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2020 MLB Rewind: What to make of these eight star hitters’ disappointing seasons

by Chris Brown

As was expected given COVID-19 revenue losses and uncertainty, the MLB offseason has been painfully slow thus far, with no real hopes of that changing any time soon. With that in mind, this seems like the perfect time to take a look back at the truly unprecedented 2020 season to help us understand what we should expect for the upcoming 2021 campaign.

This past season was, of course, played under vastly different circumstances than normal, from the delayed start to the 60-game regular season (instead of the normal 162) to safety protocols which, while certainly necessary, disrupted the routines of many MLB players. Some MLB stars with established track records never found a rhythm and finished with truly awful stat lines, while others enjoyed career-best performances which may not be indicative of real strides forward.

More so than perhaps any of the other major North American sports, it often takes long stretches for an individual MLB player’s results to normalize. Great players frequently have multi-month long stretches of poor play while well-below-average major leaguers can look like Babe Ruth or Cy Young for surprisingly long stretches. That’s just one reason to take all outlier individual 2020 individual stat lines with a major grain of salt. 

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be learned from a star’s outlier season. It just means we may need to look beyond the surface for explanations that can help us predict future performance. We’ll do that for several groups of players in the coming weeks, starting with eight star hitters who disappointed mightily at the plate in 2020: 

Josh Bell, 1B, Pittsburgh Pirates

2020 stats: .226/.305/.364, 8 HR, 22 R, 22 RBI, 0 SB, -0.4 bWAR in 57 games

The switch hitter broke out at the plate in 2019, batting .277/.367/.569 with 37 homers, 37 doubles and 116 RBI in 143 games. Bell’s 2020 season was a complete disaster, though, as the slugger experienced a 51-point drop in batting average and 205-point drop in OPS. The good news is that Bell was still hitting the ball hard, as evidenced by an average exit velocity in the 87th percentile, but other metrics paint a much rougher picture. From 2019 to 2020, Bell’s strikeout percentage rose from 19.2% to 26.5% and his walk rate dropped from 12.1% to 9.9%. His .273 batting average on balls in play also doesn’t indicate a ton of bad luck. 

One of the most striking observations from Bell’s batted ball profile was a sharp increase in ground balls in 2020. He couldn’t seem to get under the ball with consistency, as evidenced by that and the lowest average launch angle of his career. Bell, who described battling a timing issue with his swing, saw an increased percentage of breaking pitches this past season. While it certainly seems likely that 2019 will end up being a career year for Bell, it also seems hard to believe the 28-year-old won’t be able to bounce back next season. He’ll need to improve his timing and elevate the ball more to do that, though.

J.D. Martinez, OF/DH, Boston Red Sox

2020 stats: .213/.291/.389, 7 HR, 22 R, 27 RBI, 1 SB, -0.6 bWAR in 54 games

Martinez was one of the most-feared sluggers of the second half of the last decade, but struggled mightily in the shortened 2020 campaign to the tune of his worst season since 2013. Several key statistics, including strikeout rate, walk rate, average exit velocity and hard hit percentage, were worse in 2020 than previous seasons, but not to a drastic extent. 

One partial explanation for Martinez’s struggles may be a career-low .259 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Martinez’s career average BABIP is .341 and he hadn’t posted a BABIP below .327 since breaking out in 2015. In simple terms, it appears he had a good bit of bad luck. Another contributing factor could be MLB’s decision to to limit players’ ability to watch replays of their at-bats during the game for the 2020 season, something Martinez criticized.

But dig a little deeper into the advanced statistics and another significant factor emerges. Martinez, who led MLB in average (.347) and slugging percentage (.686) against fastballs from 2017-19, hit just .186 with a .372 slugging percentage against heaters in 2020. Martinez explained in late September that he believes that a problem with the rotation of his hips during his swing is throwing off the foundation of his batting stance. He appears to be struggling to keep up with high velocity pitches and his bottom half has essentially been cheating to try to catch up, to no avail. If Martinez can reverse these bad habits, a return to his previous form is certainly possible. At 33 years old, though, it’s also possible he’ll be unable to make the necessary adjustments in a league increasingly dominated by velocity.

Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs

2020 stats: .203/.238/.360, 8 HR, 27 R, 24 RBI, 3 SB, 0.9 WAR in 59 games

Baez’s offensive profile as a free-swinging, low-OBP bat means there’s a wide range of likely outcomes for him. Simply put, we saw the ceiling of that profile in 2018 and 2019 and the floor in 2020. Like several high-profile hitters, Baez never quite seemed to get his timing right this past season, looking lost at the plate frequently and hitting just .157 versus breaking pitches compared to .294 in 2019.

Baez’s Statcast page doesn’t paint a rosy picture in terms of hard hit percentage or average exit velocity, but what’s important to note is that Baez has found great success in recent years without those metrics looking especially impressive. Overall, his batted ball profile appears relatively similar to the past two seasons, in which he was named an All-Star both times. Baez is still in his prime at 28 years old and there’s little reason to believe he’s forgotten how to be a plus hitter. His profile also lends itself to extended hot and cold stretches, so it appears his down 2020 season, while not entirely fluky, shouldn’t be a cause for too much concern moving forward.

José Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros

2020 stats: .219/.286/.344, 5 HR, 32 R, 18 RBI, 2 SB, -0.2 bWAR in 48 games

The veteran second baseman is clearly not the perennial MVP candidate he once was, but it’s hard to believe he’s completely fallen off at the plate. Altuve’s 2020 strikeout rate (18.6%) was a career high, though, as was his rate of chasing pitches outside the strike zone (35.2%). His .230 expected batting average (xBA) per Baseball Savant also doesn’t inspire much confidence.

