Hitters these days are fighting a constant uphill battle against the game’s incredible array of pitching talent.
That makes it all the more impressive when they are able to adjust and take a major step forward at the plate. And that’s exactly what a number of hitters have done from 2021 to ’22.
This isn’t so much about your standard back-of-the-baseball-card results, which often don’t tell the full story, especially in a small early-season sample. Instead, we’ll judge this based on expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), a scary-sounding stat that simply evaluates a hitter based on strikeouts, walks and quality of contact (i.e. exit velocity and launch angle), helping filter out factors such as defense and luck. For context, the MLB average xwOBA this year is .328.
MLB.com has already highlighted some of the biggest gainers recently: sophomore sensations Jazz Chisholm Jr., Wander Franco and Ke’Bryan Hayes, Giants breakout Joc Pederson and Mike Trout impersonator Taylor Ward. Here are seven more hitters who have turned things up a notch so far in 2022. (Numbers are through Thursday’s games).
Tim Anderson, SS, White Sox
xwOBA gain: 83 points (to .412)
It’s been a tough time defensively for Anderson so far (nine errors), but the 2019 AL batting champion continues to hone his craft at the plate. And this is a player who already has topped a .300 average and .800 OPS for three straight seasons.
Anderson is making hard contact more often in 2022, and has replaced some ground balls with fly balls and line drives, giving him an elite sweet-spot rate. But the real headline here is that the 2021 All-Star has cut his roughly average strikeout rate in half and now ranks in the 94th percentile. Anderson remains a highly aggressive hitter, but he’s getting the bat on the ball more than ever, too. It’s paying off, with a .333/.369/.514 line (163 OPS+).
Christian Yelich, LF, Brewers
xwOBA gain: 81 points (to .418)
Some improvers are breakouts and some are rebounders. Yelich falls very much in the latter camp, having plunged from NL MVP Award winner (2018) and runner-up (‘19) to a barely league-average hitter (2020-21). We probably won’t see Yeli’s gaudiest peak numbers again, but it’s certainly eye-opening to note that his 2022 xwOBA is nearly identical to what he posted during that MVP campaign (.416).
Simply put, Yelich is back to crushing the ball again -- even if it’s not exactly clear why he stopped in the first place. This tells the story: In all of 2021, he barreled 22 balls, meaning he made the best type of contact possible, the type that normally produces extra-base hits. In just a bit more than one-quarter as many plate appearances, Yelich already has 16 barrels this year.
Gleyber Torres, 2B, Yankees
xwOBA gain: 77 points (to .408)
This is a case where the raw stat line is clearly insufficient. Accounting for the decrease in league-wide offense, Torres’ OPS had bounced from 7% below average to 14% above. On top of that, Torres is suffering from a huge gap between his expected and actual production, masking the gains that the 25-year-old has made coming off a highly disappointing 2021 campaign.
The former top prospect, who popped 38 homers back in 2019, is pulling off a neat trick this year. He’s raised his hard-hit rate more than almost anyone, soaring from the 26th percentile to the 90th percentile of MLB hitters. And he’s done it while hitting the ball in the air more and striking out at a career-low level. If that keeps up, the Yankees will be celebrating a lot of Gleyber Days this year.
Willson Contreras, C, Cubs
xwOBA gain: 75 points (to .422)
As a marketing strategy, hitting .304/.413/.522 to jumpstart your last season heading into free agency seems like a pretty good one. There’s a long way to go, of course, but it’s especially encouraging that Contreras -- who turned 30 on Friday -- is backing up that line in a big way.
There are two things you want to do as a hitter: Make a lot of contact and make good contact. Contreras is doing both much more frequently in 2022. He’s right up there with the likes of Aaron Judge, Yordan Alvarez and Giancarlo Stanton atop the MLB hard-hit rate leaderboard, while slicing roughly 11 percentage points off his strikeout rate. If the Cubs don’t right the ship over the next two months, Contreras is on track to become a sought-after Trade Deadline target.
Jean Segura, 2B, Phillies
xwOBA gain: 75 points (to .394)
Segura had hit safely in 10 straight games through Thursday, batting .457 over that span and lifting his line to .307/.369/.485. His career-high 147 OPS+ was second best on the team, sandwiched between sluggers Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos. Improvements from both Segura and third baseman Alec Bohm have been huge for a Philly club scrambling to say in the NL East hunt.
Segura has always been good at putting the bat on the ball, but not so much at doing so with authority. In the first seven seasons of Statcast tracking, his hard-hit rate ranged between the 18th and 44th percentile among MLB hitters. Last year, it was in the 30th. This year? The 96th. Segura entered Friday tied for sixth among qualifiers in that category, sitting just ahead of Trout and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. If the 32-year-old can keep squaring it up like that, his $17 million club option for 2023 will look like a bargain.
Rowdy Tellez, 1B, Brewers
xwOBA gain: 113 points (to .453)
It seems that Tellez, a 30th-round Draft pick in 2013, has found a home with the Brew Crew after coming over in last July’s trade with Toronto. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound lefty slugger has become a key middle-of-the-order bat for a surprisingly robust Milwaukee offense, slugging .528 and ranking second in the NL in RBIs (27).
Even that production undersells it, because while Tellez has always been more than capable of demolishing baseballs, he’s doing so at a truly elite level in 2022. Among qualifiers, only Trout, Judge and Stanton have better expected production on contact than Tellez. Combine that with whiff and K-rates around average, and you’ve got a hitter who suddenly looks like a top-tier slugger.
Harold Ramirez, DH/OF/1B, Rays
xwOBA gain: 119 points (to .427)
Have the Rays uncovered another gem? Ramirez is 27 and on his sixth organization, having been acquired in late March for a Minor League infielder from the Cubs, who had purchased him last November from Cleveland, which had plucked him off waivers from Miami before the ‘21 season. In 818 career plate appearances, Ramirez was 10% below league average offensively.
The lefty-mashing Ramirez isn’t playing every day, and he isn’t hitting for power. He still takes his hacks (36.7% chase rate). But his hard-hit rate is in the 92nd percentile, and his line-drive rate has jumped to being one of the game’s highest (33.3%), following the lead of teammates Franco and Manuel Margot (another big gainer). That’s helped him bat .311 with 128 OPS+ for the two-time defending AL East champs.