5 slow starts not to panic about

These hard-hitting batters' fortunes are due to improve

August 12th, 2020

In a 60-game season that magnifies every plate appearance, a slow start now feels like a bigger deal than ever.

But not every season-opening slump is created equal. Some hitters may be working through serious issues, with their approaches, swing mechanics or both. Others may simply be dealing with some bad luck.

Thanks to Statcast, it’s easier than ever before to separate those truly struggling from those who are just in need of a break or two. By comparing a player’s actual statistics (batting average, slugging percentage and weighted on-base average) with his “expected” equivalents (xBA, xSLG, xwOBA) -- which are based in part on quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) -- we can see how much his performance deviates from where it “should” be.

With those numbers in mind, here are five hitters whose starts you should not be panicking about. Each is listed with his 2020 wOBA and xwOBA. (For context, the MLB average xwOBA is around .325). All stats are through Monday's games unless otherwise noted.

, White Sox
.274 wOBA, .379 xwOBA
One thing hurting Jiménez is that he strikes out at an above-average clip and rarely walks. But both of those things are factored into xwOBA, and Jiménez still ranks in the 74th percentile of MLB hitters in that category. Why? When he hits the ball, he scalds it. His hard-hit rate and barrel rate both rank above the 90th percentile, with only five hitters barreling more balls this season than Jiménez.

Barrels are batted balls with an optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, and they typically result in extra-base hits. Unfortunately for Jiménez, four of his eight barrels this season have resulted in outs, tied for the most in the Majors. All four have been hard-hit line drives or fly balls that have been caught on the warning track. Turn those into doubles, and Jiménez would have entered Tuesday batting .286 and slugging .554. Taking a few more walks would help, but if Jiménez keeps hitting the ball as solidly as he has been, he should be just fine. His luck may already be turning, with Jiménez squeezing a non-barreled fly ball just over the right-field wall in his first at-bat Tuesday.

, Padres
.291 wOBA, .394 xwOBA

In contrast to Jiménez, Pham is one of the more patient hitters in the sport, annually ranking among the MLB leaders in lowest chase rate while posting walk rates well into double digits. Pham has been as selective as ever in his first season in San Diego, with 10 walks against 11 strikeouts in 17 games. Meanwhile, his exit velocity and hard-hit rate also are right in line with his well above-average career norms.

Unfortunately for Pham, he also leads the Majors with 17 hard-hit outs (those with a 95-plus mph exit velocity). In one particularly notable game, back on July 26 at Arizona, Pham had two barrels snagged by outfielders making leaping grabs on the warning track. That being said, more than half of Pham’s hard-hit outs -- and roughly two-thirds of his total batted balls -- have been on the ground. Pham has always been a ground-ball-oriented hitter, but getting the hard contact in the air a bit more would help him steer out of this early skid.

Yoshi Tsutsugo, Rays
.251 wOBA, .341 xwOBA

It’s been a rough transition so far for the 28-year-old Tsutsugo, who jumped to the Majors this year after a successful run with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Yokohama BayStars. In Japan, Tsutsugo slugged over .500 in each of the past six seasons, while averaging 31 homers. Through his first 14 MLB games, he’s slugging .250. So is he just overmatched here?

There’s no sign of that under the surface. Tsutsugo doesn’t swing and miss a whole lot, has one of MLB’s lowest chase rates and is among the MLB leaders in pitches seen per plate appearance. Meanwhile, his hard-hit rate and barrel rate both rank in the 72nd percentile. Tsutsugo has gotten under a few too many balls, but he also has caught precisely zero breaks. Of the 182 hitters to put at least 20 balls in play with an xBA below .500 through Monday, Tsutsugo was one of only two not to benefit from even one of those turning into a base hit.

, A’s
.327 wOBA, .405 xwOBA

It’s been an all-or-nothing start for Olson, who is batting .155 but with five of his nine hits going for home runs, including a walk-off grand slam on Opening Day and four big flies within the past week. As those results suggest, there’s nothing wrong with Olson’s power. His hard-hit rate is elite, and as usual, he is lifting the ball in the air at a healthy clip. Combined with a high walk rate, that’s a recipe for success.

But what about the fact that Olson is batting under .100 when he doesn’t homer? Olson’s xBA on his 35 batted balls that haven’t left the yard is a healthy .296. His actual average is .114, including 11 outs on balls with a .400 xBA or higher. Olson is already bringing the dingers; the singles and doubles will follow.

, Dodgers
.339 wOBA, .456 xwOBA

Smith’s start isn’t actually slow, unless you focus on his .200 batting average. (Please don’t do that). The 25-year-old catcher entered Tuesday with a .359 OBP, a .433 slugging percentage and a well above-average wRC+ of 126. Still, it’s worth pointing him out here because only three MLB hitters (minimum 35 plate appearances) have a wider gap between their expected and actual wOBA. If you judge Smith only by the latter number, he’s been a top 10 hitter in the game, up there with the likes of the red-hot Charlie Blackmon and his .484 average.

It certainly helps that Smith is walking about twice as much as he is striking out, one of the best ratios in MLB, and has sliced his 2019 whiff rate in half. But when he makes contact, that’s been elite, too. Smith hits the ball hard, and he almost never puts it on the ground. Unfortunately for him, six of his top 11 batted balls in terms of xSLG (all .800-plus) have gone for outs, including a 381-foot fly ball that the Giants’ Mike Yastrzemski caught at the wall on Sunday.