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Statcast Review - Noteworthy xBA/xSLG Hitting Leaders

Thanks to its abbreviated schedule, the 2020 MLB season resulted in some unusual outcomes. Michael Conforto posted the highest full-season BABIP since Ty Cobb in 1913, Luke Voit was on pace for 60 home runs, and Robbie Ray walked a ridiculous 18% of the batters he faced.

xStats were not immune to that weirdness, xBA and xSLG included. After only 11 qualified batters posted an xSLG above .600 between 2015 and 2019, nine did so in 2020 alone. 

The effects of a short season are important to keep in mind as a result, and they are discussed further in the methodology section. 60 games can be enough to provide valuable information about player performances though, and the players expanded on below are all worth examining.

 

Methodology

One side effect of the shortened 2020 season is that changes in player performances must be presented with a sample-size-related caveat. As a baseline, below are some key stabilization points that are particularly relevant to this article.

Stat Stabilization Point
BA 910 AB
OBP 460 PA
SLG 320 AB
K% 60 PA
BB% 120 PA
HR% 170 PA

Importantly, the stabilization point is only the point at which the metric is more signal than noise. A player with 61 plate appearances is more likely to maintain their strikeout rate than a player with 20 plate appearances, but larger samples can be much more predictive. It should be no surprise, then, that some qualified batters posted much better xBAs and xSLGs than what is usually possible. For reference, below are the xBA and xSLG leaderboards for qualified batters in 2019.

Given that no hitter came within even 70 AB of a “stabilized” SLG, some of the unusually high leaders on the lists below should be less than surprising. Even only 200 at-bat’s worth of information can provide clues into whether or not hitters made significant changes though, and that should be kept in mind.

 

2020 xBA Leaders

Name xBA
Jose Iglesias 0.358
Freddie Freeman 0.341
Juan Soto 0.332
Corey Seager 0.330
Salvador Perez 0.325
Jake Cronenworth 0.324
DJ LeMahieu 0.315
Gio Urshela 0.315
Marcell Ozuna 0.315
Luis Arraez 0.312

Jose Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels

How it happened: a ton of contact and surprisingly average power.

Orioles hitting coach Don Long compared Iglesias to Hanser Alberto just before the start of the 2020 MLB season, suggesting that improved plate discipline rather than a swing change would help Iglesias be a more productive hitter. Four months later, Iglesias finished the 2020 season with a characteristically high 37.7% chase rate (38.4% career average) but a league-best .358 xBA and a career-high .956 OPS.

Instead of changing his plate approach, Iglesias posted career-best contact quality metrics across the board, including a 36.5% hard-hit rate, an 86.2 mph average exit velocity, and a .401 xwOBAcon. After never ranking higher than the fifth percentile in average hard-hit rate since Statcast began tracking the metric in 2015, Iglesias managed to crack the 36th percentile in 2020.

Notably, Iglesias’ hard-hit gains were exclusively localized to fastballs, his max exit velocity was not a career-high, and he had a similar hot streak back in 2013. And although hard-hit rate tends to stabilize around 45 batted balls (Iglesias hit 83 fastballs and 43 non-fastballs in 2020), 2020 was still a fairly small sample size for Iglesias. That said, Iglesias never hit the ball so consistently hard since at least 2015, and there’s a real chance that his power increase will stick in 2021 as a result. The move to a loaded Angels lineup rather than the Orioles means fantasy managers should target Iglesias as a high-upside bench piece in drafts as a result, making him a solid option at his 381 ADP.

Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

How it happened: 2018’s power bump is here to stay.

Before undergoing Tommy John surgery after the 2018 season, Perez managed to post a (Statcast era) career-high 47.5% hard-hit rate that topped his previous best by more than eight points. That power jump stuck in 2020, when Perez posted a 47% hard-hit rate. Perez was significantly more effective in 2020, though, with his xwOBAcon improving by 91 points to .496 in 2020.

Launch angle improvements and a little luck can explain the difference in xwOBAcon, with Perez getting under the ball less frequently in 2020, cutting his infield fly-ball rate by four points. On the luck front, Perez benefited from an unusually high rate of low exit velocity, ideal launch angle balls that can account for some of his likely unsustainable success in the shadow zone.

