Hitting Adjustments Have Jackson Merrill and Wyatt Langford On Path To MLB Success


Image credit: Jackson Merrill (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

It’s harder than ever to break into the majors as a young hitter. Not only are prospects being called up to the big leagues at an accelerated pace, but league-wide trends continue to favor run suppression.

The table below illustrates how rookie hitters have fared in the Statcast era. Year-by-year league environment trends can explain much of the data. For instance, rookie batting average and OPS spiked in 2019 and 2023, which were two of the highest-scoring seasons since 2015.

By using wRC+, we can adjust for these offensive environments. Doing so, it becomes clear how much of an outlier last season was thanks in part to new rules affecting defensive shifts, the pitch clock and pickoffs. Many expected this trend to continue into 2024. Instead, this year’s rookie class ranks near the bottom in average and OPS since 2015.

Reaction to the league’s run scoring environment is part of a bigger conversation. In the meantime, a key takeaway is that 2023 was an outlier for run production, both by rookies and for the league as a whole.

Without a juiced ball to help ease the offensive transition, first-year players are struggling as much as they have in recent memory. Arguably, the sample of young bats facing major league pitching for the first time needs to be thrown away entirely.

Instead, we’ll focus on a pair of players who are who making necessary big-league adjustments and showing encouraging trends in their young careers.

Jackson Merrill, CF, Padres

Regardless of what happens with Jackson Merrill through the end of the season, it’s been fun to see him thrive after being given an opportunity by the Padres. Too often, young players with a chance to crack a big league roster find the deck stacked against them.

Merrill didn’t make San Diego’s opening day roster for any reasons related to service time or prospect-promotion incentives. The Padres had a need, and Merrill went out and won the job in spring training. He joined Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones as the only players under 21 years old to start in center field on opening day in the past 50 years.

Merrill had never started a game in center field before this season. He played five games in left at Double-A last year, and that was the extent of his in-game outfield experience. Through late June, advanced fielding metrics such as OAA, DRS and UZR all viewed him as (at least) above-average defensively.

Merrill also hadn’t played above Double-A entering 2024. He appeared in only 46 games there last season, registering a solid-if-unspectacular 104 wRC+.

This context, both offensively and defensively, makes it all the more impressive that Merrill trails only Joey Ortiz in fWAR among rookie position players. Ortiz, however, is about to turn 26. In fact, of the top six rookie position players in fWAR, Merrill is the only one younger than 24, and he only just turned 21.

As for adjustments Merrill has made to stick in the majors, it begins with better swing decisions. Through the end of May, he had a Z-O swing rate of 33%. So far in June, he’s at 43.9%. In the latter split, Merrill is not only chasing fewer pitches outside the zone, but also swinging more frequently in the zone. It’s evidence his pitch recognition is improving, which is impressive given his age, lack of upper level experience and environmental factors discussed above.

Merrill ranks tied for 17th in wRC+ so far this month. That’s among all players, not just rookies. Add in some strong Statcast data—including an 81st percentile xwOBA and a 58th percentile barrel rate—and Merrill appears to be on the verge of potential stardom.

Wyatt Langford, LF, Rangers

This season has reminded us that no rookie is ever a sure thing, especially early on. Wyatt Langford‘s initial go at big league pitching exemplifies this, as he hit just .224/.295/.293 with one homer and one stolen base before landing on the IL with a hamstring injury in early May.

In 22 games since his return on May 28th, the 22-year-old is slashing .296/.337/.481 with two homers, 20 RBI and six stolen bases. His .338 BABIP and 16.3 K% during that stretch are signs the production could be sustainable.

Similar to Merrill, it starts with Langford’s swing decisions. The below graph illustrates how his Z-swing% has gradually increased this year, accompanied by a recent decrease in chase rate:

This has allowed Langford to pull the ball more recently, up from 39.8% pre-injury to 43.3% afterwards. Additionally, he’s hitting more fly balls, which has helped increase his ISO from .069 before the IL stint to .185 since. His 145 wRC+ in June ranks top-50 among all hitters.

Langford possesses elite bat speed and is showing the benefits of what a plus hitting base can do with more experience against big league pitching. If Langford keeps this up throughout the summer, he’ll thrust himself right back into a wide-open American League rookie of the year race.

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