To think, just last year we would be nearing out halfway mark. But thanks to the miracle of modern medicine MLB finds itself one month deep into a regularly sized and scheduled 2021 season. The season has gone on beyond some early hiccups due to COVID protocols and for the most part, the amount of makeup games on the docket isn’t much different than if the league had an unseasonably poor climate to begin any other campaign, with the possible exception of the New York Mets.
That being said, most teams are right under the 30-game mark at this point. Players with hot or slow starts are definitely plentiful. A torrid first 10 games could make any ballplayer’s overall numbers look overpowered in some instances or quite the opposite in the cases of a slump.
Much like the miracle of modern medicine we also have the luxury of current day data and analytics for ballplayers (though one of these things is quite obviously way more impact on our society, of course). With the help of today’s numbers we should be able to cut through the statistical noise and see who really is swinging a hot bat, patrolling the field or pitching most effectively. Any player that is successful by these statistics will only need to keep it up through their own adjustments and confidence.
Of course, this is theoretical, but why not test it in some manner? Today I will be providing my Statcast All-MLB team for the first month (or so) of the season. The idea here is to not get caught up in the basics of batting average and ERA or even items like OPS or WHIP that might suffer from that statistical noise. Instead, this month’s All-Stars will be determined by things like their Barrel Rate, Outs Above Average in the field and their Hard Hit% Against. By doing this we will remove the noise of “at ’em” balls and bloopers that drop. We will measure those that are hitting the ball the hardest or avoiding bats the most. At the same time, I will provide some more basic stats for reference. Its a good way to see who may or may not be getting the full benefit of positive outcomes from their strong play.
The team will consist of one player from each position. Consider this my way of filling out an All-MLB ballot for the early days of the season. We will also include a total of 5 pitchers- four starters and just one reliever. If anyone is suffering from a case of small samples right now it would be the relievers, so we will limit them for the moment.
Without further delay, your MLB All-Statcast Team for April 2021.
C Mike Zunino Tampa Bay Rays
Regular Stats: ..204/.283/.519 5 HR 133 OPS+
Key Statcast Stats: 14% Barrel Rate, .342 expected wOBA, 51% Shadow Strike%
Zunino is off to a really strong all-around campaign thus far. His Barrel Rate is 7th best in all of baseball for anyone with a minimum of 25 batted balls. He is absolutely smashing off-speed pitches as his Slugging and expected Slugging Percentage are both around .900 on breaking balls and his Average Exit Velocity on other off-speed is 99.2 mph. Lastly, Zunino is in the top 13% of the league in framing behind the plate. 51% of pitches “on the black” that he catches are called strikes, putting him in the top 10 of catchers in the league.
1B Matt Olson Oakland Athletics
Regular Stats: .314/.375/.628 7 HR 189 OPS+
Key Stats: .681 expected Slugging Percentage, 13.2% Barrel Rate
Olson finds himself in the top 7% of the league in expected wOBA and Slugging as well as Barrel Rate. He has been scorching the ball so far and while the pitch that pitchers are throwing him 2nd most is the slider, he has done damage on it. Olson sees sliders about 17% of the time and is hitting .333 on them. His expected Slugging Percentage on them is an incredible .798. Time for pitchers to go back to the drawing board on Olson, he is only hitting .125 on curves after all.
2B Jazz Chisholm Jr. Miami Marlins
Regular Stats: .290/.375/.551 4 HR 152 OPS+
Key Statcast Stats: 11.3% Barrel Rate, 28.8 ft/s sprint speed, 3% Fielding Success Rate Added
Second base was a hard position to decide on without a lot of great choices, but Chisholm is easily shoulders above everyone else. The growing Marlins prospect has leveraged a combination of hard contact, foot speed and strong fielding ability into sudden prominence that Miami could only hope for. He has cut down his swings on pitches outside the zone by 5% and that has turned him into a batter that sees first pitch strikes right around half of the time instead of 6 times out of 10. Being ahead in the count currently certainly has aided in the above statistics as well as his 40% Hard Hit% (Exit Velocity of 95 mph or more).
