Evaluating the Sustainability of Patrick Wisdom’s Production

As Kris Bryant helps the Giants fend off the Dodgers in the NL West division race, his replacement in Chicago seems like a lock to break his old team’s rookie home run record despite being older than Bryant is right now. Patrick Wisdom, who turned 30 on August 27, has swatted 25 home runs so far this season, coming out of nowhere to produce one of baseball’s most fascinating stat lines.

Prior to this season, Wisdom had just 27 games of big league experience, including two with the Cubs in 2020, who re-signed him to a minor league deal in January. Though he posted “ridiculous” numbers at the team’s alternate training site last season, he seemed more likely to provide bench depth for the big league club than be a regular, only to end up playing 83 games split between first base, third base and left field, take 279 plate appearances, and post a .256/.320/.579 slash line.

There remain questions of sustainability. Wisdom isn’t a true-talent 136 wRC+ player, but he’s certainly more of a viable big league bat than initially thought. ZiPS projected him for an 82 wRC+ before the season, which was much more bullish than Steamer’s 70 wRC+ prediction, but both are still a far cry from the actual numbers so far. As a result, both systems have seen significant improvement in the underlying talent given the sizable sample of good performance: His rest-of-season ZiPS projection has him up to a 104 wRC+, and Steamer has him at 93.

Even if Wisdom is unlikely to maintain his current level of production, it’s worth breaking down what aspects of his game look good versus those that need work. A quick look at his player page provides all we need: He hits for a ton of power but strikes out way too much (a near-40% clip), a rate so high that it’s nearly impossible to be productive. There have been just six qualified seasons in the live ball era (excluding 2020) with a strikeout rate north of 35%, and only three of them — 2017 Joey Gallo (36.8 K%, 119 wRC+), 2013 Chris Carter (36.2 K%, 112 wRC+) and Gallo again in ’18 (35.9 K%, 108 wRC+) — featured above-average offensive production, a clear demonstration of survivorship bias at work. If you strike out that often, you must also a) walk frequently and b) hit for huge power in order to make it work.

The jury is still out on the “walk frequently” part of Wisdom’s path to success, but with this much power, pitchers shouldn’t be willing to challenge him. It’s a similar phenomenon to what Ben Clemens described in his piece on two-true-outcome king Tyler O’Neill, who was (and still is) hitting for solid power but at the time was somehow posting a 2.6% walk rate and a 34.2% strikeout rate. Since then, those figures have normalized a bit: O’Neill is now running a 7.4% walk rate and a 31.5% strikeout rate.

In theory, similar logic might be applied to Wisdom, but it’s almost as if he is a more extreme version of O’Neill. Both hitters don’t make much contact, but while O’Neill’s contact rate is 13th-lowest among players with at least 200 plate appearances, Wisdom’s is second-worst. The disparity is even worse on pitches inside the zone: O’Neill makes contact on 78% of in-zone swings, 23rd-lowest; Wisdom makes contact on less than 71%, the worst. While pitchers have every reason to worry about throwing to him, they get whiffs so often that it might not make sense to nibble. He is truly testing the limits of how reliant players can be on the true outcomes.

But what makes Wisdom special is that he hits the living daylights out of the baseball. That might even be an understatement. The batted ball metrics are off the charts: Among players with at least 100 batted balls this season, he has the fourth-highest xwOBAcon, at .532. His barrel rate of 17.2% is near the top of the charts, ranking 13th. Almost 55% of Wisdom’s batted balls come at an exit velocity of at least 95 mph, also a top-rate figure. These show why he’s managed to be productive in spite of the strikeouts, but they also hint at a level of sustainability.

Barrels are among the most predictive balls in play. A recent study from Glenn Healey and Shiyuan Zhao at UC Irvine evaluated the predictive value of all batted balls on what they referred to as “batted-ball talent,” or the stickiness of certain batted balls from season-to-season. This chart, showing predictive value of exit velocity and launch angle, is particularly insightful:

This goes hand-in-hand with what we know about barrel rate: it is a) sticky from year-to-year and b) predicts power better than current power numbers. But as Ben discussed in his piece on O’Neill, not all barrels are created equal, and Wisdom is one of the best at generating the highest-quality barrels; he’s fourth in xwOBA in that stat. And it’s not just because he is posting world-beating exit velocities on these barrels; it’s also because he’s putting more loft on them than any other hitter in baseball.

Through games on Sunday, hitters had produced a combined 7,705 barrels. Of those, 52%, or 4,041, went for home runs. For a player who needs to hit as many home runs as he can to compensate for the strikeouts, Wisdom needs to hit barrels that will turn into home runs at a rate above that 52% threshold. How does he do that? He needs his launch angle on his barrels to be extremely high.

Wisdom’s league-leading average launch angle of 30 degrees on his barrels helps create a potential path to sustainability. No one has had a higher percentage of their barrels go for home runs than he does, and it’s not even close:

HRs on Barrels / Barrels
Player Barrels HR on Barrels HR/Barrel
Patrick Wisdom 25 23 92.0%
Nolan Arenado 29 22 75.9%
Josh Bell 30 22 73.3%
Javier Báez 33 24 72.7%
Brandon Belt 25 18 72.0%
Trea Turner 26 18 69.2%
Joey Gallo 42 29 69.0%
Kyle Schwarber 39 26 66.7%
Cedric Mullins 33 22 66.7%
Adam Duvall 41 27 65.9%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Among players with at least 25 barrels.

All but two of Wisdom’s 25 barrels have gone for homers, a 92% rate that’s 16.1 points above the next-closest player. Is this all luck, or is there something more here?

It does seem like there might be something to this. Wisdom may have optimized his swing in such a way to attack not only for barrels but also for barrels that result in the best possible outcome for hitters: the long ball. I have plotted all 7,705 barrels in the following chart; Wisdom’s are in blue, and those that were home runs are outlined in yellow. (It looks like there are only 24 barrels here with 23 homers, but one is actually covered by another Wisdom barrel.)

There are two thick red lines between 20 and 40 degrees of launch angle, which may be arbitrary but are arguably very important. About 86% of barrels and 97% of barrel-homers are in this range. You can see that in a second plot that shows the probability of a home run off of a barrel by exit velocity and launch angle:

What can we glean from this? The conclusion is similar what Healey and Zhao found: the best batted balls are even a smaller subset of what we call the “barrel.” It may also raise some concerns for Wisdom; a huge chunk of his barrel-homers came at an exit velocity under 105 mph. Launch angle goes a long way, but for him to capitalize on his barrels going forward, he needs that and an adequately-high exit velocity to continue to send balls flying out of the yard.

That’s not to say that Wisdom is a fluke, either. The batted ball data is legit, which is both predictive of him being an elite power bat and of him being able to sustain said power in future seasons. That, combined with a bit of luck in the BABIP and home-run rate departments, has yielded results that are almost certainly too good to be true. Is that to say that he won’t be a productive big league hitter? Not at all. When making contact, the results are elite. But with his current rates, he probably is too reliant on the two-true-outcomes to succeed at this level going forward.

All statistics for games through August 29.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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2 years ago

He’s been fun and fascinating regardless!
I remember following his MiLB path thinking he looked like he might be a decent player, but his brief showings in MLB made him look quad A. Hopefully he’s figured it out for real and can just simply be a late bloomer who slugs 40 dingers next season.