MLB Players Bound to Improve: Hitters Edition
Hitting into bad luck is frustrating, but over time the results should come around. Here are some players who are better than the stats suggest.
We are officially past the 35-game point of the season for all teams, which is enough of a sample size to look at some players’ real versus expected metrics.
Many talented players are doing things in the right way largely, but their results on the field don’t accurately reflect that. While some of these players have still been productive players, there is room for much more over the course of the season.
For now, we’re going to look at the offensive side of the ball where many hitters with excellent exit velocity, hard-hit rates, and other factors show improvement is on the way. All of the metrics referenced in this are from prior to games played on 5/9.
Let’s dive into some hitters that should only get better from where they’re currently at today.
Real: .252/.272/.477, .317 wOBA
Expected: .303 xBA, .609 xSLG, .390 xwOBA
The Orioles are off to an excellent start as many of the young players have continued to improve and help the team win. While the pitching remains an issue, the offense has been consistently strong despite a very slow start from star youngster Gunnar Henderson.
A player that has taken a step forward since last year has been the powerful first baseman/designated hitter Ryan Mountcastle. He’s been a strong contributor to this point, but he’s got much more value he can provide given some of the highest expected metrics in all of baseball.
Mountcastle has always been able to hit the ball hard, but his rates have jumped higher than ever this season. He’s currently at career-high rates across the board as his hard-hit rate is all the way up to 48.7% and his barrel rate is at 17.1%, up from 46.2% and 15% last season, respectively. His zone contact is 3% higher than in 2022 as well.
The discrepancy between his real and expected slugging percentages is tied for the highest in the league with someone we’ll talk about later. He’s already got eight home runs but his expected home runs sits at 9.8 to this point. Furthermore, there are numerous ballparks in which he’d easily be into the double digits in home runs.
One of the only things holding back Mountcastle from an offense standpoint is his poor approach as he’s got the lowest walk rate and highest chase rate of his career to this point. He’s been consistently around a 7% walk rate but is all the way down at 3.2% this season.
If he can get back to around that average, he’ll get his OBP higher and allow the impressive offensive metrics to come through even more.
Mountcastle has continued to improve incrementally every season and while the baseline stats don’t show it yet, he has the ability to be a borderline elite hitter this season. He’s doing all the right things with his swing and an improved approach and some better luck could allow him to take the next step.
Real: .210/.273/.304, .261 wOBA
Expected: .258 xBA, .432 xSLG, .327 xwOBA
That initial stat line is something we’re certainly not used to seeing from George Springer. He’s off to probably the worst start of his career and while he has looked far from good, there’s reason to remain hopeful.
While age is definitely a factor and Springer regressed last season in comparison to earlier years, he’s much better than a 63 wRC+ and a -0.5 WAR. Springer was worth 4.2 WAR last season and should still be a productive player moving forward for the Jays.
The biggest concern to this point has been a career-low hard-hit rate of just 35.1% so far this year. That is definitely not ideal, but it shouldn’t equate to a slugging percentage just barely over .300. As seen above, his expected slugging is .432, which feels much more similar to the type of player Springer likely is at this point in his career.
While his average exit velocity is low right now, his max exit velocity is actually one of the highest ones of his whole career right now as he’s still capable of crushing baseballs. While the walk rate has dipped, Springer’s strikeout rate is actually the lowest of his career as he’s swinging and missing less than he used to. The biggest issue for Springer is simply being able to drive the ball more than he has this year. He has the highest soft-hit rate of his career right now.
With all of that said, Springer is not a .577 OPS hitter even with his decline as of late. The expected metrics and his history point to him being at least around a .700 OPS or better over a full season. His ability to regularly hit the ball on a line may be decreasing to some extent right now, but he’s going to be better than he has been to this point.
He may need to actually increase his aggressiveness at the plate to get himself back on track further. While this seems counterintuitive, he strived earlier in his career with a more aggressive approach and hasn’t been swinging as much this season. I don’t think expecting an All-Star season is realistic at this rate, but Springer is bound to improve on his brutal start to the year.
Real: .198/.252/.315, .247 wOBA
Expected: .272 xBA, .447 xSLG, .332 xwOBA
One of the biggest personalities in the league is off to a horrendous start coming off a career-best season in 2022. Josh Naylor is below the Mendoza Line right now and has just 22 hits over the course of the first 32 games of the year.
