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Lars Nootbaar is For Real. Stop Worrying About Him.

I pick apart Nootbaar’s early-season slump and his mid-season surge to find reasons to temper the hype. And fail.

Wild Card Series - Philadelphia Phillies v St. Louis Cardinals - Game Two Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It’s confession time. I went into this article with an agenda.

That’s typically a no-no in analysis pieces. If you are motivated to look for something in a data set, you’re likely to find what you’re looking for. We call that confirmation bias.

As opinion-centered bloggers, that kind of subjectivity is all too common. I’m sure you’ve read more than a few pieces on the internet that made a point and then set out to prove that point by only presenting supporting statistics and ignoring obvious counterarguments.

I find that kind of writing lazy, clickbaity, and, unfortunately, fairly effective. Sometimes all it takes to win your argument with your readers is a well-planted idea and some smooth talk.

There’s been some of that among fans concerning Lars Nootbaar. More than a few internet commenters have posted Nootbaar’s Baseball Savant dashboard graphic with all its red ink and concluded, “see he’s awesome! Look at all the red!”

It’s an effective method.

See. He’s awesome. Look at all the red!

That’s not good enough for me. Because Nootbaar hasn’t been that “see he’s awesome!” kind of guy. Not in his first season in the majors. Not throughout his minor league career.

Experience has trained me to be skeptical of small sample-size performances, especially when those performances are distinctly different than what a player was over their minor league career.

Case in point, Nootbaar had 15 total home runs in the minor leagues from 2018 through his MLB debut. In four of his minor league stops in ’18 and ’19, Nootbaar’s slug% was .283, .443, .338, and .312. Yes, he walked a lot, but his offensive prowess was limited to his batting eye.

There was always some upside in Nootbaar’s swing, the potential for more power, and the walk rate guaranteed a pretty high floor as he rose through the system, but there was very little about his profile that said “see he’s awesome!”.

Yet, here we are with all that red in his Baseball Savant dashboard.

So, I approached this article with an agenda. I wasn’t going to get swallowed up in the optimistic momentum toward Lars Nootbaar, star baseballer. My head told me to be worried about Nootbaar’s quick ascension and to go hunting for reasons to fear that what he did in the second half of last season won’t hold up for a full year or the rest of his career.

So, I did. I dug into the stats. I looked into splits. I did some work with his game logs. I challenged everything I could find.

And the results? Well, you’ve read the title.

On to the data.

The Two Halves of Nootbaar’s Season

Nootbaar’s start to the season was rough. Through the All-Star break, Noot had a .200/.277/.378 slash line with an 88 wRC+. That earned him a few trips back and forth from Memphis but injuries and issues in the Cardinals’ outfield meant he was never down for long. Instead, he found himself losing the fight for playing time with Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan.

At that point in his career, Nootbaar had about 200 PAs in the majors and a less-than-inspiring stat line. The expected stats – stats based on his underlying metrics and not actual results – were equally bad:

Career stats as of June 30, 2022:.202/.276/.360 with a .278 wOBA.
Expected stats of June 30, 2022: .207/.282/.318 with a .270 xwOBA.

It was around the first of July when everything changed. Nootbaar went off. He started cranking home runs. His walk rate increased. His K’s dropped. For the next 269 plate appearances, Noot was legitimately one of the better outfielders in baseball:

Stats from July 1, 2022 forward: 269 PA, .253/.372/.507 with a .377 wOBA
Expected stats from July 1, 2022 forward: .263/.384/.460 with a .375 wOBA

Nootbaar hit 12 of his 14 home runs in ’22 after July 1st. He raised his overall walk rate on the season to an incredible 14.7%. He cut his K rate down to 20.5%. With solid defense and a strong arm, his fWAR on the season soared to 2.7 in just 347 PAs.

The expected stats confirm that Nootbaar’s second-half surge was no BABIP-fueled lucky streak. The underlying batted ball data supports the increase in his on-base percentage and batting average. While it wants to cut into his slug% a bit, the end result of a .377 wOBA vs. a .375 expected is very affirming.

