Michigan baseball profits from standing at a crossroads
Advanced statistics love junior outfielder Jordan Nwogu.
Nwogu’s patient eye, powerful swing and plus speed create the model of a ballplayer that sabermetricians fawn over. Add consistency at the level Nwogu attained during the Wolverines’ 2019 campaign, and the result is gaudy numbers.
The impressive nature of the then-sophomore designated hitter’s advanced statistics is perhaps best captured by comparing them to then-junior outfielder Jordan Brewer’s numbers. Brewer earned Big Ten Conference Player of the Year honors for his 2019 season and was named First Team All-America by College Baseball Foundation.
With that in mind, let’s begin with a straightforward statistic — runs created. Nwogu created 79.74 runs over the course of the 2019 season as compared to Brewer’s 57.34. Brewer's stellar season saw him selected in the third round of the 2019 MLB Draft, so Nwogu’s comparatively high number of runs created should not be scoffed at.
Additionally, Nwogu outperformed Brewer in weighted on-base average (wOBA), a stat that purports to display the average value of a hitter’s plate appearances. Nwogu clocked in at a .503 clip while Brewer reached an impressive, but not quite as high, .449.
To break these numbers to a more concrete level, Nwogu largely has his higher walk rate to thank for his numerical advantages. Nwogu kept pace with Brewer in terms of extra-base hits — a key component of compiling a lofty wOBA — and earned 19 more walks than Brewer.
Brewer may have earned more awards, but Nwogu’s campaign was a mathematician’s dream.
Advanced statistics are generally much less enamored with junior shortstop Jack Blomgren.
In both statistical categories mentioned earlier, Blomgren falls significantly behind Brewer and Nwogu. Blomgren created 38.87 runs and earned a .414 wOBA, but older-school baseball minds would argue that these numbers dramatize the gap between Nwogu’s and Blomgren’s 2019 production.
Blomgren’s .318 batting average was a mere three thousandths of a point below his more sabermetrics-friendly teammate, his .417 on-base percentage was just .018 lower than Nwogu’s and his 47 RBI’s bested Nwogu by one.
Conventional baseball wisdom states that Blomgren had only a slightly less productive season than Nwogu, and he is just a different type of hitter.
The two share comparable plate vision and speed. Blomgren compiling less than half of Nwogu’s extra-base hits points to the fact that Blomgren is much more of a singles hitter — an archetype that sabermetrics frown upon, but Michigan seems quite happy with.
The fact that both Nwogu and Blomgren have carved out important roles on Michigan’s team illustrates that the Wolverine’s place themselves squarely at the crossroads of traditional baseball and modern analytics.
Michigan coach Erik Bakich and his fellow coaches have brought a considerable amount of advanced statistics into the fold to determine where players hit in the lineup, but they, and their players, always maintain that at the end of the day, success is not about numbers. It is about how players compete.
Almost no one would argue against Nwogu’s value, but Bakich’s emphasis on competing has paid dividends in the case of Blomgren.
Sabermetricians may look down at his contact-swinging style, but Blomgren was just about as important as Nwogu to the team’s College World Series run in 2019. These same statisticians would likely have suggested either moving Blomgren to the leadoff spot or the bottom of the line-up, to take him out of situations where you wanted a batter to clear the bases, but Bakich is likely thankful he did not listen to the noise.
After all, Blomgren was named to the NCAA College World Series All-Tournament Team because he showed up in big moments for the Wolverines time and time again.
Michigan has featured both Nwogu and Blomgren near the top of its lineup because its coaches respect modern analytics without abandoning conventional wisdom, and the Wolverines have been better off for that decision.