Ken Burns, take your pick—it isn’t too hard to guess how we’ll remember 2018. It’ll be because of the brilliance of Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and José Ramírez; the winless wonder of Jacob deGrom; the two-way marvel of Shohei Ohtani and maybe even the astoundingly bad performance of Chris Davis. The players who will stand out from this year are, simply, the players who stood out the most. It’s the same principle that has forever tied Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to 1998, Bob Gibson to 1969, Joe DiMaggio to 1941; it is, for the most part, just how memory tends to work.
And it can be horribly ineffective! An outlier is definitely memorable, and he can be informative, but he’s not representative. What has made 2018 different from 2017, or 2016, or 1998, or 1918? Batting average is down seven points from last year, now at its lowest point since 1972. Strikeouts have increased for the eleventh year in a row and are at a record high. There are fewer home runs than there were last year or the year before, but there are considerably more than the year before that. Pitchers have thrown the fastball less and the slider more. Individually, these changes barely register—the most minor fluctuations in the background noise of baseball. Collectively, though, they have made this season this season. So which players best represent all this? Who should we use to remember 2018? In other words: Who have been this season’s most average players?
There are any number of ways to answer that question—theoretically, aesthetically, spiritually— but the easiest, for our purposes, is statistically. We’ll break it down by hitters and pitchers, but the same general format will apply in both examples. We’ll look at a selection of metrics for each, and compare each player’s numbers to the mean for 2018. (Just those who meet the qualifying mark for plate appearances or innings pitched; after all, it’s only fair that the player who represents the season should have been active for most of it.) From there, it’s pretty straightforward—the player who deviates the least from the mean across the board is our “most average.”
First up: Hitters. We’ll start with the basics of their batting lines: average, on-base and slugging percentage, all of which are down from last year. Throw in walks and strikeouts, which have, respectively, remained the same and spiked. Then the ratio of groundballs to flyballs and the number of home runs per qualified hitter, both of which have decreased from last year. Everything’s weighted equally. Here’s what you get:
Houston Astros utilityman Marwin González isn’t quite a perfect match. But he’s pretty damn close, and he’s the most average hitter of 2018.
So what has it meant to look average this year? For González, it’s required a big step back from last season’s breakout, when he posted a career-best .907 OPS and even picked up a few stray votes for MVP. In 2018, he’s hit fewer home runs, and he’s struck out more than ever. There are twenty-five games when he’s gone 0-for-4, and there are zero when he’s gone 4-for-4. His longest hit streak has been eight games, and his longest hitless streak has been six. May was cold; August was hot. Most of the time, he’s hit sixth in the order. On May 28, he fouled off a pitch only to foul it off again on his backswing. When Houston moved into first place for good with a victory on June 14, he tripled and went 2-for-3. He hasn’t tripled since. This has been González, and the result has been completely and remarkably average.
On to pitchers! Here’s ERA (down from last year), strikeouts (up), walks (down), home runs (down), groundball percentage (down), fastball usage (down, the lowest that it’s been since consistent pitch tagging began in 2002) and innings per start (down):
The Cubs’ Jon Lester doesn’t seem very average—not now, and not really at any point in his decade-plus career. He’s still just two years removed from being runner-up for the Cy Young. He had a 2.18 ERA through the end of June, making him one of the game’s best pitchers in the first half. He was an easy selection for the All-Star Game. But his recent performance has dragged him down, and the crude average of his hot start and his cold finish is, by these numbers, a decent representation of starting pitching in 2018.
Lester has had three starts that lasted fewer than four innings, including opening day. He’s never gone further than seven. On his worst day, he allowed ten hits; on his best, he allowed just one. He’s had five starts with no walks, and he’s had one start with five. He’s allowed five home runs on the first pitch of an at-bat, and he’s allowed seven home runs in a full count. Lester gave up four runs in the entire month of June, before giving up twenty-four in July. The San Diego Padres’ Christian Villanueva, an otherwise unremarkable hitter, has been 4-for-4 with two walks against him. This is Lester—average, or, at least, as close as possible.
Much of Lester’s year-to-year movement doesn’t reflect the league. While K% has spiked, his strikeout rate is several percentage points below his career average and the lowest that it’s been since 2013. Starters’ walk rates have decreased this year, but Lester is walking more batters than he has at any point since 2011. There is one area where he matches up pretty well, though: groundballs. From 2017 to 2018, starting pitchers’ groundball rate has fallen by a full percentage point, which is the biggest yearly drop in more than a decade. This year, Lester has allowed fewer grounders than ever, down nearly ten percentage points from his career average. Why? He’s throwing his sinker less. So is everyone else.
Neither González nor Lester has been perfectly representative; it’s hard to imagine any player who could ever be. But they’ve been just representative enough to make them memorable—precisely because they’ve otherwise been ordinary enough to forget.