The 2021 season provided Cardinals fans with a lot of pleasant surprises. Tyler O’Neill’s breakout year was must-watch baseball. Adam Wainwright revealed that he still has gas in the tank and put together some Chris Carpenter-esque, bulldog-type starts (even if he did need a little help from an elite defense behind him). One of the most surprising events, however, was the emergence of Edmundo Sosa as starting shortstop as Paul DeJong struggled throughout the year. Though listed on Cardinals prospects lists, most likely viewed Sosa as a guy you keep around for organizational depth prior to 2021. He already had a reputation as a good fielder and was a guy who could cover shortstop in St. Louis in case of an emergency, but in 2021, Sosa did something very few expected: He provided above-average offensive value.
Over 113 games and 326 plate appearances in 2021, Sosa slashed .271/.346/.389, posting a 104 wRC+. He already has a good glove and plus speed, so if he can find a way to sustain his newly found offensive capabilities, the Cardinals may not need to be as active in the upcoming shortstop sweepstakes as once thought. This would give the Cardinals the ability to address other roster needs, such as bolstering the starting rotation and bullpen.
In 2021, Sosa profiled as an extremely aggressive hitter. His chase rate according to Fangraphs was 36.9% (MLB Average: 30%), his zone swing rate was 74.5% (65%), and his overall swing percentage was 53.1% (46%). Sosa is not in the box to take a walk, and his season walk rate shows it at 5.2%. Unfortunately, he’s also below average in out-of-zone contact, in-zone contact, and overall contact rates at 60.4% (66%), 82.7% (87%), and 73.9% (80%), respectively. Those things aren’t a great combination.
The first glance isn’t encouraging, and it doesn’t help that Sosa’s average and on-base percentage are inflated by a BABIP of .326 and 17 HBPs. His batted ball profile suggests that the BABIP is likely more a result of luck and his speed than consistent, solid contact, and Sosa himself probably would tell you that getting hit square in the wrist by a 95+ mph fastball isn't a great way to get on base (let alone a reliable one).
Altogether, these data point to a pretty dim picture for Sosa’s offensive production in 2022 and this article is looking more like a dud than an interesting piece of analysis. Thankfully, Baseball Savant has some interesting Statcast data that might give some hope for Sosa’s offensive development. One tool measures a parameter called “Player Affinity.” It can be used to compare players based on their hitting profiles and takes into account the quality of batted balls as well as walks and strikeouts. Its scale ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 representing no similarities between the two hitters and 1 representing identical hitting profiles. The plot below compares Edmundo Sosa with his best matches in MLB. (If the image is too small to read here, you can find an interactive version of the plot on Baseball Savant’s site.)
While player comps can be interesting to look at, they aren’t ideal tools for predictive analysis since the trajectory of a player obviously matters quite a bit. The Dodgers’ Gavin Lux, who was drafted by LA in the first round of the 2016 draft, had a comparable hitting profile to both Sosa and Andrew Knizner, but you’ll probably get run out of the VEB comment section for saying that either player has the same potential ceiling that Lux does.
With that disclaimer, we can look at some of the more interesting hitter comps for Sosa from 2021. The strongest correlation, coming in at 0.9, is Leury Garcia, a utility player for the White Sox. Garcia, at 30 years old in 2021, slashed .267/.335/.376, good for a 98 wRC+. Similar to Sosa, Garcia enjoyed an elevated .333 BABIP, which inflates some of his production and, given his age, makes him very likely to regress next year. However, if Sosa manages to put up numbers like this going forward, it will pair nicely with his defense to make him a valuable piece for the Redbirds.
There’s a much larger cluster of players similar to Sosa in the 0.81-0.85 range, but the aforementioned Gavin Lux tops the group at 0.85. Lux is only 23 years old and has thus far struggled to adapt to MLB pitching, putting up a slash line of .242/.328/.364 and a wRC+ of 91 in the 2021 season. The thing Lux has going for him that Sosa has lacked is plate discipline. Lux’s walk rate is 10.8% which more than doubles Sosa’s. That, combined with the fact that Lux hit the ball harder on average than Sosa did in 2021, makes the discrepancy between their wRC+ values somewhat surprising, though a more modest BABIP of .300 for Lux does help explain the difference. Lux’s hitting ability is projected to improve vastly more than Sosa’s going forward, and Lux has age on his side, being two years younger than Sosa. Still, Sosa himself is only 25 years old, and it’s possible that his offensive game still has some room to improve, especially if he can improve his contact rates.
The final comp we’ll cherry-pick out of the group is Pirates third baseman and leadoff hitter Ke’Bryan Hayes (0.81), who hit .257/.316/.373 in his age-24 campaign and posted an 88 wRC+. Hayes’ walk rate is a little more comparable to Sosa’s at 7.8% and he has a similarly high BABIP at .321. Like Lux, Hayes was taken in the first round of the amateur draft but was drafted more for his glove than for his bat, whereas Lux’s hitting ability was his main selling point. Of the three comps, Hayes is likely the best one for Sosa. A lot of Hayes’ value in 2021 came from his glove, and that’s probably the most reasonable expectation for Sosa going forward.
With 2021 being Sosa’s first extended stint with the big league club, it’s pretty tough to determine how his hitting will develop going forward. If he continues to swing as aggressively as he did this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see quite a bit of regression, especially if he remains below-average at making contact. For that reason, the comps above seem to be a good range of outcomes if Sosa’s hitting profile remains consistent in 2022, with 2021 Garcia being the likely best-case scenario and 2021 Hayes being one of the (hopefully) worst-case scenarios. Fortunately for Sosa, he’s just a year older than Hayes at 25 and there's likely still some time for his offensive approach to develop. His defensive prowess as a middle infielder is also a big plus and is likely to keep him in the lineup as long as he isn’t a total black hole at his spot in the batting order.
The Cardinals will have a great opportunity to bolster the offense with a shortstop acquisition that would outperform Sosa offensively. The coming free agent market for that position is deep, and even the second- or third-best option will be a significant offensive improvement. If that happens, it will be interesting to see what happens with Sosa as Nolan Gorman will likely be in the mix for second base in 2022 (the potential adoption of a universal DH would obviously change that equation quite a bit). The acquisition of a more established hitter at short is probably the better way to go if the Redbirds are seriously eyeing the division crown. However, if the Cards decide to stick with Sosa as the starter in 2022, that would, in my opinion, be a defensible decision even if it’s not the best one. He brings good value in run prevention and it really remains to be seen what his full offensive potential is. Additionally, the resources used in the shortstop market can go towards bolstering a pitching staff that will probably need some depth next season.