In the year 2020, “launch angle” is a popular buzzword and it carries a bit of a stigma because power is associated with strikeouts, and strikeouts are bad. There is much more to launch angle than swinging from your heels though. Justin Turner overhauled his swing and became an elite hitter while maintaining a low strikeout rate. There’s more than one way to hit for more power. More than one way to launch angle.
Last week we looked at three Yankees pitchers who made adjustments on the fly. This week we’re going to examine three players who had big power spikes late last season, and whether it could carry over into 2020. Everyone knows Jose Bautista broke out with 54 home runs in 2010. But did you know he hit 10 homers in his final 26 games in 2009? That’s when the power really arrived. Here are three players hoping to do what Bautista did once baseball begins in 2020.
The Rays returned the prominence the last two years thanks partly to their farm system (Blake Snell, Brandon Lowe, etc.) and mostly to shrewd trades. The Chris Archer heist netted Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow (and a prospect), Yandy Diaz and Colin Poche came over in three-team trades, and Tommy Pham and Emilio Pagan were great pickups that were spun elsewhere.
In June 2018 the Rays sent Brad Miller to the Brewers for Ji-Man Choi in a trade that made few headlines at the time but has since paid big dividends. Choi, who is on his fourth team since 2016, has hit .263/.365/.472 with 27 home runs in 176 games with Tampa. He’s been 25 percent better than league average offensively once you adjust for ballpark and the league run-scoring environment.
“We have been running him out there quite a bit. We knew he was a really good hitter. He has come up clutch a lot,” manager Kevin Cash told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times last September. “… The bat plays and he has a pretty simple swing. Not a lot of moving parts to it. He just has really quick hands and he can get to a lot of pitches.”
The 28-year-old Choi finished very well last season, authoring a .296/.410/.691 batting line in his last 26 games. Not coincidentally, his September power spike — Choi hit 13 homers in his first 114 games and six in his final 13 games — was the result of fewer ground balls and more hard contact. Hit the ball hard and hit the ball in the air and good things tend to happen.
The Rays smartly limit Choi’s exposure against left-handed pitchers — he’s a career .185/.288/.296 hitter against lefties — and the Jose Martinez addition gives them a natural platoon partner. Against righties, Choi is a near elite hitter (.274/.377/.492 career), and last September he showed there is still another level to his game. The power plays when he gets the ball in the air.
“He can get on base and he does it whether it’s a hit or via the walk, whatever way,” Cash told Topkin last September. “But we’ll certainly take the presence in the lineup that he’s providing right now. It seems like a lot of the good things that we’ve done offensively it’s come with him on base or at the plate.”
Just two years ago Mets super utility man Jeff McNeil was a fringe prospect. Baseball America did not rank him among New York’s top 30 prospects any year from 2016-18 as injuries and a lack of exit velocity held back him back. McNeil is now an All-Star with a career .321/.383/.523 batting line and only 99 strikeouts in 196 big-league games.
Among the 183 players with at least 800 plate appearances the last two years, only Alex Bregman has a lower strikeout rate than McNeil with a higher park adjusted OPS, and Bregman had some extra help. McNeil’s combination of contact and production may be unmatched in the game right now, depending how you feel about Bregman. A 141 OPS+ with a 12.1 percent strikeout is all-world production. That’s McNeil.
McNeil’s game is contact, not power, but the power developed last season. His home run total by month in 2019: 1, 1, 4, 5, 5, 7. McNeil hit seven home runs in September after hitting seven homers the entire first half, and he did it without a big jump in strikeout rate, which often accompanies a power spike. McNeil hit 23 homers last year. He hit 28 homers in 428 minor-league games and zero homers — literally zero — in three years at Long Beach State.
“Anybody who tells you they saw this coming is probably trying to sell you a bridge somewhere,” a scout told SNY’s John Harper last September. “There’s not a scout on the planet that predicted this. At best you saw him as a utility player.”
Unlike Choi, McNeil’s power spike did not result from him elevating the ball. His ground ball rate was relatively unchanged from the first half to the second (43.5 percent to 42.7 percent). What did change was the direction McNeil hit the ball. He started pulling the ball as last season progressed, and pulling the ball is the easiest way to hit for power.
As McNeil’s pull rate increased, so did his isolated power, which tells us extra bases per at-bat (ISO is slugging percentage minus batting average). That is not unique to McNeil. Pulling the ball correlates strongly to power and McNeil was able to tap into his power last year without sacrificing contact or overall hitting ability. He maintained his elite strikeout rate throughout 2019.
“I think he can hit for power and still hit around .330,” a scout told Harper. “He’s that skilled in recognizing pitches and putting the bat on the ball in any part of the strike zone.”
McNeil’s hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills are high-end, and as good as he’s been in his career to date, he can be even better now that he’s learning to pull the ball without sacrificing contact and his ability to hit for average. Don’t underestimate the fact he has a full-time position (third base) now too. He no longer has to learn new positions defensively and that means more time to focus on offense. McNeil’s best may be yet to come.
Catchers with offensive ability are hard to find and it was pretty surprising when 29-year-old Tom Murphy bounced from the Rockies to the Giants to the Mariners in the span of a week last spring. Seattle gave him his first extended taste of the big leagues last year and Murphy responded with 18 homers and a .273/.324/.535 batting line in 281 plate appearances.
Murphy always had power coming up through the minors — he slugged 93 home runs in 469 minor-league games — but was held back by a lack of plate discipline. He was a free swinger with low walk rates and high strikeout rates, and advanced pitchers were able to take advantage of his plate indiscipline earlier in his big-league career (Murphy had a 75 OPS+ from 2015-18).
That started to change last season. Murphy worked with Mariners hitting coach Tim Laker to refine his approach and become more selective. Simply put, Murphy started swinging at strikes and laying off balls, and once that happened, his natural power played. His chase rate dropped as last season progressed and his isolated power increased. A graph is worth a thousand words:
“(Kaizen, or Japanese for daily improvement) is probably the one word I’d use to describe my daily process,” Murphy told MLB.com’s Greg Johns last October, referring back to the team’s season-opening trip to Tokyo. “I came in with that mindset every single day. And, luckily, I had people around me to help me not be a finished product, but much closer to a finished product than I ever have been.”
Murphy hit eight home runs in his final 105 plate appearances last year after hitting 10 homers in his first 176 plate appearances. His strikeout rate in those first 176 plate appearances: 36.4 percent. More than one strikeout every three plate appearances. In his final 105 plate appearances, Murphy cut his strikeout rate to 21.9 percent. Fewer strikeouts equal more balls in play, and with Murphy’s power, more balls in play equals more homers.
The Mariners traded Omar Narvaez over the winter and committed to Murphy as their full-time catcher. He has a good reputation for working with pitchers, which is important and will keep him in the lineup. If the plate discipline continues to develop, Murphy could emerge as one of the game’s best hitting catchers. He has that much power and he now he’s learning how to fully tap into it.
“Of all the players I’ve ever been around, he made the most change in his game from day one of the season to where he’s at now than anybody I’ve ever seen in the middle of a season,” manager Scott Servais told Johns. “I’ve seen a lot of guys change things in the offseason, and it plays out. But in the course of a year, what he did from where he started to where he’s at right now was an unbelievable change.”