Help Evaluate Some of the Game’s Best Hitters

Slowly but surely, we’re getting into the fun part of the season. I mean, it’s all fun, even parts of spring training, but now that we’re approaching the end of April, elements are starting to shake out. Certain teams have had legitimately great starts, and certain other teams are in significant trouble. Sample sizes everywhere remain small, but they’re growing large enough that we can begin to seriously wonder about changed performances. What’s more fun than a player who’s changed his own true talent? After the first few games, we can throw any number of names against the wall. By now, there’s just a little more clarity.

In this post, I call for your help. It’s a poll post! Below, you will find the names of five hitters who have gotten off to extraordinary starts. They’re five of the more interesting hitters in the game today. Every player gets a short description, and a poll. I want to know how good you think they actually are. Just for the few of you who might like to complain: Obviously, I’ve not included every interesting hitter off to a promising start. There’s no Freddie Freeman or Ryan Zimmerman or Aaron Hicks. I’ve chosen these five because these are the five I have chosen. Participate or don’t. (Please participate.)

Bryce Harper

  • Current wRC+: 246
  • Current wRC+ rank: 1
  • Rest-of-season projected wRC+: 153

Well, here we are. Somehow I don’t think we’ve written about this on FanGraphs yet. Two years ago, Harper finished with a 197 wRC+. Last April, he ran a 179 wRC+. You don’t need to know any more about what happened to Bryce Harper in 2016 — I think that’s been the subject of roughly one in three baseball articles since last July. This was always going to be an important season, because I think we believe this season will reveal what Harper actually is. To this point, he’s been the game’s best hitter. It’s been pretty emphatic.

What’s the story? Harper remains one of the game’s most disciplined hitters, with four more walks than strikeouts. His contact rate hasn’t budged, but, clearly, his quality of contact has budged, as Harper has cut down on his soft-hit rate. More balls than ever have been airborne, and Harper has also shown a slightly adapted opposite-field approach, allowing him to cover more of the plate. The homers are going to center and right, but Harper’s hit the ball everywhere. Forget the numbers and splits and everything. You know what the best version of Bryce Harper looks like. We’ve seen him before for weeks or months at a time. It’s a matter of how much you believe in him. That’s why I’m polling here in the first place! Has Harper’s April allowed you to forget about how he did throughout last season?

Eric Thames

  • Current wRC+: 235
  • Current wRC+ rank: 3
  • Rest-of-season projected wRC+: 124

From Friday through Sunday, Thames picked up just one hit in 14 plate appearances. As such, he’s dropped from the very top of the offensive leaderboard, but he’s dropped all the way into…third place, and it wasn’t long ago Brett Anderson referred to him as the best hitter in the world. Even under-performing weekend Thames walked three times, and there’s no point in discussing three games of Thames when we have 18 games of data. Over those 18 games, he’s launched eight dingers. The last time he played in the majors, over 86 games, he launched nine dingers.

When Thames was in the majors as a younger player, no one doubted his strength. He was very clearly the strongest person in just about every room. Yet as a hitter, he was incomplete, because he couldn’t always control himself. Well, used to be, he chased pitches out of the zone 34% of the time. So far this year, he’s chased pitches out of the zone 17% of the time, which means he’s cut down his chase rate by half. Everything else comes out of that. The higher walks. The lower strikeouts. The improved batted-ball quality. Thames has hit half his fly balls for home runs, which no one could keep up, but more than half of his batted balls have counted as “hard.” His pull rate is north of 60%. Thames, so far, has toyed with his opponents. And this is exactly what he did in South Korea.

Eugenio Suarez

  • Current wRC+: 217
  • Current wRC+ rank: 5
  • Rest-of-season projected wRC+: 100

Unless you’re a Reds fan, I bet you weren’t expecting to find Eugenio Suarez in this post. His hot start has been quieter, because he’s never gotten much hype, and because he’s not a Statcast darling, and because he’s Eugenio Suarez. But that factoid up there isn’t a joke — he really does have a 217 wRC+, presently ranking fifth-best among qualified hitters. Sure, Suarez won’t finish with a .400 BABIP. But that’s not the only reason his numbers are up.

Last season, he hit 21 homers, so there’s been pop in this bat before. And right now, Suarez has nine walks and 12 strikeouts. His K-BB% last year was 17%. This year, it’s 4%, and related to that, Suarez has chopped his chase rate by a full nine percentage points. As a direct consequence, he’s improved his contact rate by six percentage points, and his hard-hit rate is up another five percentage points. Previously, Suarez had been about a league-average hitter. The early signs suggest that he’s greatly refined his approach. A playable swing with a better approach can yield tremendous results. Suarez is still just 25, and this might be a breakout the Reds so desperately need.

Mitch Haniger

  • Current wRC+: 195
  • Current wRC+ rank: 8
  • Rest-of-season projected wRC+: 103

As one of the successful swing-change players, Haniger last year throttled his high-minors opposition. His showing in the majors was worse, but he was also making his debut, and now in 2017 he’s picked up where he left off in Triple-A. His game isn’t so much about making perfect contact as it is about avoiding lousy contact, and Haniger blends that skill with a low chase rate and a currently above-average rate of contact. Even though he’s seen a whole bunch of sliders, and relatively few fastballs, the strikeouts have been under control, and frequent observers have noted that Haniger almost never has a bad at-bat.

Based on Haniger’s various profile numbers, like the pitches he swings at and how he hits them, he compares favorably to some of the best hitters in the game from the past few seasons. What he might be lacking is the same exit-velocity ceiling, but it’s too early for us to know that, and the ceiling is also of lesser importance than the consistency. So far, as a Mariner, Haniger has been the picture of consistent. And so he’s also been one of the few things to go right for an otherwise disappointing ballclub.

Aaron Judge

  • Current wRC+: 172
  • Current wRC+ rank: 15
  • Rest-of-season projected wRC+: 111

If I were writing about six players, instead of five, I would’ve found room for Joey Gallo. Did you know that Gallo is sitting on a 151 wRC+, that’s allowed the Rangers to survive the absence of Adrian Beltre? Gallo will be the subject of another post or three, I’m sure, but I’d like to focus here on another Gallo, kind of. Judge is the same kind of player, a player with 80-grade raw power and a big glaring contact problem. A big glaring contact problem that hasn’t shown up yet in 2017.

You’ve seen some of the Statcast highlights. You know that Judge hits the ball harder than anyone this side of Giancarlo Stanton. We knew that last year! We knew that Judge was capable of unthinkable exploits, but we all had to wonder whether he’d be able to tap into that skillset enough. Well, over consecutive small samples, Judge has gone from striking out four times per nine plate appearances to striking out one time per four. His current contact rate is 75%, which is right in line with, say, where Freddie Freeman has been over his career. Judge hasn’t improved his contact out of the zone, but he’s greatly improved his rate of swings out of the zone, and he’s making his extra contact over the plate. Judge, in short, has quieted things down. He doesn’t need to swing at everything at 100%, because his 90% is the average player’s 110%. That’s a whole lot of percentages in one sentence. We’ve seen the ideal version of Aaron Judge. How much of that should we expect to continue as pitchers fight to find his weakness?

We hoped you liked reading Help Evaluate Some of the Game’s Best Hitters by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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really should’ve included gallo