Nootbaar’s surge was real. The stats support it.

However, his slump was real, too. The stats support it.

There we find our dilemma and plenty of fodder for continued research. Which was more real? The slump? Or the surge? We can go deeper.

Statcast Data for Nootbaar’s Career Splits

To better compare Nootbaar’s slump and his surge, I broke his season into three parts: slump, surge, and combined to get both expected and real stats for each time split and, more importantly, the key Statcast indicators for each split. Three key points stood out to me after doing so.

1. Slump & Surge K% - Nootbaar’s K% during his early season slump was over 31%. That’s a major sign of danger if it proved to be real or predictive.

In ’21 Noobaar’s K rate was just 22.6%. His highest rate in the minors was 20%. It’s reasonable to conclude that Nootbaar’s transition to being a power vs. contact hitter would lead to a higher K rate as he progressed through levels, but there’s just no historical evidence to support a rate exceeding 30%.

What do we do with that data point then? Nothing! A change that dramatic over a short sample is simply not predictive. It tells us what happened – Noot was slumping hard. But it doesn’t tell us what will happen unless it continues.

It didn’t. From 7/1 forward, Nootbaar’s K% dropped to 17.5%. That’s lower than his MLB career production to that point, but it’s right in line with his minor-league history.

Nootbaar probably won’t have a K-rate as low as 17.5% throughout his ‘23 season. But he’s shown us he can do it. We can’t ignore that. Combined with his career history, the only conclusion is that his 17.5% in late ’22 is significantly more predictive and informative than the 31% earlier in the year.

2. Slump & Surge Avg. Exit Velocity – On the season, Nootbaar averaged 90.5 mph on balls in play. That’s the 90th percentile in all of baseball. Very exciting. IF that full-season total isn’t artificially inflated by a surge of hard-hit balls he’ll never be able to duplicate or sustain.

During his late-season surge, Nootbaar’s average exit velocity did climb – to 90.9 mph.

During his early-season slump, Nootbaar’s average exit velocity did fall – to 89 mph.

That’s nearly a 2 mph difference. That would be significant except that both numbers are in the top half of hitters in baseball. There are two ways to look at that. Despite a terrible slump, Nootbaar still hit the ball pretty darn hard. That’s encouraging. During his surge, Nootbaar hit the ball harder than he ever has. Is that predictive and sustainable? Maybe not.

Still, average exit velocity isn’t one of my favorite stats. Especially on the low end when a player was struggling to see the ball. (Remember that 30% K rate?) We don’t want to make too much out of those weak-contact outs that account for such a high percentage of every player’s batted balls. That’s why we use 90th percentile exit velocity.

What about Nootbaar’s EV peaks during his slump and his surge?

During his surge, Nootbaar’s 90th percentile exit velocity was 106.1.

During his slump, Nootbaar’s 90th percentile exit velocity was 107.9.

Ok. That’s definitive. In the Major Leagues, slumping or surging, Nootbaar has always hit the ball hard.

Slump & Surge Launch Angle & Ground Ball Rates – That leaves one remaining area of concern between his slump and surge stats: ground ball data.

If Nootbaar continued to generate hard contact during his slump, was it the non-predictive K rate that accounted for his drop in production? Not exclusively. It doesn’t matter how hard you hit the ball if you are hitting the ball in a place where fielders can get to it. That’s where launch angle and ground ball rates come into play.

During his slump, Nootbaar’s launch angle fell to .1 degrees. When he wasn’t K’ing, he was hitting the ball hard but with a lot of level contact. Level contact is bad because gravity. Those become ground balls and outs more often than not, particularly with defensive shifting.

During his surge, Nootbaar’s hit the ball harder and higher. His launch angle climbed to 12.5 degrees; that’s a lot more line drives that carry over defenders and fly balls that carry out of the ballpark.

