Before yesterday’s game, Farhan Zaidi gave a thorough explanation for the outfielder turnover in the season’s first week and a half:
If you can’t watch the video, here it is in brief: they couldn’t trade for the players they wanted when they wanted them (before the season), so they got them when they could.
In the case of Kevin Pillar, it’s clear he’s someone the team targeted almost as soon as Farhan Zaidi’s nameplate replaced Bobby Evans’, but it’s unclear if Tyler Austin was a specific name they had on the board this offseason or if he merely fit their profile: a right-handed power hitting outfielder.
Now, Austin doesn’t actually profile as an outfielder:
Tyler Austin: “I’m going to be honest with you, man. I played zero outfield this spring.” That explains the lineup.— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) April 8, 2019
— but in the offseason, Zaidi made it a point to say that he doesn’t put a premium on defense in left field (I can’t find the quote right now, and that’s annoying that crap out of me, but he definitely said something like this), so running out a player who basically profiles as a 1B/DH because he can hit the snot out of the ball is well within the Zaidi Plan.
And, yes, if you weren’t sure, Tyler Austin hits the snot out of the ball.
Last night, Austin went 1-for-2 with a walk, but all his contact was hard hit. His single in the fourth inning had an exit velocity of 96.8 mph. Last year, he averaged an exit velocity of 89 mph (on 152 batted balls) and an average launch angle of 15.1 degrees. He also hit 17 home runs, which would’ve led the 2018 Giants.
Last year, the Yankees traded for Luke Voit and it took a minute for people to understand why: he crushes the ball when he makes contact. This Athletic article from last September (subscription required) painted a picture of a “Statcast darling”, as his batted balls had an average exit velocity of 91.7 mph and launch angle of 14.4 degrees. That’s above average and in the ideal launch angle zone, respectively, according to Statcast.
SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley (it’s free!) went on to say that Voit’s baseline numbers put his quality of contact right in line with some of the best power hitters in the game. Voit was 27 last year and had six years of minor league experience under his belt (along with and extra base hits rate of 8.4%). He was a real find, but only a slight surprise in his small sample size success (1.095 OPS in 148 PA with the Yankees and 100 batted balls).
Good ol’ MLB Statcast breaks it down for us, but first you’ll need to know these key stats. Yes, I’m sorry, there will be math. And a chunk of copy-pasting:
- wOBA (Weighted On Base Average):
wOBA is a version of on-base percentage that accounts for how a player reached base -- instead of simply considering whether a player reached base. [...]
For instance: In 2014, a home run was worth 2.101 times on base, while a walk was worth 0.69 times on base. So a player who went 1-for-4 with a home run and a walk would have a wOBA of .558 -- (2.101 + 0.69 / 5 PAs)
- xwOBA (Expected Weighted On Base Average):
xwOBA is formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, Sprint Speed. In the same way that each batted ball is assigned an xBA, every batted ball is given a single, double, triple and home run probability based on the results of comparable batted balls since Statcast was implemented [...] xwOBA also factors in real-world walk and strikeout numbers, and is reported on the wOBA scale.
- xwOBAcon (Expected Weighted On Base Average on Contact):
This removes walks and strikeouts from the equation and focuses just on the weighted value of the contact itself. For a players who don’t walk much and strike out a ton, this demonstrates the effective power of their contact.
I get it. Analytics can get a little annoying if you just want to sit down and watch a baseball game, but if you’re wondering why teams are doing what they’re doing or why a guy is playing, they can really help shed light on the decision-making. And, in this particular situation, it’s interesting enough. The Giants acquired someone who hits the ball hard and someone who’s had a bit of success already at the major league level (101 OPS+ in 412 career plate appearances).
Tyler Austin is already the most powerful hitter on the roster for all these reasons. Let’s look at the core of the Giants’ lineup — Belt, Posey, Panik, Crawford, and Longoria — and how they performed last season in terms of xwOBA and xwOBAcon (which, I really hope they say it as “xWOAHBACON” in the Statcast office). I’ve added their career rates for things like hard hit, strikeouts, and walks, too:
Tyler Austin’s 2018 featured a .338 xwOBA and .489 xwOBAcon and he sports a 40.5% career hard hit rate... along with a 36.7% strikeout rate and 7.8% walk rate.
He just turned 27 in September, so he’s still a bit on the young side and he’s in the zone of a player’s peak. Compare this to, let’s say Mac Williamson, as an alternative. Forgetting Austin’s average success in limited time, he’s also two years younger than Mac (who turns 29 in July) and still hits the ball harder.
Williamson’s 2018 Statcast data: .296 xwOBA and .350 xwOBAcon. For his career, his 39.6% hard hit rate, 28.0% strikeout rate and 8.6% walk rate put him more or less in line with Austin and maybe a little ahead if you value pitch selection over raw power.
Williamson is also a faster runner — 28.2 feet per second last season in foot seed, compared to Austin’s 27.2 feet per second (a speed that suggests, by the way, that he won’t be terrible in left field) — and much more handsome:
Using MLB’s Mancast (still in the testing phases), Williamson’s manicured beard, piercing blue eyes, and symmetrical face give him a Weighted Onlookers Gawking of .670. Austin’s basic brown hair, brown eyes, “men don’t smile” non-smile face gives him a non-competitive .373. Still, the Giants are not selling jeans, face cream, or tickets to watch Mac Williamson’s smoldering glance, they’re selling tickets and people buy tickets when they hear loud contact consistently, accompanied by the scoring of runs.
The Giants have lacked power for a long time, and the heavy hitters they have on the current roster are in clear decline. Regardless of why they might be in decline — although, your options are really just injury and age — it’s clear that the team needed a power up of some kind. Accumulating players who’s best skill is that they can hit the ball hard is a good step towards creating more runs and run scoring opportunities. A double is more valuable than a single and a strikeout in some cases might actually be more preferable to a double play if that same dude has a greater chance of cranking a home run later on.
Welcome aboard, Tyler Austin. Grip it and rip it.