The San Francisco Giants are hitting well enough to be side characters in a minor controversy, so let’s examine it. This morning, Baseball Twitter got into a bit of a tizzy because of this tweet from former major leaguer Will Middlebrooks:
Brian Kenny: “Luis Arraez is still hitting .400. Do we care?”— Will Middlebrooks (@middlebrooks) June 7, 2023
What kind of question is that? Hell yes we care. We should care. 212 at bats and he’s hitting .401 in an era of baseball that pitchers “stuff” is at an all-time peak. Arraez is an anomaly in todays game.
It was a perfect distillation of Twitter: a statement drained of context and posted to get some engagement by way of outrage.
Nobody watches MLB Network, because it’s impossible to access unless you have a specific kind of cable subscription, so they post clips from time to time from their studio shows. In a surprising bit of wisdom, they posted the segment that got Middlebrooks to tweet just an hour later:
Now, to spare you having to hear the voice of “Mad Dog” Chris Russo, I’ll transcribe the key parts for ease of reading:
BRIAN KENNY: Hey, Luis Arraez is now hitting .401, Dog. Is this still a thing?
“MAD DOG” CHRIS RUSSO: Uh, listen, I’d love to see him do it, but I’ll get serious about this one on August 1st if he’s over .400. Remember: to hit .406, and do what Williams did in 1941, you’ve gotta be ahead of the pace, not behind the pace. Can you imagine if he was .385 in September? That’s too much to expect.
And so right away we see that Brian Kenny was trying to get at whether or not this .400 chase of Arraez’s is one we can take seriously. “Mad Dog” Chris Russo (aka “Dog”) gave his reasons why he’s going to remain skeptical while still being impressed — stand down, Will Middlebrooks.
I’m writing this post about the rest of the clip, though, which has Brian Kenny ribbing “Mad Dog” Chris Russo about his disdain for “advanced stats” such as OPS+, which makes an even better case for Luis Arraez’s season and the chances that he can keep pace on .400:
BRIAN KENNY: By the way, Dog, did you know: he leads the National League in OPS-plus? Why am I even—of course you don’t know that. OPS-plus measures everything; but he’s, essentially, the best hitter in the National League! Dog, he’s got a .450 on base, and his slugging isn’t bad, it’s a .495. We need to start talking MVP for Luis Arraez! If he can keep this up.
This line is accompanied with the graphic below:
This was like dropping a T-bone steak in front of the “Mad Dog,” Chris Russo! Please believe me when I say that I’ve done you all a service by transcribing these key points and saved you the agony of hearing the “Mad Dog” — perhaps the maddest dog! — speak his voice into your ears:
“MAD DOG” CHRIS RUSSO: Here is your problem: LaMonte Wade is fourth and Sean Murphy — who’s had a big year; he got a big hit last night — he’s fifth. Really?
BRIAN KENNY: (chuckles, then laughs as “Mad Dog” CHris Russo continues)
“MAD DOG” CHRIS RUSSO: So, we’re gonna sit there right now and you’re going to say, you’re going to tell me on June 7th that Wade is the fourth-best player in the National League? Aw, come on. That’s the problem with that [OPS+]. And where’s [Pete] Alonso with the 23 home runs—the 22 home runs? Where’s he? With the 50 ribbies? —
BRIAN KENNY: I don’t know. He’s not there. He’s not in the top five.
“MAD DOG” CHRIS RUSSO: — Why’s he not in the top 5?
BRIAN KENNY: Because he doesn’t—he’s in the top ten. He’s not in the top five. He doesn’t hit well enough.
“MAD DOG” CHRIS RUSSO: Again, I asked you right now, for the rest of the year, you want Alonso or Wade at first base. Who ya takin’?
BRIAN KENNY: Oh, on the whole: Alonso. But, this year, LaMonte Wade’s been better. He’s been a better hitter.
“MAD DOG” CHRIS RUSSO: WHO ARE YOU TAKING AT FIRST BASE RIGHT NOW?
