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Every great baseball story consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The initial stint of a baseball player is something ordinary: some speed or defense perhaps. He shows you spurts of potential but lots of inconsistency. He asks you to inspect his peripheral stats to see if they are real, unaltered, normal. But of course, they probably aren’t. The second act is called “The Turn.” The baseball player takes the ordinary something and does something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret; but, you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But, you wouldn’t clap yet. Because a speedy defense-only player hitting like a power hitter for 100 plus plate appearances isn’t enough; you have to prove the level can be done consistently. That’s why every great baseball story has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”
Greg Allen has performed a disappearing trick twice already from the 2019 Cleveland Indians roster. After a horrid April at the plate, he was demoted to the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Once again in June, roster considerations saw Allen sent down the interstate highway despite what had been a successful month. Both times, Allen has re-appeared on the 25-man active roster. Both times, he has improved upon his past slash lines.1
The season began with hopes Allen could build off his closing performance to the 2018 season and strong Spring Training to provide more consistency than his MLB career had shown to that point. Uneven playing time and a complete lack of production did not allow him to even wrestle plate appearances away from Leonys Martin whom would be designated for assignment in June.
The batting prowess over the last 30 games has been enough for manager Terry Francona to shift Allen back to his most valuable potential role; starting center fielder.
While Oscar Mercado is as dynamic a sprinter as Allen,2 the veteran has been far more impressive in the field than the rookie. Allen has obtained five outs above average in 97 opportunities; catching 96 percent of balls hit to his zone compared to an 89 percent catch probability.3 Oscar has three outs above average in 197 opportunities; catching 89 percent of balls hit to his zone compared to an 87 percent catch probability.4 In fact, Allen has yet to allow a ball to bounce that had a greater than 10% chance of being caught according to FanGraphs; and that is even before the discussion shifts to Allen’s five outfield assists compared against three– in more opportunities– for Mercado.5
The elite defense creates more desire to validate whether or not the improved batting performance might be real or an illusion. Allen did bear the brunt of some bad fortune in April as his actual batting average and weighted on-base average were both 40 points below the expected.6 Those extra 40 points, of course, would not have even been enough to make him an acceptable hitter. Since May, when his batting prowess has been prominent, a reversal to good fortune has not been the cause. Allen’s actual and expected batting average and weighted on-base average have been near equals. Thus, what he has been achieving over these last 30 games has been the result of better quality contact.7
How he has achieved these increased results is a good lesson to those who discuss exit velocity and launch angle. Those who claim the best way to increase production is to increase launch angle… hit the ball more in the air… have data and math backing their statements but only if done on properly batted balls. Allen’s April average exit velocity was 86 miles per hour; his post-April average exit velocity was 86 miles per hour. Allen’s April average launch angle was 11.3 degrees; his post-April average launch angle was 5.3 degrees. Wait a second! What kind of trick is Allen pulling here? Where’s the red queen?
The crux of the problem for Allen is that he quite steadily hits most of his batted balls between 80 and 95 miles per hour. For fly balls to become extra base hits rather than easily caught pop ups, 100 miles per hour off the bat is ideal. If Allen cannot increase how fast the ball is coming off his bat, then the next best thing to do is to hit more line drives. See the radial map below; the highest probability of hits and extra bases come in the barrel (red), solid contact (pink), or flares/burners (orange) categories.8
In April, Allen only hit five-of-25 batted balls– 20 percent– as barrels, solid contact, or flares/burners as most wound up as pop ups or lightly hit ground balls. Since then, Allen has 35-of-104 batted balls in those optimal areas– 34 percent– as he has a much higher concentration in the orange area of the map as opposed to the poor contact above and below it. There is no wonder his production has increased as he has honed his profile.9
You never understood, why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if Greg Allen can pull off “The Prestige” and make his bat a consistent threat, then it would go a long way towards pushing the Indians as a legitimate contender to win a World Series. And then you… then you get to see something really special. You really don’t know? It would be… it would be the look on the faces of all Tribe fans.
There is a ton of good baseball content being written about the Indians. WFNY will look to highlight some of the best stuff here each week.
Another visualization of Greg Allen’s 2019 defense showing how only the most improbable catches have fallen for hits.