MLB, Read

Swingers Who Are So Money and Don’t Even Know It

Where else on the Internet will you find 90s movie quotes as a gateway to baseball statistics?

In my most recent blog that addressed the Yankees’ offseason, I outlined the two main issues plaguing their offense (and the team at large):

  1. Poor Swing Decisions
  2. Lack of Quality Contact

That got me thinking: who are the hitters that do both of those things well? And who among them is doing so under the radar? The following piece won’t necessarily center on the Yankees, rather hitters who deserve more quality results to match their quality swings. (And if the Yankees decide to target anyone among them, so be it!)

There are a few different ways to categorize bad discipline at the plate, whether that be impatience, chase rate, etc. In this particular case, the definition behind “poor swing decisions” will apply to the proportion of total swings to swings on pitches in the strike zone. Basically, are you swinging when it’s most advantageous to swing? This is a good barometer for plate discipline without any context, though the context here is that the Yankees swung at only two-thirds of pitches in the zone in 2022 – second worst in baseball ahead of only the Pirates. Here is that Top 10, converted into a plus statistic to make it more digestible. (As a refresher, a player with a 120+ rating is 20% above league average at that stat.)

  1. Brandon Belt (SFG): 147
  2. Kyle Tucker (HOU): 147
  3. Ji-Man Choi (TBR, now PIT): 140
  4. Alex Bregman (HOU): 136
  5. Jesse Winker (SEA, now MIL): 134
  6. Luke Voit (SDP/WAS, now FA): 134
  7. JD Davis (NYM/SFG): 133
  8. Chris Taylor (LAD): 132
  9. Ronald Acuna Jr (ATL): 132
  10. George Springer (TOR): 131
  • You think the modern Astros have a type? Three of the key cogs of their fake pseudo dynasty appear in this Top 10, including Kyle Tucker tied for the top spot. It’s wildly impressive how much of an edge the 25 year-old Tucker has over his peers; Brandon Belt, the only other batter in his tier, is a decade older than Tucker and has already begun to fall off a cliff. Tucker had his BABIP fall from .303 in 2020 and .304 in 2021 to .261 in 2022, and he is also among the elite in the league when it comes to K:BB rate. He’s going to keep getting on base via hits and walks while seldom striking out, and he pairs that up with 30 homer, 25 steal ability. I’d consider Tucker a strong MVP candidate over the next few seasons.
  • It’s not a coincidence that four of the ten hitters on this list have been traded within the past 365 days: Choi, Winker, Voit and Davis. Hitters can adjust launch angle and study film and trends as much as they’d like, but this level of split-second recognition and decision-making can’t really be taught. It makes sense that teams target this skill and hope that better results in other departments follow.
  • It’s pretty shocking to me that Luke Voit remains a free agent. You’d think that a slugger who’s this good at taking hacks at pitches in the zone to go along with his raw power would have been scooped up quickly, especially after he was non-tendered by the Nationals. He doesn’t offer any defensive versatility and he’s mediocre at first base, but Voit could realistically pop 40 homers with a clean bill of health and he’s likely available for around $5mil.
  • It’s terrifying that Ronald Acuna Jr. is this good at identifying meaty pitches. A multitude of injuries totally robbed him of his power in 2022, with his ISO falling from .331 in 2020 and .313 in 2021 to just .148 in 2022. Assuming better health moving forward, Acuna could be the next player to hit 50 longballs in a season.
  • Chris Taylor’s inclusion on the list isn’t meaningless, given that it’s a primary reason why a player of his stature has two seasons of 20+ homers to his name. That said, Taylor basically swings at everything – as evidenced by his 35.2% K% (worst in MLB for players with as many PA).

For good measure, here are the Bottom 10 hitters in this department. Eh, let’s make Bottom 11 to include one specific guy who I may or may not tweet about incessantly.

336. Jose Trevino (NYY): 54

335. Francisco Mejia (TBR): 59

334. Jose Iglesias (COL, now FA): 59

333. Diego Castillo (PIT, now ARI): 61

332. Joey Wendle (MIA): 61

331. Javy Baez (DET): 62

330. David Fletcher (LAA): 63

329. Oneil Cruz (PIT): 64

328. Daniel Vogelbach (PIT/NYM): 66

327. Luis Garcia (WAS): 68

326. Isiah Kiner-Falefa (NYY): 69

No stat alone defines the worth of a hitter, this one included. To give a more well-rounded – yet still not totally comprehensive – definition behind swing value, let’s address that secondary issue of “lack of quality contact” mentioned earlier by incorporating Expected Batting Average. xBA isn’t an Epiblogue Original (™); it’s a Statcast metric that expands upon batting average with historical defensive outcomes, exit velocity, launch angle and Sprint Speed. The leaderboard is linked here, and for quick viewing here is the top of it:

