7 hot hitters who can keep sizzling into summer

April 12th, 2024

A two-week hot streak in the middle of summer can get lost in the shuffle of a long baseball season. But a two-week hot streak to begin the season? Now that gets some attention.

Many of the best bats in the Majors early in 2024 have been the ones you expect: . . . . Nobody has to wonder if those guys are for real.

But what about the surprises? What about the players who haven’t done this before? That’s where things get more intriguing. While a couple of weeks is clearly not enough time to draw any firm conclusions, these performances certainly can offer some clues.

In that spirit, we had seven MLB.com writers and researchers each select one hot-starting hitter who is making an intriguing bid to go from under the radar to a 2024 star. Here is a look at who they picked.

All stats are through Wednesday’s games unless otherwise noted. Each player is listed with his 2024 expected wOBA (xwOBA), which measures a hitter based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks. (MLB’s average this season is .321.)

1. , 3B, Cubs
2024 stats: .298/.340/.553, .430 xwOBA

What happened before: Morel flashed impressive pop last season, slugging 26 homers in just 429 plate appearances while posting a 50% hard-hit rate and a 15.9% barrel rate. However, he also showed some extreme swing-and-miss tendencies, whiffing 37% of the time and striking out in 31% of his PAs, which somewhat mitigated the impact of his powerful bat.

Why this could stick: Morel looks like a much more polished hitter in 2024, not only chasing less but also making far more contact on pitches in the strike zone. As a result, his overall whiff rate (20%) and strikeout rate (14%) have both plummeted. Notably, though, the 24-year-old hasn’t had to sacrifice any power in an effort to put more balls in play. His contact-quality metrics -- including a 50% hard-hit rate and 15% barrel rate -- are right around last year’s figures. While Morel’s long-term defensive home remains in question, he could be on the verge of a huge season at the plate.

-- Thomas Harrigan

2. , SS, Nationals
2024 stats: .306/.359/.611, .436 xwOBA

What happened before: The Padres made Abrams the sixth overall pick in the 2019 Draft out of a Georgia high school, and he was a top-10 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, before the Nationals made him a key part of their return in the Juan Soto trade before the 2022 Trade Deadline. However, Abrams struggled at the plate for both San Diego and Washington that year (.604 OPS) while playing 90 MLB games in his age-21 season. The left-handed batter showed signs of improvement while spending all of 2023 with the Nats, especially over the final three months (.752 OPS, 11 homers, 38-for-40 on stolen base attempts).

Why this could stick: Abrams isn’t a big-bodied shortstop in the mold of a Corey Seager or Carlos Correa, but he is showing a much greater ability to drive the ball than in years past. He ranks in the 83rd percentile this season in barrel rate, and his four total barrels (out of 28 total batted balls) are just one fewer than he recorded (out of 238 batted balls) as a rookie in 2022. Abrams’ three homers this season have all been absolutely crushed, with exit velocities of at least 105.9 mph and projected distances of at least 415 feet. (Entering 2024, he had two career big flies that flew so far.)

Two things are helping Abrams get the most out of the thump in his bat: Among 200 hitters with at least 25 batted balls through Wednesday, he ranked in the top 15% in both sweet-spot rate (meaning he’s hitting a lot of line drives and fly balls) and pull rate. If Abrams can maintain that sort of profile, the Nats might have found themselves a centerpiece shortstop with a dynamic power-speed combo.

-- Andrew Simon

3. , LF, Reds
2024 stats: .372/.471/.721, .437 xwOBA

What happened before: Steer put together a solid 2023 as a rookie, batting .271 with an .820 OPS, 23 home runs and 15 steals. Acquired from the Twins with Christian Encarnacion-Strand in the Tyler Mahle deal in 2022, Steer was quietly productive in a ballyhooed group of young players including Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain and Noelvi Marte. After splitting time in the infield and outfield in 2023, Steer has been a mainstay in left field this season. So far, he’s been one of the best hitters in all of MLB, coming into Thursday’s games tied for fifth in batting average and ranking fourth in OPS at 1.192. With McLain hurt and Marte suspended, Steer has emerged as a key piece in Cincinnati’s talented lineup.

Why this could stick: Steer is squaring the ball up a lot more in 2024, raising his barrel rate from 6.7% to an above-average 11.1% clip. He also ranks in the 92nd percentile in hard-hit rate, with 20 of his 36 batted balls (55.6%) coming off the bat at 95 mph or harder. Steer has slashed his strikeout rate to an excellent 13.7%, has raised his walk rate to 11.8% and has been absolutely crushing fastballs (.393 average, .857 slugging). It won’t be easy for Steer to keep up this level of production, but his .437 xwOBA and .583 expected slugging percentage are excellent signs early on.

-- Theo DeRosa

4. , OF/C, Royals
2024 stats: .333/.429/.694, .449 xwOBA

What happened before: Bobby Witt Jr. grabbed the headlines as the game’s No. 1 prospect heading into the 2022 season, and for good reason. He’s shown, and continues to show, why he was such a heralded prospect before making his debut on April 7 of that year. But the Royals’ No. 2 prospect at the time was Melendez, a power-hitting catcher with a rocket for an arm who would make his debut the following month.

Things didn’t go as well for Melendez as they did for Witt over his first two MLB seasons. With franchise icon Salvador Perez behind the plate, Melendez saw a lot of time in the outfield and produced mediocre numbers offensively, hitting .227/.314/.396.

