Good (sneeze) morning.
Allergies are a real pain for me this time of the year and I’m particularly susceptible to them so if at some point my writing devolves into (more) blathering incoherence (than normal), you now know the cause.
With that in mind, I’m not going to attempt any real serious analysis today. Sample sizes are still too small and the Cardinals’ play is still too inconsistent to draw meaningful conclusions over 1700 words. Best to just wait and watch, hope things stabilize a bit better, and the manager figures out how best to implement this complicated roster.
That doesn’t mean that nothing interesting is happening. Today we’re looking at two players who represent two extremes in the early going. We have Nolan Gorman, a player who was somewhat overlooked and a likely trade candidate all winter, who has elite offense in his second season. And Jordan Walker, a much-hyped prospect who impressed this spring, has matched a hitting streak record but has struggled to adjust to the challenges of Major League pitching.
My goal here is not to do a full analysis of either player, but instead, just highlight a few critical areas for both players and give some kind of prognosis on what those stats might mean for the rest of their season.
To the data!
He’s a superstar.
Ok, maybe it’s a little early for a pronouncement like that but so far he’s shown remarkable and needed improvement in some critical areas of his batting approach.
We’ll start with some of our usual production stats to set some context on how good of a season he is having. Gorman has a .333/.417/.647 slash line (that’s a 1.064 OPS) with 4 homers in 60 plate appearances. That translates to a .443 wOBA – weighted on base average – and a 178 wRC+ – weighted runs created set to a scale of 100 as average. Last year, Paul Goldschmidt won the MVP with a .419 wOBA and a 177 wRC+. So, yeah. Gorman is a superstar. In April.
And it’s helping his career numbers. He now has 373 PAs – a little over half a season of data – with a slash line of .243/.319/.455, a .336 wOBA, and a 118 wRC+. That’s all comfortably in the “good player” range, especially for a player who hasn’t yet turned 23.
The Statcast data from Baseball Savant is equally exciting. Expected stats take a player’s batted ball data and converts it into a “what could have been”. He has an expected Statcast slash line (xBA, xwOBA, xSLUG) of .322/.443/.633. That’s pretty much right on target with his actual performance.
What does that mean for those of you who are unfamiliar with the expected stats? It means he’s earned what he’s done. It’s real. This is not some fluky small sample size noise. It might not be predictable. But he has performed just as well as it looks. That’s nothing but exciting!
What’s going right for him? I have a slew of things to mention, but I’ll limit it to three (in no particular order of importance).
1. Walk & Chase rates: Gorman’s BB rate has skyrocketed so far this season relative to what he did last season and in the minor leagues. Gorman supplied an 8.9% walk rate in the majors. This year he’s up to 13.3% so far this season – a level that’s borderline elite.
It’s also a completely new thing for him. Gorman had a 5.7% rate in A+. He bumped that up to 9.2% in 195 PAs in AA. And then watched it fall again in two stops at AAA – 6.1% and 7.4%.
What’s driving the progress? His chase% has fallen to 21.8% from 31.1% which is well above average. His zone percentage is 44.9%. So, Gorman is not seeing that many pitches in the zone, and instead of chasing after them like he’s Vlad Guerrero, which he did some in the high minors, he’s watching those un-drivable pitches go by and waiting for offerings in the zone that he can drive. And he’s driving them.
2. K% & Whiff Rates: That change in approach should have an impact on his K rates as well. What’s interesting, and a reason to temper our expectations going forward, is that Gorman’s whiff% is still relatively poor. Last year he was at 34.5%, among the worst in the league. This year it’s improved to 31%, which is in the 22nd percentile. Still pretty bad.
Still, cutting into his whiffs a little while increasing his walks has dropped his K rate from a troubling 32.9% last year down to a very acceptable 23.3%. That’s still on the high side overall, but perfectly reasonable for a hitter with a ton of power.
I would think that with his continued low whiff rate and his walk history, his K% will probably climb a bit as the season progresses. That kind of normalization, though, would only move his current MVP-caliber 178 wRC+ down to “just” an All-Star 150 or so. I could live with that!
3. Exit Velocity: Gorman’s average exit velocity is 92.7 mph on the season. His max EV is 112.3 mph. Those are both elite. That gives him a 55.3% hard-hit rate and he currently ranks in the 89th percentile in barrel%. There’s a lot of dark red among the critical rate stats on his Baseball Savant page. While it’s probably unreasonable to expect him to keep up this kind of pace, there’s every reason to believe that he’s going to continue to hit the ball hard with loft and distance. If he does that he’ll be very productive.
Prognosis? Gorman is going to come back to earth. But a really good season is built from these moments of elite performance mixed in with fewer moments of terrible and a lot of normal stretches. As promising as his current data is, we don’t yet know what Gorman’s non-rookie year “normal” is. His floor, though, was already pretty high. He had the power to justify an above-average 107 wRC+ last season despite a horrible K rate and average walk ability. Even moderate improvement in those areas would mean a baseline of a “good” player – a 120 wRC+ – with a ceiling well above that. The next few months will tell us how possible that is, but there’s every reason to be optimistic about him going forward.
