Hitters Whose 2020 We Should Ignore
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
I am grouping Meadows and Moncada together because their 2020 seasons were both derailed by contracting COVID-19. Meadows’ positive test came to light July 17th, during summer camp and Moncada’s positive came earlier in camp.
Meadows didn’t get onto the field until August 4th, and he struggled to make contact through the entire season. Meadows chased more often, upping his o-swing% from 27.4% in 2019 to 31.8% in 2020, and he combined a propensity to chase with less contact on pitches inside and outside the zone. All these factors led to a 12.5% swstr% and 32.9% strikeout rate. While Meadows still hit the ball relatively hard, shown by his 90.4 average exit velocity, the strikeouts tanked any chance he had of having a productive season. These struggles also continued into the postseason and Meadows was limited to platoon duties after returning from a mid-September oblique injury.
Moncada also saw his strikeout rate increase, from 27.5% in 2019 to 31.2% in 2020. Unlike Meadows, Moncada didn’t have issues making contact. Moncada backed off his aggressive approach from 2019 and increased his contact across the board, but still saw his strikeout rate jump. From a skills perspective, Moncada doesn’t look like a 30%+ strikeout rate player, and if his contact rates remain decent, he should see that regress back into the 27% range.
The clear factor in each player’s disappointing season was COVID-19 and the possible aftereffects. Moncada was vocal during the season about the effect COVID-19 had on his strength and conditioning, and the usually powerful swing Moncada carries wasn’t present in 2020. Moncada’s average exit velocity fell from 93.1 MPH in 2019 to 87.8 MPH in 2020, his hard-hit rate dropped from 47.9% in 2019 to 33.1% in 2020 and he failed to hit a ball over 110 MPH. Moncada should be physically recovered coming in 2021, and with that his hard contact and production should also recover.
Meadows wasn’t explicit in talking about how COVID-19 affected his play but the general lack of rhythm from missing the beginning of the season as well as the oblique strain he suffered later on in the season provide plenty of explanation for the cratering of his production. There are concerns of Meadows becoming a platoon bat in Tampa with the depth of options Kevin Cash has at his disposal, but if Meadows comes in 2021 healthy and looks like the 2019 breakout player, there isn’t any way the Rays can hold him out of the lineup.
Yelich was able to repeat his MVP level 2018 in 2019, causing some in the fantasy community to vault him to the #1 overall player spot. His 2020 was a surprising let down given his multiple years as an elite player. The underlying causes of Yelich’s struggles are likely going to regress closer to his career results.
Like most hitters around MLB, Yelich was much more passive than he was in normal seasons. In his prior two seasons, he recorded a 44% swing rate and then a 45.2% swing rate. In 2020 this dropped down to 34.6%. Yelich’s 60.1% z-swing rate was the lowest of his career, and when he did swing, he made contact at a career-worst rate of 68.2%. These factors contributed to a 30.6% strikeout rate. Many hitters have a tendency to swing less earlier in the season before becoming more aggressive as the season goes on. With only 60 games hitters didn’t have as long of an opportunity to react to how pitchers were attacking them, and many fell into poor numbers without adequate time to normalize them. Given Yelich’s sudden passivity, he likely fits this group of hitters and should return with more aggressiveness in 2021.
The other major factor in Yelich hitting .205 was his luck on balls in play. Prior to 2020, Yelich’s lowest BABIP was .336. His career BABIP is .354. In 2020 his BABIP was only .259. The primary culprit was Yelich’s productivity on ground balls. Despite a career .272 BABIP on ground balls, Yelich only hit .175 on ground balls in 2020. The rate at which Yelich pulled his ground balls only went up from 56.5% to 57.1% and his average exit velocity on ground balls remained steadily at 91 MPH, but the way teams shifted Yelich changed from 2019 to 2020. The number of shifts Yelich faced went from 32.3% to 54.3% from 2019 to 2020, likely explaining his struggles with ground balls. Even with this explanation, Yelich posted a .250 xBA and .365 xwOBA, suggesting the .259 BABIP was a result of poor fortune.
Yelich did struggle during spring training and summer camp leading into the 2020 season, and it seemed like he never completely got into the rhythm of the odd season, but this isn’t unreasonable given the bizarre nature in which the year unfolded. Assuming better luck with his ground balls and a positive regression of his strikeout rate, Yelich should bounce back in a big way in 2021.
Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve
Correa and Altuve both struggled mightily in the regular season but seemingly found their former selves on the sport’s biggest stage. For Correa, his struggles stemmed from an unruly approach that cut his walk rate and led to a lot of pulled ground balls. Correa’s 49.7% ground ball rate was his highest since 2016 and he pulled 63.2% of these ground balls; a greater rate than he ever has before. His 33.9% o-swing% and 47% swing% were also the highest of his career. As for Altuve, he also employed an overaggressive approach which led to a career-worst 18.6% strikeout rate and poor quality of contact. His 38.2% o-swing% was the highest of his career and it contributed to his .280 xwOBA and .303 xwOBAcon.
The pair of teammates rebounded in the postseason, showing the offensive skillset they’ve had most of their careers. Correa wreaked havoc in the postseason, employing a sounder approach and consistently hitting balls in excess of 100 MPH. He slashed .362/.455/.766 with six HRs and a 14.5% walk rate in 55 postseason plate appearances. Altuve also looked more comfortable in the postseason, putting up an impressive .375/.500/.729 slash line with an 18.3% walk rate and five home runs. In a normal season, a poor two-month start likely would have been long forgotten by September as hitters get into the rhythm of the season and make adjustments as needed. That luxury was not afforded to hitters in 2020. A poor first few weeks left an indelible mark on a number of player’s seasons, and for players like Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve who had the opportunity to play an extra month of baseball, it shows how quickly good hitters can turn their season around. Given the villain status Correa and Altuve bear along with their poor regular season results, their draft costs should be a value as we move towards 2021.
Torres’s 2020 struggles don’t appear to have any specific source, but a mediocre two-month stretch shouldn’t negate the demonstrated upside and still untapped potential of the 24-year old. Torres produced a 122 wRC+ and 125 in his age-21 and age-22 seasons respectively. He popped 24 HRs in 484 plate appearances in 2018 and 38 HRs in 604 plate appearances in 2019, numbers which were very valuable for a player eligible at 2B. Torres has a track record most other players his age would struggle to match, and the pedigree he came to the majors with also makes it easier to give Gleyber the benefit of the doubt on his poor 2020.
There are legitimate questions about the viability of Torres in 2021. Along with a down 2020 season, Gleyber also lost his 2B eligibility after spending the entire season at shortstop. The depth currently at shortstop makes it harder to buy Torres when similarly, skilled shortstops are likely available later. Torres also has never made quality contact. For his career, he has an average exit velocity of 89 MPH and an xwOBA of .343. These are better than league average and good results, but hardly dominant and not what you would expect from a player whose primary value is hitting home runs.
It’s possible to overlook these shortcomings given Torres has demonstrated he can hit fly balls (even in his down 2020 he had a healthy 38.9% fly-ball rate) and his fly balls take advantage of the dimensions allotted to him by Yankee Stadium and the other advantageous parks in the American League East. Combined with manageable strikeout rates and fine walk rates, Torres looks like a player with a stable skillset and upside for more production in the near future. His 2020 was disappointing, but it was a relatively insignificant sample compared to the over 1,000 plate appearances prior to 2020 where he was a very good hitter. Torres also put together an impressive postseason run to close out 2020 as well, slashing .435/.567/.696 with more walks than strikeouts.