3B Rafael Devers Boston Red Sox
Regular Stats: .283/368/.566 7 HR 160 OPS+
Key Statcast Stats: 15.2% Barrel Rate, .483 expected wOBA, .747 expected Slugging Percentage
Devers has become one of the top offensive third baseman in the game in the last few years so his spot on this team isn’t so surprising. The only man with a better expected Slugging Percentage than him in the game right now is Bryce Harper (spoiler alert?!). He finds himself in the top 3 in most prominent Statcast categories. More than half of the time that he makes contact with the ball it is coming off of his bat at 95 mph or more. Balls hit at that speed have a batting average of .520. That means every other time Devers makes contact, he has a better chance than not of reaching via a base hit. And he’s making contact about 70% of the time. Devers is doing A LOT of damage.
SS Carlos Correa Houston Astros
Regular Stats: .283/.336/.462 4 HR 126 OPS+
Key Statcast Stats: .364 expected wOBA, 116.4 Max Exit Velocity, 4% Fielding Success Rate Added
If Correa can keep up his current pace he could have the best season of his career since his lone All-Star appearance in 2017. The biggest key has been that he has been healthy so far, and that was never clearer than we he blistered a low grounder between third and short at an exit velocity of 116.4 mph against Jose Quintana on April 5th. It was only a single, but was one of the hardest hit balls by anyone all season. That type of strength and power can only come with health. Defensively, Correa is in a group of some of the best shortstops in the game statistically as one of few who is making 2 Outs Above Average or more. That along with swinging the best bat of any of those defenders gets him on this list.
LF Jesse Winker Cincinnati Reds
Regular Stats: .365/.419/.659 6 HR 176 OPS+
Key Statcast Stats: 12.6% Barrel Rate, .402 expected wOBA, 93.8 mph Average Exit Velocity
Would you have guessed a little over a month ago that Jesse Winker would be leading the league in batting average? Well, here we are. And its well earned. He is smashing the ball in a way he never had before with an Average Exit Velocity in the top 6% of the league. He is actually walking at the worst rate of his career, but has made up for it by putting the ball in the air at a higher angle than he has ever has before by 7 degrees. Launch angle and lift isn’t what is best for everyone in all cases, but it seems to be helping Winker drive the ball more. His ability to lift the ball along with hitting balls at an Exit Velocity of 95 mph or higher 53.8% of the time has gotten him to 12 extra base hits in 21 games.
CF Byron Buxton Minnesota Twins
Regular Stats: .392/.435/.810 8 HR 267 OPS+
Key Statcast Stats: 16.2% Barrel Rate, .539 expected wOBA, 61.0 Hard Hit%, .749 expected Slugging Percentage
Say hello to the current front-runner for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Its been a matter of both health and execution for Buxton to this point in his career, but this incredible talent seems to be finally playing to the nearly supernatural potential he was once thought capable. Nearly two thirds of the balls that Buxton hits are hit at an exit velocity of 95 mph or more. In no season before did he even reach 50% for that statistic. Additionally, his K rate is down to the lowest of his career at just over 20%. So he is hitting the ball more often, and when he does nearly 2/3 of the time is destined to be a hit. Not to be outdone, Buxton is 3rd in the entire league in Bolts, which means only 2 players have ran at 30 feet per second more often than him. His one of the fastest players in the game and knows how to use it.
RF Bryce Harper Philadelphia Phillies
Regular Stats: .317/.446/.598 6 HR 187 OPS+
Key Statcast Stats: 13.5% Barrel Rate, .535 expected wOBA, .373 expected Batting Average
The Phillies star is right up there as one of the hottest hitters in baseball right now and the analytics prove it. No one has a better expected wOBA or Slugging Percentage in the entire league based on the quality of contact that they have made. The only player to have a better expected Batting Average is fellow right-fielder Ronald Acuna. Honestly, picking between Harper and Acuna is a bit of splitting hairs, even their defensive stats are very similar, but Harper’s Slugging and Barrels give him a slight edge. There just aren’t any holes in his swing right now. His expected Batting Average is higher than .350 for every portion of the strike zone. Good luck to pitchers trying to figure out how to retire him.
SP Shohei Ohtani Los Angeles Angels
Regular Stats: .263/.311/.606 8 HR 151 OPS+ 1-0 3.29 ERA 132 ERA+
Key Statcast Stats: 15.5 % Barrel Rate, 119 MPH Max Exit Velocity, 37.1% K Pitching Rate, 37.1 Whiff %
So, this feels a little like cheating, but is an absolute must. The player with the highest Barrel Rate in baseball right now, with the hardest hit ball of the season is a pitcher (and DH). I’ve already written at length about the very special case that surrounds Ohtani and any worries about his hitting coming into this season appear to be squelched. Additionally, he has been solid on the mound. He is striking out batters at a high clip and if he can get his control in order he could be the front of the line starter that the Angels need. Batters have yet to get a hit off of Ohtani’s splitter or slider, they are a combined 0 for 25 against both pitches which are the 2nd and 3rd most used in his arsenal.