Still, there’s no reason to expect Perez’s power to regress substantially in 2021, giving him a realistic xwOBAcon floor of .400. That’s enough for fantasy managers to expect Perez to post a batting average around .270 and a slugging percentage around .500; not quite 2020’s elite production, but more than serviceable for a catcher.

Jake Cronenworth, San Diego Padres

How it happened: elite contact skills and an early-season burst of power.

Cronenworth put on a clinic in his 54-game rookie season, pairing a patient plate approach (22.4% chase rate) with elite contact skills (92% z-contact rate, 5.8% swinging-strike rate) and solidly above-average power (42.7% hard-hit rate). Fantasy managers should temper their expectations for Cronenworth for 2021 though, specifically when it comes to his power. After hitting only 22 home runs over 504 minor league games, Cronenworth enjoyed a burst of power to open his major league career that faded over the course of the season, taking his overall performance with it.

It’s worth noting that Cronenworth added some muscle in 2019 that showed up to the tune of a .182 ISO and 10 home runs for the year (97 games), but it still seems optimistic to expect anything much more than league average power out of Cronenworth in 2021. Cronenworth already underperformed his .324 xBA by 39 points last season, and a .280 batting average with an OPS around or slightly below .800 is a reasonable expectation heading into 2021.

Gio Urshela, New York Yankees

How it happened: an improved plate approach.

Urshela took a contact-quality-driven jump in his game in 2019, and he followed it up with improved plate discipline in 2020. Despite seeing an expected but mild (and possibly bone-spur-related) decline in contact quality in 2020, Urshela nearly doubled his walk rate to 10.3% and improved his xwOBA by 11 points.

Under the hood, Urshela cut his chase rate by 11 points to 30.8%, justifying his elevated walk rate. Urshela also cut his swinging-strike rate down in large part thanks to his decreased chase rate, resulting in a four-point strikeout rate improvement as well. Urshela’s 143 PA sample is just over the stabilization point for walk rate (120 PA), but it’s not enough to solidify Urshela’s chances of maintaining his improved approach in 2021. Still, Urshela is likely to maintain at least some of his 2020 gains, and fantasy managers should expect the 29-year-old to post a batting average near .300 with an OPS around .850 once again in 2021 as a result.

 

2020 xSLG Leaders

Name xSLG
Juan Soto 0.691
Freddie Freeman 0.660
Bryce Harper 0.657
Corey Seager 0.653
Marcell Ozuna 0.638
Salvador Perez 0.624
Teoscar Hernandez 0.613
Mike Trout 0.613
Fernando Tatis Jr. 0.612
Brandon Belt 0.598

Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies

How it happened: a typical Bryce Harper hot streak at the right time.

Before digging into Harper’s xSLG, it’s worth pointing out that the 28-year-old walked a whopping 20% of the time in 2020, a mark that is likely to fall back towards 15% in 2021. With that out of the way, Harper enjoyed one of his better offensive seasons in 2020, posting a .657 xSLG that dwarfed his previous career-high xSLG and actual 2020 SLG. I don’t want to understate how great Harper was in 2020 -- very few players could match Harper’s actual production over any 58 game stretch, much less his xStats -- but Harper has had these kinds of stretches in the past.

As impressive as Harper’s 2020 season was, nothing about it should change the way fantasy managers feel about him. Harper’s downside really isn’t all that low, but it is compared to some other players with his upside, and that’s how it’s been for most of his career. At this point, Harper’s realistic fantasy floor is probably somewhere around a .850 OPS with 10 stolen bases and 30 home runs, but he still has as much upside as anyone and is a relatively safe bet to continue hitting at an elite level.

Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

How it happened: a return to full health.

Seager put together the best season of his career in 2020, outperforming even his impressive rookie season that saw him rank third in NL MVP voting. Seager’s 2020 success comes with a boring but notable explanation: he had a fully healthy season and offseason for the first time since 2016. Seager himself even attributed much of his improved performance to a return to full health, and it’s an explanation that fits well with his past performance and injury history.

That’s not to say that 2020 was what every fully-healthy season from Seager will look like. A .653 xSLG from Seager is probably unsustainable, as are many of his 2020 power metrics which likely benefited from a hot streak and a relatively small sample size. Still, it’s clear that the only real question when it comes to Seager is his health. A fully healthy Seager is a top-three fantasy shortstop and worth an easy top-20 pick in drafts, but fantasy managers will have to be comfortable with the 26-year-old’s lengthy injury history before drafting him at his 26 ADP this year.

