Nine Young MLB Hitters Who Benefited From Better Swing Decisions In 2020
Player development doesn’t end in the big leagues.
Young hitters who improve their swing decisions and plate discipline improve their odds of moving up in the lineup—and of breaking out into the mainstream. They also make for wise fantasy targets.
Two of the key areas I like to see a young hitter improve each season are his chase rate (O-Swing%) and contact rate when swinging at pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%). Good things happen when those conditions are met, often more advantageous counts, a higher number of batted balls and increased power production.
In this space, we will examine nine young major league hitters—most 27 or younger—who improved their chase and contact rates from 2019 to 2020, while batting at least 100 times in each season. All nine also improved their overall production, as measured by the FanGraphs index metric wRC+. The majority improved their Statcast barrel rate, too.
I chose to express chase, contact and barrel rates on the 20-80 scouting scale, where 50 is average. This gives the reader an idea of both the magnitude of change and also puts the number in context by comparing it with average.
Some other young hitters who made year-over-year improvements to O-Swing, Z-Contact and barrel rate include Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Brandon Lowe, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Will Smith. But those players should already be priority draft targets.
1. Austin Riley, 3B, Braves
The bottom-line progress Riley made in 2020 was modest—he hit .239/.301/.415 with eight home runs and batted seventh in a stacked Braves’ lineup during the postseason—but his plate skills showed encouraging growth. In his second big league season, Riley chased less often and dramatically improved his rate of zone contact. Those are encouraging trends for a young slugger who ranked as the Braves’ No. 1 prospect heading into 2019.
2. Rowdy Tellez, DH, Blue Jays
It’s not entirely the Vlad and Bo show in T.O. The emergence of comparatively unsung young hitters such as Tellez, Teoscar Hernandez and Cavan Biggio helped propel the Blue Jays to third in the American League in runs scored in 2020. For Tellez, maintaining the plate skills growth he showed in 2020 will be essential to remaining relevant in a stacked Toronto lineup that now includes free agent imports George Springer and Marcus Semien.
3. Raimel Tapia, OF, Rockies
Tapia led off for the Rockies more often than any other player in 2020 and compiled a .370 on-base percentage when batting first. Underscoring his breakthrough were marked improvements to his chase rate and zone contact rate. Tapia’s overall walk rate remains modest, but then again good things happen when batters put the ball in play at Coors Field. Tapia’s fantasy relevancy hinges on those hits continuing to fall, along with the runs scored and stolen bases that are more plentiful out of the leadoff spot.
4. Willi Castro, SS/3B, Tigers
Castro didn’t do much with a month of playing time in Detroit as a 22-year-old callup in 2019, but that changed in his follow-up season, one that culminated in a fourth place finish for American League Rookie of the Year. The switch-hitting Castro still chased out of the zone with regularity in 2020, but he made more contact when committing to pitches in the zone. As a result of those better swing decisions, his power output soared and he steadily climbed the Detroit batting order.
5. Austin Slater, OF, Giants
Slater stretches the definition of “young,” but like many Giants hitters in 2020, he authored his best work in the 60-game season. Was it a result of improved coaching? Changes to Oracle Park’s wind patterns? A result of playing a summer-only schedule? Time will tell. But Slater’s combination of power, speed and patience make him worthy in daily lineup leagues, because he enters 2021 as a righthanded complement to outfield regulars Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson and first baseman Brandon Belt.
6. Orlando Arcia, SS, Brewers
A series of modest improvements to Arcia’s swing decisions and power output—his average exit velocity also crept above average—resulted in a career year for the rangy shortstop. Still, even with those upticks across the board, he merely reached near-average production. Arcia ranked as the No. 6 prospect in baseball heading into 2016, so he has pedigree. Now the 2021 season will indicate if he has another gear to reach—and if he can escape the lower region of the Brewers’ lineup.
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7. Clint Frazier, OF, Yankees
The time is now for Frazier, the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft who has a clear shot at playing time in the Bronx for the first time this season. A plus barrel rate and improving chase rate that now borders on plus-plus both portend good things, though below-average contact in the zone will keep Frazier’s strikeout rate high.
8. Jeimer Candelario, 3B/1B, Tigers
Candelario had a track record of hitting for average and drawing walks in the minor leagues, but he was a .223 hitter in the majors entering 2020. After improving his swing decisions and looking to do damage, Candelario broke out last season with career bests for batting average (.297), strikeout rate (23.8%) and barrel rate (10.3). He batted fourth for the Tigers in his final 30 games and put up a .910 OPS in that time. Candelario is projected to hang onto his cleanup batting position at least through Opening Day.
9. Trent Grisham, OF, Padres
Drafted 15th overall out of high school by the Brewers in 2015, Grisham toiled in the minors for a few seasons before his 2019 breakthrough at Double-A and Triple-A carried him to a big league callup. Milwaukee traded him to the Padres that offseason after an uneven rookie season. Grisham made across-the-board improvements in 2020, fueled by plate discipline and impact progressions, and stands poised to lead off for the Padres’ potent lineup this season.