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What we can learn from Yoshi Tsutsugo’s 2020 season

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And looking forward to 2021

Toronto Blue Jays v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When the Rays signed Hashimoto native Yoshi Tsutsugo to a two-year, $12 million dollar contract last offseason, there was plenty of cautious optimism about the move. Tsutsugo was fresh off a four-year stretch in the Nippon League in which he left the yard an average of 35 times a year while maintaining nearly a .300 batting average.

Under the assumption that the Nippon League is relatively equal to Triple-A, the Rays were excited to see what Yoshi could bring (and Rays Twitter personalities the world round were excited about the Yoshi gifs to come).

With the massive caveat that is needed for every 2020 analysis piece, Tsutsugo’s first season as a Ray was a bit of a disappointment—at least on the surface.

2020 Struggles

The 6-1 lefty slashed .197/.314/.398 in 51 games and 185 plate appearances for the Rays, and was relegated to limited platoon duty by their postseason run, collecting only 16 plate appearances all postseason, topped by a mere three in the World Series.

The number that immediately jumps off the page is the .197 regular season batting average. Even though we, as a baseball society, have learned to roll our eyes over batting average-focused analysis, any time a batter’s BA starts with a one, it’s going to draw some attention.

The not great news here is that, in all honesty, Tsutsugo didn’t actually deserve all that much more from a “luck” point of view—at least according to Baseball Savant. Savant’s xBA statistic, which utilizes each batted ball’s exit velocity and launch angle, pegged Tsutsugo as a .212 “deserved” batting average—a figure that would still rank in the bottom tenth percentile among qualified hitters in the Covid-shortened 2020 season (Tsutsugo came up just a few plate appearances short of qualifying, but the difference was negligible).

This is a bit paradoxical given that Yoshi’s BABIP was a lukewarm .230; only seven qualified hitters in 2020 had a lower BABIP. However, Yoshi is a batter who strikes out often, is relatively slow (25th percentile Sprint Speed, per Savant), and had a tendency towards pop-ups in 2020 (his 12.0 percent pop-up rate was nearly double the league average of 7.1 percent). So should we trust his xBA and think that maybe he didn’t deserve all that much better? Or should we trust that his BABIP has to be due for some positive regression. In the words of Michael Scott: Who knows, it’s nebulose.

2020 Silver Lining

Despite all those negatives, it’s worth noting that Tsutsugo still managed a 97 wRC+ and was worth 0.3 fWAR—a rate making him worth around a full win by FanGraphs metrics over a full season. Remember, this was a player the Rays paid just $6 million for in 2020; six million dollars for a win is actually a solid deal in the modern baseball economic landscape.

As if things weren’t complicated and noisy enough in 2020, though, there’s the ever-raging war of WARs, and if we tab over to Baseball-Reference, Yoshi was right at replacement level (0.0 rWAR), with their defensive metrics not appreciating Tsutsugo’s efforts to the same extent. Suddenly, paying $6 million for zero wins sounds a whole lot less good.

And while we’re talking about what was actually done in 2020 (we’ll start looking ahead in a moment), we can’t just pass over his dreadful postseason in which he collected a mere two bases over 16 plate appearances, and had a negative 10.1 percent championship win probability.

American League Division Series Game 2: New York Yankees v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

2021 Outlook

That sounds like a lot of negatives. But there is plenty of reason to feel a lot more positive about 2021. For one, his contract is up at the end of the year. That sounds like a wildly low bar, but even if it turns out Yoshi is basically a replacement-level player, well, they can replace him after 2021.

However, that’s the lowest bar, and there are some signs that he will not just clear that bar, but could actually bring some added value to what (hopefully) is a much longer 2021 campaign.

Let’s start with the plate discipline. It’s the wind beneath my wings and the anchor tying me down at the same time, as I inevitably find myself turning to this section of the FanGraphs page on every player I look at.

Tsutsugo showed excellent command of the zone in his debut MLB season, with a 20.9 swing rate on pitches out of the zone that ranked in the top ten in all of baseball (MLB average: 30.6 percent). This was not just a case of overall hesitancy either, as his 65.8 percent in-zone swing rate was only a touch below league average (67.8 percent). The result was a 14.1 percent walk rate that ranked in the top 20 in baseball and salvaged his ability to get on-base, propping his OBP over .300 despite the paltry batting average. In fact, Yoshi’s OBP was higher than Hanser Alberto’s in 2020, despite Alberto hitting .283.

Yoshi also did a good job hitting the ball hard in 2020—at least according to some of the stats. On Baseball Savant, his hard-hit rate comes in at a spicy 47.2 percent, putting him in the 86th percentile. However, if we flip over to FanGraphs, that number drops to 31.5 percent—a massive drop off that actually would put him below league average (33.3 percent).

Concluding Thoughts

In many ways, that discrepancy is a perfect metaphor for Yoshi’s first year with the Rays.

If you use fWAR, he produced right around, if not slightly more than, what the Rays paid him; if you use rWAR, he was a sunk cost. If you use Savant hard-hit numbers, there’s some nice reason to believe he was mashing the ball in 2020 and potentially got unlucky (although even here it’s worth noting that Savant’s xwOBA was only seven points higher than his wOBA); if you use FanGraphs, he was putting a lot of medium contact into play, which, if added to poor speed and a propensity to strike out, is going to lead to paltry results.

Even the projection systems can’t agree on Yoshi for 2021. ZIPS pegs him as a 1.8 WAR player over 533 plate appearances, with a .252/.332/.471 slash line and 25 long balls. Over at Baseball Reference, he’s projected for fewer plate appearances (293), fewer long balls (11), and a far worse slash line (.220/.317/.398).

Tsutsugo is still a bit of a mystery wrapped in an enigma. That is due in large part to the manner in which the 2020 season played out, but also the fact that the data we do have can’t even agree upon a decision.

If pressed, I would probably split the difference between those two 2021 projected slash lines (shocking, a baseball writer without a spine), but lean slightly towards B-Ref. I don’t see Yoshi as much more than a .230 hitter, but a .325 OBP and some decent pop should still have a bit of value, albeit in likely far closer to 293 plate appearances than 533.