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This hitter has the weirdest stat line this year

Zero homers and a high OPS
@_dadler
September 13, 2020

José Iglesias is having a weird season. A good season, too. But the way he's been good is very unusual. The Orioles' shortstop, known for being glove-first, is hitting .351 with an .839 OPS. That is not a José Iglesias type of season. Before this year, Iglesias' best offensive season

José Iglesias is having a weird season. A good season, too. But the way he's been good is very unusual.

The Orioles' shortstop, known for being glove-first, is hitting .351 with an .839 OPS. That is not a José Iglesias type of season. Before this year, Iglesias' best offensive season was essentially league average, and it was back in 2013, when he had a .735 OPS, 100 points lower than where he is right now.

But that's not even why his 2020 season is so weird. This is why it's weird: Iglesias has put up that .839 OPS with zero home runs and two walks in his 116 plate appearances.

How is that possible? OPS is made up of on-base percentage and slugging percentage, so when you look at hitters with a high OPS, they tend to do two things: walk and hit for power.

Not Iglesias. He does neither of those things. But his OPS is as high as Luis Robert's, and higher than that of double-digit home run hitters like Matt Olson and Pete Alonso.

Iglesias' OPS just dipped below .850 for the first time all year. The fact that he's been maintaining that level for this long is already rare. Here, for example, are the most recent hitters to finish a season with at least 100 plate appearances, zero home runs and an OPS of .850 or higher:

Craig Grebeck, 1999 Blue Jays -- 34 G, 135 PA, .868 OPS, 0 HR
Jeff Frye, 1994 Rangers -- 57 G, 243 PA, .861 OPS, 0 HR
Debs Garms, 1945 Cardinals -- 74 G, 180 PA, .863 OPS, 0 HR
Luke Appling, 1940 White Sox -- 150 G, 640 PA, .862 OPS, 0 HR
Cuckoo Christensen, 1926 Reds -- 114 G, 385 PA, .864 OPS, 0 HR

And here are all the hitters in the modern era -- since 1900 -- to do all that but also with a walk rate under 5% (Iglesias is actually walking in under 2% of his plate appearances):

George Uhle, 1923 Indians -- 58 G, 158 PA, .863 OPS, 0 HR, 7 BB
George Burns, 1921 Indians -- 84 G, 265 PA, .877 OPS, 0 HR, 13 BB
Nap Lajoie, 1906 Indians -- 152 G, 656 PA, .857 OPS, 0 HR, 30 BB

OK, so … how do we make sense of Iglesias' season?

How to post a high OPS without home runs

If you want a high OPS, but you don't hit homers and you don't draw walks, what's left? Base hits. You have to get lots of base hits. Here's how Iglesias gets those hits.

1) He makes lots of contact
There's not a lot of room for strikeouts in a season like Iglesias'. He's only striking out 13% of the time, putting him in the 94th percentile of the league. And he only misses on 16% of swings, putting him in the 93rd percentile of the league there. He's especially good against pitches in the strike zone, which he makes contact with 92% of the time.

2) He jumps on fastballs (but also hits other pitch types)
Iglesias is hitting .394 against fastballs, which is a top-10 mark in the league and accounts for 28 of his 39 hits. Last season, he hit .310 against fastballs. When you add in that Iglesias also handles breaking and offspeed pitches, it's a good recipe. He's batting .275 against secondary pitches, which is a lot better than the league batting average against those pitch types, which is about .220.

3) He has a very high line-drive rate
Iglesias doesn't hit fly balls -- only 5% of the balls he's hit this season are fly balls -- which explains the zero home runs. But he makes up for it with line drives. Fly balls are homers (if you hit them hard), but line drives are hits, period. The MLB batting average on line drives in 2020 is close to .650. Over 40% of Iglesias' contact this season has been line drives, a top-five line-drive rate in MLB, and he's hitting .718 on those line drives. That's 28 hits right there.

To frame it a slightly different way, 43% of the balls Iglesias has hit have been in the launch-angle "sweet spot" of 8-32 degrees. (That spans both line drives and fly balls, with Iglesias obviously skewing toward the line-drive side.) His sweet-spot rate is top 10 out of over 200 hitters with 75-plus batted balls this season.

All those line drives/sweet-spot contact are why Statcast gives Iglesias an expected batting average -- based on his quality of contact -- of .358. That's a top-five xBA in the league, out of all the 240 hitters with 100 or more plate appearances this year.

xBA leaders for 2020
Minimum 100 PA
1-t) Jake Cronenworth (SD): .366
1-t) Corey Seager (LAD): .366
3) José Iglesias (BAL): .358
4) Juan Soto (WSH): .351
5) Salvador Perez (KC): .345

4) He hits flares and burners
There's more than one way to make good contact … so Statcast classifies three different categories of "productive" contact: barrels, solid contact, and flares and burners.

Barrels are the perfect contact -- they have both the exit velocity and launch angle you need to hit home runs and extra-base hits. Iglesias' no-homer 2020 should give you a clue about his barrels; he has just one all year on 97 batted balls, giving him one of the lowest barrel rates in baseball. "Solid contact" is near-barrels; Iglesias doesn't have a ton of that either. What he does have a ton of are flares and burners.

Flares are balls hit with lower exit velocity but the right launch angle that they fall in between the infielders and outfielders for hits. Burners are hit low, but hard -- they're not going to go over the fence, but they definitely have the exit velocity to be base hits.

Those are the balls Iglesias keeps hitting. And those are good -- they get you hits. Iglesias has a flare/burner rate of almost 40%. He's hitting the most flares and burners of anyone with a comparable number of batted balls.

Highest flare/burner rate, 2020
Minimum 75 batted balls
1) José Iglesias (BAL): 38.1%
2) Jason Heyward (CHC): 37.8%
3) Mauricio Dubón (SF): 34.1%
4) Jeff McNeil (NYM): 33.9%
5) Dansby Swanson (ATL): 33.3%

Iglesias' hard contact (defined as 95-plus mph exit velocity) is up this season, to a personal-best and better-than-MLB-average 38.1%. He dwelled near the bottom of the league in hard-hit rate for the first five years of Statcast tracking, including a 24.2% hard-hit rate in 2019. That's a big gain, almost 14 percentage points, the sixth largest for any hitter from 2019-20. He's just channeling that extra hard contact into the "base hit" trajectories, rather than the "home run" trajectories.

What Iglesias is doing is not the easiest way to a high OPS. But the OPS is impressive no matter how you get there.

Wait a minute … he's done this before?

There's one last weird twist to Iglesias' weird season -- he's actually had a hot streak almost exactly like this one before. It was during that 2013 season that was his career best up until this point.

Recall Iglesias' 2020 numbers: .351 batting average, .839 OPS and zero home runs entering play Sunday. Now here are his numbers from 2013 through his first 56 games with the Red Sox: .351 batting average, .837 OPS … one home run.

We don't have Statcast data for 2013, but we kind of don't need it. Turns out, when Iglesias gets hot, with his hitter profile, these are the kind of weird numbers he might put up. You don't see it from a lot of hitters these days, but batters achieving success in their own idiosyncratic ways is just one of the things that makes baseball great.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.