Analyzing SwStr% gainers (hitters) from 2020

Today I’m exploring a plate discipline metric known as swinging strike rate (SwStr%). And to clarify, I’m talking hitters, not pitchers. The cool thing about swinging strike rate is that it is calculated on a per-pitch basis. So even in a shortened season, it’s a bit stickier than other research we could focus on, and it’s possible we might discover sneaky, lesser-owned hitters that we can trust moving forward.

One caveat…swinging strike rate isn’t the whole story. There is no ideal plate discipline breakdown. Hitters can be valuable whether they are passive or aggressive. High-contact guys with speed, guys who trade out contact for power–everyone has a place in our fantasy baseball game depending on your individual team’s needs. I chose swinging strike rate to study because I don’t often explore it, and because I think plate discipline in general is less “noisy” than many other metrics. It’s simplistic, but if a guy is improving his strikeout rate–something that generally occurs with improved SwStr%–then other good things are likely to follow.

With no further preamble, here are the top 10 gainers in SwStr% from 2019 to 2020 (min. 400 PA):

PLAYER NAME2019 SwStr2020 SwStrTotal Gain
Brandon Dixon17.2%9.6%7.6%
Raimel Tapia14.6%8.3%6.3%
Brian Dozier9.0%4.0%5.0%
Eric Hosmer13.4%8.6%4.8%
Jackie Bradley Jr.14.7%10.6%4.1%
Ramón Laureano12.8%8.9%3.9%
Rowdy Tellez14.4%10.6%3.7%
Gio Urshela11.5%8.4%3.1%
Jonathan Schoop17.7%14.6%3.1%
Freddie Freeman11.6%8.5%3.1%

Dixon was released by the Tigers in November of 2020 to pursue baseball in Japan. And the reason he leads this list is because his 2019 swinging strike rate of 17.2% was absurdly high. That, and he only appeared in five games of 2020, so he had an abnormally low (for him) 9.6% swinging strike rate. As for Brian Dozier, he’ll be 34 this year and was released by the Padres and then the Mets after managing only 16 plate appearances in 2020. I can’t imagine he’ll have a market, and even if he lands somewhere it’s likely not in a full-time role. Moving on…

OF RAIMEL TAPIA, COLORADO ROCKIES
NFBC ADP: 248.00 (min. 223, max 297)

The 26-year-old leadoff man for the Rockies is a solid value in drafts. In 2020, he became more patient, bumping from a very high 58.6% swing rate down to a slightly above average 50.2% swing rate. He was also more selective, decreasing his chase rate from 43.5% to 32.3%. He posted the best contact rate of his career, ranking 21st in the majors with an 83.4% mark. That mark bested Anthony Rizzo, Mike Trout, and Freddie Freeman, to name a few. Tapia should offer batting average and some speed to help fill out your outfield. His career-high in homers is nine, however, and he doesn’t hit the ball very hard (12th percentile hard hit rate in 2020). But so long as the contact, speed, and leadoff gig for Colorado hold up, he’s a nice piece for 2021. Think of him as a 10/20 threat, not a 20/20 threat.

1B ERIC HOSMER, SAN DIEGO PADRES
NFBC ADP: 139.38 (min. 122, max 167)

I was openly against drafting Hosmer for years, but now he’s set career marks in hard hit rate in each of the last two seasons–and in 2020 he finally gave us a palatable 8.7 degree launch angle. If you’re buying into a guy like Vladito elevating more, I don’t see why you’d bypass Hosmer to do the same thing some 90+ picks later. Hosmer bested Vlad’s 4.6 degree launch angle last year, as well as Vlad’s 6.7 degree mark from 2019. And no, Hosmer wasn’t in the 93rd percentile in exit velocity and hard hit rate like Vlad was, but he was in the 80th and 85th. In fact, Hosmer bested Vladito in xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, Barrel%, and Whiff% in 2020…and these guys are nearly identical in sprint speed. I’m not saying you should draft Hosmer over Vladdy. I am saying that Hosmer smacks the ball and elevated more than Vlad did in 2020. Add in the run-happy tendencies of the Padres and Hosmer’s perfect 4-for-4 on the basepaths last year, and I’m sold on him as a back-end first baseman. I view him similarly to Anthony Rizzo, but Hosmer can be had nearly 40 picks later in drafts.

