Yo Joe: Willson Should Leadoff, Not Kyle

Hi, I'm Dan. You can call me Dan but Easy Ed must call me Dr. Pollitt. You may know me from my post about Harry Potter and Milton Bradley at Hogwarts, that time I turned Starlin Castro and Rod Beck into zombies and determined their fWAR, when I ranked Jorge Soler the most beautiful Chicago Cub, the great tobacco thread, why I hate Dayton Moore and Ned Yost with the fury of a thousand suns, why we shoulda traded Hammel back in June, when you helped name my first born.Today I am here to convince you that Willson Contreras is the perfect leadoff hitter for the 2017 Chicago Cubs. Here are some things I researched and organized into coherent sentences for this stimulating topic.


To preface, I am going to give you some numbers, but they are only regular season numbers. Specifically, I am comparing 2015 Kyle to 2016 Willson. There's two reasons I'm doing this. First, they are a clean sample: 69 (nice) games, 273 PAs, 445 innings vs 76 games, 283 PAs, 588 innings. That's pretty damn comparable, and it's late and I still have to write my Bachelor newsletter tonight, so we're just gonna go with regular season. Second, I can't find a good place that combines regular season + postseason statistics. If you know of one please do share, I messed with BR and FG for awhile but I'm dumb. Any who, let's get the Schwarber Postseason Mystique outta the way, because it's gonna be the thesis for this stimulating topic:


In the most important games of the last two years, Schwarber's 51 career postseason PAs have resulted in an OPS of 1.178 OPS...almost what Gary Sanchez did in August 2016 (1.290 OPS). Meanwhile, Contreras hit well in the 2016 NLDS but overall owns a postseason OPS of .710--which akin to Denard Span's 2016 OPS. Ouch.

Oh my, Jorge Soler, I can't wait to witness your sexy breakout in KC. I digress.

So, I'm excluding the Schwarber Postseason Mystique. That might be enough to invalidate this entire discussion and you're totally sold on Schwarber batting leadoff. That's fine with me. Rec the post and get out.

So let's tackle four questions:

  1. Is Kyle a better hitter than Willson?
  2. Is Kyle better suited for leadoff than Willson?
  3. Is there a Schwarber Postseason Mystique bias?
  4. Who is going to win Nick's season of the Bachelor?



I ran a poll last week and 359 World Series Champion Fans averaged 4.78 / 10 correct answers. Great job, you all failed. Only 2% earned a score of 9 or 10, and one of those was mine. There Will Be Graphs. Big Graphs. Hold on to your butts.


Let's look at some easy to understand metrics--overall offensive production at the plate:


SLG: Slugging. Each base traveled during a hit is one base, take the total bases and divide it by at-bats. Example: Take 6 outs and 4 hits: (H, 2B, 2B, HR). 9 bases / 10 ABs = .900 SLG. Remember that this is ABs, not PAs, so BB and HBPs are not included.

2015 Kyle: .479

2016 Willson: .488

2016 MLB average: .417

Survey says:


Survey responders overwhelmingly and incorrectly identified that Kyle owns a higher SLG. There's not much of a difference here, but Willson SLG'd better than Kyle. Both players do so at a rate higher than league average. So that's a thing.


wOBA: weighted On-Base Average. The problem with SLG (and OPS) is that it treats all hits equally. And it ignores BBs and HBPs. A double is worth more than a single not only because it advances the runner further, but with no one on base, it decreases a double-play likelihood, for instance. An oppo taco is worth more than a singular run because perhaps it gets the starter out of the game. Anyway, wOBA weighs the value of these events in proportion to their run value. You should start using wOBA, that's what I'm trying to tell you. wOBA is on the same scale as OBP--so average is about .320 and great is .370. Mike Trout averages .410. It's also fun to say: WHOA-buh. WHOA-buh. WHOA-buh. Say it with me, I'm watching you. WHOA-buh.