Naylor took a huge step forward, becoming a key cog in the Guardians lineup, when he drove 20 home runs last season with a career-best .771 OPS. This season his OPS has dropped all the way to .567 as he’s been one of many Cleveland hitters that has failed to do much so far.
He’s tied with the aforementioned Ryan Mountcastle for the largest difference between his real and expected slugging percentage as his real slugging percentage of .315 would currently be the worst of his career. However, when you look at the underlying numbers for Naylor, nothing really stands out as worrisome.
His hard-hit rate is the highest of his career at 45.6%, up a full 3% from last season. His average exit velocity is at a career-best level right now while his barrel rate is similar to previous seasons. His strikeout rate is slightly higher than last year, it’s far from alarming and his walk rate is consistent with past seasons.
Naylor has struggled more this season with breaking pitches than he used to in previous seasons. It’s always been an area of struggle for him but has definitely been a particularly poor aspect of his game today. Ultimately though, Naylor has simply been unlucky it feels like. His advanced batted ball metrics show that he’s hitting the ball even harder than in his 2022 season and he’s likely to get going soon. Expect to see Naylor back around what we saw from him last season.
Real: .242/.324/.364, .309 wOBA
Expected: .282 xBA, .451 xSLG, .357 xwOBA
Look, I am not saying Prime Yelich is back whatsoever. I will not be the guy to make that claim anytime soon, but there are some encouraging signs that Yelich could be a quality top-half-of-the-order leader for Milwaukee once again this season.
Yelich has fallen off a cliff in recent years after being the National League MVP in 2018 and seeming like a generational talent at the plate. This year hasn’t been much kinder to him at first glance, but he’s doing some things he hasn’t done in a while.
Yelich’s hard-hit rate is currently nearly 4% higher than in his MVP season as it sits at 54.7% right now, which is in the 95th percentile of the league. Furthermore, his average exit velocity is just a tad lower than it was at his peak and is in the 88th percentile.
One of the biggest issues with Yelich has been his incredibly low launch angle which has reduced his power output significantly. His launch angle is up 1% from last season and while it’s certainly not enough, it can’t hurt. He’s got four home runs to this point, which puts him on a marginally better pace than last season. The power still isn’t all the way there, but his increase in hard-hit balls could add a little more power back to his game.
Yelich is not the player he once was and that reality feels unlikely to change. That said, he can and should be better than he’s been in recent years to start this season. He’s hitting the ball hard right now and can absolutely get back to a .800 OPS hitter if things start clicking for him a bit more.
The Brewers’ offense needs him to produce at a higher level than he is right now despite their hot start and he has the ability to elevate the entire team.
Real: .270/.366/.451, .352 wOBA
Expected: .311 xBA, .560 xSLG, .415 xwOBA
This one might catch some people off guard as Kyle Tucker is not having a bad season by any means. Many may have expected to see his teammate Alex Bregam in a piece this like, but I found Tucker’s metrics to be really interesting.
Kyle Tucker has been good, but his expected numbers are at an MVP level, which we saw glimpses of during the 2021 season. He’s continued to be one of the most talented outfielders in the league over the past few seasons, but he definitely saw a marginal dip in production last season compared to 2021. He finished last year with a .808 OPS and has posted a .817 so far this season. But he should be much better honestly.
First of all, Tucker’s hitting the ball harder than last season with his hard-hit rate 3% higher this year. Furthermore, his average exit velocity of 91.4 MPH is the exact same as it was in 2021. His expected metrics are off the charts and ranked toward the top of the league across the board. Everything he’s doing right now has been better than last year despite the standard numbers being around the same.
Another element that points to even more to come is that Tucker currently has the best strikeout and walk rates of his career as he’s walking nearly as much as he’s striking out.
His zone contact is also at an absurd 91.7% right now as he’s been more selective and is attacking the pitches he likes more than ever. His approach is the best it has been while he’s hitting the ball at an elite level and getting unlucky at the plate.
He’s been good, but he could be incredible this season if he gets some better luck on his side moving forward. He has a 124 wRC+ right now but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at least 140 or better by the end of the season.