Will the toolsy Jackie Bradley Jr. return to the Red Sox? The Mets? Or some other team entirely?

OF JACKIE BRADLEY, JR., FREE AGENT
NFBC ADP: 341.44 (min. 301, max 376)

The 30-year-old defensive maven posted his lowest swing rate since 2015, checking in at a slightly below average 45.1% rate in 2020. The result was the highest contact rate of his career, with his 76.4% rate checking in a hair above the MLB average (75.3%) for the first time in his career. His 10.6% swinging strike rate was the best mark of his career, and a side effect of this newfound contact and patience meant he tied his career-high walk rate (10.6%). The ensuing 22.1% strikeout rate was the best of his career. He still rates well in outs above average (99th percentile) and outfielder jump (78th). He’s also still inside the 62nd percentile for speed, and was 5-for-7 on the basepaths in 2020. He has been linked to the Mets, the Braves, and back to the Red Sox. He’s still a quality defensive centerfielder, and the improved plate discipline and foot speed mean I’m fine taking a shot on him as a depth play in 2021. There’s some really quiet 15/10 upside here if everything breaks right with his landing spot.

OF RAMON LAUREANO, OAKLAND ATHLETICS
NFBC ADP: 135.50 (min. 112, max 148)

Laureano suffered from a .270 BABIP in 2020, resulting in a .213 BA. The outfield defense and sprint speed aren’t in question, though. He also posted a 10.8% walk rate in 2020, due in part to his (new) low swing rate of 40.2% and a career-best 27.0% chase rate. For reference, he went from a roughly league average 48.6% swing rate in 2019 to one of the most passive hitters in the majors in 2020, as only 16 qualified hitters had a lower swing rate.

The good news is his contact rate jumped up, from a few ticks below average in 2019 (73.7%) to a couple of ticks above average in 2020 (77.8%). The bad news is his hard hit rate fell to 34.4%, landing him inside the 27th percentile. This followed much healthier 40% hard hit rates in 2018 and 2019, so there’s some hope for a rebound. If he can marry the improved contact to his previous hard hit levels, we could have something pretty special on our hands. Laureano did retain a healthy 9.4% barrel rate in 2020, and his max exit velocity of 111.3 MPH was in line with previous years. He only attempted three steals in 2020, but for a guy with his wheels and instincts–career 22-for-26 on the basepaths–he should do more than just chip-in. Steamer projects 23 homers and 11 steals this year, which is a solid floor at his current ADP of 135. But Laureano mashed 24 homers and stole 13 bags in only 123 games in 2019, so there’s an upside here with this floor. Three steals attempts in 54 games last year is terrifying, but the above average sprint speed and leadoff role indicate a rebound is in order. Lastly, his FB/LD exit velocity was around the top 50 hitters in the MLB, with his 94.2 MPH mark tied with guys like Paul Goldschmidt, Trent Grisham, and Michael Conforto. That, along with the barrel rate and the leadoff role…I think Laureano is destined to be useful to us in one way or another in 2020.

1B ROWDY TELLEZ, TORONTO BLUE JAYS
NFBC ADP: 229.50 (min. 201, max 265)

The 25-year-old is projected to man first base and to at least start against righty pitchers in 2021. However, if Toronto signs a third baseman of note, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would shift over to first base and Rowdy would lose out on playing time. But until that happens, I’m amassing cheap Tellez shares based on his skill set. Given his prodigious power, Tellez made a concerted effort to make more contact in 2020, the move paid off in a big way. His 10.6% swinging strike rate was above average, and his contact rate bumped from 70% in his first two seasons to 78.7% in 2020. And while his swing rate was steady around 50%, his zone swing rate jumped five percent (64.9% to 69.9%) and his zone contact rate leapt by eight percent (up to 89.3%). His 37.3% chase rate was two ticks better than the year prior, and his contact rate outside the zone also improved, from 59.8% to 66.0%. In short, Tellez made awesome contact and overall plate discipline gains in 2020, and his average exit velocity was still identical to 2019 (top 20% of MLB).