2015 Kyle: .360

2016 Willson: .363

2016 MLB average: .318

Survey says:


Survey responders incorrectly identified that Kyle owns a higher wOBA. Again, there's not much of a difference here, but Willson WHOA-buhhed better than Kyle. Both players do so at a rate higher than league average. So that's another thing.


wRC+: weighted Runs Created+. We can also include wRC+, which like wOBA, is a rate stat, but now it adds a control for park factors--think home runs flying out of the thin Coors Field air and dying in the San Fran winds. We want to put Buster Posey and Willson Contreras on equal footing when comparing them. wRC+ does this. 100 is league average, and each point is one percentage better or worse than league average.

2015 Kyle: 132 wRC+

2016 Willson: 126 wRC+

Well those numbers don't tell us much, do they? You thought Kyle slugged better, but it was Willson, but not by much. You thought Kyle WHOA-buhhed better, but it was Willson, but not by much. And Kyle owns a slight edge when we control for park factors. It's reasonable to say that these three metrics are certainly closer than the survey of 359 World Series Champion Fans thought. Let's try a couple more, and briefly, because it gets in the weeds a bit:


Plate Discipline

Swing%: swings / total pitches
Contact%: contact / swings
SwStr%: swinging strikes / total pitches

I like looking at these three plate discipline metrics because they tell us (1) how selective the batter is, (2) how often he makes contact when he swings, and (3) how often he swings and misses. It's a test for the batter's eye, and a test for pitch selectivity.

Kyle / Willson / 2016 MLB Average

Swing%: 45% / 47% / 47%
Contact%: 68% / 71% / 78%
SwStr%: 14% / 14% / 10%

My own eye test from watching the games makes me think that Willson swings and misses a lot--he often looks real antsy, poor discipline, and hacks away. Some plate discipline metrics suggest that he does swing and miss more than league average and he makes less contact than average, too. What stands out here, at least to me, is that Schwarber's Contact% of 68% is much lower than league average. Is that something? Well, I went and checked 2015 and 2016 2015 Bryant, Soler, Schwarber, and Russell produced 4 of the 30 lowest Contact% in MLB. In 2016 that list include Soler and Contreras. To boot, in 2015 Bryant owned a higher Swing%, lower Contact%, and higher SwStr% than Kyle or Willson! So no, I don't think it's anything alarming, but we can add one feather to our cap: there's not that much meaningful differences I can find in plate discipline between Kyle and Willson.


I don't know. We voted, and we overwhelmingly thought Kyle owned a higher SLG and higher wOBA. We found that there's a slight edge when we control for park factors in favor of Kyle. We found that there aren't too many differences in plate discipline between Kyle and Willson. So I guess our first summary point is that these two look more similar than dissimilar. Let's use that as our first conclusion: While survey responders appeared to believe that Kyle was a much better hitter, when using our small data set, no, it doesn't appear that Kyle is a significantly better hitter than Willson.



Oh my God, I can't believe I just wasted time doing this, but here are the players who batted leadoff most frequently for each team in 2016:

Mookie Betts

Adam Jones

Devon Travis

Jacoby Ellsbury

Logan Forsythe

Carlos Santana

Ian Kinsler

Alcides Escobar (goddamnit Ned Yost you idiot)

Adam Eaton

Brian Dozier

Shin-Soo Choo

Nori Aoki

George Springer

Yunel Escobar

Coco Crisp still plays baseball

Trea Turner

Curtis Granderson

Dee Gordon

Odubel Herrera

Ender Inciarte

Sexy Fowler

Matt Carpenter, satan

John Jaso

Jonathan Villar

Zack Cozart

Chase Utley

Denard Span

Charlie Blackmon

Jean Segura

Travis Jankowski


Via 40-man roster 02/10/17:
Kyle, 6-0, 235 lbs, bats left
Willson, 6-1, 212 lbs, bats right

I count four guys who might represent Kyle's body type: Adam Jones, Carlos Santana, George Springer, and Denard Span. The shortest is Santana (5-11), the tallest is Springer (6-3), and while it says Santana weighs 210, there's not a chance in hell I believe it. So my first thought is that Kyle has an atypical body type for leadoff hitter. Most fit the Ian Kinsler or Adam Eaton mold: under 6-0, sub 200. Kyle would easily be the heaviest leadoff hitter. Willson fits the mold of current guys like Springer or Adam Jones or John Jaso. So that's a thing.


