We all know that Nick Ahmed is an elite defender at SS. Across the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Ahmed was third among all SS’s (minimum 1500 innings) with 32 DRS and second only to Andrelton Simmons (18.5) with 18.1 DRS/1000 innings. However, despite the amazing defense, Ahmed has struggled to be an even average-level player. In 2015, Ahmed only posted 2.5 bWAR and 1.6 fWAR thanks to his sub-par bat (66 wRC+). In 2016, he dropped below 1.0 WAR in both systems when his bat declined even further to a horrid 42 wRC+ (dead last among batters with at least 300 PA). Combine the poor results with less-than-stellar batted ball data and it seemed evident that Ahmed just wasn’t going to be able to hit at the MLB level.
Flash forward to today: Ahmed is currently sitting on a 91 wRC+, thanks in large parts to career highs in both BABIP (.322) and ISO (.183). What has changed?
There are several things for Ahmed that currently stand out. He’s sitting on a career-high in LD% and a career-low in IFFB%, both of which will help out his BABIP. His FB%, while still low, has ticked up from last season (from 30.3% to 32.6%) and when combined with the more-than-double-his-career 16.1% HR/FB%, explains the power spike.
These are good changes! But are they sustainable?
Let’s start with the obvious: that 16.1% HR/FB% seems to be a clear outlier to his career 7.7% mark. Let’s look at some of the factors driving this surge:
Ahmed Batted Ball Data
|Hard% on FBs:||42.00%||41.90%|
|Exit Velocity||86.6 MPH||85.2 MPH|
|LD/FB Exit Velocity||90.6 MPH||91.4 MPH|
Unfortunately, this doesn’t paint a great picture for Ahmed’s power surge. He does have higher Hard% and LD/FB Exit velocity, but that seems to be mostly in his grounders and his line drives - he isn’t hitting flyballs any harder than he was last year. Furthermore, his overall exit velocity is down, which is not a positive sign. The one other good thing here is an increase in pull% (especially on flyballs, which have gone from 14.5% to 51.6%!!!), so he might be able to see an increase in HR/FB%, but staying at or near the 16.0% mark seems very unlikely. For kicks, let’s look at his xHR/FB%:
xHR/FB% = 7.6%
Unfortunately, Ahmed’s selling out to pull flyballs doesn’t seem to suggest any meaningful gains for hitting more homers. The big driving factor here is that his barrels/BBE is still very low - likely due to no meaningful gain in flyball velocity.
Now, let’s look at xBABIP and xISO:
Well, there’s some positive news! Ahmed is suddenly looking at a pretty massive surge in BABIP, especially compared to his career .263 mark. I’ve mentioned before that Ahmed has been underperforming his BABIP in his career thus far, though a surge to .331 seems a bit high. This BABIP increase is seen almost entirely in his massive increase in Hard%. On one hand, it’s nice to see Ahmed hitting grounders and liners harder; on the other hand, the Statcast data above makes me question if he will sustain this Hard% going forward. As of now, we cannot say, but his current profile does suggest a BABIP surge to .330 or so.
The xISO of .135 is more in line with what I expect out of Ahmed, though .135 would represent a career high, slightly.
I have to be honest - I thought the data for Ahmed was going to be more positively compelling. I was really hoping that I’d be able to write this piece and then boldly claim that Ahmed should be our everyday SS.
Unfortunately, it seems like Ahmed’s 91 wRC+ is mostly smoke-and-mirrors. The current power surge doesn’t look to be sustainable. The increase in xBABIP, however, is a positive sign, but much of that will be lost if he doesn’t reverse course on his 23.3% K% (18.5% career mark). If Ahmed can cut down his Ks while maintaining his improved BABIP skills, he’ll raise his OBP floor by a decent amount - probably an empty .270 BA/.310 OBP that will give him just enough offense to be a fringe starter. But I don’t think that is enough to supplant Owings at SS.
The other concern is that the metrics (both DRS and UZR) suggest that Ahmed’s defense has slipped. Per the eye test, Ahmed has looked very good to me and we’re still in the small sample size portion of defensive valuation. But if the defensive metrics are right and Ahmed’s defense has slipped from elite to merely above-average, then he won’t be a fringe starter, even despite the improved BABIP skills.