by Micah Greenhill

A Farmer’s Tale: The 2021 Season of Kyle Farmer

It’s so easy to come up with a title about Kyle Farmer. His name is such great pun material. You could go with “Farming a Shortstop,” “The Farm System,” “Shortstop: The Farmily Business” or “Harvesting the Runs.” The possibilities are endless!

Kyle Farmer has been put in a unique situation this year. The 2020 Cincinnati Reds season ended in frustrating fashion, being swept in a two game series against the Braves without scoring a single run. Throughout the pandemic-shortened season, the team’s dominant pitching carried the team to the postseason, often without large run support from the offense which struggled to gain traction. Moving into the offseason, there was one glaring hole in the lineup: Shortstop. One of the most important defensive positions on the field.

Reds fans expected some cost cutting to take place in the offseason but were extremely disappointed to learn that dominant relievers, Archie Bradley and Raisel Iglesias, would not be returning to Cincinnati in 2021. The Red’s front office spun this news to fans by claiming that they were simply “reallocating” resources. Given the obvious hole at shortstop, many fans believed the freed up revenue would be redirected for an impact shortstop.

*Please read the next line in Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel voice*

But they were all them … deceived.

On Opening Day 2021, Eugenio Suarez played out of position at short. And he was clearly out of position, committing multiple errors that game. Over the next several weeks, he continued to struggle defensively, ultimately sliding back to third when Mike Moustakas hit the injured list on May 13.

This created an opportunity for Kyle Farmer.

After a terrific month at the plate in July, many fans are wondering if Farmer could be the shortstop we’ve wanted.

Let’s take a look.

Kyle Farmer’s Outcome Hitting Stats

Traditional outcome stats aren’t the best metrics to use, but it serves as a helpful starting point when examining the past performance of a player. When looking at Kyle Farmer’s 2021 season, one of these months is most definitely not like the others.

The first several months of the season, Kyle Farmer was downright bad, playing well below his career slash line of .251/.311/.392./704. Then in July, it looks like he started eating serious Wheaties. Farmer went from being a well below average hitter to looking like an MVP candidate.

From April-June, Kyle Farmer averaged a wRC+ of 61. However, during the month of July, it jumped up to 201. It’s crazy. For the first several months of the season, Farmer was a well below average hitter. He was a nice super utility guy to have off the bench, but he was an offensive liability as a starter. Then, during the month of June, he became one of the best hitters on the planet.

This raises two questions:

  1. What changed during July?
  2. What can we expect from Farmer for the rest of the season?
What Changed?

To figure out how Farmer been able to harvest so many hits, let’s look at his batted ball data.

Hmmm…this is interesting. During the month of July, Farmer’s average exit velocity remained about the same. He put roughly the same number of balls in play, and he didn’t really hit them harder than his average. One thing that changed was his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play). BABIP is a player’s batting average on the balls that he puts in play. The much pointed to stat for explaining the offensive woes of the 2020 Reds, BABIP is a crude metric that can be used to indicate the luck factor for a hitter.

Through the end of June 2021, Kyle Farmer’s career BABIP, over 606 plate appearances, was .276. But during July, Farmer’s BABIP soared to .430. During that month, when he made contact, 43% of the time, he ended up on base. This level of BABIP is way above, not only his career norm, but also above elite hitters.

Let’s look at the type of contact he’s making to see if we can figure out why his BABIP changed so much.

This helps us understand why Farmer’s results changed during July. Before July, he was hitting ground balls in almost half of all his batted ball events. During July, he had a much more even performance, hitting line drives about a third of the time. This line drive rate is much improved over his career norms. Although his July had an unsustainably high BABIP, Farmer did have a very good xBA (expected batting average) of .306 vs. .240 for the rest of the year, reflecting his hitting more line drives and fewer popups.

But hitting outcomes don’t change based on the turn of a calendar page. The real question is whether Farmer had made any changes in his approach that might explain his success the past few weeks. If there’s no good explanation for it, it’s safer to conclude better luck is what’s going on. But in Farmer’s case, there is a possible reason behind his statistical jump.

After his 3-hit game on July 23, Farmer mentioned that manager David Bell had suggested before the game that he move a couple inches closer to the plate.

“With Farmer playing through an injury, Bell gave Farmer a piece of hitting advice on Friday. Before batting practice, Bell mentioned that it might help Farmer to stand a few inches closer to the plate.

Farmer tried it during batting practice, and it worked. So during that night’s game, he stood closer than he usually does, and Farmer went 3-for-4 with a homer. He’s kept that approach since that game, and over Farmer’s last four games he has a hit in half of his at-bats with a triple, two homers and two walks.” (Charlie Goldsmith, Cincinnati Enquirer)

Check out the difference in Farmer’s stance beginning on July 23. In the “before” picture, Farmer’s right foot is several inches away from the batter’s box line.