SP Jon Gray Colorado Rockies
Regular Stats: 3.15 ERA 30 Ks 1.19 WHIP 145 ERA+
Key Statcast Stats: 2.1 % Barrel Rate, 27% Sweet Spot%, 30% Hard Hit%
For a pitcher in Colorado, Gray is doing exactly what he needs to in order to be successful, eliminating strong contact. His actual ERA is down nearly three runs from last year. Never a high strikeout type pitcher, he is missing Barrels in a way that he never has before and boosted his K rate by 8%. His Sweet Spot%, the rate at which the batter makes contact in a level way that creates line drives is 9th best in the game (meaning batters hit balls on the sweet spot 9th least against Gray). He is throwing his slider more than ever before and batters have an expected Batting Average based on quality of contact of just .166 against it.
SP Aaron Sanchez San Francisco Giants
Regular Stats: 2.22 ERA 20 Ks 1.07 WHIP 172 ERA+
Key Statcast Stats: 2.0 % Barrel Rate, 23.5% Sweet Spot %, 85.9 Average Exit Velocity
Sanchez has returned after not pitching in the Majors in 2020 and is throwing slower than he ever has after shoulder injuries but has remained effective regardless. His fastball, which averaged 95 mph five seasons ago is now no longer averaging above 90 mph. Still, Sanchez is pitching even more effectively than when he won an ERA title back in 2016. Only 2 percent of the time is he allowing opposing hitters to barrel the ball against him. He has put together the best weak contract rate (8.8%) of his career by far, more than 3 times the league average and opponents are hitting just .129 off of his curveball. Consider it a career renaissance thus far.
SP Ryan Yarbrough Tampa Bay Rays
Regular Stats: 4.86 ERA, 26 Ks, 1.29 WHIP, 77 ERA+
Key Statcast Stats: 2.8% Barrel Rate, 23.9% Hard Hit%, 83.4 mph Average Exit Velocity
Yarbrough comes in as our resident bad-luck starting pitcher. His Barrel Rate is near identical to Sanchez, yet his ERA is over 2 runs higher and he had allowed more hits and earned runs than anyone in MLB until a few days ago. The truth is that outcomes don’t mirror the reality of how he has pitched. Despite all the negative, no starter in the American League has a better Hard Hit % than Yarbrough. He has been in the strike zone with his pitches more often than any other season of his 4-year career while being in the heart of the zone only 5% of the time, far and away the best figure of his career and nearly half of the league average. Yarbrough’s expected ERA is a full run lower than his actual, and his Average Exit Velocity on contact is in the best 4% of the league. I think he stands to progress to better outcome-based numbers as the season moves along.
RP Mark Melancon San Diego Padres
Regular Stats: 0.69 ERA 9 Saves 0.39 WHIP 537 ERA+
Key Statcast Stats: .148 expected wOBA Against, 0.85 expected ERA, 0 Barrels Allowed
That’s right. Melancon has yet to allow a Barrel on the season in 13 innings pitched. Additionally, the Average Launch Angle that he has allowed is negative, meaning that balls put in play on average are being hit downward. He is inducing a lot of field-able low line drives and ground-balls whenever he isn’t striking batters out, which he is also doing 32.6% of the time, a career high. The improvement could be attributed to Melancon’s curveball, which he is throwing now more than ever at about 40% of the time. None of the 73 curves he has thrown has turned into a base hit.
And there you have it. Only time will tell if these ballplayers will be able to keep their hot starts. Some are established stars like Harper and Devers. Others are young up and comers like Chisholm and Ohtani. And some are underdogs trying to play to a level they never have before like Winker and Olson.
What we know for now is that the performance of these guys has not been fool’s gold. They are playing at the top of their game right now and its up to them to keep it up through adjustments and execution. Each one of these guys could be an All-Star or even better. They have shown that capability.
This year we will get the benefit of a full season to really test them. I can’t wait to return to this in the future and see if they could keep it up.