Pittsburgh Pirates: The Unlikely Slump of Phillip Evans
By Noah Wright
Pittsburgh Pirates utility man Phillip Evans has been in a rut lately, however, he’s gotten more unlucky than anything else throughout this slump
Pittsburgh Pirates utility man Phillip Evans got off to a blazing hot start to the season. His first 50 plate appearances saw him collect 14 hits. Three of these hits were home runs and four more went for doubles. He also showed some pretty decent plate discipline with four walks to oppose seven strikeouts.
However, since April 17, he’s fallen into a slump. He has just 10 hits in his past 79 trips to the plate. He’s had just a single home run and double during this time as well. Though Evans’ plate discipline is still fantastic. He’s drawing a walk at a 12.7% rate. But he’s gotten more unlucky than anything else throughout this slump.
Despite his lackluster results through his last handful of games, Evans’ batted ball rates are amazing. He currently has a 91.9 MPH exit velocity and 53.2% hard-hit rate. Evans is among the best in these two categories. He currently ranks 24th in exit velo and 15th in hard-hit rate. He’s even outdoing the likes of Vlad Guerrero Jr., Shohei Ohtani, and J.D. Martinez in hard-hit rate. He’s also hitting the ball harder than either Ohtani or Martinez and Nelson Cruz, Paul Goldschmidt, and Freddie Freeman.
Throughout this slump, he’s hitting way more line drives. His line drive rate of 25% is above the league average mark of 21% in 2021. Between line drives, fly balls, and ground balls, line drives produce the best possible result, and it’s not even close. This year, batters have a .687 batting average, .894 slugging percentage, and 343 wRC+ on line drives. To put into perspective how productive line drives are, fly balls end in a .230 average, .701 slugging, and 144 wRC+, while ground balls have ended in a .221 average, .244 slugging, and 28 wRC+. The lowest single-season wRC+ on line drives since batted ball data started to be collected was in 2019, when it still sat at an outstanding 331 mark.
Considering the amount of hard contact he makes and how often he makes it, combined with his high line drive rate, he has a recipe for success on his hands, but he just hasn’t found it. Despite all of this, he has a .186 batting average on balls in play.
Evans’s extreme unluckiness is shown through his expected stats. He currently has an expected slash line of .279/.379/.446. Evans has an xwOBA of .363 compared to his actual mark of .303. His expected weighted on base average on contact or xwOBACON sits at .411. The league average is about .362 for comparison.
Another good indicator of his actual performance is his deserved runs created plus or DRC+. This is Baseball Prospectus’ version of FanGraphs’ wRC+ or Baseball Reference’s OPS+, a stat where it puts a player’s offensive contributions on a scale where 100 is average and any point above or below that is 1% above or below the league average. However, DRC+ is much more predictive of future performance as it takes into account many other factors aside from OPS (the scale OPS+ is based on) and wOBA (the scale wRC+ is based on). While wRC+ and OPS+ pin him as a 5% and 22% below league average hitter respectively, DRC+ has him as an above-average batter, at 101.
However, he does have a bit of a high ground ball rate at 49.5% throughout this slump. The league average, for comparison, is 44% in 2021. He also isn’t hitting very many fly balls. His fly ball rate of 29.5% is below the league average rate of 35%. Though it should be noted that he is going up the middle more often than pulling the ball or going to the opposite field.
Sure, Evans’ 1.000+ OPS wasn’t going to be sustainable through an entire season. But he’s not as bad as his .213/.325/.352 line and 95 wRC+/88 OPS+ he currently suggests. He’s still drawing walks, ripping the cover off the ball, and hitting for the best possible batted ball outcome. He’s probably closer to a .270/.350/.450 batter. He’s still drawing walks at a fair rate and there’s no way he’ll keep up a sub-.200 BAbip if he keeps up the exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and line-drive rates he has shown so far.