Behind the numbers: Cal’s 2020 batting lineup

Infographic depicting Cal Baseball's First-Pitch Swing Breakdown
Joseph Casey/Staff

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In between the ode to head coach Mike Neu and the memorials to the Cal alumni who saved the program, way back above the left-center gap, sit six numbers. After every game, those six numbers tell a story.

Those numbers, representing the hits, runs and errors of the home and visiting teams, can show so much, from the game’s winner to how each pitcher fared. Yet, they are also severely limiting, often failing to accurately portray the successes of teams and the players who field them.

The addition of more advanced analytics, dubbed sabermetrics, have allowed for a more precise way to evaluate players. These sabermetrics, which are not found on any normal box score, have the ability to look past the effects of luck or other events out of a player’s control to definitively determine how valuable one is to their team.

For some, such as Cal’s pitching staff, analyzing the sabermetrics can help paint the players’ efforts in a better light than their ERA, record or other box score statistics indicated. However, for the Cal lineup, the advanced stats only reiterate the struggles the players endured in the shortened 2020 season.

Even with a .226 batting average, .307 slugging percentage and average of 4.125 runs scored per game, the sabermetrics continue to tell a rough story. To see the whole picture behind Cal’s offensive troubles, we have to look deeper — behind the numbers.

Hitting woes

In 2019, Cal was one of the better hitting teams in the country. Led by 2018 Golden Spikes winner Andrew Vaughn and fellow first-round pick Korey Lee, the Bears finished top three in the conference in batting average, slugging and home runs.

Despite losing Vaughn, Lee and a few other links in the lineup, Cal still returned a solid hitting core for 2020. But the bats never materialized.

A quick look at the numbers tells that the power so heavily relied upon in 2019 just wasn’t there. Cal hit just eight homers in 16 games, which would have put it on track for just 26.5 dingers in the whole season, a far cry from the 81 the team hit in 2019.

Elsewhere in the stat sheet, only three qualified Bears — Quentin Selma, Nathan Martorella and Darren Baker — had an on-base plus slugging percentage, or OPS, over .700. According to FanGraphs, a .710 OPS would be considered “average,” meaning that two-thirds of the Cal lineup was hitting at a below-average clip.

The Bears were decently aggressive at the plate, averaging just 3.71* pitches per plate appearance (asterisk noting that these stats are for only 14 games; two games didn’t have pitch by pitch recordings). However, the aggressiveness normally didn’t pay off. Of 550 plate appearances*, the Bears swung at 183 first pitches, of which just 19 (10.38%) went for hits. The team was more likely to swing and miss (23.5%), foul (36.1%) or hit into an out (23%) on the first pitch than to get a hit.

Extending their at-bats past the first pitch yielded mixed results. The Bears had a combined 24% strikeout percentage, which would have marked them as one of the worst contact-producing teams in the MLB in 2019. On the flip side, the Bears reached base on balls in 10% of their plate appearances, a high number that points to a strong command of the strike zone.

Diving deeper, the sabermetrics continue to paint Cal hitters in a bad light. The team’s batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, fell in at .295, just under a league average of .300.

Unlike the team’s pitchers, who suffered from a well-above average BABIP, the lineup had a fairly average amount of batted balls go for hits — about 29.5%. While some of their struggles could have been explained by opponents’ solid defensive play or just flat out bad luck, their near average BABIP indicates that they didn’t deserve many more hits than they were awarded.

Perhaps the team’s most damning metric was its paltry weighted on-base average, or wOBA — a “catch-all” batting statistics, wOBA attempts to evaluate hitters on the basis that not all hits are equal. For example, a double may not necessarily be twice as valuable as a single. As wOBA directly corresponds to a hitter’s ability to create runs, it is widely used to determine a hitter’s value.

According to FanGraphs, an average wOBA comes in around .320, with most players distributed between .300 and .370.

As a team, Cal posted just a .280 wOBA.

The low number speaks volumes in itself and had major impacts on Cal’s ability to score runs, arguably the only important job a hitting lineup has. Cal only had 56.9 runs created; given that 10 runs created usually corresponds to one win, the Bears would only be expected to win 5-6 games based on their batting statistics. This means that the Bears’ bats didn’t earn any more wins than they would be expected to nor any less. But five wins in 16 games is no measure of greatness, especially for a hitting lineup predicted to produce at a high rate.

Wins and losses: A difference of day and night

The difference between winning a game and losing a game is typically pretty clear. On a team’s good night, it’s clicking on all cylinders; on a bad one, nothing seems to go its way. This rings especially true for the boys in blue and gold: The differences between their wins and loses are night and day.

In their 11 losses, the Bears slugged a measly .225, hit just .146 with runners in scoring position and obtained a strikeout rate of 26.3%. Below lies the comparison between wins and losses.

Wins (5)        Losses (11)
.303 BA           .189 BA
.472 SLG           .225 SLG
.862 OPS           .506 OPS
42 Ks           110 Ks
19.5 K%           26.3 K%
0.595 BB/K           0.373 BB/K
.333 BA/RISP          .146 BA/RISP
13 Ss%          12.6 Ss%

Cal’s biggest issue was finding consistency on both sides of the ball, something that didn’t come as a surprise given the inexperience of the young team. The Bears struggled to put together both solid pitching and hitting performances, often losing in high scoring affairs or pitching duels.

The blue and gold boasted an average winning margin of 3.2 runs,compared to an average loss of more than 3.9 runs. Looking past the numbers, a consistent viewer of Cal baseball games could tell you that when the team lost, it normally lost big, while wins were nail-biters.

Righting the ship

Despite some of the grotesque numbers from last year, the Bears still boast some of the best hitters in the conference in Selma, Baker, and Martorella. The ugly peripherals of the 2020 season are truly no mark for the lineup’s potential, especially given the small sample size.

Luckily for the Bears, nearly the whole lineup is returning for the 2021 season, save for Brandon McIlwain and Max Flower. The rest of the proven veterans are back, along with the talented sophomore platoon, which includes standouts Keshawn Ogans, Dylan Beavers and Steven Zobac.

In fact, Cal will return 82.4% of its runs created from 2020, meaning that most of the team’s run production remains in Berkeley for this upcoming spring season.

The same high expectations existed last year as well, however, and that was without the added limitations of COVID-19 cancellations. Nonetheless, the struggles of last year provide an opportunity for Cal’s lineup — the chance to regain its spot among the Pac-12’s most feared hitters.

Noah Parker covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].