The Philadelphia Phillies are currently alone in first place in the NL East, finally overtaking the Atlanta Braves. These two young teams have been battling each other all season, and it seems like we will have to wait until the very end of the season to see who takes the division crown. However, the Phillies have an intriguing hole in their lineup.
That hole goes by the name of Jorge Alfaro, the Phillies’ catcher. Personally, I am willing to sacrifice some offense at the catcher position if I’m getting great defense in return. Alfaro provides good defense, but nothing stellar. He has a decent caught-stealing percentage, but leads the league in passed balls.
So he’s no superstar backstop, but what about his offense? Well, that’s where things get interesting. Right now, Alfaro is hitting .257 / .309 / .403 which puts his OPS at .712. Again, nothing amazing. That OPS puts him around the middle of the pack amongst qualified hitters, and his .257 batting average is truly unremarkable.
What are remarkable, though, are what Fangraphs calls his “plate discipline” statistics. In particular, his contact percent and swinging strike percent. Below is a chart of over 270 hitters’ contact percent vs. their swinging strike percent:
We would certainly expect to see a negative linear relationship here. If a hitter swings and misses more, he will naturally make less contact. No surprise. However, do you see that little red dot far in the bottom right hand corner? That, right there, is Jorge Alfaro.
He has the lowest contact percentage in the MLB and by far the highest swinging strike percentage. Alfaro swings at far too many balls outside of the zone, with the third highest O-swing percentage. He swings and misses almost 25% of the time. This is so bad, in fact, that it’s actually a wonder that he makes as much contact as he does. According to a linear model based on the data above, Alfaro should only make contact with about 54% of the pitches he swings at. This is over 6% lower than his actual 60.3% contact percentage.
All of these numbers are punctuated by another category that Alfaro leads the league in: BABIP (or Batting Average on Balls In Play). As of writing this, Alfaro has a .411 BABIP, a whole 21 points higher than the second place Ian Happ, and a staggering 157 points higher than Alfaro’s own batting average.
Typically, an extremely high BABIP indicates a certain amount of “luck” on the hitters part. When he puts the ball in play, it is often successful. Put more analytically, players who have high BABIPs usually see a regression down towards the mean by the end of the season. This spells something quite troubling for Alfaro and the Phillies.
Alfaro’s slash line has remained, at best, palatable to this point in the season. But if his BABIP foreshadows a big regression coming during the remainder of the season, his other numbers could dip drastically below an acceptable level.
Jorge Alfaro is a young player. This is by far the most innings he’s seen at the MLB level in his career. Could he blossom into a solid catcher? Of course. I also understand that one small hole in a lineup does not determine the ultimate success of a team. However, in such a close race in the NL East, any hole can end up being exploited, especially when that hole grows from a modest one to a gaping one. If the trend continues as we expect, it could prove to be a chance for the Braves to come marching back into first place.