BRIAN KENNY: Right now, you mean, the past six weeks or two months? I would take LaMonte Wade. He’s been a better hitter.
“MAD DOG” CHRIS RUSSO: Right now you could take a first baseman: WADE OR ALONSO for the rest of the year — which one?
BRIAN KENNY: Oh, Alonso. Yeah. Although, LaMonte Wade kills —
“MAD DOG” CHRIS RUSSO: (waving his hand) That’s why it’s a joke. That’s why I think it’s a joke.
BRIAN KENNY: It’s not a joke. He’s more of a platoon player and he crushes right-handed pitching. Come on, Doggy!
Okay, so, “MAD DOG” CHRIS RUSSO does not like OPS+ or any advanced statistic, thinks they’re a joke, whatever. Let’s ignore that in favor of what we do know about how baseball gets evaluated in 2023: weighted stats do matter a lot.
I think a lot of people prefer wRC+ when it comes right down to it, but since MLB Now uses OPS+, let’s just stick with that, and for the purposes of this “analysis,” wRC+ and OPS+ arrive at the same result: LaMonte Wade Jr. has been truly great through the season’s first two months of the season, and the Giants’ lineup features 4 of the top 30 hitters in the National League! (click to expand image)
LaMonte Wade Jr. checks in with a 151 (4th), J.D. Davis with 133 (16th), Thairo Estrada at 127 (18th), and Michael Conforto with 121 (29th).
The Dodgers and Pirates are the only other teams with 4 out of 30 and when you look at all the names, it’s wild to see the Giants in the same company, with the possible exception of Conforto, who has a career OPS+ of 123. This is the 20+% better than the league average and above crowd, and the Giants have a really strong showing inside the club.
Now, this list just examines players who qualify for the batting title (502 PA). In 2021, neither Brandon Belt nor Buster Posey qualified, but their respective OPS+ of 160 and 140 would’ve put them with Brandon Crawford (141) and Kris Bryant (124) in the top 30. Otherwise, the last time the Giants ended a season — and, to be sure, I am skeptical that Wade, Davis, Estrada, and Conforto can hang around all season at least in the qualifier part of this — with 4 of the top 30 hitters in the NL (by OPS+) was 1993, when Bonds (who led with a 206 OPS+), Matt Williams (137 - 10th), Robby Thompson (136 - 12th), and Will Clark (118 - 29th) all made it.
LaMonte Wade Jr. might fall out of the discussion exactly because of that platoon split (just 40 PA against left-handed pitching so far this season), Conforto could wind up on the IL, same with Thairo Estrada and J.D. Davis, but all four of them have enough in their background and the available data to suggest that it’s not bizarre to think they can sustain a version of what they’re doing right now.
The Giants held on to Wade for a reason: they saw something like this happening based on data like swing decisions and quality of contact. He’s played in 58 games this season and hit .285/.429/.480 in 226 plate appearances. Last year’s spate of injuries limited him to just 77 games (251 PA), so let’s jump back to 2021. I canceled out the first three games of his in April of that season because he hit the IL very quickly. He came back May 13, and in his next 58 games (209 PA), he hit .246/.329/.519. That included 13 home runs (thanks wacky 2021 ball!) and a 20:50 BB:K. This year, he’s at 41 BB to 42 K and while the extra base hits are just four off the pace from 2021, we’re seeing a healthy Wade Jr. at the peak of his abilities.
We’ve already seen Wade doing some historic things for the Giants as a leadoff hitter playing first base, last season, J.D. Davis was nearly as good as Aaron Judge at hitting the ball hard, Michael Conforto has a long track record of being a top 30 hitter, and Thairo Estrada has been a Wild Card but along the same lines of providing the Giants’ front office with underlying skills and data that excites them and has him positioned to sustain what he’s done through two months of the season.
I’m of the opinion that the more great hitters a team has, the better that team is, and so with that as a guiding thought, I’ve reached the inescapable conclusion that the Giants have something good going on here.