How Walsh is backing up last year's breakout

May 12th, 2021

When the Angels parted ways with future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols last week, most of the conversation was about the unexpected timing of it, what it meant for his legacy, and if it meant the end of his career or if some other club would give him a shot. And why not? He’s one of the 10 or so best right-handed hitters of all time. He’s earned that focus.

In the face of all that, the why of it all seemed almost secondary -- that, because he’s had a below-average 85 OPS+ dating back to 2017, a last-place Angels team could no longer justify playing him ahead of superior players at DH or 1B, and he wasn’t likely to be happy as a bench player. The writing was on the wall, with articles noting “the Angels' baseball operations department [decided] that Jared Walsh was the club’s best option at first base after weeks of discussions” and that Shohei Ohtani is a must-play at DH when he’s not pitching.

There are a lot of Big Names in this discussion. Pujols is a living legend. Ohtani is doing things no one has ever done. Oh, and Mike Trout is an all-time great who just had his best-ever month. Walsh, a 39th-round pick in 2015 who was himself trying to be an Ohtani-esque two-way player a mere two years ago, is not one of them.

Maybe, though, that needs to change. It’s not just that the Angels suffered through a very uncomfortable divorce with one of the best ever to play in order to give Walsh more regular playing time, though there is also that. It’s that as of Tuesday morning, if you were to look at this list of “best hitters in baseball,” you’d see this …

… and maybe, now, Walsh ought to be one of those Big Names too?

The first thing to note, probably, is that his 2021 performance isn’t completely out of nowhere; he did, after all, hit .293/.324/.646 (.971 OPS, or 153 OPS+) in 2020, and while that came in a mere 108 plate appearances, it was enough to earn him a spot on our March list of 2021 breakout candidates. You might wonder if a 153 OPS+ didn’t already count as a breakout, and maybe it did, but also he didn’t get his first hit of last season until Sept. 2, so it felt like he still had much to prove.

Besides, when we looked into Walsh's 2020 line, we saw that, unlike fellow short-2020-season-standout Willi Castro (who had a 150 OPS+ last year and has a 58 OPS+ this year), there was a lot to like about what was driving it.

“In 2020,” we wrote, “here’s the list of hitters (minimum of 100 plate appearances) who had a barrel rate above 10% and a strikeout rate below 15%. There were only six. You know the other five:

Freddie Freeman
Manny Machado
Kyle Seager
Juan Soto
Justin Turner

… and Jared Walsh.”

So! There’s a nice list to be on. A barrel is the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle -- basically, a hard-hit ball hit in the air, on which the sport hit .797 with a slugging percentage near 2.800 last year -- and when you pair that with a low strikeout rate, well, that’s how you end up on a list with Freeman, Machado and Soto.

That all earned Walsh the starting first-base job heading into the season, though he ended up spending most of April playing right field after Dexter Fowler injured his knee. Back at first base with Taylor Ward now starting in right, Walsh has, on a rate basis, improved his line over that 2020 mark; after all, a 182 OPS+ is better than the 153 he had last season. Put them together, and since the start of last season, only Trout and Soto have better lines than Walsh does, which continues to just be a wild statement.

That’s rarefied air. So, since we liked the underlying numbers we saw last year, he must be doing that same thing again, right? Well, no. Not exactly. Not really at all.

What's different in 2021

Walsh is, again, performing better than he did last year, so allow us to surprise you with the fact that his hard-hit rate is down (from 39% to 36%) and his strikeout rate is up (from 14% to 21%) and his barrel rate is about the same (a similar 12%) and now, really, you’re very confused.

The first, and most obvious, thing to look at is the simple fact that he’s getting on base more often. Walsh, last season, had a relatively unimpressive .324 on-base percentage, generating most of his value from his power. This year, that’s up to a very strong .426 OBP, which is both the fourth best in MLB and one of the largest year-to-year improvements around.

Some of that is probably fluky, because he’s not going to keep up a .410 Batting Average on Balls in Play all year long. It’s not entirely about that either, though, because his walk rate has doubled from last year’s 5% to this year’s 10%. Here, though, is where you’d expect us to say that he’s chasing less (he is not) or that he’s seeing meaningfully more bad pitches away from the zone or its edges (nope) or even that he was swinging and missing more on those bad chases, allowing him to stay alive longer in the count rather than making weak contact (it’s not this).

Instead, he's added all of that on-base at the expense of a little bit of slugging (down from an excellent .646 to a still-good .593), and there appear to be two major differences.

1. He's getting way more value out of his hard-hit balls

As we said above, even last year, Walsh wasn't exactly in the Giancarlo Stanton/Aaron Judge level of hard-hit dominance, and this year he's actually below average in that department. But look at what's come out of those hard-hit (95 mph or more of exit velocity) balls in the last two seasons:

2020: .485 average / 1.394 slugging
2021: .781 average / 1.594 slugging

What is that about? Well, you can see it right here. Last year, you can see the wide spread in how he launched his hard-hit balls, with too many right into the ground and a few straight up. This year, it's far more condensed into those line drive areas.

This year, when Walsh has a hard-hit ball, it's a line drive or fly ball 69 percent of the time. Last year, that was the case only 53 percent of the time. That is, half the time Walsh did the best thing you can do -- hit a ball very hard -- he was either hitting it on the ground or as a pop fly. But in 2021, he's more consistently squaring them up for value, which is exactly what he's getting.

While we're not buying a .410 BABIP all year, certainly, "hitting more line drives" is a great way to keep that stat high. Here's another.

2. He's hitting it around the entire field.

Walsh himself told us what he's doing when he's going right.

“When I was swinging the bat well, I was kind of using left-center," Walsh told the Orange County Register in March. "When I feel like I’m locked in, left-center is somewhere that I go pretty consistently.”

That's easy enough to verify, so let's go right ahead and do that.

2020: 40% pull / 31% center / 29% opposite
2021: 32% pull / 44% center / 23% opposite

Right there, that tells you a little about why his hard-hit rate is down, because hitters tend to hit the ball harder to their pull field. (See: Trout and that best-ever month he just had.) Visually, the progression could just not be easier to see.

But there's something counterintuitive happening here, and we don't have a good answer for it. As he's pulling the ball less, he's getting shifted more, not just across seasons -- it was 67% in each of his first two years, and 72% this year -- but within 2021, where he was shifted 60% of the time in April and more than 80% of the time in May.

“I think he’s one of the best young hitters around, and so did [the Angels],” Astros manager Dusty Baker said recently. “The reason why they let Albert [Pujols] go was so he could play first base every day. I know a lot of people were getting on me last time because I walked Walsh with first base open to pitch to Albert, and that’s why. He hits the ball all over the field. He hits balls to left, the changeup to center, hit a cutter to right field. This young man, he can hit.”

That's high praise coming from someone who's been in the game as long as Baker has. "Pretty spectacular," Angels manager Joe Maddon said after Walsh had four hits on Monday night. For someone who was drafted in a round that doesn't exist anymore and was supposedly going to spend part of his time on the mound, we'd agree. Walsh isn't really the third-best hitter in baseball, of course. When Anthony Rendon is healthy and playing to form, we're not sure Walsh is even the third-best hitter on his own team.

But he's proven he's far more than a bit player, and he made the Angels' decision to cut ties with one of the greatest hitters to ever play surprisingly easy. At the end of his career, Walsh won't be discussed in any sort of context with Pujols as far as overall value. Yet in 2021, there's not really even a question about it: Walsh is the superior player, and he's quietly become one of the better hitters in the Majors.