These rookies are Statcast standouts

August 26th, 2020

With no Minor League season to cover this year, the MLB Pipeline crew has largely shifted its focus towards the 2020 rookie class, providing weekly updates on its top performers as well as a bi-monthly look at the current favorites to win the Rookie of the Year Award in each league.

On top of that, we also rolled out the first installment in our rookie Statcast series, identifying eight of this year’s top rookie performers and why they’ve been so successful. Since the article’s release two weeks ago, we’ve seen even more young players take center stage as teams continue to call up their top prospects at an unprecedented rate.

Using data from both Statcast as well as Baseball Savant, we’re once again breaking down another batch of rookie standouts this week -- a group that includes a pair of Top 100 prospects in Alec Bohm and Jesús Sánchez and a former Top 100 hurler in Triston McKenzie.

Devin Williams, RHP, Brewers
I wrote about Williams’ great start to the season in last week’s Statcast article. Since then, however, he’s been even better. After striking out two batters during a perfect eighth inning against the Reds on Tuesday night, the 25-year-old righty has now recorded multiple strikeouts in eight straight appearances for Milwaukee and nine of 11 on the season. Overall, Williams has punched out 25 batters (19.3 K/9) against five walks in 11 2/3 innings, posting a 0.77 ERA and .098 BAA to go along with his stellar strikeout numbers.

Williams has been elite this season by all measures, according to Baseball Savant, ranking in the 100th percentile in whiff rate (50.6 percent) and xBA (.099) as well as in the top one percent in the league in strikeout percentage (53.2) and top four percent in xSLG (.218) and xwOBA (.204). Much of that can be attributed to his changeup, perhaps the best in the Majors this year, a pitch that he throws only more often (48.3 percent) than his fastball (46.9 percent) -- which, by the way, averages 96.4 mph – and that has netted him 18 strikeouts. Averaging 84.1 mph, the pitch’s combination of vertical (40.2 inches on average, a 7.6-inch improvement upon his 2019 mark) and horizontal (18 inches) movement separates it from most others. Hitters have put the ball in play against Williams’ changeup just seven times in 27 plate appearances and done so with a collective launch angle of -6 degrees.

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Jake Cronenworth, INF/RHP, Padres (No. 18)
Acquired along with Tommy Pham in the offseason deal that sent Hunter Renfroe and Xavier Edwards to Tampa Bay, Cronenworth has emerged as an early favorite in the NL Rookie of the Year race with his tremendous start to the 2020 season. Through his first 25 games in the big leagues, the 26-year-old has produced a .342/.402/.608 (1.010 OPS) line with 13 extra-base hits (3 HR), 12 RBIs and 13 runs scored.

Cronenworth’s .397 xBA, .749 xSLG and .498 xwOBA all rank in the top one percent in baseball and reflect his ability to barrel the baseball consistently. He ranks 33rd in the league (min. 30 BIP) in average exit velocity (91 mph) and 12th in barrels per plate appearance (11.5), with a 50.7 percent Sweet Spot rate that leads all hitters (min. 50 BIP).

What’s more, Cronenworth’s 14.9 percent barrel rate is more than twice the league average (6.3 percent), and his 43.3 percent line drive rate is similarly well above league average (25.6 percent). Lastly, Cronenworth’s patient approach and plate discipline show in his 89.2 percent contact rate on pitches in the strike zone as well his 17.1 percent chase rate (28.2 percent is league average).

Andre Scrubb, RHP, Astros
Acquired from the Dodgers in the July 2019 deal for Tyler White, Scrubb, 25, has put together one of the most interesting stat lines of any Major League reliever in 2020. Though he’s been scored upon once in 11 appearances across 13 frames (0.69 ERA), the 6-foot-4, 270-pound right-hander has also compiled as many walks as strikeouts (13) in that span, resulting in a 1.54 WHIP. Fortunately for the Astros, Scrubb’s cutter-curveball pairing makes him one of baseball’s toughest relievers to square up, as he ranks in the top one percent in the Majors in hard-hit rate (10.3 percent) and the top three percent in xSLG (.212) and xBA (.150).

Scrubb uses his cutter in lieu of a true fastball, throwing it 52.7 percent of the time. What makes Scrubb’s cutter so unique is that he throws it hard -- the pitch’s average velocity of 93.2 mph trails only Corbin Burnes (93.5), Dustin May (93.8) and Colten Brewer (93.8) -- with the second-least amount of vertical movement (15.4 inches) among qualified pitchers. Scrubb’s curveball, on the other hand, has plenty of vertical action, averaging 63.3 inches (16th-best in baseball) with 19 percent more drop (second-best) compared to similar cutters in the same velocity range. The action on Scrubb’s two pitches creates a very different and contrasting look for opposing hitters, none of whom have barreled up the right-hander this season despite putting 29 balls in play.

