Nick Madrigal and Baseball Preconceptions by Phil Goyette August 2, 2019 I’ve talked about Nick Madrigal a lot in the last year and a half. There are tons of players in affiliated baseball, but I’ve spent more time on Twitter, in the Baseball Farm GroupMe, doing Google news searches, and just thinking about this diminutive middle infielder than any other player since he came on my radar in the spring of 2018. Why? His profile is just divisive. The skillset is so strange and unique that he poses a lot of questions without easy answers. Madrigal challenges your preconceptions on what makes a “good” baseball player. He does not pass the eye test. If you feel you can project how he will perform in a future large sample of performance data by watching him swing the bat, you will not project him to do much, as he looks like your nephew playing Cal Ripken Baseball. If you like looking for player comps when evaluating a player, you will find few, as he presents tools that we haven’t seen in this combination in the minor leagues in at least the past 15 years. If you guess at what his value could be, you will be wrong. It’s too hard to conceptualize, too many moving parts, too much math. I know, because I’ve tried it! Move a guy up “a little bit” because you like the athleticism, down “below those guys” because he plays in an org that “can’t develop anyone.” Squint and think “he could hit 15 home runs,” and then that becomes your mental baseline for how to value Madrigal. If I’m trying to be accurate with this stuff, I have to admit this basic premise: My initial guess will not be accurate. But the good part is that there are tools you can use to give you the context. It’s like trying to get a picture level. You don’t have to squint at it and bump it up or down a little bit. You use a level, which is calibrated to be more precise than your eyes. At Baseball Farm, we have a bunch of tools, including a Fantasy FV calculator which can help you evaluate any profile, even one as strange as Nick Madrigal’s. How Tall Are You? At first glance, the thing that sticks out at Nick Madrigal is his size. MiLB.com lists him as 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds. Oregon State’s official media guide gave the kid an extra inch at 5-foot-8, which is what Nick himself will tell you he is. Many evaluations of him as a player point to these measurements quite often. Sorry, but these evaluations are focused on the wrong measurements. Omar Vizquel, who was Nick’s manager at High-A Winston-Salem last season and is his current manager at Double-A Birmingham this year, turned his own 5-foot-9 frame into 45.6 career WAR. Vizquel will tell you that you’re just looking at it wrong. Viqzuel told the Chicago Sun Times: “You’ve got to believe in your game, and you’ve got to know what your game is,” Vizquel said. “He’s a very smart guy who knows how to play the game and can make a difference [on] any team. “I still believe he can fit any team. Plays the game smart. Great defense. Can get on base any time he wants to; can bunt, hustle, walk, has a great eye at the plate. I still believe he can fit in on any team. Take a look at baseball in the ’70s or ’80s and you know these were the types of guys who were needed on teams to win.” What Are You Measuring? The first measurement that you need to consider when evaluating Madrigal in the context of his future potential performance is not his height. It’s his ability to put his bat on the ball. According to the great Ted Williams, “Hitting is the single most difficult thing to do in sport.” I’m sure there’s some hyperbole in that statement, and The Splendid Splinter was so good at it that who can blame him for hyping it up a little bit. But still, making contact can be incredibly hard to do, and it’s something that Madrigal is better at than anyone we’ve seen in professional baseball since at least 2006. Lucas Apostoleris of Baseball Prospectus penned a fantastic article ($) on Madrigal’s ability to put his bat on the ball. Madrigal’s microscopic K-rate (2.4% in 2019) is usually the first stat that pops up when you research him. But Apostoleris makes a good point that it’s really his “contact rate” that we should be looking at. Contact rate is defined as “all contacted balls, including fouls, divided by swings.” In other words, when he swings his bat at the ball, what percentage of the time does he hit it? For Madrigal, it’s an astounding 95.1%. The next-closest big name prospect, Wander Franco, clocks in at 89.4%. Madrigal is in his own level at putting the bat on the ball. Apostoleris puts this into more context: I checked Madrigal’s 2019 rate against all other seasons for which we have reliable minor league pitch-by-pitch data, which goes back to 2006. In this sample, there are 9160 distinct player seasons in which a batter saw at least 1000 pitches that year. As it stands right now, that 95.1 percent rate from Madrigal is the highest in this sample for a minor league season. David Fletcher, who is hitting .291 in MLB this season, is posting a 91.2% contact rate this year. In 1988, Wade Boggs posted a 96.0% contact rate in MLB and batted .366. He only hit five home runs that year. His overall profile was good for a 167 wRC+ and 8.6 WAR. That’s an insanely valuable hitting profile. Only Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, and Cody Bellinger have a wRC+ over 167 in MLB this season. But What About The Quality of the Contact? Madrigal gets his bat on the ball at least 5% more of the time than any other baseball player you’ve seen since 1980s Boggs. You can’t argue with that, it’s a fact. But, what happens when he gets his bat to the ball? The primary criticisms of Madrigal’s offensive game are 1) he’s not hitting for power now and 2) he’s not going to develop any power in the future. Throw out the fact that he’s not hitting the Triple-A “super fun