5 hitters who could bounce back this season

March 20th, 2022

We see it every year: star hitters who go into uncharacteristic slumps that take over much of their season. The 2021 season was no exception, and there are several candidates to bounce back with a vintage performance at the plate in ’22.

We had five MLB.com writers participate in a “rebound hitters draft,” and here’s a look at the players they selected, along with why we should expect a big offensive year from them in 2022:

Trevor Story -- SS
Key number: 37.4 xHR

Much like Nolan Arenado experienced the year before, Story had an underwhelming campaign with the Rockies amid swirling trade rumors in 2021. While Story did hit 24 home runs and steal 20 bases, his overall production at the plate was well off his norms -- he hit .251/.329/.471 (103 OPS+) in 142 games, whereas from 2018-20, he slashed .292/.355/.554 (123 OPS+).

There is plenty of reason to anticipate a bounce-back year from Story, however. First, there’s the proverbial “let’s see what happens when he doesn’t have to deal with the ‘Coors Hangover’” rationale now that he's agreed to a deal with the Red Sox (per a source). Without having to come down from altitude for a dozen or so road trips every season and wrestling with the resulting change in the break on pitches after seeing breaking balls flattened out by the thin air in Denver, Story could put up numbers we haven’t seen from him before.

Story was also hurt in 2021, with an injured elbow that caused him problems not just offensively, but defensively as well. A fully healthy Story has the potential for rejuvenation at the plate. He’s also still only entering his age-29 season, right in the middle of his prime.

And then there are some interesting peripheral stats from last season that suggest Story is not far from returning to form offensively. Nobody had a larger disparity between actual home runs and Statcast expected home runs than Story, whose xHR total was 13 more than his actual total. He also had a higher expected weighted on-base average (.336) than he did in 2020 (.334), when his OPS was 73 points higher. His 42.6% hard-hit rate and 9.9% barrel rate were also higher than in ’20.

The Story-lines abound as we head into the 2022 season: He will be starting a new chapter in a new uniform, all the while looking to show he’s still one of the best all-around shortstops in baseball after a down year by his standards in ’21.

-- Manny Randhawa

Cody Bellinger -- CF, Dodgers
Key number: .907 OPS in 2021 postseason

You can’t look at Bellinger’s 2021 regular season and find much of a silver lining. He was one of the least-productive position players in MLB, and even beneath the surface-level results, things were not encouraging. Compared with his 2019 NL MVP campaign, Bellinger’s contact quality was far worse, and he was almost completely incapable of handling velocity.

Fortunately, there is a reasonable explanation for all of this. Bellinger needed right shoulder surgery after the 2020 season, and that is no small thing to overcome. Then, before his '21 season had a chance to get going, he sustained a hairline fracture in his left fibula that held him out until the end of May. Subsequent hamstring and rib injuries interrupted his season twice more. Given all that, it’s more than reasonable to disregard Bellinger’s 2021, especially when his stellar playoff run proved that the skills that made him a star in the first place are still there.

Is the Bellinger of 2019 ever coming back? Perhaps not, but it shouldn’t be surprising if, at age 26 and coming off a normal offseason, he returns to being a well above-average hitter in '22. Combine that with his speed and defensive acumen at multiple positions, and you still have quite a valuable player.

-- Andrew Simon

DJ LeMahieu -- INF, Yankees
Key number: 44% hard-hit rate, 33% sweet-spot rate in 2021

After back-to-back top-five MVP finishes in his first two seasons with the Yankees, LeMahieu's numbers fell off a cliff last season.

2019-20: .336 BA, .536 SLG, .922 OPS, 146 OPS+

2021: .268 BA, .362 SLG, .711 OPS, 97 OPS+

But here are the underlying numbers to believe in: LeMahieu's hard-hit rate, 43.5%, wasn't too far off his 2019-20 level (47.4%). A third of the balls he hit were in the launch angle "sweet spot" of 8-32 degrees, right in line with what he did the previous two seasons -- in other words, he was hitting line drives and fly balls just as often. He still had his trademark opposite-field approach, with three-quarters of his batted balls going to center or right field, the same as in 2019-20. Based on his quality of contact, the 2020 MLB batting champion still ranked in the 89th percentile of MLB in Statcast's expected batting average in 2021.

LeMahieu also ranked in the 96th percentile of MLB in swing-and-miss rate, the 91st percentile in strikeout rate and the 73rd percentile in walk rate. He chased fewer pitches out of the strike zone than ever (20.5%), and when he swung at pitches in the zone, he made contact over 90% of the time. That's all a lot more LeMahieu-like than his stat sheet. Oh, and he was playing through a sports hernia down the stretch that forced him to miss the postseason and required offseason surgery. A healthy LeMahieu should be a bounce-back LeMahieu in 2022.

-- David Adler

Carlos Santana -- 1B, Royals
Key number: -0.078 “unlucky gap” between SLG and xSLG in 2021

Santana slugged .342 last year, the lowest in any year of his career. But the underlying stats tell us there was more than met the eye with his results. His expected slugging percentage, which is based on quality of contact, plus strikeouts, was .420. That -.078 "unlucky gap" between actual and expected slugging percentage was the second-largest of any batter with at least 350 batted balls last season, behind only Freddie Freeman (.503 SLG, .583 xSLG … a slightly different stratosphere). Now, .420 still isn’t elite slugger territory, but it’s closer to the contributor Santana has been in recent years with his bat. He had a -.030 difference between his actual and expected batting average, too, which is further to the point that Santana should have been better in ‘21 -- which indicates he’s set for a return to form in '22.

Even in a down year, Santana still had signature plate discipline, including an 85th-percentile strikeout rate, 92nd-percentile walk rate and 84th-percentile chase rate. His game will typically feature on-base prowess, which also dipped slightly in '21, but is set to bounce back based on the underlying process stats.

-- Sarah Langs

Francisco Lindor -- SS, Mets
Key number: .822 OPS after June 1

Lindor’s first year in Queens? Let’s just say it didn’t go at all as hoped for him or the Mets. After arriving in a blockbuster swap with Cleveland and inking a massive 10-year, $341 million contract extension on the eve of Opening Day, the star shortstop started ice-cold with a .530 OPS through the first month before becoming embroiled in that bizarre “ratcoon” controversy with teammate Jeff McNeil. Oh, and the Mets went on to set the dubious record for most days spent in first place by a team that eventually finished under .500.

As rough as all that was, Lindor actually wound up turning his season around in the end. After June 1, the switch-hitter -- who sports a career .821 OPS -- batted .253/.342/.480 (.822 OPS) and played his usual stellar defense, finishing second in baseball with 20 Outs Above Average.

Lindor’s underlying offensive metrics, including a career-high 44.1 percent hard-hit rate and a 90.7 mph average exit velocity (just shy of his career best), showed he still possesses an impact bat. And although his strikeout rate jumped to a career-worst mark, it was only 18.3 percent -- well below the league average of 23.3 percent -- and his walk rate spiked to a career-best 11.1 percent. If not for a right oblique strain that cost Lindor five weeks at the outset of the second half, his overall numbers likely would have been more or less in line with his career stats. Look for the 28-year-old Lindor to return to that type of production now that he’s more settled into his new digs.

-- Jason Catania