6 hot second-half hitters to rethink

September 16th, 2021

Every year around this time, it’s easy (and fun) to look at the second-half leaderboards to find which hitters are performing surprisingly well -- "surprising" either because of lackluster previous track records or no track record at all -- and wonder if you’re seeing something real, something to build on for the future … or just a nicely timed, never-repeated hot streak.

Maybe this didn’t happen last year so much, because it was only a 60-game season, but late in 2019, you’d have looked on some second half surgers, and you’d have wondered if anything real was behind it. If you noticed Teoscar Hernández (.628 first-half OPS, .939 second-half OPS) and figured it was a real breakout, good for you. If you were hoping for the same for Garrett Hampson (.524 first half, .809 second half), well, that hasn’t worked out so well.

So: What about what we’re seeing this year? We’re not talking about things like “Vladimir Guerrero Jr. being good in the second half after also being good in the first half.” We’re not talking about “universal top prospect Wander Franco arriving and living up to the hype," or even former 48-homer man Jorge Soler coming to lift up the Braves. We’re talking about players who struggled in the first half, or in previous years, or who just aren’t yet fully established Major Leaguers, who have looked great in the second half.

Some of these hitters, we imagine, you didn't even realize were doing thee things. Let's give them a look.

Bobby Dalbec, 1B, Red Sox

At the Trade Deadline, the Red Sox had such faith in Dalbec’s performance that they went out and acquired an injured player who had never played first base before (Kyle Schwarber) to replace him -- and they weren’t really wrong to do so.

After all, through the end of July, Dalbec was hitting all of .216/.260/.399. Boston had baseball’s second-weakest first base performance. They were so desperate at the position that they gave eight starts to Franchy Cordero, who had never played first base before, and one to Christian Arroyo, who had also never played first before -- and injured himself three innings into his debut there.

Almost by default, Dalbec kept his job … and all he did was win the AL Rookie of the Month Award for August. Schwarber, his presumed replacement, has played first only three times. Since the start of August, entering Wednesday, no AL hitter had a higher slugging percentage than Dalbec, and only two hitters overall had a better OPS.

So what’s happening here? It’s not about hitting the ball hard, because he always hits the ball hard -- you may remember last year’s five consecutive games with a dinger. (For the season, Dalbec’s barrel rate per plate appearance is tied for fifth best, behind a quartet of power-hitting monsters.) It’s entirely about making contact, because after whiffing an unreasonable 39% of the time in each of May, June and July, he cut it down to 25% in August. As you can see, he’s doing a better job of swinging at pitches in the zone.

That doesn't completely happen by accident, and according to his manager, it hasn't.

“One thing he’s doing is making better swing decisions, because he’s on time and that’s great,” said Alex Cora. “It’s not a coincidence; we have some guys that are preaching that and talking about that. When you’re on time you kind of dictate when you want to swing. He’s been doing that for a long period of time and we’re proud of that. He’s putting quality at-bats after quality at-bats and his strikeout rate is going down, the walks are going up. He’s hitting the ball to the pull side. He’s in a great position right now.”

Dalbec doesn't need to be a contact hitter to be successful. He just needs to keep the strikeouts to "too many" rather than "an amount you can't live with." That doesn't seem like an unreasonable bar for a player who only just turned 26.

Daulton Varsho, C/OF, D-Backs

It’s been a long, trying season for last-place Arizona, which means little matters more than finding potential building blocks for the future. Varsho, a 2017 2nd-round pick, has been a nicely regarded prospect, but he’s also had some difficulties with injuries (fractured hamate in 2018, sprained ankle in 2019), figuring out where his defensive home will be, and proving he could hit in the big leagues.

After all, in 115 plate appearances last year, he hit only .188/.287/.366; in the first half this year, he hit only .143/.250/.214. But the D-backs traded veteran catcher Stephen Vogt to Atlanta on July 16, opening up more time for Varsho, and in the second half, he’s hit .298/.370/.595. He’s been one of the best hitters in the game.

“He is making quality adjustments,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said, in what feels like it might be a recurring theme. “[He's shown us] that he is learning and growing day by day, making good decisions at the plate.”

Perhaps. It’s a little harder to find evidence of this than it is for Dalbec, though. Varsho’s strikeout and walk numbers aren’t hugely different from the first half. His hard-hit rate isn’t that much different in the second half (42%) than it was in the first half (40%). His ground ball rate is 37% in each half. So much of this feels the same.

