You’ll have to excuse Cubs fans for having sports Stockholm Syndrome. They’ve been undercut, undersold, and sold out by ownership for really the past three or four seasons, and the final blow came on trade deadline day when any remnants of the 2016 World Series champs was burned to ash and micturated upon. So if they’re clinging to any good story that somehow might emerge from the waste dump site that is Wrigley Field right now (inside and out), it can at least be explained if not totally understood.
Even with that, it’s hard not to attach to Patrick Wisdom, as he’s living out his own mini version of The Natural. He’s getting his first crack at a regular role in the Majors at 29 (just turned 30), and he’s crushing it to the point where he’s launched himself into the running for National League Rookie Of The Year. It’s not hard to warm up to a guy who only hits long ass homers and makes a loud thud on contact (on the rare times he makes contact, but we’ll get to that). Deep down inside all of us, we just want to be Dave Kingman or Rob Deer or some other palooka who just hits homers or sits down. The rest involves too much work.
Digging into Wisdom’s underlying numbers does provide some pretty jaw-dropping material (following numbers from FanGraphs.com). In 83 games and just 279 plate appearances, Wisdom has 25 homers, which works out to one homer every 11.1 PA, or one every 10.1 AB if you want to work it that way, which would be best in the Majors if he qualified. He’s slugging .579 without the benefit of walking a ton, which would be fifth in all of MLB if he had enough PAs to qualify. Wisdom’s average exit-velocity of 91.7 MPH would be good enough for top-20 in MLB as well. Quite clearly, Wisdom hits the ball really goddamn hard. In half of a season, thanks to playing really solid defense at third (2.1 Defensive Runs Saved), Wisdom has been worth 2.4 fWAR. That makes him out as a pretty valuable player, 4-5 WAR over a full season.
At least when he hits the ball, and that’s the rub here. Wisdom is pretty much the definition of an all-or-nothing player, with a stratospheric strikeout rate of 39.8 percent. If he qualified, he’d lead the league by some margin. That’s four percent more than Javy Báez’s rate, and we know that Báez is powering a good portion of the Northeast Corridor via the wind he’s creating at the plate. Wisdom also swings at more pitches than league average, especially in the zone (76.4 percent to the league’s 68.7 percent) but he doesn’t connect on way more of it as well (61.9 percent to the league’s 76.0 percent). Wisdom doesn’t walk more than average either, with an eight percent walk-rate.
Wisdom is benefitting from a somewhat abnormal amount of his fly balls turning into home runs, which can happen when you hit the ball as hard as he does. For example, 35.2 percent of Wisdom’s flies end up over a wall, which isn’t absurd in itself. Fernando Tatis Jr. actually has a higher rate, and Shohei Ohtani is right behind Wisdom’s rate. But those are the only players with rates over 30 percent, and Tatis and Ohtani are MVP candidates and freaks of nature. Are we really going to buy that a guy who just cracked the majors at 29 can run with some of the premier players in the game? In the past five seasons, there have been 20 instances of players carrying a 30+ percent HR/FB rate, so it does happen. But throw out the small sample size of 2020 and it’s only 11 in four full seasons. It’s not all that common, and some of those were achieved with flubber in the baseball of past years.
What’s clear is that pitchers have identified a weak spot for Wisdom, or a couple of them. One is that he can’t get anywhere near offspeed pitches. Nor can he lay off of them.
Or if pitchers are so inclined, any fastball at the top of the zone or above is almost certainly going to result in a whiff:
So the question going forward is can Wisdom adjust and be anything close to this as his career continues? You can bet your ass the Cubs are going to give him a chance because A) He’s cheap as shit and B) He’s a feelgood story that will distract Cubs fans from the reality of the owners sandbagging this team for the next few years.
That doesn’t mean Wisdom can’t pull it off. Players that have carried a 30-plus percent K-rate the past 10 years that were above-average offensive players (wRC+ over 100) just had to carry a plus walk-rate. Wisdom has shown in the past he’s capable of that. In Triple-A in 2018 and 2019 in the St. Louis and Texas systems, he had walk-rates of 10-plus percent. But 10 percent on its own, which is about where Wisdom got, isn’t going to be enough. Especially if the baseball keeps getting deflated and maintaining a HR/FB rate over 35 percent gets harder and harder.
Enjoy it for now, and in the future enjoy that it happened at all, especially when Wisdom is striking out 40 percent of the time and is just a handsomer Mike Olt.