Wil Myers, the centerpiece of the trade that sent James Shields to Kansas City, made his major league debut on June 18, 2013 against the Boston Red Sox and remained in the lineup for the rest of the season.
From the time of his call-up until the end of the season, the Rays went 52-36 when Myers played, with Myers producing a .293/.354/.478 line. Looking forward to 2014, is Myers a .300 hitter? Myers’s .293 batting average was largely supported by a .362 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
Is Myers due for a regression in 2014?
The BABIP of Major League hitters usually falls between .290 and .310. Unlike pitchers, batters’ BABIP tends to regress back to the hitter’s career average rather than the Major League average.
Players that hit into defensive shifts tend to have lower BABIPs while speedy players such as Ichiro and Mike Trout tend to have high BABIPs. Myers does not hit into tough defensive shifts, and is not particularly fast like Trout or Ichiro. What Myers does do is hit the ball hard.
His 25% line drive percentage ranked above average (which is usually around 20%) and he hit an above average number of home runs per fly ball, a figure driven by luck and ability to hit the ball hard, while playing in a fly ball pitcher’s park.
Another important aspect of Wil Myers’s game to consider is the strikeout. Myers strikes out frequently, which is shown by low contact rates and a reduced number of balls in play. In 2013, Myers accumulated lots of hits on a below average number of balls put in play, evidenced by his unusually high BABIP.
As with his appearance at the plate, a good comparison for Myers is teammate Evan Longoria.
The two years to focus on in the table above are Longoria’s rookie year, 2008, and last season, 2013. In 2008 and 2013, Longoria posted roughly career average BABIPs while striking out and walking with about the same frequency as Myers did during his rookie season.
A key difference to note that Longoria’s BABIP and subsequently batting average were lower than Myers’s were last season.
The Evan Longoria comparison would seem to suggest that a drop-off may be coming for Myers's batting average. A quick look at some 2014 projections for Myers seem to agree that there will be some regression. The projected BABIP levels are still above league average, indicating that there is a belief that Myers will be capable of maintaining a higher than league average BABIP due to his powerful swing.
One key similarity between the 2014 projections and Myers's 2013 performance is the strikeout and walk rates. If Myers can make better contact, he won't need an extremely high BABIP to repeat his batting average performance from 2013.
One area for improvement for Myers will be his performance against curveballs. FanGraphs rated Myers as two runs below average against curveballs in 2013. Overall, Myers saw 515 breaking balls in 2013, whiffing on 89 while accumulating only 26 hits.
All of the projections listed above estimate that Myers's strikeout rate will remain high and that his BABIP will regress toward the mean and lower his batting average into the .260s. The resulting batting average is the realm of Evan Longoria's 2013 average, which would hardly be a disappointment.
The key for improvement for Myers is cutting down on the strikeouts and increasing his walks. If Myers can cut his projected strikeout rate from 24.7% to 20.7% without a higher BABIP, the improvement in batting average would be substantial. Applying this to the ZiPS projection gives us the following result:
Several assumptions are made here -- one of which being that none of the added hits are considered home runs. The only change made was a four percent reduction in projected strikeout rate.
So, what's the verdict on Wil Myers?
It's telling that an Evan Longoria comparison works so well. Evan Longoria does not have a significantly higher walk rate (it is slightly better however) or a drastically lower strikeout rate than Myers. The numbers and the Longoria comparison each suggest that Myers's BABIP will regress and his batting average will fall.
However, if he can improve against breaking pitches and cut down on the strikeouts, there's certainly a possibility, given Myers is only 23 years old, that he can maintain his level of production from his Rookie of Year campaign.
Perhaps the focus here has been too heavy on batting average, which is not a great measure of a player's offensive contribution. But changes in BABIP from year to year undeniably alter a player's offensive output, and are reflected reflected in stats such as wOBA. Batting average has been used for simplicity of calculation.