Sophomore slump? Not for these guys

May 5th, 2022

Over the years, we’ve seen countless players flash potential as rookies, only to fade into obscurity.

The players below seem likely to avoid that fate.

These 11 aren’t just sidestepping the dreaded sophomore slump, they’re looking like bona fide stars in 2022.

All stats are entering Tuesday's games.

Jazz Chisholm Jr., 2B, Marlins
Chisholm’s diverse tools were evident last season as he showed elite speed and socked 18 homers in 124 games, including two on pitches that were over 100 mph. But the 24-year-old has taken his offensive game to another level in 2022. When it comes to hitting for power, no batted ball is more valuable than a pulled ball in the air, so it’s notable that Chisholm has significantly increased his pull rate while lowering his ground-ball rate this year. He’s produced a pulled fly ball or line drive on 34.0% of his batted balls, up from 15.1% in 2021.

Highest rate of pulled LD+FB, 2022
Minimum 50 batted balls
Jazz Chisholm Jr. -- 34.0%
Nolan Arenado -- 33.8%
Alex Bregman -- 31.9%
Anthony Rizzo -- 31.0%
Jurickson Profar -- 30.5%

Chisholm is slugging 1.875 on these types of batted balls, with three homers, two triples and five doubles in 16 at-bats, contributing to an overall 195 OPS+ through 19 games.

Wander Franco, SS, Rays
Expectations were through the roof when Franco debuted in the Majors as baseball’s No. 1 overall prospect a year ago, but he managed to exceed them as a rookie and is only getting better. The shortstop has improved the quality of his contact without sacrificing his elite bat-to-ball skills this year, leading to a .356 expected batting average and .594 expected slugging percentage (xBA and xSLG are based on quality of contact and K’s). This rolling graph provides a good look at how Franco's power has grown relative to last season. Every point on the graph represents his xSLG across his previous 100 plate appearances up to that point. He didn't have a .500 xSLG in any 100-PA chunk as a rookie.

Franco has produced a hard-hit ball (95+ mph exit velocity) on a whopping 25.5% of his swings, which ranks second in the Majors. He's improving on defense, too. And he’s still just 21 years old.

Logan Gilbert, RHP, Mariners
Gilbert has been lights out so far, posting an MLB-leading 0.64 ERA with 27 strikeouts over 28 innings. The biggest difference between this year and last appears to be his slider, which is up 3 mph and has gone from a pitch that had 10% less break than similar sliders at his velocity to one that has 32% more break. Gilbert’s slider also has a different shape to it this season, with a greater deviation between the spin direction of the ball coming out of his hand and the direction the batter observes when the pitch arrives at the plate.

His slider and four-seamer now are much closer in spin direction out of the hand, which can make it tougher to differentiate between the two before the slider breaks toward his glove side and the fastball runs toward his arm side. Opponents are slugging .316 against his slider after he yielded a .469 slugging percentage with the pitch last season.

Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pirates
After bursting onto the scene late in the shortened 2020 season and homering on Opening Day last year, Hayes hurt his left wrist and ended up dealing with the issue throughout 2021. He finished the season with a disappointing .689 OPS, though he did make up for it some with his elite defense at the hot corner. Now healthy, Hayes is back to lacing line drives all over the field and has bumped his walk rate up to 14.1%, contributing to a .424 on-base percentage.

Michael Kopech, RHP, White Sox
So far, Kopech’s return to the rotation after pitching mostly out of the bullpen in his return from Tommy John surgery last season has gone swimmingly. Sure, the righty's velocity is down -- he hasn't thrown a pitch above 97.8 mph after maxing out at 101 and averaging 97.3 last year -- but it hasn't mattered. He's throwing his high-spin four-seamer more than 67% of the time and has limited batters to a .145 average with it. Kopech also can go to a pair of electric breaking balls that have virtually identical spin direction out of his hand, except his curveball is 5 mph slower and drops nearly 11.5 inches more than his slider. Add it all up and the 26-year-old seems poised to continue his early success.

