Home Featured 2020 MLB Rewind: What to make of these five star hitters’ career-best seasons

2020 MLB Rewind: What to make of these five star hitters’ career-best 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’ve looked at established hitters and pitchers who disappointed mightily in 2020, now let’s examine five position players who vastly exceeded expectations in the shortened season:

Luke Voit, 1B, New York Yankees

2020 stats: .277/.338/.610, 22 HR, 41 R, 52 RBI, 0 SB, 1.7 bWAR in 56 games

Despite battling a foot issue which was eventually diagnosed as plantar fasciitis, the 29-year-old Voit broke out to the tune of an MLB-leading 22 home runs in 2020, surpassing by one his total from a season prior in fewer than half the at-bats. The first baseman finished ninth in AL MVP balloting and appears to be a big part of the Yankees’ plans moving forward, but what should the team expect from him in the years to come? 

Clearly, the home run pace he was on was unsustainable, but there are some indications from the advanced statistics that he made a real change at the plate this past season. Voit made some mechanical adjustments to his swing in 2020, and as a result he increased his average launch angle significantly, allowing him to hit balls over the fence at a higher rate. He was also much more aggressive as a hitter overall, swinging on the first pitch 52% of the time and making more contact on swings at pitches in the strike zone (81%, up from 74% in 2019). 

Voit’s .268 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) may even indicate a bit of bad luck, and Baseball Savant’s expected batting average (xBA) for Voit based on his batted-ball data was .284, a tad higher than his 2020 mark. The right-handed hitter’s walk rate did drop from an elite 14% in 2019 down to just over 7% in 2020, but his strikeout rate dropped notably from 28% to 23%. Overall, while Voit likely isn’t one of the very top power hitters in a game and his health isn’t a complete certainty, there’s nothing in the advanced metrics that indicate his breakout was fluky. If he’s able to maintain the progress from his swing changes, Voit could be a consistent 35-homer, .270 bat for years to come.

Marcell Ozuna, OF/DH, Free Agent

2020 stats: .338/.431/.636, 18 HR, 38 R, 56 RBI, 0 SB, 2.6 bWAR in 60 games

After two good, but not great, seasons in St. Louis, Ozuna ended up taking a one-year deal last offseason with the Braves, replacing Josh Donaldson in the middle of the club’s lineup. The slugger ended up having the best season of his career in 2020, pacing the Senior Circuit in home runs (18), RBI (56) and total bases (145) and winning a Silver Slugger along with finishing sixth in the MVP race. His outfield defense continued to be shaky at best (he spent 39 games in the DH spot), which will factor into his market this offseason, but for the purposes of this story, we’re going to focus on his production at the plate. 

The big question with Ozuna is whether potential suitors should expect something like 25 longballs and a .260 average, which were his averages in those two seasons with the Cardinals, or if something’s truly changed and Ozuna is likely to club 45 homers and hit .330. Let’s start with the batting average. Ozuna’s .391 BABIP this past season is clearly unsustainable (his career mark is .319) and indicates he had some luck in that department in 2020. His xBA marks for the past three seasons were .288, .291 and .315. So expect a plus average but not an elite one.

As for the power, like Voit, there are some reasons to believe the improvements could be somewhat sustainable. Ozuna has always hit the ball exceptionally hard — his average exit velocity ranked in the top 10% of the league in five of the last six seasons — but 2020’s mark of 93 miles per hour was his highest yet. More importantly, though, is that Ozuna maintained an elite average exit velocity and hard hit percentage (54.4%) while also increasing his launch angle to a career-high 16.4%. 

Those factors combined make up the profile of a player who could consistently hit 40+ homers, assuming the gains continue of course. It should also be noted that Ozuna’s profile is such that the stadium and environment he plays moving forward will play a big role in his outlook going forward. A return to Atlanta would certainly be a positive for his future production.

José Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox

2020 stats: .317/.370/.617, 19 HR, 43 R, 60 RBI, 0 SB, 3.1 bWAR in 60 games

After half a dozen seasons as a consistent .290 hitter averaging roughly 30 homers per season, Abreu earned the national appreciation he long deserved by leading the White Sox to their first playoff appearance in 12 years with his best campaign yet. The 33-year-old notched as many RBI as games played (leading MLB in that stat) while also leading the AL is slugging and taking home MVP honors. 

