The Boston Red Sox are loaded with offensive talent. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts has accrued the 3rd most WAR out of any player in Major League Baseball since 2019. JD Martinez, who ranks 6th in wRC+ since 2015, is still in his prime, and third baseman Rafael Devers is just entering his.
Surely when manager Alex Cora was asked in a press conference which of his team’s hitters is the most “complete”, he’d pick Bogaerts, Martinez, or Devers. But Cora surprised reporters by answering 25-year-old outfielder Alex Verdugo, lauding his plate discipline and ability to hit for both contact and power.
The daily headlines and achievements of the Red Sox three-headed monster have overshadowed the feats of the rest of the team, most notably the development of Verdugo into a premier player.
Verdugo’s career began with the Dodgers, and as soon as he began to see regular playing time in 2019, he supplied consistent production, putting up a .817 OPS and 2.2 WAR in only 106 games. After being traded to the Red Sox in the Mookie Betts deal in February of 2020, Verdugo continued his breakout in the following season, as he increased his wRC+ by 12 points to 126 and had 1.6 WAR, nearly reaching his total from the previous year despite playing exactly half as many games.
However, going into 2021, Verdugo was pinned as a popular pick to disappoint as a result of suspect batted ball data. Skeptics claimed Verdugo was “the luckiest hitter in baseball” in 2020 due to a .371 BABIP and 64 point difference in his wOBA and xwOBA.
Verdugo has put all the nay-sayers to bed in the first 2.5 months of the 2021 season. Instead of regressing down to his expected stats, he has raised his expected metrics to match his actual production. His .357 xwOBA, which places him in the 75th percentile in MLB, backs up his .349 wOBA, and despite his BABIP dropping to .300, he has maintained the same offensive production level as 2020.
Perhaps Verdugo’s best skill is his knack to make contact and avoid striking out, as he has a 12.2% K% in 2021. The Arizona native’s low strikeout rate is fueled by a 92.7% zone-contact rate and 6% swinging strike rate, both of which rank near the top of MLB. Most impressively, Verdugo decreased his strikeout rate by 8% from 2020 as a result of three key adjustments.
First, the outfielder is doing a better job of attacking the first pitch of the at bat. While in 2020, Verdugo let 80% of first pitches that were in the zone sail by for called strikes, he has lowered that rate by over 10% in 2021. Not only is he swinging more often on these pitches, but he is also missing significantly less often, meaning he is making contact and preventing himself from getting behind in the count early.
Second, Verdugo has decreased his chase miss rate with two strikes from 35 % to 29%, so he is gifting pitchers fewer easy strikeouts.
Finally, in 2020, Verdugo had an issue with fastballs in all counts, as his swing and miss rate on heaters nearly doubled to 19%. However, this season, Verdugo has corrected his mistakes and brought his fastball swing and miss rate back down to 11%. As a result of these changes, Verdugo has shaved his strikeout rate all the way back down to place him in the 96th percentile in MLB.
Despite Verdugo’s continued success, some remain unsure if he can maintain his upward trajectory and fit into the top tier of MLB hitters in the future. The most common criticism stems from his relatively old school approach that some argue limits power. Verdugo has a 1.81 GB/FB ratio, making him an extreme ground ball hitter.
In the launch angle revolution, where added emphasis is placed on lifting the ball in hopes of hitting home runs, contact oriented players like Verdugo often have their power questioned, and with that, their overall value. However, among the 30 hitters with the highest GB/FB ratios this season (Verdugo is 16th), only five have more home runs than Verdugo.
Additionally, he ranks 6th out of this group in SLG and 7th in ISO. Even if his approach slightly diminishes his power, he clearly does not face the same level of difficulty in generating power as other similar hitters. Once one understands that Verdugo has the ability to blast more than 20 home runs per year, the power sink label that some have applied to him begins to fade away.
Alex Verdugo is only 25 years old, yet he has already had 2.5 very productive seasons in the big leagues. While he may not be on the same level as Mookie Betts, the player he was brought in to replace, he is still a highly valuable player with an extremely bright future ahead of him. With the ability to minimize strikeouts and his aptitude in hitting for both contact and power, Verdugo is poised to continue growing and potentially blossom into a star.
Brought to you by Jake Federman, Analyst at GameEdge Analytics