Tellez’s max exit velo of 117.4 MPH was higher than the year before, and his barrel rate dropped but was still solid at 8.4%. He also posted the best hard hit rate of his career, at 44.2%. His newfound all fields included fewer pulled balls and an increase in oppo rate, so I trust him to retain some of last year’s .283 BA (.286 xBA). With a Statcast page littered with red and more focus on contact, Tellez makes for a sturdy corner infield play and is a dark horse candidate to finish among the elite first basemen in 2021 if he lands enough playing time. Steamer projects a .257 BA and 24 homers, which seems light given his improvement in 2020. For reference, he rapped out 21 dingers in only 111 games in 2019, and Steamer projects 126 games in 2021. The concern here is playing time, not skill set. Keep your eyes on Toronto and their next move. If I were them, I’d add more pitching and a cheap glove-first infield type who could cover multiple infield spots. Unfortunately, that’s just me and has no bearing on what Toronto will do.

3B GIO URSHELA, NEW YORK YANKEES
NFBC ADP: 158.75 (min. 135, max 186)

Urshela gave us three partial years of pretty much nothin’ from 2015-2018, but then broke out in a big way in 2019 with 21 dingers and a .314/.355/.534 slash line. He was even better in 2020, nearly doubling his walk rate (5.3% to 10.3%) and trimming his strikeout rate to an elite level (18.3% to 14.4%). He was more selective at the plate, morphing from a free-swinger to right at an average swing rate. His chase rate plummeted from a ghastly 41.8% to an above average 30.8% rate, and his 91.4% zone contact rate would have ranked 16th in the MLB had he qualified. In short, the plate discipline was very good in 2020. Lastly, his batted ball quality was very good, resulting in a .315 xBA that ranked inside the top 3% of the league. He’s being overlooked given his skill set, his surrounding lineup, and his park context.

2B JONATHAN SCHOOP, FREE AGENT
NFBC ADP: 368.06 (min. 305, max 429)

Schoop is only 29 years old, and has generally been known for his solid defense and league-average bat. He posted four straight 20+ homer seasons before an eight-homer campaign in 2020, meaning he’d have probably crested 20 bombs again in a full year. His Statcast profile is a ghastly bunch of blue, but the 20+ homer pop is supported by a high pull rate (career 45.6%, 48.8% in 2020). If he lands in a good spot for playing time, he’s a sneaky way to add some power to your MI slot, just like he was last year.

1B FREDDIE FREEMAN, ATLANTA BRAVES
NFBC ADP: 13.88 (min. 9, max 20)

Do I really need to talk up one of the best in the game? In 2020, the 31-year-old set career bests in swinging strike rate (8.5%), contact rate (81.9%), zone contact rate (86.0%), contact out of the zone (74.7%), and chase rate (only 28.2%). In short, his plate discipline was better than ever. He also scalded the ball, setting career marks in barrel rate, average exit velo, xBA, xSLG, wOBA, xwOBA, and hard hit rate. His 17.2% walk rate and 14.1% strikeout rate were the best marks of his career. And he did all of this after suffering a rough bout with Covid-19 during preseason. Draft him with confidence inside the top 15 picks in 2021.

In summary…

I am probably most likely to own Gio Urshela from this group. I like Ke’Bryan Hayes long-term, but Hayes being selected over 20 picks ahead of Urshela in 2021 seems like folly. And third base is deep, but there aren’t many options who offer the counting stat potential of Urshela (certainly not Hayes for Pittsburgh). I like Ramón Laureano given his probable leadoff role for Oakland, and what looks like a 20/10 floor. Hosmer offers plenty of upside at a weak first base position, and Tellez offers big upside so long as playing time is there for him (but that’s iffy). Tapia isn’t a boom pick for power, but he’s a savvy play if you’re in need of speed. If you’re in need of more power in your outfield, I’d look to a Brandon Nimmo type some 20+ picks later, though. While Tapia could potentially give us a 10/20 type of year, Nimmo is more of a 20/10 type.

What say you all? Does anything else stand out to you about these guys?

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