But let's remove body type, because hate has no place here, Joe Maddon is innovative and quirky, anyone can be president, Betsy DeVos is going to do a great job. Let's look at some typical leadoff metrics: putting the ball in play, limiting strikeouts, walking, getting on-base.

K%: Strikeout rate. Strikeouts are a leadoff hitters worst enemy. You don't put the ball in play, you don't get on base.

2015 Kyle: 28.4%

2016 Willson: 23.7%

2016 MLB average: 21.1%

Survey says:


Survey responders correctly identified that Kyle owns a higher K%. Kyle owned a bottom 25 K% in 2015; you'd have to move the goalposts to 100 to find Willson in 2016. They both strikeout more than league average, and Kyle strikes out more than Willson. So that's a thing.


BB%: Walk rate. Walks are good. The pitcher is forced to work, the man advances one white base and earns a butt pat. He then pulls a handful of BIGS Dill sunflower seeds from his pocket and jams them into his mouth. BIGS Dill sunflower seeds are the best sunflower seed and if you think otherwise I will fight you.

2015 Kyle: 13.3%

2016 Willson: 9.2%

2016 MLB average: 8.2%

Survey says:


Survey responders correctly identified that Kyle owns a higher BB%. Kyle owned a top 20 BB% in 2015; you'd have to hover around 110 to find Willson in 2016. They both walk more than league average, and Kyle walks more than Willson. So that's a thing.


BABIP: Batting Average on Balls In Play. BABIP is fun. BABIP. Just say it! BAH-bip. BAH-bip. BABIP is easy to understand and hard to properly apply. Lemme try: For balls hit in-play (non-homers), how often does the ball avoid a glove? This may be reflected in defensive quality / alignment, a hidden talent or skill of the player, or simply, luck. Average is .300, but guys like Trout and Bryant can average .350-.360. It takes a long time for BABIP to stabilize. Like 800 balls in play. Looong time. If you see a big bump or drop for a month or so, expect it to move closer to the player's career norm. Remember Zobrist's hot May last year? Yeah, his BABIP was .432 and he ended with a .290, nearly identical to his career norm of .292. That said, some guys sustain high BABIPs because they're fast and good runners, some might put a lil extra sauce on the ball, who knows. Rizzo owns a lower than average BABIP...he's an extreme pull hitter, not that fast. But we're gonna take what we got with our two representative seasons and peek:

2015 Kyle: .289

2016 Willson: .339

2016 MLB average: .300


Survey responders were split--but Willson clearly owns a higher BABIP. His .339 is a full .50 higher than Kyle's! Willson's 2016 BABIP was good for top 50. That .50 difference is more than the BABIP difference between Willson and Trout. It's a lot. Perhaps Willson is really fast. Perhaps the defensive alignment for him is wrong. Perhaps he's lucky. Perhaps he hits the ball weird and it is difficult to field. Whatever the reason, Willson clearly has the BABIP advantage. So that's a thing.


Exit Velocity

We're going to take a quick detour and talk about exit velocity, my favorite of the velos. Something that seems to make logical sense to me is that balls that are hit harder are...harder to field. Groundbreaking, right? It may behoove our 2017 leadoff hitter to be a powerful hitter with high exit velo--that when he does put the ball in play, it is more difficult to field. I'm sure you've heard of StatCast. Well some StatCast data is publicly available at Baseball Savant. Daren Willman started it and now with Tom Tango (author of THE BOOK), they run advanced stats for MLB. Daren is an A+ follow on Twitter, here.

Anyway, let look at how well Kyle and Willson hit the piss outta the ball:



What you're looking at is average weekly velocity for Kyle and Willson. Most batted balls average around 90 MPH.A new stat called Barrels represents batted balls with an exit velocity about 100 MPH and hit at about 25-30 degrees. When these balls are "barreled", they produce at least a .500 AVG and 1.500 SLG--like I said, hit the piss outta the ball. While I couldn't find barrel data for 2015, Kyle does at least one barreling aspect extremely well--he hits the ball, HARD. Kyle regularly hovered around 100 MPH on batted ball exit velocity. So to conclude our little detour, perhaps we will see a BABIP bump from Kyle in 2017 because he is extraordinarily talented at hitting the piss outta the ball. So that's a thing.