Before I dig into the data, let me give you my “I’ve been watching but haven’t looked at the stats yet” read on Walker. Yes, he had his record-setting hit streak. However, that masked what looked to me like some pretty obvious trends that weren’t nearly so positive. It seems like Walker is hitting way too many balls on the ground and is swinging at basically everything he sees.
Is what I’m seeing balanced with the stats? Has his early-season hitting streak glossed over a pretty flawed approach so far? Let’s find out together!
So far, Walker’s slash line is .254/.288/.381. That’s a 669 OPS and a .295 wOBA. That’s pretty poor. But… it seems like he has, at times, hit the ball pretty hard. Does that match his expected results? His expected Statcast slash line is just .261/.295/.372. So, yeah. What you see from Walker is what he’s earned. What’s gone wrong with him?
1. Ground Ball Rate: It doesn’t take a Statcast genius to have noticed that Walker is hitting a lot of balls on the ground. A LOT! His GB% is 58.7% on the season according to Fangraphs. (56.5 on Statcast). That Fangraph’s total is the fifth highest among qualified batters so far this season. That kind of GB rate should lead to even worse stats than what he’s currently showing but his surprising speed – 93rd percentile – has bought him some base hits that his batted ball data, including BABIP, probably doesn’t support.
Will that continue? I don’t think it will. In A+ Walker had a 42.9% ground ball rate. That rose to 45.5% in AA. Since he skipped AAA, Walker doesn’t have an extensive minor league history to fall back on. But when he’s on and comfortable, Walker has shown the ability to drive liners with a high exit velocity and elevate a fair share of fly balls over the wall.
The key to that last sentence is “when he’s comfortable”. There’s nothing about Walker’s performance so far that indicates he is comfortable at the plate against Major League pitching. And that shouldn’t be surprising at all from a 20-year-old who skipped a pretty vital developmental stage.
Walker will learn to elevate Major League pitching. And with his ability to hit the ball hard, the production will come. These things just take time. (And skipping developmental steps only adds to that time.)
2. BB%, K%: Walker likes to swing the bat. That was true in the minors. It remains true in the majors. The difference between AA and MLB is the quality of the pitches that he is seeing in and around the zone. Walker swings at 56% of the pitches that he sees and makes a ton of contact in the zone – 80.9%. (I’ve always argued that he had a better hitting tool than scouts give him credit for and his ability to make contact and drive balls, even grounders, into good places is a good example of what I’m talking about.)
The challenge is that Walker is seeing nearly 40% of his pitches faced on the edge of the zone. I don’t have his numbers from Springfield, but I would guess that he saw half that rate on the black in AA.
Start adding it up. Lots of swings. Lots of pitches on the edge of the zone. Lots of contact. That pretty much sums up why he has an abysmal – sorry but it’s the right word – 1.5% BB rate so far this season. His whiff rates are pretty high, too. That leads him to a K rate (25.8%) that’s not too bad for a 20-year-old but still in the bottom third of the league.
(Do you see what I mean about his hit tool? He’ll never be more fooled by Major League pitching than what we’ve seen from him so far and he’s still a 20-year-old that’s K’ing at a rate equal to or lower than we might expect from an experienced vet with a 70/80 raw power grade. That’s why he’s up here.)
What’s getting him? Exactly what you would expect would get him. So far he doesn’t have any production against MLB changeups. He’s not seeing as many as Carlson did when he first arrived but a .000 BA on 13% of his pitches faced is noteworthy and not at all surprising. He’s also struggling against breaking pitches. He has a .290 batting average and a .419 slug% against breakers for a .322 wOBA. However, his xwOBA is just .259 against curves, sweepers, and sliders. He’s had some good luck so far against breaking pitches.
Fastballs, not surprisingly, are more his speed. He has a .365 xwOBA against hard stuff but has only generated a .326 wOBA on them. Expect more production against fastballs soon.
3. OAA: Lastly, I can’t let Walker’s defense go unmentioned. His OAA in right field is a -2 so far, which is in the 4th percentile of fielders. Ouch. But not surprising, considering that he’s a third baseman learning on the fly. His arm is elite. When he throws the ball to the right place.
Prognosis? Walker isn’t as ready for the majors as the club hoped. Yes, he’ll learn and progress but he is showing all the signs of a player that is in over his head but surviving based on his impressive raw batting talent.
Can you see that talent? It’s there. I didn’t talk about exit velocity, but he certainly crushes the ball. Yes, he swings at a lot of pitches, but he is making contact against breaking pitches. He’ll look lost in one pitch and then see it again and do something with it. That might sound like grasping for straws, but Walker is just 20. He’s learning amid the struggles and I’m extremely confident that he’ll come out just fine in the end.
That said, like Gorman, that end might need to include a trip back to the minors. To me, Walker looks like a player who could benefit from seeing 250 PAs against nearly MLB-caliber pitchers. And even more innings in the outfield.
That’s AAA. And while I don’t think the Cardinals will send him down anytime soon, I think they would get better production from him faster if they did.