It’s reasonable to wonder whether an MVP coming off a career year has made real strides or is likely to regress to their previous level of production. Sometimes really good players have that one elite season where everything falls right into place without any substantial skill changes, and that appears to be the case with Abreu. 

Several Statcast measures from Abreu’s 2020 campaign were career-bests, from his expected batting average to his hard hit rate and barrel percentage. But there’s no eye-popping difference between the underlying metrics from previous years — there were relatively small improvements across the board but nothing that indicates a change in approach like with the previous two players on this list. Compared to 2019, Abreu’s average exit velocity was less than one mile per hour better, his launch angle was identical, and his strikeout rate was actually a tick worse. Abreu figures to be a crucial part of the White Sox’s lineup and one of the better first baseman in baseball for years to come, but there’s not much in his profile to indicate any major skills improvement.

Donovan Solano, 2B, San Francisco Giants

2020 stats: .326/.365/.463, 3 HR, 22 R, 29 RBI, 0 SB, 1.5 bWAR in 54 games

Solano’s 2020 season was actually the continuation of a 2019 breakout which few noticed at the time. The infielder first made his major league debut in 2012, impressing in 93 games with the Marlins. After a few decent seasons in which he played in roughly 100 games, Solano quickly fell off at the plate and then completely off the map, failing to appear in the big leagues in either  2017 or 2018. He latched on with the Giants on a minor league deal as a depth signing prior to 2019 and over the past two seasons, Solano has broken out to the tune of a .328/.362/.459 batting line in 135 games, with 2020 being his best campaign yet. He posted an .828 OPS this past year and won a Silver Slugger.

It’s always wise to carry some skepticism about an out-of-nowhere breakout for a player in his 30s, so what do the advanced statistics show us about Solano’s performance over the last two seasons? First impressions of his 2020 stats show an average exit velocity in the 43rd percentile, a hard hit rate in the 30th percentile and a barrel percentage in the 21st percentile, meaning Solano was significantly below league average in all three categories. His .396 BABIP and .283 xBA also indicate the Giants shouldn’t expect him to remain a batting title contender moving forward.

Where Solano did impress was in hitting line drives and avoiding weak contact. The 33-year-old led the Giants with a 40.1% line drive rate, slightly better than his 2019 rate and significantly better than previous seasons. And while Solano wasn’t regularly crushing the ball (he has just seven homers since the beginning of 2019), he made weak contact on just 2.6% of his batted balls. It seems quite probable that Solano could be a productive major leaguer for the next few years, at least, but I don’t believe he’s really a bona fide superstar.

Dominic Smith, 1B/OF, New York Mets

2020 stats: .316/.377/.616, 10 HR, 27 R, 42 RBI, 0 SB, 1.9 bWAR in 50 games

The former first round draft pick battled with injuries, inconsistency and sometimes limited opportunities in his first few seasons in the majors before a strong showing in 2019 and incredible performance in the 2020 season. Smith’s .616 slugging percentage set a new Mets franchise record (with the obvious caveat of the short season) and he also finished second in baseball in doubles (21), 10th in RBI (42) and tied with José Ramírez and Mike Trout for the fifth-best OPS in the league.

The question, of course, is just how real that breakout was. The answer, based on an evaluation of some of the underlying metrics, is that it appears very real. Smith’s average exit velocity has remained pretty consistent throughout his major league career, but 2020 brought with it a major jump in hard hit percentage (from 35% to nearly 47%) without much any significant change to his strikeout rate. 

Looking at Smith’s batted ball profile, one thing that stands out from this past season is a sizable jump in his line drive rate, which increased from 26% in 2019 up to just shy of 40% this past season. That, combined with an average exit velocity of 95 mph on fly balls/line drives makes it easy to understand why his xBA was .304, over 50 points higher than he’s ever posted before. 

A swing change Smith made to lower his hands and crouch a bit more at the plate seems to have paid off in a big way, and it certainly paints a compelling argument for why his breakout 2020 was no fluke. Perhaps the bigger question with Smith moving forward is playing time, as he rates as a poor defensive outfielder and would likely be stuck behind Pete Alsono at first base if there’s no universal DH in 2021.

Photos by All-Pro Reels / Flickr (Ozuna), Dr. Buddie / Flickr (Voit)

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