A few stat sets, including his 2021 season, show the impact of this:

2021 Season
GB%: 45.6%
FB%: 39.2%
HR/FB%: 16.1%

Thru June 30
GB%: 54.5%
FB%: 22.7%
HR/FB%: 20%

July 1 forward
GB%: 41.1%
FB%: 42.9%
HR/FB%: 16%

You can see the outlier pretty clearly. Like his K-rate, Noot’s GB rate during his slump was high compared to the rest of his major league career. That could be a reason for ongoing concern if it shows up in his historical data.

Minor League GB Rates
Low: 43.5% in ’19 A
High: 54.5% in ’19 A+
AA, AAA: 39.1% - 51.4%

Nootbaar’s history suggests that his ground ball rate has increased as he progressed through the system. He was in the low 40’s at the beginning of his career, but was pretty consistently in the low 50’s by the time he hit AA and AAA.

That shifted again when he hit the majors, where he’s been well under 50% in both ’21 and ’22.

This is not a data point that we can write off. Nootbaar does have a history of stretches where his ground ball rate can climb to or above 50% and a rate that high would have an impact on his production potential since so much of the ball-in-play upside he’s shown the majors have come from homers. He also has recent evidence to suggest those stretches are temporary and fixable.

Conclusions: Nootbaar’s Slump is Less Predictive Than His Surge

Those three points give us a fairly complete picture of what happened to Nootbaar during the early part of the season. That oft-repeated trope, “I wasn’t seeing the ball well,” seems to be fairly apt here.

Noot’s K rate exploded in a way that doesn’t fit his career. The computer-based projections systems all agree with that conclusion. None have Nootbaar with higher than a 21.6% K rate next year. If you’re looking for reasons why Nootbaar will fall back in ’23, his elevated K’s early in the ’22 season doesn’t fit.

What about the ground ball rate? Here we have a more legitimate area of concern. There is enough data to suggest that Nootbaar devolves into a ground ball hitter when his swing gets off. When that happens – and it will – Noot’s production will drop. He’ll slump.

How impactful will those groundball-induced slumps be? With the new shift rules in place for ’23, it’s hard to get too worked up about them. Remember, Noot always hits the ball hard. Even if his ground ball rates fluctuate, more of those hard-hit grounders are going to sneak through a non-shifted infield and become hits instead of outs. The league shifted on Nootbaar 53% of the time last season and he had a significantly higher wOBA with no shift than with the shift. The rule change alone should raise Nootbaar’s production potential even when he isn’t striking the ball as well as he’s capable.

Then there are all of the other things that Noot consistently does at a high level; the things that even the most pessimistic analyst can’t ignore. He always walks. He always hits the ball hard, even when he’s slumping. He sees a good number of his fly balls leave the ballpark. Noot is going to do those things as long as he’s healthy and they are some of the best things that a hitter can do to guarantee a high baseline of offensive production.

Simply put, Noot’s floor is high. The things he does at a high level contribute to a consistently high level of offensive production.

The most damaging part of his early season slump, his high K rate, is both historically and statistically inconsequential for future projections.

The second most obvious concern from his career, the ground ball rate, is trending in the right direction and will be impacted positively by MLB rule changes.

In other words, despite my best efforts to pick at Nootbaar and find reasons for pessimism, I really can’t.

Lars Nootbaar is for real. Stop worrying about him.

That doesn’t mean that we should expect Noot to put up a wRC+ around 140 – as he did during his last-season surge, for a full season. ZiPS has Noot with a 118 wRC+ as a 50th percentile projection. That’s probably overly influenced by his rookie season.

I would go a bit higher than that. I think what Noot did last season, with half a season of forgettable slump plus half a season of surprisingly meaningful surge, is a reasonable floor for him moving future. A healthy Nootbaar should have around a 120 wRC+ and the potential to improve on that is, in my opinion, higher than the potential to go below it. (Barring injury, of course.)

With his well above-average defense, good speed, the potential to play some center field, and elite arm strength, I would not be all that surprised if Noot produced an All-Star caliber campaign with a 135+ wRC+ and 5-6 fWAR.