These rookies are Statcast standouts

September 9th, 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 well as a bi-monthly look at the current favorites to win the Rookie of the Year Award in each league.

We’ve also dissected this year’s rookie class even more in the first two installments of our rookie Statcast series, using advanced metrics and data to identify why certain players have been successful at the outset of their Major League careers.

Using information 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 recent Top 100 prospect callups in third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and right-hander Clarke Schmidt.

Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pirates (No. 1/MLB No. 41)
Though the sample size for evaluation is especially small with Hayes -- a .381 hitter with three multihit performances in his first six games in the big leagues -- the fact that six of his eight hits so far have had an exit velocity of 98.5 mph or better accurately reflects the 23-year-old’s innate ability to impact the baseball. The same can be said for Hayes’ 71.0 percent hard-hit rate and 97.4 mph average exit velocity on his 14 batted balls, both of which would rank first among qualified Major League hitters.

Hayes posted a pair triple-digit exit velocities during his big league debut against the Cubs on Sept. 1, when he laced a line-drive double off the left field wall (108.5 mph exit velocity, 16-degree launch angle) against Jon Lester for his first career hit before connecting on a game-tying homer (101.5 mph, 24 degrees) to center later in the game. His best exit velocity, 110.3 mph, came on a groundball single up the middle last weekend against the Reds.

The only thing Hayes hasn’t done yet is hit the ball in the air consistently, averaging a six-degree launch angle on balls in play. While that mark is well below MLB average (11.9 degrees), it also suggests that Hayes will hit for more power as he learns to lift the ball against big league pitching.

Adrian Morejon, LHP, Padres (No. 6)
Morejon hasn’t seen much time with the Padres this year, working nine innings across four outings (two starts), but in that span the 21-year-old left-hander has shown a vastly improved changeup compared to the one he threw in his first taste of the Majors in 2019. Specifically, Morejon is throwing his changeup with a lower average velocity (83.8 mph) and spin rate (934 rpm) than he did last year (85.4 mph; 1,302 rpm). He also is imparting more action on the pitch, throwing it with 4.2 more inches of vertical movement and 3.1 more inches of horizontal movement compared to ’19.

Those improvements have helped Morejon transform his changeup into a weapon versus right-handed hitters, who collectively are 1-for-8 with four strikeouts, a 50 percent whiff rate and a .308 xSLG against the pitch this season. More important, Morejon’s new-and-improved changeup gives him a consistently above-average third pitch to go along with his fastball and breaking ball, both of which have long been viewed by scouts as plus offerings, and theoretically improves his chances of becoming a legitimate big league starter.

Sixto Sánchez, RHP, Marlins (No. 1/MLB No. 22)
Devin Williams may have the best changeup in baseball, but Sánchez's isn’t that far behind. Beyond the roughly 10 mph differential compared to his electric four- and two-seam fastballs, Sánchez throws his changeup on average with 17.0 inches of arm-side movement, the eighth-best mark among Major League pitchers who’ve thrown at least 50 changeups in 2020. That late horizontal life makes the 21-year-old right-hander highly effective against lefties, who combined for a paltry .095 average (2-for-21, 11 strikeouts), .082 xSLG and 39.4 percent whiff rate against the pitch across Sánchez's first three starts. When lefty batters have been lucky enough to put the pitch in play, they’ve done so with a minus-15-degree launch angle. For the season, hitters on both sides of the plate are batting .118 (4-for-34, 13 strikeouts) with a .153 xSLG, 32.8 percent whiff rate and minus-7-degree launch angle.

It’s also worth noting that Sánchez has steadily incorporated more sinkers (two-seamers) into his pitch mix to help keep hitters from sitting on his four-seam fastball – an elite pitch that has topped out at 100.6 mph while averaging 98.6 mph. After throwing his sinker 12.1 percent of the time in his debut and at a 20.7-percent clip in his second turn, Sánchez upped his sinker usage to 30.4 percent in his third start before scaling it back a bit to 19.1 percent in his most recent turn. Hitters have struggled to the tune of a .310 xSLG against the pitch, putting 20 balls in play with an average launch angle of minus-7 degrees. Against Sánchez's four-seasmer, on the other hand, they boast a .710 xSLG with an average launch angle of 27 degrees.

Lastly, according to Baseball Savant, the list of pitchers most comparable to Sánchez in terms of velocity and movement puts him in elite company: Luis Castillo, Dustin May, Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes and Spencer Turnbull.

Clarke Schmidt, RHP, Yankees (No. 2/MLB No. 92)
You’ve probably heard a lot about Schmidt’s absurd breaking ball spin rates over the past year. But now that the former first-round pick (2017) is in the big leagues, with a pair of relief appearances under his belt, we finally have the data to support that claim.

Spoiler: It’s impressive.

Schmidt’s respective average spin and max spin rates of 3,045 rpm and 3,317 rpm on his mid-80s slider, a pitch he’s used 43.6 percent of the time across his first two outings, is elite by all measures. The 24-year-old right-hander throws the pitch with elite vertical movement, too, averaging 50.9 inches of drop on the 24 sliders he’s thrown thus far -- a mark that would rank fourth among all Major League pitchers who’ve thrown at least 50 sliders in 2020.

On top of that, Schmidt’s slider also has averaged 40 percent more drop and 209 percent more horizontal break compared to other sliders thrown at a similar velocity. To place that in a broader context, the current MLB leaders in those two categories are Blake Treinen (21 percent more drop than average) and Paul Fry (189 percent more break than average).

Randy Arozarena, OF, Rays (No. 19)
Arozarena has been on fire since his season debut on Aug. 30, slashing .400/.500/1.000 with four home runs over his first 24 plate appearances. His 90.7 mph average exit velocity, 18.8 percent barrel rate and 50 percent hard-hit rate based on the 16 balls he’s put in play this year are all well above league average marks, and he’s once again showing that he can hammer the best of fastballs. After going 4-for-10 with one home run while posting a .602 xSLG against fastball with the Cardinals in 2019, Arozarena has upped his xSLG to .774 in his first season with the Rays, hitting all four of his home runs against heaters. Overall, he has an average exit velocity of 95 mph on the 11 fastballs he’s put in play.

Arozarena’s first week-plus in the Majors has also revealed that he’s an elite runner. His top Sprint Speed of 29.4 ft/sec ranks in the top three percent in the game -- league average Sprint Speed is 27.0 ft/sec – while his 25.0 ft/sec average Sprint Speed puts him in the top six percent.

Ryan Jeffers, C, Twins (No. 6)
A second-round pick in the 2018 Draft from UNC Wilmington, Jeffers has filled in admirably behind the plate for the Twins this season, compiling a .286/.375/.371 line with one home run in 17 games since his big league debut on Aug. 20. Where the 23-year-old backstop has really stood out, however, is with his framing.  

Jeffers has converted 51.2 percent of non-swing pitches into called strikes since his callup, which is the 12th-best strike rate among catchers who’ve received at least 250 pitches this season. Much of his success in that department is a product of his ability to steal strikes on pitches thrown in Zone 14 -- pitches that are off the plate inside to right-handed hitters and off the plate away to lefties -- where he paces all catchers with 78.5 percent strike rate. And while Zone 14 represents an obvious strength for Jeffers, he has also done well with framing pitches in the corresponding zone on the opposite side of the plate (56.3 percent) as well as with those below the zone (53.2 percent).