9 underperformers set to step up in playoffs

September 24th, 2020

During a typical campaign, stars who weren’t performing up to expectations through 60 games would still have plenty of time for their numbers to even out, but that’s not the case this year.

Some of MLB’s best players are going to end the regular season with unsightly stat lines. However, the playoffs provide a chance for a fresh start.

The nine hitters below have underwhelmed so far, but their underlying metrics suggest each could rebound in a big way this October. (Stats are as of Wednesday morning.)

, Dodgers
The 2019 National League MVP Award winner hasn’t delivered a worthy encore, slashing .239/.326/.443 (102 OPS+) over 227 plate appearances this season, with only one homer in September. Bellinger, though, is still hitting the ball hard (40.7% hard-hit rate) and has a BB/K mark (0.67) that is much better than the league average (0.39). The slugger’s xwOBA, which takes into account quality of contact as well as real-world strikeout and walk numbers, is .371, well above his actual wOBA (.324). For Bellinger, the key to a big postseason could be finding the sweet-spot zone (batted balls with a launch angle between 8-32 degrees) more often, as his sweet-spot rate has dropped from 40.1% to 29.0% -- tied for the sixth-highest year-to-year drop in MLB.

, Reds
Castellanos was an early NL MVP contender, hitting seven homers with a 1.251 OPS over his first 14 games, but he has struggled since and is down to .230/.304/.510 overall. However, Castellanos’ expected stats have remained solid even as his surface numbers have plummeted. Over his past 42 games, the 28-year-old has posted a .265 xBA, a .514 xSLG and a .356 xwOBA behind his .195 average, .403 slugging percentage and .281 wOBA, and he still ranks 19th overall in xSLG (.593) on the year. If the Reds can hold onto a postseason spot, their starting pitching and Castellanos’ bat could make them a tough out.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays
Guerrero is still hitting far too many ground balls, mitigating the impact of his powerful bat, but it’s hard to ignore the 21-year-old’s 93rd-percentile hard-hit rate, especially when he’s pairing it with an 81st-percentile strikeout rate. The biggest question for Guerrero remains the same as it was after his rookie year: Can he get the ball in the air more? He started doing that during his best stretch of the season -- an 11-game hitting streak from Aug. 19-30 that saw the young slugger record a .375/.457/.675 slash line with seven extra-base hits (two homers) in 46 plate appearances. In that stretch, 51.3% of his batted balls were fly balls or line drives, compared to 38.4% the rest of the season. Does he have another streak like that in store for October?

, Phillies
At age 33 and coming off a torn ACL in his left knee, it’s easy to write off McCutchen, who owns a .710 OPS this season and a lifetime .600 OPS with one RBI in 13 career postseason games. But the veteran outfielder remains a capable hitter with better-than-average chase (20.3%), whiff (22.6%) and hard-hit (40.3%) rates. Additionally, McCutchen’s xSLG (.495) is his highest since 2015 and his .365 xwOBA is 51 points higher than his actual wOBA. Despite his poor surface stats in 2020, the ’13 NL MVP could be poised to rewrite his playoff legacy -- that is, if Philadelphia can crack the postseason field.

, Athletics
Olson has 14 homers and a 14.2% walk rate, so his season hasn’t been a total loss, but a .193 average and .754 OPS are disappointing numbers for one of the most powerful players in the game. While the first baseman’s barrel and hard-hit rates are both down from last season, he still ranks in the 80th percentile or better in both departments and has the ability to put Oakland’s offense on his back in the postseason. The team might need it, as Matt Chapman is out for the year following hip surgery.

, Padres
Lost in the hoopla surrounding the Padres this season is the fact that Pham, one of the team’s big offseason additions, has recorded a .600 OPS over 107 plate appearances. But the 32-year-old is back from the injured list after missing a month due to a fractured hamate bone, and he could give San Diego’s offense another weapon in the playoffs. Pham has continued to display a sharp eye at the plate this season, and in a limited sample size, he owns his highest hard-hit rate (50.0%) since Statcast started tracking in 2015. Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Pham has MLB’s largest difference (188 points) between his xSLG (.471) and actual slugging percentage (.283) and the second-largest difference (90 points) between his xwOBA (.365) and actual wOBA (.275).

, Cubs
The Cubs lead the NL Central despite getting little production out of Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber. Together, these five have posted a .678 OPS and an 83 wRC+ in 994 plate appearances. After slashing .284/.388/.513 with an average of 30 homers, 33 doubles, 99 RBIs and 90 runs per season from 2014-19, Rizzo currently has his lowest OPS (.741) since his 2011 rookie year with the Padres. The first baseman’s xBA is 55 points higher than his actual mark (.220), however, which is the 10th-highest figure among qualified hitters.

Gary Sánchez, Yankees
Sánchez has recorded a .147/.247/.385 slash line over 162 plate appearances this year, and his postseason struggles are well documented, but the slugging catcher shouldn’t be counted out just yet. Sánchez’s hard-hit rate ranks in the 88th percentile, and his 17.6% barrel rate (barrels per batted balls) is the eighth highest among qualifiers. Even if you use barrels per plate appearance, which factors in Sánchez’s lofty strikeout rate, he’s still tied for 22nd at 9.3%. Sánchez also has been making more contact lately, notching a 25% whiff rate and a 20.8% strikeout rate in his past 12 games after putting up a 35.8% whiff rate and a 42.1% strikeout rate in his first 32 games.

Carlos Santana, Indians
The ever-patient Santana leads the Majors in walks, but his production with the bat has been lackluster to say the least. After making his first All-Star team last season and finishing with career highs in average (.281), slugging (.515) and OPS (.911), he has dropped to .189, .305 and .648 this year. Depressed barrel and hard-hit rates certainly have been part of the problem, but Santana has deserved better. The switch-hitter has MLB’s fifth-largest difference (63 points) between his xBA and his average and the third-largest difference (135 points) between his xSLG and slugging percentage, and his .367 xwOBA is only six points below last season’s mark.