Niko Goodrum is Better Than He Looks

The Tigers’ offense has been abysmal this year. Detroit ranks 29th in fWAR and wRC+, and 28th in wOBA, all metrics used to roughly evaluate raw offensive output. Offensive black holes like Josh Harrison and Grayson Greiner litter the diamond, and with Miguel Cabrera showing his age and Nicholas Castellanos not flashing any power, the position players look anemic at the plate. But there has been one bright spot in Niko Goodrum.

Goodrum, of course, doesn’t look like he’s done particularly well, hitting .213/.311/.341 in 190 plate appearances. He’s defensively useful, since he can play both outfield corners as well as either first or second base, but a cursory look at his 0.1 fWAR makes Goodrum look like yet another scrub in a bad lineup.

So why is the young utility player a bright spot? A deeper examination of Goodrum’s hitting stats shows that he’s been very unlucky, and that he’s not only due for a rebound, but hitting the ball better than last year. Let’s dive into some numbers and see why.

More after the cut

Every time I look at a hitter’s line, the first place I go is to K%, BB%, and BABIP. K% and BB% are a rough estimate of a player’s plate discipline. Here, Goodrum shows his first positive signs, with a K rate of 24.7%, down from 26.8% last year. That’s not a huge drop, but combined with a walk rate of 12.1%, up from 8.5% last year, the data indicates that Goodrum is being more selective at the plate.

Niko Goodrum waits his turn. (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

Meanwhile, BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play, is an easy way to evaluate how lucky a player has been. Generally, a capable major league player hits about .300 on balls in play, so anything below that indicates some bad luck. With Goodrum at .276, it’s safe to say that a couple extra hits should have dropped in, making his overall line just a bit better.

More walks and a couple “should be” hits would be nice, but a deeper dive into the batted ball data demonstrates that Goodrum’s approach has significantly changed since last year. Thanks to MLB’s Statcast database, we can see Goodrum’s overall performance at the plate. Here, the good news piles up.

First, we can look at launch angle. As Dayn Perry tells us, launch angle is the angle at which a ball leaves the bat. Ideally, a hitter wants the ball at between 10 and 30 degrees for either a line drive or a home run. Last year, Goodrum had a launch angle of 10.8%, just barely higher than Dixon Machado, who was trying to reduce his launch angle. This year, Goodrum’s launch angle is a much more respectable 14.3%, putting him on par with JD Martinez, Clint Frazier, and Jordy Mercer. Those are some solid hitters (and Jordy Mercer, though more on him when he gets healthy).

Second, we can look at hard hit balls. Statcast categorizes 47.5% of the balls Goodrum has hit this year as “hard hit.” To put that in context, Goodrum’s in the 89th percentile of MLB players in hard hit balls. 36th in the league and behind only Miguel Cabrera on the Tigers. In short, Goodrum has been mashing the absolute crud out of baseballs this year.

So Goodrum’s walking more, striking out a bit less, hitting the ball higher in the air, and mashing the ball better than every other player in the league save for 35. What gives? Well, it’s unsatisfying, but the answer is probably luck. Statcast predicts that, based on his batted ball data, Goodrum has an xwOBA (expected wOBA) of .357. But his actual wOBA is .291. The raw numbers on xBA and xSLG (expected batting average and expected slugging) are .269 and .457, respectively. Based on the numbers, Goodrum should be hitting .269/.367/.457, but isn’t because of bad luck.

So what does this mean going forward? Well, first, as the summer heats up, expect Goodrum’s bat to as well, provided he keeps hitting like he has been. It’s worth noting that we’re evaluating him on 190 plate appearances, but if he can keep this up, it’s reasonable to believe he can be an .800-.850 OPS player with the ability to play a passable four positions. Essentially, Al Avila found another Ryan Raburn in the Twins’ scrap heap. That’s a nice little pickup for the Tigers, both this year and beyond.

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