Why this could stick: Melendez retooled his swing during last year’s All-Star break, when his slash line on the year was .206/.289/.333 with six home runs. The result? He posted an .836 OPS with 10 homers the rest of the way before carrying his hot hitting over into 2024. What he’s done over the first couple of weeks of this season is backed up by the quality of contact metrics -- his 21.4% barrel rate is tied for eighth-highest among qualified hitters, and his .676 expected slugging percentage is ranked sixth. The first 11 games in a season is a miniscule sample size, but given that Melendez has been trending up since the second half of last season, his surge may portend a breakout campaign.

-- Manny Randhawa

5. , LF, Red Sox
2024 stats: .343/.489/.857, .441 xwOBA

What happened before: As it turns out, O’Neill isn’t just an Opening Day superstar. The 28-year-old began the season by becoming the first AL/NL player to homer in five consecutive opening days, and he hasn’t slowed down since then. Entering 2024, O’Neill had played 100-plus games in only one of his prior six MLB seasons. And while that season was impressive (34 homers and eighth place in NL MVP voting in 2021 with St. Louis), he has taken his game to new heights in his debut season with Boston. He leads all qualified hitters in both slugging percentage (.857) and OPS (1.346), also ranking tied for first in home runs (six) with Mike Trout. Interestingly, all six of his home runs have been solo shots. He joined Larry Walker in 1997 as the only players since 1900 to have at least six solo homers in their first 10 games of a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Why this could stick: O’Neill’s Statcast profile suggests that he’s far more than a player who’s gotten a lucky start to the season. He currently has career highs in expected batting average (.267), xSLG (.647), wOBA (.550) and xwOBA (.441) -- the latter three of which all rank in the 96th percentile or better of MLB this season. His 24.0% barrel rate is tied for third-highest among all qualified hitters, trailing only Bobby Witt Jr. and Edouard Julien. This power has been accompanied by strong plate discipline, shown in his career-best values in whiff rate (20.9%), chase rate (18.1%) and walk rate (17.8%). And on top of all of that, his new home stadium might just be the perfect fit. His average launch angle of 28.8 degrees is the third-highest in MLB, and four of the righty’s six homers have gone to left field, where Boston happens to have a somewhat high wall.

-- Cole Jacobson

6. Iván Herrera, C, Cardinals
2024 stats: .290/.294/.581, .445 xwOBA

What happened before: Signed as an international free agent in July 2016 at the age of 16, Herrera was a top 10 prospect in the Cardinals’ system from 2020-23, reaching as high as No. 4. Long considered a bat-first catcher, he posted a .236/.339/.273 slash line in 66 big league plate appearances over the past two seasons. But he tore up Triple-A last year; he was the only MiLB player to register a .450 on-base percentage and .500 slugging while making at least 375 plate appearances. Herrera was named St. Louis’ Minor League Player of the Year for his efforts and -- with guidance from Yadier Molina to improve his skills behind the plate -- was slated to begin this season as Willson Contreras’ backup. However, the 23-year-old has quickly become an important cog in the Cards’ lineup.

Why this could stick: Herrera was on the bench for four of St. Louis’ first five games, but opportunity came knocking on April 3, when Contreras was hit by a pitch on his left hand. As the veteran starter rested, Herrera and his big bat answered the call. From April 3-10, he went 9-for-28 with three homers and recorded a .988 OPS. He’s made ideal contact often, as evidenced by his 21.4% barrel rate. That along with his xwOBA and his .602 expected slugging all sit well above the 90th percentile among qualified hitters. Herrera’s latest dinger -- a 432-foot clout on Wednesday -- came off his bat at 112.4 mph, which was a career-best exit velocity by nearly 3 mph.

Contreras returned to the Cardinals’ lineup on Tuesday as the designated hitter while Herrera kept the catching gear on. His defense has been serviceable, which is good enough when his bat is playing this loudly. With Contreras still experiencing lingering effects from his HBP, Herrera should be a lineup mainstay for a team that has a .348 slugging percentage.

-- Brian Murphy

7. , SS, Yankees
2024 stats: .372/.460/.581, .332 xwOBA

What happened before: The Volpe breakout is happening a year delayed from the hype that surrounded the Yankees shortstop when he debuted on Opening Day last year. Volpe showed flashes of his talent as a rookie, finishing with 21 home runs and 24 stolen bases, but that 20-20 season belies what a struggle it really was for the 22-year-old at the plate. Volpe hit just .209 with a .283 on-base percentage and .666 OPS, ranking near the very bottom of the league in all three categories. Volpe won a Gold Glove at short, but as a hitter? That 2023 season was a disappointment, especially considering Volpe's potential as a game-changing offensive player.

Why this could stick: Volpe's offseason swing adjustments -- a looser, more athletic approach at the plate and flatter bat bath aimed at staying in the zone longer -- has paid off with a big improvement in his contact hitting. Volpe is swinging and missing and chasing bad pitches far less often, and that means more hits, more walks and way fewer strikeouts.

Look at Volpe's underlying improvements from 2023 to 2024:

  • Whiff rate: 28.1% to 12.2% (now in 96th percentile of MLB)
  • Chase rate: 28.7% to 22.8% (73rd percentile)
  • Walk rate: 8.7% to 13.7% (83rd percentile)
  • Strikeout rate: 27.8% to 17.6% (70th percentile)

In Year 2, Volpe looks like a balanced hitter who can handle anything pitchers throw at him. He's batting .308 against fastballs and .471 against breaking and offspeed pitches, while cutting his swing-and-miss rate in half against heaters and threefold against secondary pitches. He has yet to strike out against any breaking ball or offspeed pitch this season.

-- David Adler