ball” yet. What would it mean for his production if his power profile never changes? What if he’s only ever a “slappy” guy? Exit Velos Statcast has ushered in a new era of data in baseball. Writers and pundits have been quick to utilize it, honing in on particular readings. “Exit velocity” is hugely popular, and it makes sense. You want batters who hit the ball hard. If you hit the ball hard, it’s more likely that something good will happen, right? We at the Farm heard rumors of Madrigal producing some shockingly low EVs using a composite bat in college. Red flag! Low-EV individual, do not touch! Well, it’s not that simple. EV is great, but you still have to consider the context. Put another way, how much value can you get from a hitter with low EVs? The answer depends on the rest of the profile. Does it Matter if He Hits it Hard? If you hit the ball hard, you’re less likely to make an out, right? Not necessarily. Exit Velocity does not correlate with BABIP. There appears to be no relationship between the two. A ball that is hit in play is as likely to be a hit as an out no matter how hard you hit it. Read that again. It’s not intuitive, but it is true! Two thought exercises helped me think about this finding: Nick Madrigal hits two ground balls down the third baseline. The first is drilled with a high exit velocity within range of an average-fielding MLB third baseman. The second is dribbled slowly with a tiny exit velocity right at the same third baseman. On which ball is Madrigal more likely to be thrown out at first? Nick Madrigal chops two line drives the other way right at the right fielder. The first is a laser that’s hammered right at an outfielder with average range and an average glove. The second is not hit hard, but flipped out to right field in front of the fielder just a few steps out of his range. Which ball is more likely to be caught? I’ll take it a step further: you shouldn’t even really care about exit velocities on line drives and ground balls. Seriously, don’t even think about it. Last summer, Matt Hartzell of Medium Sports looked at Brandon Belt’s strange profile. Belt was hitting for power despite posting an 87.6 average EV (good for only 233rd overall in MLB at the time). Hartzell included this incredible nugget in his article: In fact, most line-drives (launch angle ~10–20 degrees) that range from 75 to 110 mph in exit velocity have an expected wOBA in between .700 and .900 (as represented by the orange strip that cuts through the middle of the table). Put another way, if you hit a line-drive, you are, on average, more or less likely to receive the same outcome no matter the exit velocity, holding the direction of the batted ball constant. Smoke a 110-mph laser or flip a 75-mph dying duck on the same trajectory, and it doesn’t matter for a line drive. Both are going to be productive outcomes for the hitter. Further analysis supports this theory. From 2015 to 2017, both barrels per BBE and average exit velocity had positive correlations (0.80 and 0.56, respectively) with batted-ball wOBA amongst qualified hitters. However, running a regression in which barrels per BBE and line-drive rate are held constant, average exit velocity proves not to be a statistically-significant predictor (at 1%, 5%, or 10%) of batted-ball wOBA. What about ground balls? Hard-hit ground balls are going to get through the infield at a higher rate, right? Not really. It should be mentioned that, in looking at the above table, it seems as if expected wOBA of ground-balls (launch angle <10 degrees) increases as exit velocity increases, suggesting that exit velocity isn’t completely meaningless excluding fly-ball/barrels. Nevertheless, the hardest-hit ground-balls are still, on average, less valuable than most line-drives and all barrels. Just picture your team’s overpaid and slow designated hitter. Let’s call him Aonder Yolanso. In your mind, watch him pound the ball as hard as he possibly can into the ground and get thrown out by umpteen steps at first. You’ve seen it happen thousands of times. Now picture your slappy, quick, utility guy chopping a dribbler in the same spot. Potentially different outcomes, right? What About The Power Though? To be certain, Madrigal has flashed little power in his professional career thus far. He’s hit two home runs. His isolated slugging percentage, a measure of raw power, is usually below .100. And as the above articles note, batted ball speed, average exit velocity, or “raw power”, whatever you want to call it, matters far more for a player whose offensive value is built on hitting home runs. But remember what Vizquel said about Madrigal: “You’ve got to believe in your game, and you’ve got to know what your game is.” Madrigal’s game is just not going to be to hit more fly balls! He hasn’t flashed the raw power or the exit velocities to make use of hitting more fly balls. Nathan Dokken’s Fantrax primer on BABIP and quality of contact explains this really well: “Here is a list of the average BABIPs from 2017, sorted from the best results to the worst: Medium Hit Line Drives: .719 Soft Hit Line Drives: .664 Hard Hit Line Drives: .632 Hard Hit Ground Balls: .445 Hard Hit Fly Balls: .235 Medium Hit Ground Balls: .172 Soft Hit Ground Balls: .125 Soft Hit Fly Balls: .078 Medium Hit Fly Balls: .065” A medium or softly hit fly ball is the worst type of ball in play for a hitter. If Madrigal tries lifting the ball a ton, he’s going to hit plenty of medium or softly hit fly balls, and therefore create a lot more outs. Even if he was capable of hitting a lot of hard-hit fly balls (.235 BABIP), that still isn’t an ideal outcome for him. Madrigal wants to be flipping line drives all over the field and beating out ground balls with his legs. BABIP Your Way To Success BABIP (batting average on balls in play) or H% (percentage of balls in play that land for a hit) are two terms