The White Sox have suffered numerous injuries to start the season, but one ray of sunshine for the club has been Andrew Vaughn, who has made a meaningful impact at the plate so far this year. Drafted third overall by the White Sox in 2019 out of Cal, the college first baseman and 2018 Golden Spikes Award winner has transitioned to the outfield as a Major Leaguer – no small feat.
But let’s talk about the bat. In 127 games as a rookie, Vaughn hit .235 and slugged .396, with an above-average 47.3% hard-hit rate. But 2022 has been an entirely different story so far. Through Sunday, he was hitting .283 and slugging .566 in 16 games this season. Though he missed two games this weekend after a hit by pitch on the right hand, manager Tony La Russa said Sunday that Vaughn was improving from the injury.
He’s leading the team in homers, with four, and RBIs, with 12. He leads the White Sox in OPS (.933). This is what a top Draft pick is supposed to do in the Majors, and that doesn’t even take into account the fact that the White Sox have dealt with a lot to start the year.
Vaughn has arrived in a big way for the White Sox this year. Let’s dig into how and why.
Making better contact
As noted above, Vaughn had a 47.3% hard-hit rate last season. This season, his 56.8% hard-hit rate is 97th percentile thus far. Why do we focus on hard contact? Because this year, batters are hitting .464 and slugging .884 league-wide in at-bats ending with a batted ball at 95+ mph. On contact softer than that, it’s just a .213 batting average and .248 slugging percentage. The fact that Vaughn is making that type of contact more than half of the time means he’s setting himself up for great results.
But great contact isn’t just about exit velocity – and here’s where Vaughn has really made strides. Last year, he had a 33.6% sweet-spot rate, which was right around MLB average. That tells us how often he made contact in the launch angle sweet-spot zone of 8-32 degrees. Or, put more succinctly, how often he made line-drive contact. This year, he has a 40.9% sweet-spot rate.
As with hard-hit rate, we can tie this type of contact directly to good results. Batters are hitting .578 and slugging 1.017 in at-bats that end in sweet-spot contact this season. Hit the ball in the air – without skying it too high – and good things happen.
All of this comes together in Vaughn’s 13.6% barrel rate, up from 10.9% last year and netting out in the 83rd percentile. He’s making optimal contact more often. That translates to sustainable, good results – as long as he continues to swing the bat the way he is now, he’ll be making good contact.
Better decisions at the plate
These improvements hinge upon Vaughn’s contact, but not every pitch leads to contact, of course. Vaughn’s plate discipline is greatly improved in conjunction, too. He’s cut down his already right-around-league-average strikeout rate from 21.5% to 15%. He’s swinging and missing at a clip almost nine percentage points lower than last year, at 16% after 24.6% in ‘21. Neither of these 2021 figures were markers of bad plate discipline, but the new ones put him in a different echelon.
Vaughn was 49th percentile in both whiff rate and strikeout rate in 2021. This year, he’s in the 91st percentile and 83rd percentile, respectively. Last year, he missed almost a third of the swings he took against breaking pitches, hitting .164 in at-bats ending on them. He saw 624 breaking pitches last season and hit three homers on them. He’s seen 95 breaking pitches so far in 2022 and hit two home runs – so he certainly seems to be seeing those better this year.
Another way to quantify his plate discipline is with swing/take runs, where every individual pitch is assigned a value based on its outcome, and swing/take adds those together. Last year, Vaughn had -11 swing/take runs, faring particularly poorly on pitches in the heart of the zone and the shadow zone. This year, he’s already +7 in swing/take – and this is a counting stat. He’s making better decisions within and outside of the zone.
The prevailing question is whether Vaughn can keep this up, but the above should help answer that question. He’s made tangible changes with his contact and approach that point towards improvement that won’t fade.
His expected stats, based on quality of contact, plus walks and strikeouts, back it up too, thus far. His expected batting average of .320 and expected slugging percentage of .679 are 93rd and 97th percentile, respectively. In other words, his contact thus far has merited results in that realm. A great start to the year for the Golden Bear, providing a bright spot to the start of the season thus far for Chicago.