Alek Manoah, RHP, Blue Jays
Manoah was the Blue Jays’ second-best starter behind AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray last season, and he’s gone 4-0 this year while posting a 1.45 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP in 31 innings. He’s been especially dominant against right-handed batters, holding them to a .092 average and a .330 OPS with a mix of elevated four-seamers, sinkers running down and in and nasty sliders diving low and away.

Overall, Manoah's slider, which gets six inches of horizontal break above average, has held opponents to a .138 batting average during the 24-year-old's career.

Brandon Marsh, OF, Angels
There’s still a lot of swing and miss in Marsh’s game, but he’s been a productive regular for the first-place Halos so far. Among the more than 300 MLB players that have at least 25 batted balls this season, the 24-year-old ranks in the 83rd percentile or better in hard-hit rate (percentage of batted balls with 95+ mph exit velocity) and sweet-spot rate (percentage of batted balls with launch angle between 8-32 degrees), and his xSLG is up 47 points from his rookie season. Marsh also ranks in the 89th percentile in sprint speed and outfielder jump, evidence of his potential to impact the game in multiple areas.

Tylor Megill, RHP, Mets
Replacing Jacob deGrom is no easy task, but Megill has done a fine impression of the injured Mets ace. His slider has been nearly untouchable (.056 BA against), and he’s recorded an elite four-seam fastball whiff rate while pitching with increased velocity.

Percentage of Megill's four-seamers thrown 95+ mph
2021: 39.1%
2022: 71.5%

Over his first five starts, Megill went 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP in 27 innings, five of them coming in New York’s combined no-hitter on April 29.

Shane McClanahan, LHP, Rays
While McClanahan’s blazing fastball earned him significant attention when he was called up last season, he’s actually succeeding in spite of his heater in 2022, with opponents hitting .458 and slugging .792 against it. The left-hander has neutralized batters with his slider, curveball and changeup, getting a whiff on nearly half of the swings against these pitches.

Highest whiff rate on non-fastballs, 2022
Minimum 50 swings
Edwin Díaz -- 56.1%
Corbin Burnes -- 52.7%
Kevin Gausman -- 52.3%
Tanner Scott -- 51.6%
Carlos Rodón -- 50.9%
Victor Arano -- 50.9%
Shane McClanahan -- 49.6%

McClanahan leads all starting pitchers with a 39.3% strikeout rate, and his 22 K's on curveballs are the third most any pitcher has collected on any individual pitch type, behind Gausman's splitter and Rodón's four-seamer. McClanahan’s changeup also has become a legitimate weapon against right-handed batters, who have gone 0-for-16 with 10 K’s against the pitch in 2022 (.393 BA, 4 K’s in 28 at-bats on changeups in 2021).

Andrew Vaughn, OF/DH, White Sox’s Sarah Langs recently did a deep dive on Vaughn’s hot start, noting that the slugger is making better decisions at the plate and producing better contact when he hits the ball. Vaughn’s hard-hit, sweet-spot and barrel rates are all up while his chase, whiff and strikeout rates are down, which explains why he ranks among the MLB leaders in xBA and xSLG.

Largest increase in xSLG from 2021 to 2022
Joc Pederson -- +.338
Andrew Vaughn -- +.245
Alec Bohm -- +.237
Christian Walker -- +.227
Aaron Judge -- +.204

The White Sox will need the 2020 No. 3 overall Draft pick to keep it up after Eloy Jiménez went down with a torn tendon in his right hamstring.

Garrett Whitlock, RHP, Red Sox
Swiped from the rival Yankees in the 2020 Rule 5 Draft, Whitlock turned out to be one of the best relievers in the AL last season, and Boston rewarded him with a four-year contract extension. He’s been even tougher to hit in 2022, allowing one earned run on nine hits with a 20-to-4 K/BB ratio in 16 2/3 innings over six appearances, including the first two starts of his career.