describing the same phenomenon: when a hitter puts a ball into the field of play, how often does it become an out? In general, 70% of the time that a hitter puts the ball into play, the fielder is going to convert it into an out. Assuming every hitter will have a 30% conversion rate in turning balls in play into hits is the safest way to think about this fundamental concept. Now, hitters do eventually establish a personal BABIP. As noted by Steve Slowinski of FanGraphs, hitters have more influence over their personal BABIP than pitchers do. But also, don’t rush to make conclusive statements about a guy being a low- or high-BABIP hitter. While they exist, it takes at least two years of sustained performance at the same level before you can really say a guy has established a higher (or lower) BABIP other than .300. The “range” of expected or normal hit percentage is somewhere between 26% and 35%. In other words, players batting outside of that range are likely to move toward their established career norms. Why does BABIP matter so much for Madrigal? Well, as noted earlier, he makes contact with nearly everything that he swings at. And, also noted earlier, he doesn’t hit for much power. This means that he’s going to put more baseballs into play than anyone else. With that in mind, his batting average fortune will be tied very closely to his BABIP. We’ve already seen this play out for Madrigal this season. At High-A Winston-Salem, his BABIP was .269 and his batting average was .272. At Double-A Birmingham, he’s currently hitting .370 on the back of a .383 BABIP. Given his incredible ability to put his bat on the ball, his batting average will track very closely to his BABIP. This means that, with just average luck, he should be a .300 hitter. And if he gets a lucky BABIP streak over a season, he’s going to win a batting title. Put It All Together With Farm FV How does Madrigal hitting .300 over the course of a 162-game season impact your overall fantasy team? Well, in short, it’s hard to answer that question! One thing I know for certain is you can’t explain the fantasy impact of batting average without a decent amount of math and an innate understanding of relative player valuation. I have neither a decent amount of math nor an understanding of relative player valuation. Thankfully, there are tools! At Baseball Farm, Chip Bourne created a Fantasy FV calculator. The calculator takes a real-life projection of AVG/OBP/SLG/HR/SB/ABs and converts it into how that projection would translate into a roto league using those five inputs. It tells you how a certain projection would “play” relative to the competition. I actually plugged my earlier Madrigal projections into the calculator, coming up with these: What if Madrigal hits in MLB like he’s hitting at Double-A Birmingham currently, never notching a homer? What if he managed to hit 15 homers without tanking his speed in the process? What if he hits 15 homers but the speed tanks? You can see that there’s a lot of permutations for Madrigal to be a $20-$30 fantasy player. Lots of commentaries obsess over whether he will hit one, five, or 15 homers in an MLB season. But for your fantasy squad, extra home runs from Madrigal would be just a little extra gravy. The value is in his carrying tool. Buy the 80-grade contact because there is no one else at his level! Baseball’s Napoleon The “sixth tool” can be extremely valuable. Anyone affiliated with baseball will tell you that. A player’s composure, drive, work ethic, coachability, or flexibility can determine whether he makes the necessary adjustments to continue to compete at a high level. Madrigal, while still not striking out, did start the year a little slow at Winston-Salem this season. As I note above, a lot of that had to do with an unlucky BABIP. Nonetheless, White Sox director of scouting Nick Hostetler commented publicly on Madrigal’s early plate approach: “The one thing he’s still doing is making contact,” Hostetler said. “So that is what we expected. We expected that out of him. I’m not sure he was probably expecting the streaks. I think he’s dealt with a lot of streaks in his offensive game this year. I think he had one stretch that was 0-for-16 or 17 and he came back with a couple hits. So he’s been a little streaky this year. But I think he’s starting to learn. He’s starting to develop. He’s had one home run. He’s starting to hit some doubles, but he’s starting to learn to get the ball in the air a little bit. He’s learning how teams are shifting him, how they’re playing him.” I was surprised to see Hostetler talking publicly about Madrigal’s failings like that. It stood out to me because I can’t recall many front office player development representatives discuss failings specific to a player’s profile like this. I think Hostetler put this out there because he wasn’t concerned that Madrigal would take it as a negative. Rather, he figured Madrigal would use this as a positive to make changes. Of course, as soon as Hostetler put this interview out there, Madrigal responded by hitting for more power and pulling the ball more. He was then promoted to Double-A Birmingham shortly thereafter, where he’s been on a heater ever since his promotion. Madrigal has been told his whole career that he’s too small to be much more than a grinder. And his whole career, he’s responded by exceeding expectations. He was the best hitter in college baseball in 2018. He’s been the second-best hitter for Double-A Birmingham behind top prospect Luis Robert this season. He’s been asked to make changes by the White Sox, and he’s made them. He has the sixth tool needed to become a successful baseball player at the major league level. And he will help your dynasty team if you roster him. There, I’m done talking about Nick Madrigal. This article originally ran on July 20, with a fantasy baseball perspective, at Baseball Farm.