Before July 23

But starting July 23, at Bell’s suggestion, Farmer’s foot moved forward a couple inches so he’s now toeing the batter’s box line.

July 23 and after

Since July 23, Farmer has hit .429/.481/.755 with a wRC+ of 224. And that doesn’t include the three hits he had last night. Sure, there’s no way he keeps up a .400+ batting average. A lot of that is luck at where the balls are falling. But his xBA, which measures contact quality, since July 23 has been .322 (again, not counting last night), which indicates Farmer is making better contact.

It could be that part of Kyle Farmer’s hot last few weeks is luck but part of it is real. Of course, even if it is “real” that doesn’t mean it will last. Pitchers adapt and hitters have to keep responding.

Farmer’s Overall Game

Let’s examine Kyle Farmer’s 2021 percentile rankings as well.

A few things in that graphic jump out. First, Kyle Farmer’s been excellent defensively, scoring in the 90th percentile in outs above average. That defensive metric is consistent with his Defensive Runs Saved (+2) and Ultimate Zone Rating (5.1). Both FanGraphs (4.9 runs) and Baseball-Reference (0.7 WAR) show Farmer strongly positive on the defense he’s played. That lines up with what we see every night when we watch him play.

Farmer has also been good at putting the ball in play. There’s not a lot of swing and miss in his game, so he doesn’t strike out very often. His main weakness is his power. He simply doesn’t make hard contact very often, resulting in batted balls that stay in the yard. Although with his recent success, his isolated power (ISO) has increased to .152, which is just shy of league average (.165). Farmer’s walk rate is also well below average in the bottom 6th percentile.

Part of understanding Kyle Farmer’s July success involves looking at his expected batting average metric. Part of him being above average here involves him not striking out often. After all, if you’re consistently putting the ball in play, you’re more likely to get hits.

Conclusion

Kyle Farmer is a strong player to have on a contending team. His ability to play plus defense around the diamond, and even slot in at catcher, makes him valuable. However, Farmer been forced to start at shortstop due to necessity. This past month, he caught fire and was able to contribute to the team’s playoff push. Unfortunately, on the surface, it seems like this strong few weeks are simply not sustainable. With an incredibly high BABIP and an anomalous line drive rate, we’ll likely see Farmer regress to more of his career norms over the next few months.

Micah is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up watching games at Cinergy Field with his family. A recent MBA graduate, Micah has always had a passion for data analytics and uses his understanding of big data to better understand and appreciate what is happening on the baseball diamond and in the front office. When he's not watching baseball, you can find Micah and his wife frequenting different restaurants and coffee shops in the area. For questions and inquiries, please reach out to micahgreenhill@gmail.com.

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RedDawg
RedDawg
1 month ago

As a fellow UGA alum, I may be a bit biased, but the stability Farmer has provided cannot be overstated. While I agree it is not likely sustainable, many will continue to undervalue precisely what Farmer has facilitated- the best Reds run since 2014 – the last time we were +7 over .500. Go Dawgs! Go Reds!

Micah Greenhill
Micah Greenhill
1 month ago
Reply to  RedDawg

Thanks for the comment!

He’s such an important member of this team. I’m super pleased with what he’s been able to contribute.

I can’t cheer for UGA (More of an Ole Miss guy myself!), but I’ll join you in cheering on the Reds!

Matthew Habel
Matthew Habel
1 month ago
Reply to  RedDawg

This is a perfect example of seeing both sides in terms of actual performance that greatly helped the team compared to predicting what Farmer’s performance will be the rest of the year. There is always a chance that he finds a way to remain productive, but I would still be keeping close tabs on Jose Barrero incase Farmer’s offense regresses down the stretch.

Micah Greenhill
Micah Greenhill
1 month ago
Reply to  Matthew Habel

With the way the game is played today, Farmer will find himself in the lineup on a regular basis. It’s part of what makes him so valuable, even if he regresses!

Thomas Green
Thomas Green
1 month ago

Great story and a lot of fun to root for Kyle Farmer, for sure. Taking his recent streak and removing BABIP luck, he would be in the .305/.360/.460 range – keeping that pace along with top notch defense would make him an All Star, the next Justin Turner. Quite unlikely, but at least a small possibility now that he has had this stretch of great performance.
Adding in some reality (slump time), but still performing far above career norms, his numbers could look in this range: .275/.330/.440. Given his versatility and strong defense, including the ability to catch, these numbers (50 points above league average OPS) would still be a very valuable player. As I started this post with – fun to root for!

Micah Greenhill
Micah Greenhill
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas Green

He’s super fun to root for! I love having him on the team. As much as I’d love for him to be the next Justin Turner, I don’t see that happening. But at the same time, let’s not be unfair to Farmer by comparing him to Turner. 🙂

Thomas Green
Thomas Green
1 month ago

Yeah, Turner’s no movie star QB…the sky’s the limit!

Micah Greenhill
Micah Greenhill
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas Green

I love the Blind Side reference!