7 players poised for a second-half surge

July 24th, 2022

An impressive 81 players were selected to an All-Star team this year. Even with so many players rewarded for their performance, we all understand the limitations of the game – they all earned the honor based solely on their first half, and inevitably, a late-season slump will make a handful of 2022 All-Star selections look odd in retrospect. But the opposite can also be true – what about the players who had little hope of attending the festivities last week, but whose underlying numbers indicate a late-season surge may be on the horizon? 

Bad luck plays a role in every season, but it’s obvious that some players have it worse than others. Now with the ability to track exit velocity and launch angle and compare similar batted balls to each other, we can calculate an expected batting average and slugging percentage for each one, removing defense from the equation. The same is done for pitchers, who also have an expected ERA based on the same information. Using expected stats from the first half of the season, we can judge players on their quality of contact, and better predict which guys are poised to get a boost in the second half.

Unfortunately, we can’t arrange a second-half All-Star Game. So in lieu of that, here’s a look at some of the players who – with better luck, and maybe a change of scenery – could prove to be the breakout stars of the stretch run.

Max Kepler, RF, Twins
.279 xBA (.245 BA), .445 xSLG (.394 SLG)
Kepler is notoriously difficult to project for, but everything he needs to have a productive second half is already there. Not only does his xBA rank in the 88th percentile as compared to his .245 actual batting average that almost exactly matches the league’s (.242), but his luck has been especially bad against four-seam fastballs. For the first time since 2017, his run value against four-seamers is negative, and his average (.200) and slugging percentage (.344) lag far behind their expected counterparts (.271 xBA, .423 xSLG.) It looks even worse against sliders, where he’s missing 86 points off his average (.161) and 166 off his slugging percentage (.258). Those two pitch types account for over half the pitches he’s seen this season, and he’s seeing both reasonably well. Most of what ails Kepler is likely to be solved through luck alone, so long as he keeps doing what he’s doing.

Adam Frazier, 2B, Mariners
.267 xBA (.237 BA), 13.0% whiff rate
Frazier has struggled for much of the last calendar year, roughly dating back to his trade from the Pirates to the Padres. But not much has actually changed about him. Although he’s never hit the ball very hard, which dings his expected stats, in the first half of 2021, Frazier had an xBA of .298. While that’s certainly better than the .267 he’s sporting in 2022, the drop hasn’t been so dramatic to suggest that he can’t get back on track. At his core, Frazier is a pure contact hitter. While there are clear signs his patience faded during his extended slump – he’s pulling the ball more, his chase rate has ticked up and he’s swinging at the first pitch more often – he still swings and misses less than 97% of the league, and he faces infield shifts in 17.2% of his at-bats, less than half of the Major League average. The skills that have always been most critical to his success – his whiff rate and his ability to spray the ball to all fields – are still there, and his numbers should reflect that more as the season wears on.

Christian Walker, 1B, D-backs
.515 xSLG (.460 SLG), 14.3% barrel rate
Walker hit an impressive 22 home runs in the first half. But given that, his line through his first 90 games – .204/.319/.460 – doesn’t look quite right. He’s likely to see a change in the second half for a few reasons. For one, his barrel rate has jumped by nearly eight points since last season, and he now ranks in the 91st percentile in MLB. He’s in the same spot relative to the league in terms of chase rate, as well – so while he whiffs at an about league-average rate, he has a strong sense of where his strike zone is. Walker could be in the trade rumors news in the coming weeks as the D-backs coast towards a likely last-place finish, and would probably also be helped by a more potent lineup around him.

Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Dodgers
2.87 xERA (4.35 ERA), .190 xBA (.252 BA)
Kimbrel is having a strange 2022 season, but overall, his downfall has been baserunners. One of the primary issues has been his sharp decline in whiff rate, which has noticeably cut the effectiveness of his curveball. Still, both in terms of spin rate and movement, his repertoire is perfectly in line with last season, and while opponents are making more contact against him, most of the additional batted balls he’s allowed this season have been grounders, which helps to explain how his FIP (1.95) is even lower than his xERA. Given the difficulty you’d have extracting the impact of his bad luck with the Dodgers’ defense from his overall performance, look for his ERA to deflate in the second half.

Chris Bassitt, RHP, Mets
3.20 xERA (3.79 ERA), 85.8 mph avg. exit velocity
For pitchers who rely on drawing weak contact, largely in the form of ground balls – like Bassitt – the Mets’ very average infield defense isn’t a perfect match. To add insult to injury, shifts hurt him in the first half, with opponents hitting .217 with the infield playing straight-up and .251 against the shift. While a couple of his pitches haven’t been as effective as they were last season – primarily his changeup and curveball – his sinker is still great, and if his average exit velocity remains in the neighborhood it’s currently in, his second half should look better than the first.

Tyler Mahle, RHP, Reds
3.24 xERA (4.48 ERA), .207 xBA (.239 BA)
Mahle landed on the IL with a shoulder injury in early July, but the ailment isn’t thought to be serious, and he’s expected to return ahead of the Deadline – great news for the Reds, who already have the best starting pitcher on the block in the form of Luis Castillo. Mahle’s inflated ERA is largely due in part to the Reds’ infield, which is tied for fifth-worst at -17 Outs Above Average. They’ve been especially tough on Mahle, whose xBA on grounders is 85 points below what opponents are actually hitting (.344). While Mahle doesn’t have a particular standout skill, he has a great four-seamer, which he leaned on heavily during his breakout 2021 season and has only improved on this year. Should the Reds choose to pull the trigger, a trade just about anywhere could help Mahle out.

Trevor Gott, RHP, Brewers
2.62 xERA (4.03 ERA), 34.9% chase rate
So here’s a weird one – by the metrics above, Gott has outpitched Josh Hader (3.16 xERA, 31.1% chase rate) in 2022. Gott has been steady all season, despite his inflated ERA. Six games account for 12 of his 13 earned runs on the year. Despite not pitching in the Majors at all in 2021, he currently ranks in the 89th percentile or higher in hard-hit rate, xBA, BB% and chase rate, which is only true for one other pitcher – current American League Cy Young favorite Shane McClanahan. Opponents are hitting .209/.256/.400 against Gott, but the data suggests those numbers should be even lower -- just take a look at his .198 xBA and .329 xSLG. Given all of that, Gott is poised to have his numbers even out as the NL Central heats up.