The free-agent hitters with the best tools

November 29th, 2020

We've already broken down the 2020-21 free-agent class by the top free agents overall and the top free agents by position. Here's another way a free agent can be valuable to a team: an elite individual skill.

So let's take a look at which players are at the top of the class when it comes to baseball's five tools -- the free agents with the best contact hitting, the best power, the best speed, the best defense and the best arm.

These are the 2020-21 free-agent hitters with the best individual tools:

Best contact hitting:
Key stat: 21.9 percent hard-hit rate per swing in 2020

A two-time batting champion and lifetime .305 hitter, LeMahieu has shown impressive bat-to-ball skills throughout his career, but especially in the past two years. Since the start of 2019, LeMahieu's 14.9 percent whiff rate (misses per total swings) is the ninth-lowest among hitters with at least 1,000 swings, and his 12.7 percent strikeout rate is 11th-lowest (min. 500 plate appearances).

But frequent contact is only part of what makes LeMahieu such a great hitter, as the second baseman also regularly hits the ball hard -- his 21.9 percent hard-hit rate per swing ranked third in MLB last season -- and is virtually unshiftable due to his ability to spray the ball to all fields. In fact, LeMahieu hasn’t seen a true infield shift in more than four years, a product of his MLB-low 22.2 percent pull rate in that span.

Honorable mentions: Justin Turner, Michael Brantley

-- Thomas Harrigan

Best power:
Key stat: 54.4 percent hard-hit rate in 2020

Ozuna has shown power in his career before, with 90th-percentile or better average exit velocity in each season since 2017. But in '20, it was on another level. Ozuna's 54.4 percent hard-hit rate was the highest in any season of his career tracked by Statcast, trailing just seven hitters who accumulated at least 100 batted balls. Ozuna crushed the ball in 2020, and unlike in '19, he got great results on those hard-hit batted balls.

He hit .593 with a 1.308 slugging percentage in at-bats ending on a batted ball with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph, with both of those figures coming in above the league average on hard-hit balls. His 18 homers led the National League, and his .636 slugging percentage trailed only Juan Soto (.695) and NL MVP winner Freddie Freeman (.640) among qualified hitters in either league. His power, part of the quality contact he made in 2020, makes him a particularly intriguing free-agent hitter.

Honorable mentions: Nelson Cruz, George Springer, Joc Pederson

-- Sarah Langs

Best speed:
Key stat: 28.5 feet per second average sprint speed in 2020

Hernandez would get a good challenge from known free-agent speedsters like Billy Hamilton and Dee Strange-Gordon in a straight footrace, but Hernandez has a good shot to be an everyday player in 2021 (he was a key part of the Indians' postseason run) while the other two are more likely to be relegated to bench roles. Hernandez has ranked in MLB's 88th percentile or higher in average sprint speed in each of the first six seasons of Statcast tracking, including a 28.5 feet per second sprint speed in ‘20 (well above the MLB average of 27 ft/sec) that placed him in the 90th percentile.

Once a threat to steal 20 bases a year, Hernandez has taken fewer chances over the past two seasons, following the league-wide trend. But he still gets on base and has the footspeed to make an impact on the basepaths, and maybe even reach that stolen-base level again should he sign with an aggressive baserunning club.

Honorable mentions: Billy Hamilton, Dee Strange-Gordon

-- Matt Kelly

Best glove:
Key stat:191 defensive runs saved since 2012 (71 more than any other player)

Simmons was limited to just 30 games in the shortened 2020 campaign -- and he wasn't his typical self defensively during that small sample, accounting for -2 DRS and -1 outs above average. But that just makes his 191 career DRS all the more impressive, considering he compiled that gaudy total over an eight-season span from 2012-19.

Simmons averaged a ridiculous 24 DRS per season during that stretch, while taking home four Gold Glove Awards (2013, '14, '17 and '18). Though he has battled injuries over the past two seasons and just turned 31 in September, Simmons can still be a real difference-maker as the best defensive player at a premier position.

Honorable mentions: Kolten Wong, Jackie Bradley Jr.

-- Paul Casella

Best arm:
Key stat: 1.89 second average pop time to 2B in 2019

The argument for Realmuto as the top overall free agent is that he's an all-around star at a premium position. But his true standout talent -- among all his standout talents -- is his arm behind the plate. Realmuto is the best throwing catcher in the game. He's MLB's reigning pop time leader for the past three seasons of tracking, from 2017-19 (we don't have that leaderboard for the shortened '20 season).

Realmuto averaged 1.89 seconds to second base in 2019 and 1.90 seconds in both '17 and '18, all good for the No. 1 ranking among catchers. He's consistently much faster than the MLB average pop time of 2.01 seconds. Plus, Realmuto's average arm strength on "max-effort" throws sits around 88 mph, elite for a catcher when it comes to throwing out basestealers.

Honorable mentions: Jackie Bradley Jr., Hunter Renfroe

-- David Adler