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10 hitters who need to find their strokes

@mike_petriello
December 2, 2020

Let's say you're a solid veteran hitter, one who's had a nice track record of success. Then 2020 comes around, and like it was for so many people well beyond the world of baseball or sports, it was a total disaster. You never got going, or a short slump or

Let's say you're a solid veteran hitter, one who's had a nice track record of success. Then 2020 comes around, and like it was for so many people well beyond the world of baseball or sports, it was a total disaster. You never got going, or a short slump or minor injury that would have ruined a month in previous years ruins your whole season in a 60-game slate. In a normal season, we wouldn't worry so much about what you did from, let's say, "April 1 to May 25." You'd have had time to overcome it.

It goes without saying that nothing in 2020 was a "normal season," obviously, so for a handful of hitters, they'll forever be stuck with a truly disappointing slash line on the back of their baseball card, one that, fairly or not, they'll have to work to overcome. Let's see if we can help. As we did with the 10 hitters who improved the most from 2019 to '20, let's find the 10 hitters who took the biggest steps back and try to find if there's anything to it beyond "2020 was weird."

We'll again look only at batters who had at least 350 plate appearances in 2019 and 130 in 2020. We'll use FanGraphs' Weighted Runs Created Plus, or wRC+, where "100" is league average, and Trout's 164 mark last season can be read as "64% better than average."

Here are the 10 hitters who backed up the most ... and how worried you ought to be about them.

THE 10 WHO GOT WORSE

J.D. Martinez, Red Sox
minus-62 points, from 139 wRC+ to 77 wRC+

If you're looking for a reason for Martinez's disappointing .213/.291/.389 season, he'll be happy to offer you one, as he was very vocal about how much impact he felt from the banning of in-game video use as part of 2020's social distancing measures. He's not the only name on this list who talked about that, so fine, we'll buy it as an issue, though even that line is better than it seems, because after five hits in his first two games, Martinez hit .198/.274/.371 over the remainder of the season. He went from being feared to nearly unplayable.

But was the video issue the only reason? The problem here is that we'd already seen some signs of decline even before 2020, because his slugging percentage had dropped from .690 (2017) to .629 (2018) to .557 (2019). Part of that is simply the heights he'd started from; a .690 slugging is merely one of the greatest slugging seasons of the past 50 years, so there's that, but it's also a little hard to look completely past that trend and the fact that this year's .389 is less than light-hitting infielders like Hanser Alberto and Nick Ahmed.

Martinez will be 34 next summer. We don't actually know what the rules about in-game video will be in 2021. Given that his 2020 Statcast metrics like hard-hit rate, barrel rate, etc., were poor compared to his own heights yet still above average compared to everyone else, we think there's still some more quality hitting in there. It just probably won't be as great as it once was, because there were already signs of that happening.

Verdict: We'll look for something nearer his strong 2019, though his elite slugging days of 2017-18 are likely behind him.

Christian Yelich, Brewers
minus-62 points, from 174 wRC+ to 112 wRC+

“You’re going to see really good players have really bad years,” Yelich said in July, before the season even began. “It’s going to happen."

Maybe he knew something we didn't, but let's at least start with this: It says a great deal about how incredible Yelich has been over the past few years that a season in which he was 12% better than league average -- yes, he had a 112 wRC+ despite a .205 batting average -- is seen as a huge disappointment.

Still, that's not the Yelich we've come to expect, and maybe it had something to do with the recovery from the knee injury that ended his 2019 season. But the way in which he declined was actually somewhat fascinating. He walked more than ever, the fifth-highest rate in baseball (18.6%). His hard-hit rate was up, the seventh best in baseball (55.6%), just ahead of Mike Trout. The problem was one of contact, where his strikeout rate, which had been near 20% pretty much every year of his career, jumped to 30.8%. He basically turned into Joey Gallo.

Part of this, it seems, comes down to plate approach, because Yelich just got really passive. (He swung at only 34.6% of pitches, the second lowest in baseball, down from 45% the year before.) That is, we'll admit, weird, but he'll be 29 on Saturday, and he's still smashing the ball. It's going to take more than this to show us he's not the same guy he was.

Verdict: We're not that worried about Yelich.

Jose Altuve, Astros
minus-61 points, from 138 wRC+ to 77 wRC+

Well, we know he wasn't fully healthy, so that's a good place to start. Following the 2018 season, Altuve underwent right knee surgery, and he missed two weeks this past September with soreness in the same knee. (He also injured his left leg just before the season started, though it didn't keep him out of the Opening Day lineup.)

There's no way to sugarcoat his 2020 line of .219/.286/.344, to be fair. It was weak, and the underlying stats showed that he earned every bit of it; this is not a story about "bad luck." Yet it's interesting at least to point out that in a postseason defined by his fielding troubles, he actually mashed the ball, posting a .375/.500/.729 line with five homers in 13 games. Have we learned enough over the years not to overemphasize two weeks of games? Sure. Are 13 games also more than one-quarter of the 48 regular-season games he played this year? Sure are. "2020 was bizarre" strikes again.

