Don't sweat the slow starts for these 7 hitters

April 29th, 2022

The opening weeks of the season put everything under the glare of a giant magnifying glass.

A three-week slump in August might not draw a ton of attention, but at this time of year, it stands out in a big way. That’s especially true for stars who are supposed to be a big part of their team’s offense.

It’s still far too early to panic, though. A ton of time remains for slow starters to get things going, so tasked seven writers with picking hitters who will do just that. Here are the big bats they are predicting will bounce back, and soon.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday’s games.

1) , SS, Blue Jays
2022 stats: .210/.238/.309, 2 2B, 2 HR

Bo knows hitting. We know that. Last season, he led the American League with 191 hits while launching 29 homers to go along with an .828 OPS (121 OPS+). He also stole 25 bags. If there was any question entering 2021 about whether Bichette could hit over a full season -- between his 2019 rookie campaign and the pandemic-shortened ’20 season, he played in a combined 75 games -- he demonstrated that ability over 159 games last year.

So far in 2022, the numbers haven’t been good. But according to Statcast, Bichette’s expected batting average is nearly 70 points higher than his actual batting average, and his hard-hit rate is actually better than it was last year, at 50.8 percent after his three batted balls in Thursday’s game against the Red Sox, which had exit velocities of 110.6 mph, 99.9 mph and 99.2 mph. So the quality of contact has been good. The strikeouts are way up and the walks are down, but we’re still only talking about 20 games here.

And there are signs that Bichette is emerging from his season-opening slump, the chief example being his first career grand slam, an opposite-field shot which came in a huge spot earlier this week, breaking a 2-2 tie with Boston in the eighth inning. Expect more of that and less of what we saw before that from Bichette to start the season.

-- Manny Randhawa

2) , OF, Astros
2022 stats: .179/.247/.328, 3 HR, 4 XBH

In many ways, Tucker’s slow start mirrors what we saw from him early last season. The outfielder hit .181 with a .610 OPS in March/April, but his expected stats (based on quality of contact rather than actual results) augured a turnaround, and that’s exactly what happened. As we near the end of April here in 2022, the Astros star is again producing a lot of quality contact with little to show for it.

The 25-year-old has a .284-point “unlucky” gap between his slugging percentage (.328) and xSLG (.612), and he’s had a handful of shots that were hit well but sent to the wrong part of the yard -- including a pair of 390-foot blasts (one on April 18 and another on April 20) that were caught on the warning track at Minute Maid Park. He’s bound to have better fortune in the months to come.

-- Thomas Harrigan

3) , OF, Yankees
2022 stats: .243/.257/.386, 3 HR, 4 XBH, 33.8 K%, 2 BB

Putting bat to ball has been a struggle for Stanton during the early going. The Yankees slugger is posting a career-worst whiff rate (38.1%), which can be traced to the fact that he’s swinging at more pitches out of the zone than ever (36.7 chase rate), leading to an eye-popping 33.8% strikeout rate and a minuscule 2.7% walk rate. With Stanton’s power, he can afford quite a bit of swing-and-miss in his game, but not this much.

Stanton is still crushing the ball though. He’s hitting it harder than just about anyone in baseball. Coming into play Thursday, Stanton led all qualifying hitters in average exit velocity (96 mph). His expected wOBA on contact (.545) is fifth. If the season ended today, his expected batting average, slugging, and wOBA would all be improved over 2021.

The powerful right-hander is already showing signs of breaking out of his early-season slump with five hits over his last three games, including a booming home run on Wednesday, the 350th of his career. Stanton still has the same power that got him to that milestone – he just needs to stay in the zone a bit more. Once his strikeout numbers come back to earth, Stanton should return to the 35-plus home run hitter he’s been in his two healthy seasons as a Yankee.

-- Dylan Svoboda

4) , LF, Mariners
2022 stats: .164/.325/.197, 0 HR, 2 2B, 15 BB

Winker was an exciting acquisition for Seattle in the offseason via trade, and he’s already showcasing the same plate discipline we saw last season in Cincinnati, being 80th percentile or better in strikeout rate, walk rate, whiff rate and chase rate. The missing piece so far? The contact leading to good results. Winker had a 47.1% hard-hit rate last season and was at 49.0% in 2020. That hard contact has been noticeably absent thus far, with a below-MLB-average 32.7% hard-hit rate. But it really seems to be the only missing piece, because everything else he’s doing should translate to good results – like a career-low 25% ground ball rate.

Winker’s expected stats, which are based on quality of contact, indicate that his contact has been reflective of better results than he’s gotten so far. He has the largest difference between expected and actual batting average in the Majors, and the second-largest such difference between expected and actual slugging percentage. It’s early for expected stats, but they’re yet another piece of evidence that Winker can and should see those results improve as the year wears on.

-- Sarah Langs

5) José Abreu, 1B, White Sox
2022 stats: .203/.288/.356, 2 HR, 5 XBH

A whole lot has gone wrong for the White Sox in the early going, much of it on the injury front. But while the team has missed several key players during its slow start, Abreu has been in the lineup for all but one game. He just hasn’t produced to the level the Sox have grown to expect, piling up outs in the third and fourth spots in the lineup.

Below the surface, though, nothing looks amiss. Abreu has consistently ranked as one of the Statcast Era’s hardest hitters, and in 2022, he’s right near the top of the MLB leaderboard in hard-hit rate. He’s actually barreling the ball at a career-high level, all without swinging and missing or striking out more than usual. His .386 expected wOBA is just slightly below his .399 mark in his MVP-winning 2020 campaign, but some bad fortune has kept his actual wOBA nearly 100 points lower. (Few regulars have better expected numbers than Abreu when hitting into outs this season). If things even out a bit, the Sox slugger will be driving in runs in bunches soon enough.

-- Andrew Simon

6) , SS, Rangers
2022 stats: .243/.289/.300, 1 HR, 2 XBH

Seager is just missing the ball right now. He's hitting the ball in the air a lot (career-high 59% fly balls and line drives), but his hard contact is down a little (41% hard-hit rate), and he's not hitting the ball to the center of the field like he usually does (only 29% of the time, vs. 40% of the time from 2020-21). That makes it seem like Seager is just a little bit off in squaring the ball up. That should change. Over half of Seager's contact was hard contact from 2020-21 (52%), and his .308 expected batting average was third-best in the league behind Freddie Freeman and Juan Soto. His aggressive approach is still the same, and he's not even too far off his usual numbers (.297 xBA in '22). He's going to start getting better wood on the baseball more consistently, and you'll see the hitter Joe Maddon was willing to intentionally walk with the bases loaded.

-- David Adler

7) , SS, Twins
2022 stats: .167/.254/.250, 1 HR, 3 XBH

While the Twins have been off to a hot start in ‘22, they’ve been doing it despite Correa’s early season struggles. Their 27-year-old marquee signing started the year with just one home run and two doubles through 16 games. Combine that with what would be a career-worst 32.8% strikeout rate and 55.3% ground ball rate and things have snowballed out of the gate. A big problem for him thus far has been making contact. He’s made contact with just 76.3% of pitches he’s swung at in the strike zone and has a whiff rate of 31.9%, both of which are far below league average and nearly 10% declines from his career averages. Once he starts making contact more consistently, the world will start seeing why Minnesota shelled out the big bucks, as his 91.9 mph average exit velocity this season is a career high.

-- Nick Aguilera