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Statcast Season Review: 2020 Barrel Leaders (Hitters)

The 2020 MLB season will always be one for the record books, even if everything that took place will have multiple asterisks attached to it.

Evaluating Statcast numbers is a nice way to find hot and cold hitters, as well as underachievers and overachievers. Now that the regular season is over, let's reflect on the 60-game sample size filled with seven-inning doubleheaders to see what we can glean from it.

In this space, I'll take a look the leaderboard for Barrels to point out some surprising results in order to determine whether there might be carryover into 2021.

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2020 Barrel Leaderboard

image taken from BaseballSavant

 

Fernando Tatis Jr. (SS, SD)

"El Niño" was supposed to be an asset due to his speed, with 20-20 or even 20-30 potential over a full season. He wasn't supposed to become one of the best power hitters in the game, especially in his second MLB season at age 21.

Tatis was the easy leader in total barrels, smashing 32 of them for a league-best 12.5% Barrel/Plate Appearance rate. Only Miguel Sano had a higher rate of Barrels per Batted Ball Event. A hard-hit rate and exit velocity in the 100th percentile? Sure, why not.

The best part of it all is that, unlike a pure slugger like Sano, he maintained a healthy 12.8% K-BB% along with a .298 xBA. Oh, the speed was still there too. His 11 steals was sixth in the majors in this brief campaign.

In the earliest of early 2021 mock drafts, I've seen Tatis go first overall and it's hard to argue against. Mike Trout doesn't run anymore and having an elite shortstop might be more valuable than Ronald Acuna or Mookie Betts in the outfield. Some might predict regression in the power categories for Tatis but I'm not betting against him.

 

Corey Seager (SS, LAD)

This one is surprising but not really. Seager was the top prospect in baseball before winning Rookie of the Year in 2016. He launched 26 homers that year along with a 44% hard-hit rate and an excellent xslash line of .308/.385/.528. He followed up with similar numbers in 2017 and another All-Star appearance before succumbing to injury. Seager took only 101 at-bats in 2018 and then, despite an Opening Day homer, got off to a slow start in 2019. He hit one lonely homer in all of April, finishing with a .326 SLG that month. He recovered to post decent numbers but found himself more valuable in points leagues as he hit 44 doubles, the most in the National League, while his HR total dropped to 19.

Due to the diminishing power returns, Seager wasn't considered a starting-caliber shortstop by fantasy managers entering 2020. His NFBC ADP ahead of the actual start of the season was 133 overall, placing him as SS17. That allowed managers to take advantage of a discounted cost for his services including this author, who was smart lucky enough to draft him in TGFBI.

Once he settled in at the second spot in a stacked Dodgers lineup behind Mookie Betts, there was no looking back for Seager in 2020. He finished the abbreviated season third in xBA (.330) behind only Freddie Freeman and Juan Soto, fourth in xSLG (.653) behind Bryce Harper and the aforementioned MVP candidates. Of course, he also finished second in Barrel rate per PA at 12.1%. For someone not considered an elite power hitter, Seager showed that when healthy, he can be among the best.

 

Teoscar Hernandez (OF, TOR)

A victory lap of sorts is tempting here, as I've been touting Hernandez's Statcast numbers since 2018 when he first got regular playing time in Toronto. That year, he ranked ninth with a 9.4 Brls/PA% that was higher than Nelson Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton. In 2019, his Barrel rate fell down to 6.7, ranking 74th among qualified batters. Although the power was still there with 26 HR on the season, his .230 average following the previous year's .239 made him a fringe starter in roto leagues.

2020 was a classic prime-age breakout, as his power was buoyed by a .295 xBA that led to a 59-point jump in batting average. How did his expected average go from the bottom 4% to the top 8% in the matter of a year? Small sample syndrome?

His plate discipline certainly didn't improve. His walk rate went down and his chase rate increased from 25.1% to a career-worst 30.9%. His tendency to swing-and-miss didn't get better but his bat speed might have.

The key difference in his profile is how he hit the fastball in 2020 compared to years past. His expected slash line against fastballs in 2019: .255/.371/.546. His expected slash in 2020: .372/.496/.832.

image taken from BaseballSavant

Those who think Hernandez came out of nowhere haven't been paying attention. His spot in the heart of a young lineup full of thunder reaffirms his status as a top-100 player next draft season.

 

Brandon Lowe (2B, TB)

This analysis only applies to regular-season stats, so let's just pretend this postseason isn't happening. Lowe was among the leaders in Barrel%, xSLG, and even xwOBACON in 2020. He also cut his strikeout rate down by 8.7% to 25.9%, closer to league average. The Rays are becoming a more homer-friendly club with Lowe pacing the way. In fact, he led the team with 14 HR, 37 RBI, and 36 R. The pressure of the postseason may have gotten the best of him but Lowe is just 26 and should continue to be a power bat at second base for years to come.

 

Byron Buxton (OF, MIN)

A regular on the Sprint Speed leaderboard, where he ranks in the 99th percentile, Buxton finally made consistent noise with the barrel of his bat. While Twins sluggers like Mitch Garver and Max Kepler had a letdown season, Buxton could finally be living up to his lofty expectations. It feels as if he's been a fledgling prospect for years but Buxton is also just 26.

After years of posting sub-.400 xSLG numbers, he reached .441 in 2019 and broke through in 2020 with a .551 xSLG that ranked 19th among qualifiers. The most notable difference is his newfound ability to hit the breaking ball.

image taken from BaseballSavant

The most surprising aspect of his "breakout" year was that he didn't actually improve his poor plate discipline and tendency to chase, he doubled down on it. Buxton's chase rate jumped to 48.9% which is a full 20 points higher than league average! He also got far more aggressive, swinging on 51% of first pitches, a figure that has risen every year he has been in the majors. Fortunately, Buxton's increased swings have come with increased contact both in and out of the zone. And when he hit the ball, he hit it hard as 47.9% Hard% tells us.

The other thing that stands out in his profile more so than usual is the walk rate, or lack thereof. Over 135 plate appearances in 2020, he walked a grand total of two times. That would equate to 1.5% for those counting at home. On one hand, it's frightening to consider entrusting your fantasy fortunes to someone who is hacking away at every pitch like a ballplayer in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. On the other hand, a five-tool prospect who's figured out how to hit the ball as hard as anyone and runs faster than everyone in the game that happens to be on a loaded lineup is hard to pass up on draft day.



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