There are, however, a few reasons to be optimistic about Altuve moving forward. One is that he steadily improved at the plate as the season went on and surged at the plate in October, hitting .375/.500/.729 with five home runs, two doubles, 11 walks and eight strikeouts in 13 postseason games. Another is that his BABIP dropped from .303 to .250, a mark unlikely to remain that low over the course of a full season given a sprint speed still well above average and a generally typical batted ball profile. Like others on this list, Altuve struggled mightily against breaking pitches in 2020, something that could be reflective of timing issues which hadn’t sorted themselves out before the end of the season. Altuve is 30 now and no longer a great stolen base threat, but there’s reason to be optimistic about a decent bounceback in 2021.

Christian Yelich, LF, Milwaukee Brewers

2020 stats: .205/.356/.430, 12 HR, 39 R, 22 RBI, 4 SB, 0.5 bWAR in 58 games

If not for a fractured kneecap which prematurely ended his 2019 season, Yelich would have won the NL MVP award in back-to-back years. The outfielder led the NL in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ in both 2018 and 2019, winning a Silver Slugger both years and finishing runner-up to Cody Bellinger in the latter season’s MVP balloting after winning the year prior. Yelich then signed a long-term contract extension back in March, and everyone was expecting a return to that incredible production. Instead, Yelich never got things going, hitting just .205 in 58 games in 2020.

The question of what to make of Yelich’s 2020 performance is an interesting one. Let’s start with the bad: Yelich’s strikeout rate rose massively from roughly 20% the previous two seasons to just over 30% in 2020. He also hit just .191 against breaking pitches, though his .239 mark against fastballs wasn’t all that great either. 

But there are also more signs than any other player on this list that Yelich’s performance during the 2020 season wasn’t as bad as the basic numbers indicate. First off, Yelich walked at a career-high rate of 18.6%, a number in the top 2% of all hitters. He also continued to hit the ball exceptionally hard when he did make contact, with an average exit velocity (94 mph) ranking third among all qualified hitters in MLB. His hard hit percentage, too, was in the 98th percentile, and his xBA (.250) via Baseball Savant was 45 points higher than his final mark, which was pulled down by a career-low .259 BABIP. 

In his sensational first two years with Milwaukee, Yelich became a more aggressive hitter, swinging at the first pitch of an at-bat nearly 30% of the time. In 2020, that rate fell to a career-low 13.4%. It really seems like Yelich’s poor season may have been a mix of bad luck, a lack of confidence at the plate and an inability to make the right adjustments in-season rather than any real loss of skill.

Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies

2020 stats: .253/.303/.434, 8 HR, 23 R, 26 RBI, 0 SB, 1.6 bWAR in 48 games

The eight-time Gold Glove award winner, who’s once again the subject of trade rumors this winter, didn’t struggle to the level of most others on this list in 2020, but his OPS dropped from above .930 for four straight years to .738 this past season, so it’s certainly fair to wonder what’s going on. 

It turns out the answer is likely very simple: Arenado was battling shoulder issues for much of the second half of the season. A breakdown of his month-by-month splits reveals a slow start (.594 OPS in 6 games in July), a strong August (.852 OPS), and then a horrible September (.580 OPS), which makes the injury explanation seem particularly valid. Arenado’s BABIP for the season was also .241, down from above .310 in each of the prior three campaigns. It’s fair to wonder if Arenado’s production could drop away from Coors Field if he’s dealt, but there’s no real reason for concern from a skills standpoint. 

Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs

2020 stats: .222/.342/.414, 11 HR, 26 R, 24 RBI, 3 SB, 1.0 bWAR in 58 games

Sometimes a look at many of the advanced statistics doesn’t offer much in terms of a logical explanation for a player’s struggles. Such is the case with Rizzo, who posted his worst batting average since his partial rookie season and his worst OPS since 2013. Rizzo’s average exit velocity, strikeout rate and hard hit percentage all worsened from previous seasons, but not by very much. His batted ball profile also looked extremely similar to 2019, when Rizzo hit .293 with 27 homers in 146 games in a very typical season.

So what was drastically different in the underlying stats? BABIP. Rizzo’s batting average on balls put into play was between .273 and .311 for six straight years entering 2020 but just .218 in the shortened season, the fifth-worst mark among qualified hitters. Nothing in his batted ball profile would explain such a drastic shift, so the best explanation here is likely bad luck and a small sample size. Steamer (a popular projection system) projects Rizzo for a .278 BABIP and .270 batting average in 2021, which seems logical given the underlying numbers.

Kris Bryant, 3B/OF, Chicago Cubs

2020 stats: .206/.293/.351, 4 HR, 20 R, 11 RBI, 0 SB, 0.4 bWAR in 34 games

It was a rough season for the Cubs offense, as evidenced by Bryant being the third member of the club’s hitting core on this list. The underlying metrics aren’t kind to Bryant, whose hard hit percentage, strikeout rate and walk rate all noticeably worsened from previous seasons. There’s nothing in the data to suggest his poor 2020 numbers weren’t reflective of real struggles — his expected batting average was .202 — but this is one of the times where the data just isn’t the best place to look for an explanation. 

Bryant played in just 34 games during the 2020 campaign due to a myriad of injuries, including oblique discomfort, a lingering wrist injury and a finger sprain. It’s logical to assume those injuries had some effect on his performance when in the lineup. Even if they didn’t, though, the 34-game sample size is less than a quarter of his total in 2019. Bryant is still just 28 years old, and there are tons of reasons to write off his 2020 struggles as a fluke.

Photo by Ian D’Andrea / Flickr

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