So where does that leave us? His rate of weak contact doubled, and his barrel rate was halved. He struck out a little more, but still better than the league average. We're probably overthinking this. Altuve had a run of six straight very good seasons before 2020. He's not even 31 until May. It'll be fine. He'll be fine.

Verdict: Fluke. Probably.

Kris Bryant, Cubs
minus-59 points, from 135 wRC+ to 76 wRC+

Bryant mashed 31 homers in 2019, which is what makes this hard-hit rate downward trend look so surprising:

That, it should go without saying, is not great. Bryant is supposed to be a slugger, but his hard-hit rate was in the 18th percentile in 2020, and it was only in the 24th percentile in 2019. He hit just four homers, with a disappointing line of .206/.293/.351.

Of course, he only played in 34 games this past season, missing time with ... well, this is going to take a minute. Just before Opening Day, he had back tightness. Then he missed a day with an elbow bruise. Then it was a few days with "gastrointestinal issues." Then he missed a few days with a wrist/finger issue, came back briefly, then was put on the injured list for two weeks. Wait, we're not done! He missed a day in early September with a swollen elbow after being hit by a pitch, and then four more days at the end of the month with discomfort in his right oblique. Phew.

So if you want to write off 2020 for Bryant entirely, as we imagine he does, we'd certainly understand. He struck out more than he had since his rookie season of 2015, and he walked less than ever. Pair that with a below-average hard-hit rate, and there's your lousy season in a nutshell.

But how much of that was due to the lack of health, and how much to the fact that he's not hitting the ball as hard in the first place? How much should we write off 2020's injury problems given the 2019 knee injury and the 2018 shoulder problem that impacted those seasons too?

Given that Bryant is only turning 29 in January, and that he'd been at least 25% better than league average every year before 2020, and that 2020 seems like it was an injury-plagued wash anyway, we're willing to bet on a return to form in '21, if health allows. It's hard to hand-wave away that hard-hit decline, though.

Verdict: 2020 wasn't the "real" Bryant, but we're definitely concerned.

Bryan Reynolds, Pirates
minus-59 points, from 131 wRC+ to 72 wRC+

Reynolds burst onto the scene in 2019 with a very strong .314/.377/.503 rookie year -- one that made the 2018 trade of Andrew McCutchen look pretty good -- that also came with one of the highest BABIP marks (.387) in the entire history of the Pirates, so it wasn't that hard to think a step back would be coming. It did, and then some, though even the most pessimistic among us didn't expect that step back would land with a .189/.275/.357 line.

You probably know where this is going -- Reynolds is likely better than he was in 2020, and not as good as he was in '19 -- but let's at least try to figure out what was so different. The answer, hilariously, is: not much. Oh, sure, he struck out a little more, and hit the ball hard a little less often. But he swung at the same rate, chased at the same rate and even had an absolutely identical 84.2% in-zone contact rate in both years. When he did hit the ball hard, he hit those hard-hit balls on the ground a whole lot less often, which is a good thing.

To maybe oversimplify, think about it like this: Reynolds was worse in his second season in the Majors -- one interrupted by a trip to the paternity list for the arrival of his first child -- and he knew it, saying, "I think I played decent defense and my offense was terrible" in September. Despite that, there wasn't much underlining it to think that the Bryan Reynolds Experience is already at an end. It was nice to see three homers in the final nine games, anyway.

Verdict: Better than 2020, not as good as 2019, but a lot closer to the 2019 version.

Edwin Encarnación, White Sox (free agent)
minus-58 points, from 129 wRC+ to 71 wRC+

If you're looking for us to say that you can ignore Encarnación's wretched .157/.250/.377 line, well, go ahead, you probably can. It was only 181 plate appearances. He missed a week with an injured shoulder. He's notoriously a slow starter, and a 60-game season is barely more than a start. You get the idea. There are plenty of excuses here.

Now, that being said: It might not matter. Encarnación turns 38 in January. We still don't know if the National League will have the designated hitter next year, and he didn't play a single inning in the field in 2020, which will limit his employment options. (He's not much more than a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option at first base these days.) And for all of the reasons you might want to write off 2020, he's still an older bat-only player who is going to reach the market with some ice-cold numbers in the worst possible areas.

The barrel rate is nice, though looking at that compared to his very low hard-hit numbers does show that he's something of an all-or-nothing player these days. (He had as many singles, 10, as homers, also 10.) He reportedly wants to play again, but he may be looking at a non-guaranteed non-roster invite deal to do it.

Verdict: He's probably better than this, but he might not get the chance to show it.

Josh Bell, Pirates
minus-57 points, from 135 wRC+ to 78 wRC+

Let's remember how we got here in the first place, because it's important. It's true that in 2019 Bell had a breakout season, mashing 37 homers and making his first All-Star team. It's also true that his 2019 success was mostly compressed into a fantastic first two months (178 wRC+) that were wildly out of character with what he'd ever done before, because in the final four months of that season, he posted a much more pedestrian 107 wRC+. That's almost identical to what he'd posted in his first three seasons in the bigs: 110 wRC+.