OBP: On-Base Percentage. Set the table. You go we go. ::Pours one out for Dex::

2015 Kyle: .353

2016 Willson: .357

2016 MLB average: .322


Survey responders incorrectly identified Kyle as owning a higher OBP. Kyle and Willson own essentially the same OBP, but they arrive there differently. Kyle strikes out more and walks more, Willson has a higher AVG, BABIP, and strikes out less. There's not a big difference here, but that's a thing.


BsR: Base Running. A leadoff hitter should be smart on the base paths. Get on, and not get himself out. BsR incorporates stuff like steals, but also caught steals, taking the extra base, being picked off, etc., etc.

2015 Kyle: 2.4

2016 Willson: -1.2


Survey responders incorrectly identified Willson as the better base runner. Kyle produced a BsR in 2015 that is similar to that of Javier Baez (!) in 2016. It might not seem like a lot, but a 3.6 run differential is a third of a win. So that's a thing.


We arrive at our last survey question, and perhaps the most striking difference between the two hitters.

Splits: Hitting lefties. Kyle simply cannot hit lefties. In 2015 he owned the 15th lowest wRC+ against lefties in MLB.

2015 Kyle wRC+
31 vs L
157 vs R

2016 Willson wRC+
128 vs L
125 vs R


So that's a thing.



I think this is where we start to see some separation, but consensus may be more difficult to reach. Kyle has an atypical leadoff body type. Does that matter? I dunno. But leading off seems to have some sort of added degree of importance, and I feel some queasiness with a guy leading off with a torn ACL and LCL.

Willson strikes out less. Not much, but less.
Kyle walks more. A top-tier MLB amount.
Willson owns a much, much higher BABIP.
Kyle hits the ball much harder.
Willson gets on base more. Not much to be real important.
Kyle is better on the base paths.
Willson doesn't have a glaring lefty black hole that's one of the worst in the league.

Blinded, Willson's stats reflect a more true leadoff hitter. He gets on base and owns a higher BABIP and hits both handedness well. In fact, he was the #1 rated catcher offensively by wRC+ in all of MLB in 2016! That said, Kyle may be able to improve in a couple areas: His K% in the minors was better, his exit velo may suggest higher BABIP in the future, and he's pretty darn good on the base paths (he even stole a base in the World Series, which we won).



Overall, survey responders did a poor job. The mean score was less than 50%, and overwhelmingly favored Kyle. Willson owns higher SLG, OBP, and wOBA scores. I've conveniently left off postseason statistics (trust me, I tried to find a way to combine both players' stats and compare, but I can't find my TI-82 to do it myself) for this exercise. I think the first graphic I showed--Kyle in the top 10 for all-time postseason SLG leaders--makes it easy for fans to point to Kyle and look affectionately at Maddon and say, "Hell yeah let's try it MFers." Yes, there's a Schwarber Postseason Bias, and I'm not here to tell you you're wrong--but at least to consider how both guys could easily fit the leadoff mold.

I would argue that the debate between Kyle and Willson is much, much closer than it appears, and that was the true intent of the survey and this post. Willson is a special, special player, and I'm 100% behind locking him into a long-term deal and helping him get his family moved here permanently. His transcendence (not the Johnny Depp film) from minors to best offensive catcher in MLB was something I certainly did not expect. I assume Willson is going to bat somewhere in the 5-6 hole and be a leadoff to the Contreras-Russell-Heyward trifecta:


No matter where we put 'em, they're gonna be scared of us.

  • Kyle's knee
  • Playoff performance
  • 2017 ZiPS and Steamer projections
  • How Zobrist, Rizzo, and Bryant all own higher OBPs
  • Managing an elite pitching rotation
  • How little batting order matters
  • Defensive metrics behind the plate, where Willson is seen positively on both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus
  • Defensive metrics in the field, where Willson is seen positively
  • Rotating C/LF for both players


Corrine v Vanessa, I'll take my fellow special education teacher, TEAM VANESSA ALL THE WAY

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