Tejay Antone, RHP, Reds (No. 24)
Scouts have always lauded Antone for his ability to generate spin on all his pitches, and the right-hander did enjoy some success as a starter coming up through the Minor Leagues, but a move to the bullpen this season seems to have helped the former fifth-round pick (2014) really unlock his potential on the mound. Through his first six appearances (which includes one start), Antone has pitched to a 1.65 ERA with 22 strikeouts and a .113 BAA in 16 1/3 innings since his big league debut on July 27. Beyond the raw numbers, Antone ranks in the top one percent in baseball in xBA (.126) and xSLG (.191), the top two percent in hard-hit rate (16.1 percent) and xERA (1.82), and the top three percent in opponent exit velocity (83.3 mph) and whiff rate (41.1 percent).

So, what makes Antone so effective? Well, for starters, his sinking fastball, which averages 95.4 mph, ranks in the top two percent in the league in spin rate (2,642 rpm average). His curveball also features an elite spin rate, with an average of 2,979 rpm that puts him in the top three percent in that category. Yet, Antone’s best and most-used offering is a low- to mid-80s slider (2,669 rpm) that he throws 43.3 percent of the time. Hitters have struggled mightily against the pitch this season, batting a paltry .048 (.075 xBA) with a 56.5 percent whiff rate.

Jesús Sánchez, OF, Marlins (No. 5/MLB No. 87)
While it might surprise some folks to see Sánchez listed here given his 1-for-20 start to his big league career, there’s reason to believe that the 22-year-old outfielder will soon turn the corner. First and foremost, Sánchez has produced an average exit velocity of 95.4 mph on the 14 balls he’s put in play through seven games with Miami. Yes, it’s an incredibly small sample size; but for context, that mark would be the fourth-best in the Majors right now, even ahead of Juan Soto, if Sánchez had enough at-bats to qualify. The same goes for his 64.4 percent hard-hit rate, which would be the highest in baseball.

The reason why Sánchez hasn’t had more success so far is because he’s struggled to hit the ball in the air, with ground balls comprising 57.1 percent of the left-handed hitter’s contact. While that has been an issue for Sánchez throughout his career – he posted a 48.1 percent ground ball rate in the Minors – the sheer quality of his contact points to better results going forward, as does the fact that he’s pulled the ball as often as he’s used the opposite field (35.7 percent) through his first seven games.

Alec Bohm, 3B, Phillies (No. 1/MLB No. 31)
The Phillies selected Bohm with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 Draft based on his potential to hit for both average and power, and after a quick rise through the Minors, the 24-year-old third baseman is now showcasing his all-around offensive ability in the big leagues, slashing .324/.432/.486 with a homer and three doubles through his first 11 contests.

Everything about Bohm’s performance at the plate thus far suggests he belongs in the Majors. Both his 58.1 percent hard-hit rate and 16.1 percent barrel rate are well above league average (34.8 and 6.3 percent, respectively), and the 31 balls he’s put in play have an above-average exit velocity of 92 mph. He’s hitting the ball hard to all fields, too, and driving it especially well to straightaway center field, where he connected on his first career home run – a 107.6-mph, 446-foot blast – on Sunday night.

Bohm also has demonstrated an advanced approach that belies his experience, walking at a 15.6 percent clip with an 18 percent chase rate that’s well below league average (28.2 percent). And while Bohm admittedly has done most of his damage against fastballs (.474 BA, .696 xSLG), his .642 xSLG and 95.9 mph average exit velocity against breaking balls suggests that his .214 average against such pitches might be more of an anomaly than reality.

Triston McKenzie, RHP, Indians (No. 9)
For a pitcher who has never pitched above the Double-A level and didn’t take the mound at all in 2019 due to injury, McKenzie sure looked like he belonged on Saturday night in his big league debut against Detroit as he racked up 10 strikeouts over six innings while allowing one run on two hits and a walk. In the process, the 23-year-old right-hander showcased an advanced feel for commanding an arsenal of four average-or-better Major League pitches, headlined by a fastball that he threw 57.5 percent of the time in the outing.

Statcast tells us that McKenzie’s heater, which averaged 94.5 mph and topped out at 97.5, was as dominant as it appeared, as he recorded a 42.3 percent whiff rate with the pitch and used it to record all but one of his strikeouts. That he consistently beat Tigers hitters up in the zone with his fastball speaks to the pitch’s late life. To help quantify that, McKenzie averaged 10.9 inches of vertical movement on his four-seamer and 21 percent more rise compared to fastballs with a similar velocity. Among qualified pitchers, he would rank sixth and eighth, respectively, in those categories.