5 hitters poised to bounce back in 2023

February 23rd, 2023

Every hitter endures some ups and downs throughout a Major League season, but sometimes those downs last a bit longer than anticipated. That was certainly the case last season for the five players listed below, each of whom went into 2022 with lofty expectations -- and some even had MVP aspirations.

But with Spring Training under way and the 2022 season fully in the past, we asked five MLB.com writers to pick their best bet for a hitter most likely to bounce back in '23 -- and here's what they had to say.

Max Muncy, Dodgers
Key stat: .227 BABIP in 2022

Put simply, lingering injury issues and a lack of luck conspired against Muncy last year. The slugger’s strong 2021 ended with a torn left UCL as he attempted to catch a throw at first base that took his arm into the path of a baserunner on the final day of the regular season, costing him that October and impacting his performance well into 2022. In fact, he went on the injured list in late May due to left elbow inflammation. His average at the time? Just .150.

Even when he returned two weeks later, it took Muncy a while to find his groove. He was slashing .161/.310/.303 with only 10 doubles and nine homers in 83 games as of July 31. Here’s where the bad luck must be highlighted, because Muncy’s BABIP at that point was a laughably low .190. From Aug. 1, he slashed a more Muncy-like .247/.358/.500 with 12 doubles and 12 homers in 53 games -- thanks in part to a more reasonable .282 BABIP.

With fly-ball tendencies and a lack of speed, Muncy doesn’t exactly have a high-BABIP profile, but his .227 mark last season was the fourth-worst BABIP in MLB. Funny enough, that wasn’t even the worst of his seven-year career: He posted a .203 BABIP in the shortened 2020 season, only to rebound with a down-ballot MVP campaign (135 OPS+, career-high 36 HR) -- despite a .257 BABIP.

Amid all the hardship he endured last year, Muncy maintained his elite plate discipline (99th percentile walk rate, 100th percentile chase rate) along with exit velos and hard-hit rates in line with his career norms. In other words, look for a return to form in his age-32 season. -- Jason Catania

Tyler O’Neill, Cardinals
Key stat: .392 xwOBA in 2021

O’Neill was one of the best all-around players in the Majors in 2021, joining Ronald Acuña Jr., Shohei Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr. as the only qualifiers to rank in the 90th percentile or better in both xwOBA (based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks) and sprint speed. O'Neill finished eighth in NL MVP Award voting after hitting .286 with 34 homers, 15 steals and a .912 OPS over 138 games.

Though he regressed with the bat last season and slashed just .228/.308/.392, the 27-year-old outfielder still flashed above-average skills in a variety of areas while making notable strides in improving his plate discipline and lowering his strikeout rate. And after missing significant time in the first half of last season with a right shoulder impingement and a left hamstring strain, he started to look much closer to his 2021 self down the stretch.

O’Neill recorded a .387 xwOBA over his final 31 games -- roughly one-third of his season -- while socking eight dingers in that span, before another left hamstring injury stalled him in mid-September. In addition to his injury misfortune, he dealt with some poor luck at the plate, tying for the 22nd-largest gap (24 points) between his xwOBA (.331) and his actual wOBA (.307). O’Neill doesn’t have a long track record of success outside of 2021, but he’s due for an uptick in production this season. -- Thomas Harrigan

Nick Castellanos, Phillies
Key stat: .539 xSLG from 2019-21 (.395 in '22)

Though Castellanos ultimately made some big plays during the Phillies’ postseason run – with his defense of all things – his debut season in Philadelphia was mostly disastrous. After signing a five-year, $100 million deal last offseason, Castellanos hit just 13 home runs and posted a career-worst .694 OPS in 2022. That came on the heels of a 34-homer campaign with the Reds in '21 in which he had a .939 OPS and made his first All-Star appearance.

“Last year was last year,” Castellanos said recently.

Castellanos has said he wasn’t comfortable last year. He was "pissed off, unhappy, frustrated." The extra-base hits he had become known for -- his 278 doubles from his first full season in 2014 through '21 were the most in MLB -- disappeared. He ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. His barrel percentage dipped to 6.6%, down from 10.6% in 2021 and a career-best 16% in '20. That said, his whiff rate was actually down slightly from his '20 mark and his chase rate was up only slightly. The only significant difference was that Castellanos swung at the first pitch a career-high 47.5% of the time -- up from 42% in '21 and 37.8% in '20.

Castellanos has never shied away from telling it how it is, and he says he’s more comfortable and settled in heading into ‘23. If that’s truly the case, expect the former Silver Slugger to be back near the top of the leaderboard in doubles, especially playing his home games at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park. -- Paul Casella

Jesse Winker, Brewers
Key stat: .392 xwOBA from 2020-21

Winker was one of the best hitters in the Majors on a rate basis from 2020-21, ranking in the same range as Yordan Alvarez, Paul Goldschmidt, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani. And his results matched his expected metrics (which are based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks). But following an offseason trade from Cincinnati to Seattle, Winker’s expected production plummeted in 2022, and his actual numbers followed suit (.219/.344/.344).

As it turns out, there may be a glaringly obvious reason for this. Never a paragon of durability, Winker managed to play in 136 games for the Mariners but did so while hindered by a meniscus injury in his left knee, and more troubling, a neck injury. Both issues led to offseason surgery, the latter a disc replacement procedure that he said paid immediate dividends, potentially alleviating symptoms that had plagued him for years. It’s too early to know if the 29-year-old will maintain his health, but there seems to be reason for optimism.

It also doesn’t hurt that Seattle traded Winker to Milwaukee, whose American Family Field ranks as the fifth-best home run park for lefties -- 14 spots ahead of the Mariners’ T-Mobile Park. (For what it’s worth, Winker has slashed .344/.440/.591 in 109 career plate appearances in Milwaukee.) In other words, the stage is set for a rejuvenated Winker to return to his status as an All-Star-caliber bat in 2023. -- Andrew Simon

Jared Walsh, Angels
Key stat: .417 wOBA vs. RHP from 2020-21, sixth best in MLB (min. 400 PA)

And here’s one more lefty slugger who is trying to bounce back from an injury-marred campaign. Walsh experienced the symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome for multiple years prior to last season, but they worsened over the course of 2022. The constant tightness in his neck and left shoulder, as well as the tingling in his fingertips, made him a shell of his previous self at the plate.

Back in 2020, Walsh crushed nine home runs over his final 20 games during the shortened season and was able to carry that momentum over into 2021, when he posted a 126 wRC+ -- meaning he was 26% better than league average with the bat. Walsh’s ability to make authoritative contact was displayed in his 11.3% barrel rate and by ranking in the 94th percentile when it came to maximum exit velocity. He slashed .333/.405/.589 in nearly 400 plate appearances versus right-handed pitching. He smashed 29 home runs and made the All-Star team. Walsh was simply the Angels' best everyday hitter not named Shohei Ohtani, that season’s unanimous AL MVP.

All of Walsh’s numbers slumped last year, understandably. He even waned against righties, turning in a .660 OPS. But now, nearly six months after corrective surgery, Walsh says he is feeling close to 100% in spring camp. He is in line to receive the bulk of his at-bats versus righty pitchers, which obviously plays to the 29-year-old’s strengths, and there is optimism that he can recapture his form from two years ago. That would go a long way to helping the Angels defy their low playoff probability. -- Brian Murphy