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Sophomore Hitters Who Should Progress in 2020


We’ve been spoiled. In recent years, players such as Peter Alonso, Yordan Alvarez, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Aaron Judge have all entered the MLB ranks while performing at a high level. But it’s not supposed to be that easy for freshmen players.

There are many examples of players starting out modestly in their rookie seasons only to explode later on to become valuable fantasy contributors. In 2017, the same year that Judge and Cody Bellinger took Major League Baseball by storm and became instant stars, rookie hitters Rafael Devers, Matt Chapman, Josh Bell, and Yoan Moncada produced good, but not great, first-year production. But over the span of three seasons, they’ve all jumped from being good contributors to full-fledged stars: 

wRC+ By Season
2017 2018 2019
Rafael Devers 110 90 132
Matt Chapman 110 138 125
Josh Bell 108 111 135
Yoan Moncada 105 97 141

Today, we’re taking a look at four players that could also follow the above trend and produce improved production during their sophomore seasons after building solid foundations in their 2019 rookie campaigns.

Editor's Note: Get any full-season MLB Premium Pass for 50% off. Exclusive access to our Draft Kit, premium rankings, projections, player outlooks, top prospects, dynasty rankings, 15 in-season lineup tools, and over 200 days of expert DFS research. Sign Up Now!

 

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (3B, TOR)

Guerrero Jr. entered the 2019 season with an immense amount of hype. And he failed to deliver on the sky-high expectations. But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact he played the entire season at the age of just 20. He held his own for an entire season and posted a 105 wRC+ so he was a tad better than league average. Miguel Cabrera, a player Vladdy Jr. is often compared to, had a .106 wRC+ in his first season — although he showed more useable power and less plate discipline. He went on to have a Hall of Fame career despite the modest beginning to his career.

A lot has been made, and deservedly so, about Guerrero Jr.’s conditioning. He’s a naturally-gifted hitter who more or less skated through the minor leagues on that ability alone. The 2019 season was a wake-up call for him as he saw teammates (and friends) Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio outperform him at the MLB level. He entered the 2019-2020 offseason with a strict workout regime and goals to both lose weight and get stronger to improve his durability. A number of videos posted to the internet over the last few months have documented the process.

Guerrero Jr. suffered an oblique injury in the spring of 2019, which delayed the start of his season. He didn’t really catch fire until the summer when he posted an .825 OPS in July and .977 OPS in August. However, after hurting his knee in late August, Guerrero (who was cleared to continue playing) managed just six extra-base hits (and one home run) in his final 30 games. In other words, he was very likely playing hurt.

The young hitter managed a slightly-above-average hard-hit-ball rate in 2019 of 38.4% which is encouraging considering he may have been playing on one leg for part of the year. And thanks to the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, we all saw what Guerrero Jr. can do when he wants to hit a home run (and is healthy). Along with staying healthy in 2020, he needs to improve his launch angle if he wants to consistently tap into his raw power in actual games. At 6.7 degrees, he was well below the league average of 11.2. With a slightly-above-average barrel rate (7.7%) and exit velocity (89.4 mph), this young hitter has the necessary ingredients to become a more potent threat with the bat as he matures as both an athlete and a hitter. With an early ADP of 60, it seems fantasy managers are still seeing the potential value in Guerrero Jr. despite the speed bump that he hit in 2019.

 

Alex Verdugo (OF, LAD)

Verdugo is actually a fairly similar hitter to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Both players were considered very advanced with the bat at a young age and produced excellent BB-K rates. Their hitting approaches have always favored contact over power. Verdugo, in particular, has consistently hit a lot of balls the other way, although he started to hit the ball up the middle more in 2019.

With a strikeout rate of just 13% in 2019, Verdugo was one of the hardest players to strikeout despite his relative inexperience. But with a hard-hit-ball rate of 39.3%, he’s got above-average juice in his bat and is not just a singles hitter like so many others with a similar trait. There were only six other hitters with at least 200 at-bats in 2019 that struck out less than Verdugo and posted a higher slugging percentage (Three of those players were Astros…).

