Image credit: Nolan Schanuel (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Nolan Schanuel became the answer to a trivia question when the Angels promoted him to the major leagues on July 18. It was the quickest rise to the majors for a drafted hitter in more than 40 years.
Now he’s added another notable feat. Despite playing just 22 minor league games, Schanuel has set an Angels franchise record by beginning his MLB career with a 10-game hit streak.
He’s currently hitting .325/.457/.451 with more walks (7) than strikeouts (6) and has taken over as the Angels leadoff hitter just over one month after being drafted 11th overall out of Florida Atlantic.
It’s a truly remarkable start and one worthy of plenty of praise. Schanuel has not seemed overwhelmed by being pushed at warp speed to the major leagues.
But if you look at how Schanuel is hitting so far, it’s fair to worry that how Schanuel has produced that start may not lead to long-term big league success.
So far, Schanuel’s offensive contributions as a pro have been based entirely around excellent contact skills and an ability to take a walk. The question facing him and the Angels going forward is whether there’s more power in his bat than he’s shown as a pro so far, or if a first baseman with no power can be a productive long-term regular.
We’ll start with the caveat that it’s impossible to know how much of Schanuel’s current approach is tied to how fast he’s been moved. At Florida Atlantic hitting with a metal bat, Schanuel showed power. He hit 19 home runs as a junior, 16 as a sophomore and 11 as a freshman.
But with a wood bat, as of yet, he has been an extremely contact-focused singles hitter.
In the Cape Cod League in 2022, Schanuel hit .200 with a .272 slugging percentage and one home run and six extra-base hits in 149 plate appearances. And in watching every ball Schanuel has put in play as a pro except for his lone game in the Arizona Complex League, it’s apparent that he’s not really looking to drive the ball.
Schanuel’s lone home run so far as a pro was an opposite field home run for Double-A Rocket City that just cleared the left field fence roughly 10 feet inside the foul pole.
He’s hit two other balls that have made an outfielder take a step back. He reached the outfield fence with an opposite-field double for Rocket City that hit the left field wall a couple of feet inside the foul pole. He also had a sacrifice fly for Rocket City where the left fielder took two steps back to catch it.
His other four extra-base hits are well-placed balls rather than hard hits. His double in the majors was a well-struck line drive that landed in front of, but far enough away from, the right fielder to make the fielder run to track it down. He had a similar double in the minors that landed in front of, and far enough away from a right fielder who was playing far off the line.
Another double was a well-placed line drive over the glove of a shortstop that rolled to the left-center field gap. His triple was a well-placed ground ball right down the first base line. The double that wasn’t available to be viewed was described in the play-by-play as a ground ball to the right fielder.
Here’s Schanuel’s pro spray chart for his time in the full-season minors and the majors. He’s having plenty of success dropping balls over the heads of infielders and in front of outfielders. He uses the entire field, which adds to his ability to find holes with line drives and ground balls.
But there’s not really been a hitter over the past decade who has found this type of approach to be conducive to long-term success without mixing in more drives to the fence. So far, he’s yet to make a center fielder take a step back on any ball he’s put in play. Even when he’s turned on the ball to hit a line drive, the right fielder has had to come in to make the play.
As our Geoff Pontes noted in his story when Schanuel was promoted to the majors, Schanuel’s exit velocity numbers in the minors this year were well below what are normally expected from a first baseman, and they’re actually below what is considered average for a middle infielder.
Before his callup, Schanuel had an 83.9 mph average exit velocity with a 90th percentile exit velocity of 96.6 and a max exit velocity of 103.3 in the minors. In the Cape Cod League, he had an 82.6 mph average exit velocity with a 90th percentile exit velocity of 95.1.
Schanuel does not have enough batted ball events at the major league level to feel comfortable that his data has stabilized, but so far in the majors, his exit velocities have almost exactly matched what was being seen in the minors. If you combine the minors and majors, Schanuel now has close to 100 batted balls. And those numbers aren’t vastly different than his production in the Cape Cod League in 2022 with a wood bat.
With 31 batted balls in the majors, Schanuel has an 83.6 mph average exit velocity with a 90th percentile exit velocity of 97.7 and a max exit velocity of 101.2. That average exit velocity ranks 507th out of 520 MLB hitters with 25 or more batted balls. For maximum exit velocity, he ranks 518th out of 520. His maximum distance on a batted ball of 284 feet is not only dead last, but it’s 37 feet shorter than Vidal Brujan, who ranks 519th.
Now there’s no doubt that Schanuel can hit a ball much further than the 284 feet he has so far in the majors. Every MLB hitter can. Since Statcast began tracking hit distances in 2015 every batting qualifier has hit a ball at least 350 feet and only 68 of 2,254 seasons tracked saw a hitter fail to hit at least one ball 400-plus feet.
But so far, Schanuel has not shown that he can consistently drive balls to the fence. The approach that Schanuel can most hope to mirror is that of Marlins second baseman Luis Arraez. Arraez is a career .323 hitter thanks to an ability to spray the ball around the field and drop a ton of hits behind the infield and in front of outfielders.
But Arraez has always hit the ball significantly harder than Schanuel is doing so far. Arraez’s worst MLB average EV is 87.1 mph and he’s averaged 88.2 mph for his career. A little over half of Arraez’s balls in play this year are hit at 90 mph or harder. For Schanuel in the majors, it’s 30%.
If we assume an 84-85 mph average exit velocity is Schanuel’s true talent level right now, how often does an MLB hitter go from having a well-below-average exit velocity to having average exit velocity (which is roughly 88-89 mph for an MLB hitter)?
We only have nine years of Statcast data, so it’s not an excessively large sample, but that does include 658 hitters who had at least one qualifying season and 481 that had at least two seasons. We have 40 examples of a hitter qualifying for a batting title with an average exit velocity of 85 mph or lower.
Among those, there are three examples of players who had a season of 85 mph or lower average EV and then went on to have a season in the future with an 89 mph average EV or higher. Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford had an 85 mph average EV in his first full MLB season in 2019 and hovered around that level for the next four years. After working specifically to improve his bat speed this past offseason, Crawford has an 89 mph average EV this year. Not coincidentally, Crawford is in the middle of his best offensive season as a pro. He’s currently topping his previous career-high on-base percentage by 46 points and his career best slugging percentage by 28 points. Didi Gregorious and Jorge Polanco also saw a 4 mph rise.
All three of the examples are shortstops. The world of MLB hitters who post an average exit velocity of 85 mph or below in a season are almost entirely middle infielders and speedy, light-hitting center fielders. There also are a few aging veterans headed to retirement and a couple of glove-first catchers.
The reason for that is that if you don’t hit the ball harder than this, you struggle to hit. It’s almost impossible to produce at an average or better offensive level consistently with a sub-85 mph average exit velocity. Of those 40 seasons where a hitter posted an 85 mph or lower exit velocity, only once (David Fletcher in the shortened 2020 season) did a hitter post a .360 or better on-base percentage and only twice (Gregorious in 2017 and 2020 and Josh Harrison in 2017) did someone post a .430 slugging percentage.
Here’s the complete list of those 40 seasons.
Schanuel is just getting his feet wet in pro ball and he’s been thrown into an extremely challenging situation by being sent to the big leagues so quickly. If he starts adding some more stinging line drives to his approach to make pitchers have something to fear, his bat-to-ball skills and batting eye could make it all work.
But if he’s going to have long-term big league success, he’s going to have to hit the ball much harder than he has so far.