  1. Yordan Alvarez (HOU): .329
  2. Freddie Freeman (LAD): .313
  3. Michael Brantley (HOU): .310
  4. Aaron Judge (NYY): .305
  5. Tim Anderson (CHW): .302
  6. Jose Abreu (CHW, now HOU): .296
  7. Christian Arroyo (BOS): .292
  8. Alec Bohm (PHI): .290
  9. Vinnie Pasquantino (KCR): .289
  10. Yandy Diaz (TBR): .288
  11. Bryce Harper (PHI): .288
  12. Luis Arraez (MIN): .287

With this data, next turned into another plus statistic, we can better answer the final question of: who is swinging at the optimal pitches AND who is doing the most with them? Like I said earlier, these results aren’t comprehensive; power is namely the outlier here. Still, power is probably the easiest tool within a hitting profile to peg, whether it be by home run count or the much-simpler “just look at him.” Also, xBA heavily weighs exit velocity so you’ll find sluggers like Alvarez and Judge ahead of slap-hitters like Arraez and David Fletcher despite similar actual batting averages. There is a fairly clear top tier once the plus statistics of swings-to-zone swings and xBA are combined, with the top two in a tier of their own:

  1. Kyle Tucker (HOU): 255
  2. Freddie Freeman (LAD): 255
  3. Yordan Alvarez (HOU): 249
  4. Corey Seager (TEX): 245
  5. Bryce Harper (PHI): 245
  6. Ronald Acuna Jr (ATL): 245
  7. Aaron Judge (NYY): 243
  8. Alex Bregman (HOU): 243
  9. George Springer (TOR): 241

Well, that’s an encouraging end result for this research if I’ve ever seen one! Basically a “who’s who” of the purest hitters in the game. Let’s dig deeper for hidden gems now that this methodology checks out. Below is the list of the 26 hitters who were at least 10% above league average when it came to both swings-to-zone swings and xBA. The names in bold are those who come as a surprise listed among the best hitters in the game, so I’ll go into a bit of detail on each. 

Freddie Freeman, Yordan Alvarez, Corey Seager, Bryce Harper, Ronald Acuna Jr, Aaron Judge, George Springer, Andrew Benintendi, Jeff McNeil, Vinnie Pasquantino, Yandy Diaz, Shohei Ohtani, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Riley, Bryan De La Cruz, Manny Machado, Max Kepler, Bo Bichette, Josh Bell, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Taylor Ward, Brendan Rodgers, Mike Trout, Justin Turner, Danny Jansen, Juan Soto

Vinnie Pasquantino’s inclusion within this threshold is remarkable. Pasquantino just completed his rookie season in Kansas City and this list is comprised almost entirely of veteran players; in fact, there are only two other players on this list who debuted since 2020. Pasquantino earned Top 100 prospect status behind his plus hit tool, but that he stepped right into MLB batter’s boxes and didn’t miss a beat is extremely rare. He also walked more than he struck out (1 of 8 hitters) and was on pace for 20 homers across a full season of at bats. It’s normally easy to poke holes in a rookie’s slash line when it looks like .295/.383/.450, but everything about it seems legit for Pasquantino. If you are betting on the next Freddie Freeman, look no further.

I’ve come to respect Ryan Mountcastle’s game as someone who watches a ton of AL East baseball, but his ranking here insinuates that bigger things may be ahead for him. If you tighten the parameters to 15% above league average for both stats, Mountcastle still qualifies as only 1 of 8 hitters among this rare company: Freeman, Seager, Harper, Judge, McNeil, Pasquantino, Ohtani. (He’s identical to Ohtani in both stats.) Unlike Pasquantino though, Mountcastle posted relatively normal base-level offensive production in 2022 with a .250/.305/.423 slash line, with a wRC+ slightly above average and rRC+ slightly below average. I’m bigly buying the breakout here though. Normally, Statcast’s “Expected Home Runs by Park” tool is more for fun than anything, but its disparities by ballpark are jarring in Mountcastle’s case. He hit 22 homers in 2022, though Statcast says that he would have hit forty in Cincinnati, 36 in Houston, 35 in Colorado, 32 in Anaheim, etc. Basically, he got totally screwed by the Orioles’ decision to push back the leftfield wall outside of the city limits. Video examples like this are plentiful. There isn’t much of a weakness in Mountcastle’s swing, he handles all pitches types, and he isn’t too slow. At only 25 years old in a blossoming Baltimore lineup, he might be on the cusp of becoming a .270 hitter with 35 home run power. That’s basically Austin Riley.

