As of Sunday’s game, the Blue Jays are a tenth of the way through their 2021 season. It’s too early to draw many conclusions, but enough time has passed for some interesting patterns to emerge that bear watching as the year goes on. 13 players have received double digit plate appearances so far this season (sorry Santiago Espinal). I’ve tried to find one interesting thing about each of them that helps explain how they got off to the start they did and that’s worth watching as they either try to sustain their performance or right the ship. A lot of this is probably noise that will fade as the year goes along, but at least some of it will end up being real changes that affect what we can expect from these hitters in the future.
- Vladimir Guerrero jr.: 37.2% ground ball rate. It would be overstating it to say that all of Guerrero’s improvement is due to elevating the ball more, but it certainly accounts for a big part. His 54.6% ground ball rate in 2020 was in the 92nd percentile of qualified hitters, his 2021 mark puts him in the 35th. He’s gone from being surrounded by slap hitters like David Fletcher and Nick Madrigal to line drive machines like Joey Votto and Nick Castellanos. That’s company that makes a lot more sense for the guy who has smashed more balls at over 110mph than any other player in baseball.
- Bo Bichette: 32.1% chase rate. Thus far in his career, Bichette has been an aggressive hitter and not a very selective one. He’s swung at 71.8% of pitches inside the zone, 5 percentage points more than league average, but also at 37.9% of pitches out of the zone, more than 9 points worse than the league. He’s taken a big stride in that area so far in 2021, though, chasing only 32.1% of the time while keeping his in-zone swing rate essentially unchanged. It hasn’t shown up in the form of more walks or fewer strikeouts quite yet, but Bichette’s improved pitch selection gives some evidence that he’s maturing as a hitter. Contact outside the zone ages worse than just about any other skill, so getting his aggression under control will be key to setting Bichette up for a long career.
- Randal Grichuk: 52.4% swing rate. There really isn’t anything unusual about Grichuk’s profile this year. If there’s one thing that might be changing, it’s that for the second year in a row he’s swinging even more, up 2.2 percentage points from his 2019 rate. It’s a slight trend, but strategically it makes sense for a player with a bad eye and iffy contact skills but real power to be aggressive. Deep counts aren’t going to work out well for him, by and large, but good things tend to happen when he puts the ball in play, so trying to do that a little more often can only help
- Marcus Semien: 41.7% hit under percentage. Semien has had an average launch angle higher than average every season since StatCast tracking began in 2015. This year he’s pushed that to an extreme, with a 23.5 degree mark that’s roughly double what the league’s doing. As a result, he’s hitting more than two out of five of his balls in play too high to have much chance of falling in for hits or reaching the fence. He’ll certainly see some positive regression in his .182 BABIP, but unless he can turn some cans of corn into line drives it may not be as much as he needs.
- Cavan Biggio: 25.0% chase rate. Biggio makes his living on his excellent batting eye. He’s a slightly below average contact hitter with below average raw power, so he relies on picking balls he can drive and avoiding giving away strikes. So far this year, though, his one elite tool hasn’t been showing up. His chase rate has nearly doubled from the 13.6% he posted between 2019 and 2020. Plate discipline isn’t a skill that tends to go away, so hopefully this is more about approach or confidence and he can get back to his usual ways at some point soon.
- Lourdes Gurriel jr.: 0.023 isolated power. Gurriel has one extra base hit through 48 PA, after averaging better than one every 10 through the first three years of his career. His StatCast numbers, though, all look pretty normal. He’s hit 40% of his balls in play hard in 2021, down from his 46% career norm, but not enough to really cause concern. His 11 degree launch angle is also right in line with his usual tendencies. His max exit velocity is down about 2 mph from last year, so it looks like he hasn’t really squared the ball up the way he can yet, but this one’s probably a blip rather than a real problem.
- Rowdy Tellez: 96.4mph average exit velocity. Rowdy is absolutely smoking the ball so far this season, with the fifth best average exit velocity among all hitters with at least 25 balls in play. It hasn’t translated into results yet, partly because an increase in his launch angle has turned some potential home runs into deep flies. It does show, though, that his core skill, some of the best left handed raw power in the game, remains intact. He’s also kept essentially all of last season’s gains in contact rate, with a 25% whiff rate that’s right in line with league average and well below his 2018 and 2019 numbers. Of all the Jays currently struggling at the plate, Rowdy would be my pick to flip the switch at any moment.
- Danny Jansen: .195 expected wOBA. This one’s a bit of a cheat. The point of this exercise is more to look at an individual component of what a guy’s doing than overall results. It’s difficult with Jansen, though, because almost everything is a mess. He’s doing a good job swinging at strikes, with a 76.1% swing rate inside the zone and only a 15.6% chase rate. It doesn’t really matter, though, because his contact rate on strikes has fallen 10 percentage points, and when he does make contact, more than 70% of the time it’s a grounder or an infield fly. 269 players have taken at least 30 PA so far, and Jansen’s .137 wOBA is fifth from the bottom. Unlike previous years, though, his .195 xwOBA (which accounts for expected results on batted balls by speed an launch angle) suggests that bad luck isn’t the main culprit this time.
- Josh Palacios: 38.1% hard hit rate. In spite of performing pretty consistently on his way up the minor league ladder, Palacios’ lack of game power kept scouts from considering him as more than a fringe prospect. He has never his 10 home runs in a season, and his .150 isolated power mark in AA in 2019 was a career high. So far in the major leagues, though, Palacios has managed to hit the ball hard at a rate a little above the major league average of 35%. It’s a tiny sample, but it at least hints that he might have just enough strength to allow him to carve out a role for himself.
- Teoscar Hernandez: 59.3% contact rate. Teoscar has always been an all or nothing hitter. Among 320 hitters who have amassed 1,000 PA over the past five seasons, his 91.4mph average exit velocity ranks 21st from the top while his 66.3% contact rate ranks 10th from the bottom. His whole approach relies on swinging out of his shoes and hoping he connects just often enough and hard enough to allow the dingers to outweigh the strikeouts. So far in 2021 the power part has shown up on schedule, with a 92.1mph exit velocity, but he simply hasn’t made enough contact for it to matter. No hitter has every sustained any kind of career with a contact rate that started with a 5. He’ll have to do better on his return from the COVID list, or last year’s apparent breakout will wind up looking more like a fluke.
- Alejandro Kirk: 13.8% strikeout rate. Kirk is only 54 PA into his major league career, but the early returns suggest that his knack for putting the ball in play has translated from the minors to the majors. His 29 PAs aren’t enough to qualify, but if they were he’d slot just inside the top 25 in terms of strikeout rate. Combine that with an impressive 43% hard hit rate and Kirk looks primed to deliver on the combination of average and power he promised in the minor leagues.
- Jonathan Davis: 20.4% chase rate. Davis has now gotten cups of coffee in four major league seasons, and each time he’s gotten a little more selective at the plate. In his 2017 debut, he swung outside the zone 37.5% of the time. The next season he lowered that to 29.7%, then 25.0%, and now 20.4%, all while keeping his in-zone swing rate essentially the same. Any playing time Davis gets will be because of his legs and his glove, not his bat, but the ability to work the occasional walk would at least help him limit the harm he does to the lineup and make him more viable as a fourth outfielder.
- Joe Panik: 0. The number of things that are interesting about Joe Panik.
I’ll be keeping an eye on these stats, and closer to halfway through the season I’ll revisit the list and see which of these numbers represented real trends and which were statistical oddities that regress over the course of the long season. For now, which of these do you buy as the most likely to be a real and important truth about the player?