Cavan Biggio has had an impressive start to his Major League career.
Over 159 games he has a 118 wRC+, 24 home runs, a 16.1% walk rate, a triple slash of .240/.368/.430 and has even stolen 20 bases without being caught. Putting it all together he’s been worth 3.8 wins above replacement. Defensively, the Blue Jays have turned him into a super utility type playing him all over the diamond.
However, despite Biggio’s impressive start, he has one major flaw that could potentially hold him back in the long-run. He hasn’t been able to hit fastballs. That has led to some thought that pitchers will start challenging him with fastballs, plummeting his walk rate and take away from his offensive strength. We saw Tampa Bay take advantage of this in the post-season.
Biggio saw 30 pitches over two playoff games, 23 of which were fastballs. Just five of those fastballs were less than 95 miles per hours. Biggio struck out six times in eight plate appearances, five of which came on fastballs. This obviously a small sample against a really strong pitching staff, but it highlighted a deeper issue for Biggio and why some think he may not last long in the big leagues.
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Let’s get one thing straight, Biggio can hit a fastball. For his career Biggio has a .381 wOBA against all fastballs, per Baseball Savant. That ranked 102nd out of 373 players who saw at least 1000 pitches between 2019 and 2020. It is incredibly difficult to survive in the big leagues without being able to hit a fastball. Looking at the bottom of that list, it’s filled with catchers, like Jeff Mathis and Mike Zunino and others like Brandon Drury, Billy McKinney and Travis Shaw who had their struggles at the plate.
Biggio’s issues lie with high velocity fastballs. Average fastball velocity continues to rise as does the percentage of pitches thrown at or above 95 miles per hour. In 2020 13.1% of fastballs were thrown 95 mph or harder. Against high velocity for his career Biggio has hit just .158 with a 40.9% strikeout rate. His .283 wOBA is well below the league average of .321. It’s rare but there are successful hitters who can’t hit velocity. Players with a lower wOBA than Biggio include, Ronald Acuna Jr, Matt Chapman, Joey Gallo, Didi Gregorious, and Paul Goldschmidt.
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In 2018 Eno Sarris of The Athletic wrote this article titled “What is the key to hitting high-velocity fastballs?” Eno asked many this question including Major League veterans, Evan Longoria, Jed Lowrie and Joey Votto, as well as Director of Hitting at Driveline, Jason Ochart. There is no one right answer to this question, but what Eno did find which relates to Biggio here is there is no correlation between age and wOBA against high velocity fastballs, however experience can help. As a hitter sees velocity more, they become more comfortable against it and thus can improve their hitting.
Biggio has played one full season worth of games so far in his career. Hypothetically as he gains more experience with the league he should be able to improve against high velocity fastballs. To test this theory, I used the Baseball Savant search feature and found every hitter from 2008-2018 who saw at least 2000 pitches in the season, and had a wOBA between .250 and .300 against all fastballs thrown at least 95 mph.
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This provides a solid group of players who are comparable to Biggio in terms of results against velocity. I then looked at how those players did in the next two seasons. Did they see an improvement? Did they see a substantial increase in high velocity pitches?
Only players who had three seasons of data were included. This eliminated players who retired, got hurt, or sent down to be removed. We are dealing with survivorship bias here; you had to be a good enough player to remain in the big leagues for at least three seasons. Even though the player struggled with high velocity they did enough other things well to remain in MLB. These are the types of players we want to compare Biggio to. He does enough well that he is going to remain a big league player even though he hasn’t hit velocity well.
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That left us a sample of 296 individual seasons. Here is how those players performed in the first season, and how Biggio compares.
Median wOBA
Pitch %
BA
Whiff%
Swing%
SwingSTR%
Year 1
.277
10.2%
.224
20.1%
50.1%
10.1%
Biggio
.283
12.8%
.158
29.7%
38.8%
11.5%
Median wOBA is used here so that we are not taking an average of an average. The rest of the statistics are calculated averages.
Here is how the sample performed in the following two seasons.
Median wOBA
Pitch%
BA
Whiff%
Swing%
SwingSTR%
Year 2
.309
10.7%
.254
20.0%
50.0%
10.02%
Year 3
.313
11.1%
.261
19.8%
50.2%
9.96%
It wasn’t a substantial improvement but there is some positive growth for the group. We see the wOBA and batting average get better each season. The whiff rate, swing rate and swinging strike rate all remain the same. This could be players making better contact on high velocity, or could simply be year to year variance. The year-to-year correlation for wOBA was really low for this group.
Even limiting the sample to just 2017 and 2018 to account for the increase in velocity in the game, the overall numbers don’t change much.
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Median wOBA
Pitch%
BA
Whiff%
Swing%
SwingSTR%
Year 1
.279
12.3%
.217
22.4%
51.2%
11.5%
Year 2
.311
12.6%
.253
22.1%
51.1%
11.3%
Year 3
.320
13.0%
.261
23.7%
52.0%
12.3%
We see a slight increase in the median wOBA, and in batting average, which suggests that players who are able to stick in the big leagues can improve against velocity, to become at least league average. There doesn’t appear to be much to the theory that these players are targeted with high velocity, perhaps because they improved enough to keep pitchers honest or over the course of a season you are going to face a fair amount of pitchers who don’t throw 95.
For the Blue Jays if Biggio doesn’t improve, given their roster flexibility they can hide him against velocity. You can sit him against some hard throwers, especially lefties during the regular season. This could become an issue in the postseason, as the pitching quality is better and players are more thoroughly game planned against.
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Biggio is certainly aware that he hasn’t had much success against high velocity. It’s a skill that can be pretty easily worked on with a pitching machine. With his strong batting eye, you would expect as he gets more experience facing velocity he can better recognize it and hopefully improve.
Not being able to hit a high velocity fastball doesn’t doom a young player. Here are few examples of players, similarly aged to Biggio who struggled against velocity but managed to overcome that and become highly successful big league players.
Player
Age
Season
wOBA Year 1
wOBA Year 2
wOBA Year 3
Paul Goldschmidt
24
2012
.254
.421
.464
Jose Altuve
23
2013
.282
.266
.274
J.T. Realmuto
26
2017
.259
.270
.331
Trevor Story
24
2017
.251
.289
.436
Ketel Marte
24
2018
.288
.416
.244
Matt Olson
24
2018
.286
.318
.353
Matt Chapman
25
2018
.273
.301
.184
Eugenio Suárez
26
2018
.261
.378
.269
This is admittedly a cherry-picked list full of All-Stars, but it shows that Biggio isn’t the first talented young player to have issues with high velocity.
Cavan Biggio has proven to be a very valuable big league player, and projections expect that to continue. He’s been below average against high velocity, but this is a skill that can be improved upon. He’s shown enough at the big league level to not be in jeopardy of losing his roster spot. With the amount of pitchers who throw 95+ in the game today Biggio will have plenty of opportunities to get experience facing top notch velocity and ultimately should start seeing improvement in that area.
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