If anything, the further we dug into this, the more it seemed like he was terribly unfortunate in the first half (he underperformed his expected outcomes by 75 points of wOBA), is overperforming in the second half and has had it all almost perfectly even out over the course of the season, coming out to a 107 OPS+ player. Which, to be clear, is above-average, to say nothing of his versatility.

That’s not to say nothing has changed. He’s swinging more, though there’s already a troubling sign that he’s begun to expand the zone a little too much, and there's some new concern about contact inside the zone, too. It's certainly clear that the poor early-career numbers are not what define him, nor what he's going to be going forward, and the fact that his hard-hit rate is somewhat above-average and his strikeout rate is about league-average are good starting points. It would just be more satisfying if there was more there about his hot second-half numbers.

Frank Schwindel, 1B, Cubs

OK, so maybe Dalbec and Varsho were at one point Top-100 prospects. What about Schwindel, 29, who was a 13th-round pick of the Royals way back in 2013 and was designated for assignment by the A’s as recently as July 16?

Called up on Aug. 3 as the Cubs tried to fill out a roster after their flurry of deadline deals, all Schwindel has done is mash, hitting .361/.409/.667 with 11 home runs while completely taking over first base in a post-Anthony-Rizzo world and challenging Patrick Wisdom for the “wildly unexpected power hitting corner infielder” title on the North Side. Since his debut, the list of best hitters in baseball (according to wRC+ goes: 1) Bryce Harper, 2) Juan Soto, 3) Frank Schwindel (!)

Now: you might assume that a 29-year-old Minor League lifer going off for six weeks is hardly a guarantee of future success, and you wouldn’t be wrong to do so -- even one once described by the Athletic as "the cult hero of Royals Spring Training" due to his prodigious power -- but there are a few things happening here.

The first is the impressively low strikeout rate; at 16%, he’s whiffing less than half of Wisdom’s wild 40% mark. There are only 10 players with as many plate appearances as Schwindel who have a strikeout rate as low as he does while also slugging north of .500, and trust us, you know all of them. (Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., José Ramírez, Matt Olson, Kyle Tucker, Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, Jesse Winker and Ketel Marte, if you must.)

The second is that this start isn’t just pretty good, it’s incredibly good. For example, look what he did in his first 38 games for the Cubs, spanning 154 plate appearances. If you go back to the start of integrated baseball in 1947 and look at the best starts with a new organization over a hitter’s first 38 games and minimum 154 PA in that time, Schwindel’s 1.092 OPS is in the Top 25. There’s not a bad hitter on the list ahead of him, which includes some all-time legends like Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, and some real good sluggers like Cecil Fielder and Jim Edmonds.

Narrow it down, if you prefer, to hitters 28 and older, and he’s in the Top 20, where most of the players are stars and everyone, at worst, had some kind of notable career.

This does not, we cannot stress enough, guarantee anything for Schwindel, not even that he won't become the next Bryan LaHair at Wrigley. It would be something of a surprise if he saw a fastball the rest of the season, since 10 of his 12 homers are against heaters, and there's already evidence that pitchers are throwing more breaking and offspeed pitches. His production is overperforming his expected stats by a considerable amount, because how could they not be? He's not this good, but he's also playing at a level where even a lesser version .. might still be pretty good.

Back in 2019, Schwindel was the Opening Day first baseman for Kansas City. They gave him all of six games to prove himself; Oakland, earlier this year, only eight. The Cubs have no reason not to let him play daily for the rest of the year, which should give him 55 or so games for Chicago. Those games may not matter a lot for the Cubs. They'll matter a lot for Schwindel headed into 2022.

Victor Reyes, OF, Tigers

There are plenty of reasons to not believe in Reyes, and to be honest, we're not completely sure we do. The first pick of the 2017 Rule 5 draft out of the Arizona organization, Reyes spent his Minor League career not showing much power (.397 career slugging percentage), and parts of four seasons in the Tigers, totaling more than 900 plate appearances, posting an 83 OPS+.

That's a little unfair, though, because that includes 2018, when he was clearly not ready to make the jump to the bigs yet had to in order to prevent the D-backs from taking him back; set aside that .239 OBP season, and he's got a league-average-ish 96 OPS+ since. Still, he was optioned to Triple-A for a month this year to make room for the return of the immortal Nomar Mazara, which tells you something about his standing.

