It wasn’t just pitchers who dealt with the abnormal circumstances of the 2020 season. Hitters also had to adapt to the abrupt scheduling changes, COVID-19 protocols, and games without fans. Not every player was able to make the proper adjustments over the course of the regular season, but this doesn’t necessarily indicate a decline in skill to project into 2021. The number of recognizable names who had career-worst seasons in 2020 was expected given the volatility of results in small sample sizes, but it is important to not overreact to the outlier results and be cautious in adjudicating what will continue into 2021 from 2020 and what was a true fluke. Here is a group of hitters whose 2020 numbers we should overlook heading into the 2021 season.
Pederson’s need for a platoon partner makes him more of a daily lineup option even when he’s playing well. Regardless, Joc’s 2020 struggles don’t provide an accurate reflection of the type of hitter he is. Coming off a 2019 season where he hit 37 home runs, Pederson posted a .190 batting average and 88 wRC+ in a tumultuous 2020.
Pederson did struggle with some key aspects of his game. His groundball rate spiked over 48%, the highest rate of his career. Pederson's contact rate and zone contact rates also cratered, leading his swing strike rate to jump to 13.5%, his highest since 2015. Ultimately his struggles with contact to a 24.6% strikeout rate, his worst since 2016. These are all legitimate problems Pederson will have to resolve in order to rebound, but it is important to remember these results came in a 138 plate appearance sample where Pederson was in and out of the lineup for various reasons. A poor six-week stretch worth of games doesn’t overshadow the progress Pederson had made the prior three seasons in terms of reducing his strikeout rate and making quality contact. Pederson also seems more vulnerable to long hot and cold stretches than the normal hitter, which could explain his 2020 results.
Despite the poor results, Pederson’s quality of contact was mostly the same as his strong 2019 season. Pederson’s average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit percentage were all in line with his 2019 season. His .325 xwOBA was well over his actual .293 wOBA. Even with going through a poor stretch, Pederson was still making quality contact, and his 2020 season was inhibited by poor luck. It also helps that Pederson showed most of his normal self when the Dodgers got to the postseason, slashing .382/.432/.559 on their way to a title. If he can mend the contact issues he suffered from in 2020 he should return to being a viable daily lineup league asset while hitting 25-30 home runs.
Soler’s 2019 breakout was predicated on a substantial improvement in the quality of contact he made, and Soler kept most of his on-contact improvements into the 2020 season. The source of the struggles came from striking out too much and an oblique injury he suffered during the season.
Strikeouts are nothing new for Soler, who owns a career 27.9% strikeout rate. Given how well Soler does when he does make contact, a strikeout rate in the 26%-27% range is likely manageable, but in 2020 he struck out 34.5% of the time. Many of these strikeouts came from an unusually passive approach. Soler’s 37.9% swing rate was by far the lowest of his career, and he only swung at pitches in the strike zone 58.7% of the time (for reference, the league average was 67.8%). Soler did post lower than normal contact rates, specifically on pitches in the strike zone, but most of his strikeout struggles came when he wasn’t swinging.
There doesn’t appear to be any obvious reason for why Soler took such a passive approach to the plate. The swing rate and strikeout rate look like pretty clear outliers compared to what he has shown prior in his career. If his strikeout rate does regress towards 27%, we should be able to get up towards a .260 batting average and 35-40 home runs. His status as a utility only player on some formats does limit his value, but we should expect a legitimate bounce back from Soler in 2021.
The 2020 season was a struggle for almost everyone on the Colorado Rockies roster, and Nolan Arenado was not exempt from these struggles. The usually consistent performer found himself with a .253/.303/.434 slash line. Arenado struggled to hit for average despite a 10% strikeout rate and minuscule 7.5% swstr%. In mid-September in came out Arenado had been battling through a shoulder ailment, and by September 21st his season was over. This injury provides clarity as to the strange struggles Arenado faced.
Arenado’s quality of contact statistics were usually underwhelming, but in 2020 they bottomed out. His 87.8 MPH average exit velocity, .275 xwOBA, 5.4% barrel rate, .278 xwOBAcon, and 33.7% hard-hit rate were all the worst of his career and below the league average. Clearly, his shoulder was inhibiting him from impacting the ball like he normally has for the past half-decade, and the results were a poor offensive output and an early close to his season. A clean bill of health heading into 2021 should bring Arenado back to his .280+ batting average and 30+ home run form, assuming he is not traded.
Austin Meadows and Yoan Moncada