With average exit velocity and barrel rate, Verdugo has a chance to be a more potent hitter if he can increase his below-average launch angle, which sits at just 8.8 degrees. And a move to playing half his games at Fenway Park could make for some interesting numbers if the left-handed hitter makes the adjustment to his swing. Even if he doesn’t go full-on power hitter, he could end up hitting a lot of doubles while getting a chance to play every day for the Red Sox (assuming the Mookie Betts trade still happens). With an ADP of 244, he could end up being better than a number of the outfielders getting drafted ahead of him.

 

Christian Walker (1B, ARI)

When I made some “bold predictions” at the beginning of 2019, I went out on a limb and said Walker would hit 20 home runs for Arizona. Well, he did just that and actually came one homer shy of 30. He strikes out too much (25.7%), but who doesn’t these days? And he’s shown better patience in recent years and posted a walk rate of 11% in 2019. It was a great story of a player getting just rewards after spending four-and-a-half years stuck in Triple-A behind the likes of Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Paul Goldschmidt, and others. But there could be even more to come in 2020.

The numbers suggest Walker, 28, is not just a one-year wonder and could be even better in the coming season. Along with an exit velocity of 91.1 mph, he also produced one of the better barrel rates in the league at 13.1%, which was more than double the league average. He also produced a hard-hit-ball rate of 48.4% to help produce a .516 XSLG which surpasses his actual SLG of .476.

Another encouraging thing about Walker was his ability to make adjustments. He got off to a torrid start in 2019 with seven home runs and 10 doubles in 28 games during the first month of the season. Pitchers adapted and he struggled with below-average production in May and June. But he then produced well-above-average production throughout the remainder of the season.

With an ADP of 207, he has the potential to be an absolute steal when you consider Jose Abreu, a player with very similar Statcast results, has an ADP of 78. The White Sox slugger arguably has a better supporting cast around him to positively impact runs and RBI, but he’s also no young pup at 33 years old.

 

Cole Tucker (SS, PIT)

Tucker isn’t the most hyped prospect — of course, part of that comes for playing in the Pirates organization rather than for the Yankees or Cubs — and he more or less fell on his face during his MLB debut. But there could be better times ahead for the young shortstop in 2020. He may never be more than average with the bat but this is a player that stole almost 100 bases between 2017 and 2018. Unfortunately, he’s gotten away from what makes him a valuable player as he attempted just 14 steals in Triple-A and none at the MLB level in 2019.

Tucker has too much swing-and-miss to his game for a speed-first player. But he does walk at an above-average rate, which helps to take some of the sting out of a potential .230-.250 batting average (in on-base leagues). And, of course, the penchant for walks also provides him additional opportunities to wreak havoc on the base paths. At 6-4, 200 pounds, Tucker has the frame to hit more home runs. The underlying numbers also suggest he could hit for more power. During his disappointing debut, he posted a slightly-above-average hard-hit-ball rate of 36.5% and average-ish exit velocity at 87 mph. But the launch angle was well-below-average at 6.6 degrees.

In some ways, Tucker’s potential to help fantasy owners in 2020 hinges as much on Kevin Newman as it does on himself. Newman posted unexpectedly-good numbers at the MLB level in 2019 but it was more smoke and mirrors than true growth. The 26-year-old former first-round pick has always been a decent hitter for average (albeit with overall league-average production) but the 12 MLB home runs came out of nowhere. But even with the power spike, Newman’s numbers aren’t overly compelling. His barrel rate of 2.1% and hard-hit ball rate of 24.4% were both well-below-average. And the launch angle of 8.1 degrees and exit velocity of 84.7 mph suggest the homer spike was not a sign of more to come.

If Tucker can find his speed game again, and possibly hit some more balls over the outfield fences, he becomes a far superior option to Newman. He’s not a player to pick on draft day but if his numbers are good in Triple-A, and Newman reverts back to the player that the numbers suggest he is, then Tucker could provide a free mid-season boost to your lineup.

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