Sano, Bundy, Ozuna lead early Statcast stars

April 18th, 2017

It's still April, so any reaction to traditional baseball stats is an overreaction. But some of the underlying skills behind those stats can be revealing, even this early in the season.

Here's a look at three players enjoying early-season breakouts, and what Statcast™ can tell us about the abilities, rather than just the numbers.

Sano's ludicrous power has never been a secret. He hit 18 homers in 335 plate appearances as a rookie. Going back to the Minors, even in the brutally tough Florida State League, Sano slugged .655 in a partial season at age 20.

Now Sano is also controlling the strike zone. He leads the American League in walks, and his strikeout rate is down slightly. And when you drill down to more granular data, it makes sense. A year ago, Sano swung at 26 percent of the pitches he saw that were outside the strike zone. This year, it's down to 24.44 percent.

But let's take it a step further and see what happens when pitchers do come in the zone. Sano is swinging at those pitches more often -- 67.5 percent of the time this year, up from 63.6 percent last year. And he's hitting the ball really, really hard when he does.

Sano's average exit velocity when he makes contact on a pitch in the strike zone is 99.6 mph; that's second in all of baseball (minimum 150 total pitches seen) behind only , who comes in at 99.7. A year ago, Sano's average EV when he swung at strikes was 94.8, 35th out of 213 big leaguers who saw at least 1,500 pitches on the year. Not bad, but nowhere near what he's doing now.

Sano is doing a better job of waiting out pitchers until they come in the zone, then doing more damage when they do. That's a potent combination.

Once one of the baseball's top prospects, Bundy has found a slider. And it is good. A year ago, he threw the pitch 6.3 percent of the time. This year, it's up to 15.8 percent. That immediately tells you something. It's nowhere near pitchers like Chris Archer (44.4 percent) and Chris Sale (30.0 percent) who rely heavily on the pitch, but it's a big change.

And it's working. Nobody is hitting Bundy's slider. At all. He's thrown it 48 times, and it's been put in play three times, with a feeble average exit velocity of 78.4 mph.

More tellingly, Bundy has 13 swings and misses on 48 sliders. That's a little over 27 percent, which is elite. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 250 pitches and have thrown at least as many sliders as Bundy has, that's the third-highest whiff rate (behind , 34.1 percent, and , 28.9 percent). He's had the fewest balls put in play on the slider of anyone meeting those criteria, as well as the lowest exit velocity.

A year ago, Bundy had a minuscule whiff rate on his slider -- seven swings and misses on 123 pitches; 5.7 percent. The change may result from what has been a notable increase in spin rate on the pitch. Last year it came in at an average of 2,311 rpm, which ranked right around mid-pack among pitchers who threw at least 100 sliders. This year it's up to 2,538, which ranks 17th out of 125 pitchers who have thrown at least 25 sliders. Develop a swing-and-miss pitch, and throw it more often: a good way to improve.

You may see a trend here. All three of these players were expected to break through at some point prior to now.

Ozuna has long been a prodigious talent; he may now be turning into a devastating hitter. The .404 average and league-leading RBI total draw the attention, but what stands out about him in this context is that he is obliterating the ball.

Ozuna ranks third in the Majors with eight "barrels," a Statcast™ measure that combines launch angle and exit velocity to determine batted balls that are most likely to yield the best results. His average exit velocity of 93.3 miles per hour ranks sixth in the Majors, and his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is a Major League-best 100.9 mph.

Now Ozuna still isn't hitting the ball in the air quite as much as he might like to be. With exactly 50 percent of his batted balls coming in as line drives or fly balls, he's well off the best at hitting the ball in the air ( and are over 70 percent). So that's the next step.

It's already encouraging, but if Ozuna can combine crushing fly balls and line drives with hitting more of them, he's going to have a ridiculous year.