If there is one of these hitters who truly stunned me – someone who logs hours looking at baseball stats – by being here, it’s Bryan De La Cruz. I’ll be honest; I don’t know much about De La Cruz beyond the box score outside of a few live reps at nearby Nationals Park. He had a sneaky strong rookie season in 2021 but then had only underlying reasons for excitement in 2022, posting a pedestrian .252/.294/.432 slash line across a larger sample size. Data is data and De La Cruz’s is strong; he even put up a great Barrel% of 11.9% too. Considering his lack of pedigree and that he was a 26 year-old sophomore, I’m tempted to say that this is fluky. Still, De La Cruz is absolutely worth keeping an eye on going into 2023, and he’s just about the only Marlins hitter that can be said about.

The Red Sox have been crushed for their offseason, rightfully so for multiple reasons. I think their addition of Justin Turner was a shrewd move, though. Turner is a known commodity but his consistency within the Dodgers’ machine has been taken for granted. Turner is no longer the sneaky MVP candidate that he was in 2017-2018, but since 2019 he’s remained firmly above average at the plate with nearly identical results each year. His power is probably dwindling, which – duh, he’s old. But his decision to move to Fenway at the twilight of his career was smart, since the Green Monster will compensate for that fading power with an increase in pulled singles and doubles. I’d wager that Turner does a good Xander Bogaerts impression with his bat in 2023.

This last group is more of a bucket of guys that I have covered in detail across a variety of my blogs this offseason: Max Kepler, Josh Bell, Danny Jansen and Brendan Rodgers. Still, despite having already written about him more than the others, I chose to put Rodgers’ name in bold because I didn’t expect to see him here. I knew that Bell and Jansen are underrated and that Kepler is a god of underlying stats, but I’d previously praised Rodgers for other reasons: defense, offensive production compared to other second baseman, opposite field power, etc. But to see him here too among other flat-out hitters, positional and ballpark factors stripped away? Please save this man from the Colorado Rockies. Time to meme:

New Year, New Positive PJ that only writes about the good in players. Nah, not really. But still, I’ll condense this section of red flags within the swing data to a lightning round: 

  • There is minimal reason for hope behind Jose Trevino’s bat. This shouldn’t come as much of a shock to Yankee fans after Trevino crashed back down to earth in the second half of the season, with a .626 OPS compared to a .714 OPS in the first half. It’s also not that much of a concern given that Trevino was literally the best defensive player in the league, but it spotlights the need for the team to continue to bolster its offense around him.
  • Even if Oneil Cruz is a total alien when it comes to his arm and exit velocities, I’d be nervous about banking much of my organizational future on him. He’s still very young, sure, but he’s basically swinging blindfolded at the moment and his xBA has no business being subpar given how fast and strong he is. Considering he’ll likely call a corner outfield position home in his near future instead of shortstop, Cruz might be on a trajectory similar to that of Joey Gallo. Pittsburgh may be internally ok with that, but that might sound harsh to most fans given the hype around Cruz.
  • There are only 7 hitters who finished at least 10% below league average when it came to both swings-to-zone swings and xBA, and most of them won’t come as a surprise to baseball fans: Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, Joey Bart, Jose Siri, Brian Serven, and Pavin Smith. But then there is also…Daulton Varsho, who was just traded to Toronto for one of the best catching prospects in years in Gabriel Moreno. I get it that Varsho’s value is closely tied to his glove and that pull power isn’t well reflected in this analysis…but yikes.
  • If you are looking for a superstar-caliber player that this exercise comes closest to exposing, it’s likely Michael Harris of the Braves. I have no agenda to crap on a 21 year-old kid who just won Rookie of the Year, and I think Harris will remain a valuable contributor for the Braves with an awesome glove in centerfield and a lefty bat atop the lineup. His plate discipline is just quite bad at the moment, with poor pitch selection on top of poor walk and strikeout rates. Even if Harris can fly, his .361 BABIP is inflated and his 19 homers were an aberration compared to his power in the minors (7 HRs in 101 A+ games in 2021). He’s also bound to get peppered with breaking balls moving forward, concerning given that he batted .375 with a .708 SLG against four-seamers and .238 with a SLG closer to .400 against sliders and curveballs. Perhaps Harris is a true outlier, but it’s not wise to bet on outliers so fresh into a player’s career. If he settles in as a good centerfielder who averages between 10-15 HRs and SBs per season while batting around .250 with low OBPs, I wouldn’t be surprised. (That’s also 2015-2017 Michael A. Taylor.)

Thank you, as always, for reading! Follow on Twitter @Real_Peej

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