There’s still more than a month to go before spring camps open, and that means offseason training is continuing for players across the Majors. Everyone has something they want to improve upon in 2023, whether this past season was a disappointment, a rousing triumph or something in between.
Turning winter workouts into summer success is, of course, much easier said than done. But a look back at 2022 reveals a number of notable players who did in fact author a significant improvement from the previous season in at least one important statistical category.
Baseball Savant’s year to year changes leaderboards make it easy to spot these gains. Here are nine of note, each of whom figures to play a critical role for his team in 2023.
Shohei Ohtani, Angels
-5.4 points in strikeout rate (29.6% to 24.2%)
It’s simply not possible to spend too much time marveling at Ohtani. The man put together a singularly sensational season in 2021, winning the AL MVP Award, but never stopped looking for ways to get better -- on both sides of the ball. As a pitcher, Ohtani increased his fastball velocity, tweaked his repertoire (including introducing a new, dominant pitch in August) and improved his results across the board to finish fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting.
As a hitter, it’s true that Ohtani did not quite reach the (incredibly high) bar he set for himself in 2021, though he was still one of the top sluggers in MLB. However, it’s notable that he struck out at a career-low rate, improving from the seventh percentile to the 30th -- and did so while maintaining elite contact quality (98th-percentile barrel rate). Ohtani also dropped from 35.0% to 28.1% in whiff rate. Now the question is: What feats does he have up his sleeve for 2023?
Gleyber Torres, Yankees
+9.6 points in hard-hit rate (35.7% to 45.3%)
It’s a bit difficult to know what to make of Torres, who has struggled to consistently match the expectations that came with his top-five prospect status and high-profile trade from the Cubs. The good news in 2022 is that no qualifier raised his hard-hit rate by more: Torres soared from the 26th percentile to the 77th. That contributed to his OPS+ rising from a below-average 93 to a solidly above-average 114.
At the same time, however, Torres chased more, struck out more and walked less in 2022. His expected production, per Statcast, actually ticked down. So now the question becomes whether Torres can build on this. At age 26 and with five MLB seasons behind him, he’s no longer a newcomer. And a Yankees offense that was too dependent on Aaron Judge a year ago needs Torres to take another step forward.
Nathaniel Lowe, Rangers
+58 points in xSLG (.401 to .459)
If you understandably weren’t paying close attention to the Rangers in the second half -- as they staggered to a 68-94 finish -- you might be surprised to learn that Lowe was the second-best qualifying hitter in the Majors after the All-Star break. His .503 expected slugging percentage during that time (based on quality of contact and strikeouts) was also among the best in MLB, sandwiched between Freddie Freeman and Kyle Schwarber.
Overall, Lowe was tied for the fifth-biggest jump in xSLG, a huge development for a Rangers club that has loaded up on pitching this offseason in an attempt to reach contention. Texas hasn’t done much to address its offense, making it absolutely critical that Lowe maintains this improvement.
Yordan Alvarez, Astros
+73 points in xwOBA (.389 to .462)
Alvarez blew away the field in terms of improvement in expected weighted on-base average, a complicated-sounding metric that simply sums up a hitter’s overall offensive performance based on strikeouts, walks and quality of contact. He gained 25 more points than the hitter with the second-largest jump, Arizona’s Christian Walker. That would be impressive even if Alvarez was starting from the bottom. But he wasn’t. His .389 xwOBA in 2021 placed him in the 92nd percentile, and he ranked 19th among qualifiers.
Yet that was also Alvarez’s first season back after missing almost all of 2020 due to knee injuries, and he had posted stronger numbers (including a .410 xwOBA) as a rookie in 2019. This past season, Alvarez hit the ball harder, walked much more and struck out far less than in ‘21, proving without a doubt that he was past those health issues. He now enters next season firmly established as a top-five hitter in baseball.