That, to us, is who Bell is, a slightly above-average hitter who can get hot for a few weeks, but he isn't really a star. That means that it sort of doesn't matter what his 2019-20 decline was, because we don't believe he was ever really as good as that full-season 2019 line would show, nor are we going to put too much into a rough '20, which was fueled by strikeout rates and ground-ball rates that were each wildly out of character.

Here's what we think you're getting for 2021: A hitter 10% to 15% better than average, who will hit 15-20 homers. Or, you know, the 2017-18 version of Bell.

Verdict: Forget 2020, but it wasn't quite as big a step back as it may have seemed.

Javier Báez, Cubs
minus-57 points, from 114 wRC+ to 57 wRC+

Like Martinez, Báez voiced his objections to the restrictions of in-game video this year, arguing that it was the root of his struggles.

"I make my adjustments during the game," Báez said in September. "I watch my swing. I watch where the ball was, where the contact was. And I'm mad. I'm really mad that we don't have it. … A lot of stars are struggling. I'm just one more."

OK, fair enough. He was the second-weakest qualified NL hitter in 2020, and we certainly don't believe he's that, so we're here for an improved 2021. Maybe, like Yelich, he was too passive this year -- a sentence we never thought we'd write about Báez -- as his rate of swings on first pitches in or around the zone has declined in each of the past two years, and since those are pitches he's hit .348 on with a .676 slugging since 2018, letting those high-value pitches past is hurting him.

Maybe his huge 2018 was the high-water mark, since he was good but not quite as good in 2019, and that's set our expectations too high. (Somewhat like Bell, he front-loaded his 2019 production into a very strong first two months, and he was merely average for the final four months.) And maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't worry too much about a talented young hitter who just turned 28 having a bad two months under the worst possible circumstances.

Verdict: 2020 sure seems like a fluke to us.

Austin Meadows, Rays
minus-56 points, from 142 wRC+ to 86 wRC+

Sometimes you don't need to overthink things. Meadows contracted COVID-19 and missed almost all of Summer Camp, plus the first two weeks of the season. Then he injured his left oblique on Sept. 18, missing the remainder of the regular season. (He did return for the playoffs, where he performed poorly.) Just toss this entire season out for him. Forget it ever happened.

We're not going to bother digging into the advanced metrics for this one (his strikeouts were way up, mainly), because they mostly don't matter given all that happened to him. It comes down to something we won't be able to answer for some time, which is whether he'll suffer any long-term effects of contracting the virus. It didn't stop Freddie Freeman from having an MVP season, but Yoán Moncada and Eduardo Rodriguez are important reminders that even young, healthy athletes can suffer even after they've recovered. Those are concerns that go beyond baseball.

Verdict: 2020 never happened. If he's healthy, he'll be fine.

Ketel Marte, D-backs

minus-55 points, from 150 wRC+ to 95 wRC+

Marte had a huge breakout in 2019, and it was one that seemed mostly earned, given that after a very poor 67 wRC+ in his first full season of 2016, he went up (89 wRC+ the next year) and up (106 in 2018) and up (150 in 2019, his age-25 season). To get there, he upped his hard-hit rate and lowered his ground-ball rate, which is generally what you like to see. Really, the only problem with his 2019 was that it ended 10 days early, thanks to a stress reaction in his back.

So now comes 2020, where Marte repeated his strong 2019 hard-hit rate, actually dropped his strikeout rate to the fourth lowest in baseball ... and was considerably worse. What do you do with that? You note that he missed two weeks in September with a wrist issue, but that's not enough to explain it.

That might point you toward "bad luck," but it never seems to be that simple, because the quality of Marte's contact did get worse. This gets into the weeds of batted-ball data and quality of contact a little, but a short and somewhat overly simplistic thing to look at is that he took that similar hard-hit rate and put it more into the ground.

Hard-hit rate on grounders, 2019: 35.8%

Hard-hit rate on grounders, 2020: 40.8%

So if he had a similar overall hard-hit rate, and he hit more of his grounders hard, he had to do something else less and ... oh, no, avert your eyes from his hard-hit rate on fly balls.

Hard-hit rate on fly balls, 2019: 38.3%

Hard-hit rate on fly balls, 2020: 17.2%

And that, there, is most of the story, because hard hit on grounders simply doesn't matter. To show that, just look at the outcome, the Weighted On-Base Average, or wOBA. On grounders, it was .243 in 2019, and .250 in 2020, which is nearly identical. On fly balls, he dropped from .522 to .090. Seriously.

Now, why did that happen? That's a little harder to answer. But Marte is only 27, and we can't see much that proves his 2019 gains can't be regained.

Verdict: Cautiously optimistic.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Ballpark Dimensions podcast.