We sometimes put too much stock in a strong finish. Ditto for a hot start. On their own, each might mean nothing in the long run.
But when you finish one season as hot as can be and start off the next in similar fashion? Well, that’s more meaningful.
And that’s exactly what Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette has done.
Bichette was on his way toward a down year in 2022, but he recovered to hit a blistering .406 with seven homers and a 1.105 OPS after the calendar flipped to September, which gave him a confidence boost heading into the offseason. He's kept on rolling in 2023, slashing .354/.384/.549 through 19 games.
“I just think I found out that I'm really good, to be honest," Bichette said during Spring Training, while looking back at 2022. "I always knew what I was capable of, but I now understand who I am.”
Who he is, at least since Sept. 1, 2022, is the third-best hitter in baseball.
Highest wRC+, since Sept. 1, 2022 (through Wednesday)
- Aaron Judge: 226
- Mike Trout: 198
- Bo Bichette: 197
- Yordan Alvarez: 187
- Julio Rodríguez: 181
Bichette has done that over a not-insignificant sample size of 228 plate appearances. The other players in the top five are all heavy hitters who have received a lot more fanfare than Bichette. But if the shortstop can keep it up, it won’t be long before he starts to be recognized as one of the top hitters in the game, too.
That's not to say Bichette is anonymous. Far from it -- he's the son of former four-time All-Star Dante Bichette and an All-Star in his own right. He also received down-ballot MVP support in each of the past two years and entered 2023 with a .297/.340/.491 slash. He's been really good for a while.
But this version of Bichette is on another level. Here’s why. (All stats are through Wednesday.)
He’s showing more discipline on the first pitch
Over his first four seasons, Bichette earned a reputation as one of baseball’s most aggressive first-pitch swingers -- even when he didn’t get a good pitch to hit.
Bichette’s 45% swing rate on the first pitch across 2019-22 was the seventh highest in MLB (min. 1,250 plate appearances), while his 25.9% chase rate on the first pitch was tied for seventh highest.
The shortstop has dialed back his aggressiveness in 2023, though not to the point where he’s consistently giving pitchers a free first-pitch strike. He’s still swinging often at the first pitch when pitchers come into the zone but has slashed both his chase rate and overall swing rate on the first pitch.
Bichette’s swing tendencies on first pitch
- Swing rate: 34.1%
- Zone-swing rate: 55.9%
- Chase rate: 19.6%
Finding a balance is important here -- while Bichette owns a lifetime 1.102 OPS in 286 plate appearances ending on the first pitch, he also has just a .671 OPS over 904 PAs after falling behind 0-1. And in the 623 PAs where he’s gone ahead 1-0, he has a .954 OPS.
He’s become tougher to strike out
Bichette is striking out in only 14% of his plate appearances this season, continuing a downward trend that started last September after his K-rate jumped to 24.3% over the first five months of 2022.
Bichette's strikeout rate breakdown
- 2019-21: 20.8%
- April-August 2022: 24.3%
- September/October 2022: 14.1%
- 2023: 14.0%
As you might expect, the shortstop has become a much tougher hitter to put away when pitchers get two strikes on him. Although his two-strike swing rate this season is in line with his career mark, Bichette has shown outstanding plate coverage, making contact on more than 85% of these swings (78.2% from 2019-22).
It’s paying off -- Bichette is hitting .308 in two-strike counts this year, and only two players have more two-strike hits (12).
His ability to take the ball the other way, something he's done well his entire career, has been key. More than 55% of his two-strike batted balls have gone to the opposite field, including eight of his 12 two-strike hits.
He’s producing more valuable contact
What has changed, however, are the types of batted balls he’s producing, with more balls in the sweet-spot zone (launch angle ranging from 8-32 degrees). In other words, he’s producing more line drives and fly balls and fewer ground balls and popups.
In fact, Bichette’s sweet-spot rate has spiked to a career-high 48.6% in 2023, tied for the fourth-highest mark among qualifiers.
Bichette's sweet-spot rate by season
- 2019: 36.1%
- 2020: 37.5%
- 2021: 33.5%
- 2022: 33.3%
- 2023: 48.6%
Meanwhile, only 12 of Bichette’s 30 hard-hit balls (40%) have come on the ground in 2023. Prior to this season, more than 46% of his hard-hit balls were grounders.
Bichette's elite expected wOBA, which is based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks, encapsulates the advancements he's made. Last September/October, he ranked eighth in MLB (min. 100 plate appearances) with a .390 xwOBA. He's been even better so far this year, recording a .437 xwOBA.
“You can kind of rewind to September of last year where he’s swinging at the right pitch, he’s putting the best swing on every ball he’s offering at and he’s a really tough out," Blue Jays manager John Schneider, who managed Bichette in the Minors before becoming Toronto's skipper in 2022, said following Bichette's 5-for-5 performance against the Rays on April 14. "He’s done a really good job of carrying over what he did and understanding what makes him good -- or makes him great, I’d say. He’s sticking with his approach. He can do that any night.
"We’re watching him evolve into [targeting] what he’s going to get instead of what he wants to hit. It’s been a turning point for him. He’s being a little more selective. He’s been talented since we signed him. I watched him hit .400 in the Minor Leagues in A-ball. He has great bat-to-ball skills, so when you put that together with a really good approach, this is what you see."