In an era when strikeouts continue to increase and some fans long for the contact hitters of yore, a White Sox prospect is poised to add to the small core of high-average hitters in the game right now. This unconventional young second baseman could be making a run at a
In an era when strikeouts continue to increase and some fans long for the contact hitters of yore, a White Sox prospect is poised to add to the small core of high-average hitters in the game right now. This unconventional young second baseman could be making a run at a batting title soon.
Ranked as MLB Pipeline’s No. 36 overall prospect, Nick Madrigal debuted on July 31, but was limited to 29 games with a left shoulder injury. In the time he did get to play, his game was exactly as advertised: high on contact, low on power.
His hitting is graded at 70 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale according to MLB Pipeline, which called him “perhaps the best pure hitter among prospects.” But his power is graded at just 35, with the scouting report saying of the 5-foot-8 Madrigal: “The question is how much impact he'll ultimately have at the plate, because he's small and possesses little raw power while his penchant for putting the bat on the ball cuts into his walk totals.”
Here’s a look at how Madrigal lived up to his scouting report so far and what it could mean moving forward.
What makes him different: Plenty of contact, not many strikeouts
Madrigal makes a ton of contact, even if it isn’t all powerful. Only one batter had at least 100 plate appearances with a higher contact rate than Madrigal’s 92.4%: Eric Sogard (93.0%).
How adept was he at putting the bat on the ball? Madrigal made contact on 100% of his swings (including fouls) in 15 of his 29 games (51.7%) this year, and on 75% or higher of his swings in 25 of those games.
By comparison, teammate Luis Robert, who finished second for AL Rookie of the Year, had just two games where he made contact on 100% of swings -- out of 56 total. Robert, who was also in his first year in the Majors, was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Madrigal, contact-wise, with a 61.4% contact rate, third-lowest among qualified hitters.
On the other hand, Madrigal’s 20.8% hard-hit rate ranked fifth-lowest among batters with at least 90 batted balls. But that didn’t prevent him from batting .340, which ranked sixth among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. And even his .304 expected batting average, which is based partially on quality of contact, tied him for 14th in that group.
How could that be? He doesn’t strike out much. Madrigal’s 6.4% strikeout rate was second-lowest in the Majors among players with at least 100 plate appearances, behind only Tommy La Stella (5.3%). League-wide, the strikeout rate rose for the 13th straight season, reaching 23.4% in 2020.
The result: An atypical slash line
His high-contact, low-power and scant-strikeout approach means that Madrigal put together quite the slash line. Hitting .340, he slugged just .369 in 2020, with a .376 on base percentage. If that sounds rare, it’s because it is. There have been just 13 instances in the Modern Era (since 1900) of a qualified hitter batting at least .330 with an on-base percentage higher than his slugging percentage in a season.
The last time it happened was in 2000, when the Marlins’ Luis Castillo hit .334 with a .418 on-base percentage and slugged .388. Before that, it hadn’t happened since 1955, when Richie Ashburn hit .338 with a .449 on-base percentage and slugged .448 -- just barely making it onto the list.
Of course, Madrigal had just 109 plate appearances in 2020, so it isn’t quite time to inscribe him into the book of odd records just yet.
Does this work in a larger sample?
While they may sound extreme, Madrigal’s results were as advertised in his debut campaign. But will that work moving forward?
The best comparison in the game right now is the Angels’ David Fletcher, who had a 92.0% contact rate and 17.8% hard-hit rate this year -- and was a qualified hitter, amassing 230 plate appearances.
Fletcher was also the second-most similar hitter to Madrigal by batted ball profile in 2020, according to Statcast’s affinity tool.
Remember how Madrigal made 100% contact in 51.7% of his games? Fletcher did so in 51.0%, in 25 of 49 games.
Fletcher’s stats were a bit less extreme overall compared to Madrigal’s, with a higher slugging percentage (.425) than on-base percentage (.376). In his third season in the league, he hit .319, which ranked 10th in MLB. Fletcher has consistently posted high contact rates, and had slugged below .385 in each of his first two seasons. His ability to hit practically anything has garnered plenty of discussion, and it appears thus far that the template is working for him.
In a small sample size, making frequent contact worked for Madrigal, who still got hits and got on base. If he continues to make contact and avoid strikeouts at the MLB level, there’s room for another throwback hitter in the game.
Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.