Reyes mashed in 20 Triple-A games (.385/.462/.564), but that's not why he's here. He's hit .313/.345/.542 for the Tigers in 107 plate appearances since returning, but that's not entirely why he's here either, as impressive as that is. He's here because of this:

That's showing his barrel rate; a barrel is the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle (i.e.: hit it hard, in the air), and of all the Statcast metrics, this one is considered the most predictive. That's a pretty nice trend, and when he homered against Tampa Bay on Friday, it was both the hardest-hit ball of his career and the longest HR distance of his career. It doesn't mean all his past performance didn't happen, but to hit a ball at 110 mph even once tells you something about a hitter you didn't know before.

At the risk of pretending we're swing doctors -- we are not -- it's at least visually pretty easy to see some changes. This year, the 6-foot-5 Reyes is standing tall at the plate, a different look than the hunched-over approach he took earlier in his career.

"I’m proud of him," manager AJ Hinch said in May, "for taking [the move] constructively and going down and doing well, and we’re paying close attention and making all considerations and possibility.”

Toss in some excellent running speed -- while he's not quite Derek Hill, he is faster than 90% of the rest of baseball -- and this sudden power burst that at least makes you take notice, and you can see why he's still getting chances. Detroit's a pretty trendy pick to be 2022's breakout team already, but even with Akil Baddoo's impressive debut and Robbie Grossman's offensive performance, there's still outfield playing time to be had. Mazara didn't earn it, and he's gone. Hill hasn't proven he can hit yet. JaCoby Jones is probably out of chances. Riley Greene hasn't received his yet. It's now or never for Reyes, and he's suddenly interesting, in a way he wasn't before.

Abraham Toro, IF, Mariners

Toro never got that much playing time with Houston -- 308 plate appearances over three years -- and he didn't do much with them, hitting only .193/.276/.350 for a 68 OPS+. Needless to say, it wasn't exactly a popular move within the Seattle clubhouse when GM Jerry Dipoto traded his closer, Kendall Graveman, to the division-leading Astros for Toro hours after the Mariners overcame a 7-0 deficit to beat Houston, 11-8.

Whatever you thought of the move at the time, it has worked out wonderfully for Seattle. Toro homered in each of his first two games with the club (both coming against the Astros), and a few weeks later, he had maybe the best validation of a trade anyone could have, hitting a grand slam off the reliever he was traded for. All told, he's hit .293/.370/.425 (125 OPS+) for the Mariners, helping to keep them in the Wild Card race. But he didn't, as we said, perform with Houston. So what's different?

“He’s someone we’ve been trying to get for a while, he’s someone [the Astros] have consistently said no to moving,” assistant general manager Justin Hollander said after the trade. It's not hard to see why, given his Minor League stats; in parts of five seasons on the farm, Toro had an OBP of .370 and a slugging percentage of .466. In 147 Triple-A plate appearances, he had an OBP of .497.

Part of how he got there was limiting his strikeouts, whiffing only 17% of the time in the Minors, and look what's happening in the Majors:

Toro turns 25 in December, and he's long been a favorite of the analytically inclined due to his on-base skills in the Minors. That's showing up in Seattle -- and making Dipoto's unpopular trade look a whole lot better.

Luis Urías, IF, Brewers

A hot-hitting infielder has helped the Brewers run away with the NL Central ... and we're not talking about Willy Adames. Instead, we're talking about Urías, who was acquired in the winter of 2019-20 as part of the deal that sent Trent Grisham to San Diego. At first, that looked like a rare misstep for Milwaukee, since Grisham was a 2020 All-Star, Urías posted a 63 OPS+ and Eric Lauer, also part of the trade, got into only four games due to a shoulder injury. Lauer has been a valuable member of the rotation in 2021, but Urías didn't do enough over the first two months and he lost his job when Adames arrived on May 21.

Urías moved to third -- and more recently back to short as Adames has been out with a quad injury -- and his bat has taken off. On May 21, Urías had a .688 OPS in 2021, and a .648 mark over his Major League career. Since then? .264/.343/.472 with an .816 OPS. This is as good a place as any to start:

Suddenly, Urías has developed some hard-hit skills where none had been present before -- to the point that after 21 extra-base hits in 422 plate appearances in his first three seasons, he now has 46 of them in 514 plate appearances this year. How? As so often seems to happen with young players, look to swing decisions. Urías, for much of his early career, was passive on pitches in the strike zone. That changed, well, almost exactly when Adames arrived -- coincidentally or not.

He's not a long-term shortstop, both because fielding metrics do not view him kindly and because Adames has clearly taken hold of the role in Milwaukee. But for a while there, his future seemed like it would be on the bench, or in the Minors. He's still only 24 years old. He's young enough to change those perceptions -- and he's begun to.