Teoscar Hernandez, Toronto Blue Jays

How it happened: more power and more line drives.

Hernandez was nearly elite from a pure power perspective in both 2018 and 2019, but he paired that power with an ugly strikeout rate that sat north of 30% in both seasons. Armed with the same basic profile in 2020, Hernandez wound up with significantly better outcomes and xStats compared to his earlier seasons, though. Two major factors influenced Hernandez’s improved play in 2020: his nearly elite power became clearly elite, and he had a more consistently productive launch angle.

Hernandez increased his hard-hit rate by 11 points to 53% in 2020, and it came with a league-high and career-best (by about 4 mph) 116 mph max exit velocity. That power improvement extended back to the 2019 season, too, as Hernandez’s hard-hit rate improved almost constantly from July 2019 to August 2020. Hernandez’s career-high max exit velocity and relatively long-term power gains make it hard to write off his power bump, but his hard-hit rate declined sharply over the last month of the season.

In addition to his elevated power, Hernandez hit line drives at a career-high 26% in 2020, up eight points from 2019. Hernandez’s high line drive rate was primarily driven by a brief but significant mid-season hot streak, though, and probably won’t stick into 2021 as a result. Even if Hernandez can maintain most of his elevated power, he’s probably not much more than a .260 hitter with a .550 SLG going forward (although playing home games at Sahlen Field might push that a little higher). That puts him in Jorge Soler/Franmil Reyes territory, hitters with ADPs more than 80 picks later than Hernandez.

Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

How it happened: two healthy knees.

Like Corey Seager, Belt owes most of his strong 2020 performance to a long-awaited return to full health. Only 21 hitters posted a higher xSLG than Belt between 2015 and 2017 (min. 1000 PA), and Belt’s .512 mark from that time period would have been a top-50 mark even in 2020. 

There’s little doubt that Belt won’t perform quite as well as he did in 2020 next season. Belt displayed a reasonably characteristic power burst that inflated his full-season numbers in the short season, and he’ll likely see his production fall back towards pre-2018 levels as a result. But pre-2018 Brandon Belt is an excellent value at his 343 ADP even if he comes with relatively high injury risk, and fantasy managers should target the 32-year-old in drafts as a result.



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Hello everybody and welcome! The 2022 NFL season is underway and that means our friends over at PrizePicks have a TON of great props we can look to take advantage of. PrizePicks is a great DFS picks site where you can choose to select plays in terms of fantasy points or single stats. The goal... Read More


Rachaad White - Fantasy Football Rankings, Waiver Wire Pickups, Draft Sleepers

Week 5 Waiver Wire Pickups and Free Agent Adds - All Positions

It was just a matter of time before the injuries to big-name players hit, especially at the running back position. Those who spent a top pick on Jonathan Taylor seem to have dodged a bullet while those invested in Javonte Williams must now move ahead without him. Let's see what the best options are. Below,... Read More


Running Back Waiver Wire Pickups for Week 5: Top Free Agent Adds Include Mike Boone, Nyheim Hines, Tyler Allgeier, Brian Robinson

As you now read this week’s recommendations from the waiver wire, the planning process for your Week 5 roster construction has already begun. The matchups of Week 4 included a whopping nine different 100-yard performances from running backs, while the injuries that have been sustained by Jonathan Taylor, Javonte Williams, and Alvin Kamara have become... Read More


George Pickens - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, Waiver Wire Pickups

Wide Receiver Waiver Wire Pickups for Week 5: Top Free Agent Adds Include Romeo Doubs, George Pickens, Jahan Dotson, Corey Davis

Week 4 was a fun week in the NFL. We got to see Bailey Zappe almost lead the Patriots to a win over the Packers, which is cool for me, a long-time Zappe fan dating back to his time at Houston Baptist University. We also got to see some big wide receiver performances, including DK... Read More


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Tight End Waiver Wire Pickups for Week 5: Top Free Agent Adds Include Tyler Conklin, Mo Alie-Cox, Taysom Hill, Robert Tonyan

2022 has not exactly been the Year of the Tight End in fantasy football. Atlanta’s Kyle Pitts has no touchdowns and three games of 25 receiving yards or less. San Francisco’s George Kittle has all of 28 yards thanks to an early injury. Dallas’ Dalton Schultz has 80 yards on the season and has done... Read More