Shane McClanahan, Rays
-13.1 points in hard-hit rate (45.7% to 32.6%)
McClanahan was plenty good in 2021, posting a 3.43 ERA over 25 starts as a 24-year-old rookie. He did so largely on the strength of his ability to miss bats, ranking in the 85th percentile for whiff rate and in the 75th for strikeout rate. But below the surface, the lefty’s expected numbers (4.60 xERA) betrayed the fact that when opponents did get the bat on the ball against him, they crushed it.
The reason why McClanahan fully broke out into a Cy Young Award candidate in 2022 is that he remained excellent at racking up swings-and-misses while also shutting down his opponents’ quality of contact. His hard-hit rate jumped from the sixth to the 88th percentile, with McClanahan improving by a double-digit percentage on each of his four-seamer, slider and curveball. If he can continue to excel in both areas, the sky’s the limit.
Ryan Helsley, Cardinals
+16.5 points in strikeout rate (22.8% to 39.3%)
Helsley serves as a reminder that lights-out relievers emerge every year, seemingly out of nowhere. You never know what might flip a switch -- perhaps a conversion from a starting role, a new pitch or improved mechanics. In Helsley’s case, it was better health. It turns out that when the righty was struggling through the 2020-21 campaigns (4.70 ERA), a left knee issue was bothering him and also causing a cascading series of problems.
In 2022, Helsley was 100%, and he dominated. He raised his strikeout rate by more than any other pitcher and his whiff rate by more (10.6 percentage points) than anyone besides Mets relief ace Edwin Díaz. With a triple-digits fastball and a wipeout slider (53.5% whiff rate), he ascended to the closer role and made his first All-Star team. Now, with expectations skyrocketing, can he repeat it?
Alex Cobb, Giants
+2.1 mph in fastball velocity (92.7 mph to 94.8 mph)
Five pitchers gained at least 2 mph last season. One was the now-healthy Helsley. One was the peerless Ohtani. Two were pitchers who shifted from the rotation to the bullpen (Griffin Jax, Jorge López). The other was a 34-year-old starter in his 11th big league season. That was Cobb, who had signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Giants last winter, coming off a solid if injury-marred 2021 campaign with the Angels.
Cobb credited offseason work at Driveline, a data-driven player development facility, for the boost. Amazingly, Cobb was throwing significantly harder than not only 2021 but at any point in his career. (His 92.7 mph average in ‘21 was actually his previous high.) Cobb was a ground-ball machine who was elite at limiting barrels, and his expected metrics suggest he deserved better than his 3.73 ERA. He is set up to be a key member of the Giants’ rotation again in ‘23.
Jesús Luzardo, Marlins
-61 points in xwOBA (.348 to .287)
Luzardo had a tough 2021 all around, between a self-inflicted injury, a trade from Oakland to Miami and posting an ERA well over 6.00 for both teams. That took some shine off a pitcher who had been ranked as nearly a top-10 prospect, but Luzardo authored a highly encouraging 2022, despite losing almost three months to a forearm strain. Thanks in part to getting ahead in the count more effectively, his strikeout-to-walk ratio jumped from 2.0 to 3.4, and the contact against him was much less damaging (especially against his fastball). His ERA plummeted to 3.32, with expected metrics to match.
Still only 25 years old, Luzardo has to prove he can pitch a full season. But the arrow is once again pointing up for a pitcher the offense-starved Marlins will need to step up alongside reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara.
Emmanuel Clase, Guardians
+8.9 points in chase rate (37.3% to 46.2%)
Clase shows up here because he is breaking the scale. In 2021, there were 358 pitchers who faced at least 250 batters, and just five exceeded Clase’s chase rate, thanks to his blazing cutter and sharp slider. And from such a lofty point, Clase improved that chase rate by more than all but six other qualifying pitchers this past season, easily finishing with the highest one in the Majors. In fact, it’s the highest on record in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008).
With Clase at the back of the bullpen, the Guardians will go into 2023 knowing that they have the ninth inning on lockdown as they seek to defend their AL Central title.