What do Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Rodriguez, and José Ureña have in common? In addition to being among the select few people on Earth currently on a major league roster, they have all struck out White Sox rookie second baseman Nick Madrigal this season. They are the only pitchers to strike out Madrigal this season.
Madrigal, Chicago's 24-year-old rookie and the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft, has struck out only three times in 88 plate appearances in 2021. Rodriguez got him on April 2, Eovaldi got him on April 10, and Ureña got him on April 27. The Rodriguez strikeout came on a questionable called strike three too.
Three strikeouts in 23 games. To date, 247 hitters have had a three-strikeout game this season, and 106 hitters have had multiple three-strikeout games. Madrigal has three strikeouts total. Among the 164 players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Madrigal has by far the lowest strikeout rate:
- Nick Madrigal, White Sox: 3.4 percent
- Kevin Newman, Pirates: 8.8 percent
- José Ramírez, Cleveland: 9.2 percent
- Jeff McNeil, Mets: 9.5 percent
- Whit Merrifield, Royals: 9.5 percent
Baseball has set a new record high strikeout rate every year since 2008 and it is on pace to do so again this year. On average, MLB hitters are striking out in 24.3 percent of their plate appearances in 2021. Madrigal's strikeout rate is 86 percent better than the league average one month into the new season.
There is a lot -- A LOT -- of season still to be played, but no hitter has qualified for the batting title with a strikeout rate as low as Madrigal's since Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn in 1995 (2.6 percent). No qualified hitter has finished a season with a strikeout rate at least 86 percent better than league average since another Hall of Famer, Nellie Fox, in 1958 (87 percent better than average).
"I've said this a bunch of times before, if I put the ball in play I feel like I can beat it out," Madrigal told reporters, including Scot Gregor of the Daily Herald, last month. "I don't think there's any magic thing to it. I'm just trying to compete up there every single pitch. No matter who is on the mound, I feel like I have a chance at least to put the ball in play."
An extreme contact rate has always been Madrigal's calling card. He struck out 37 times in 707 plate appearances in three years at Oregon State (5.2 percent), and Baseball America's pre-draft scouting report touted his "elite bat-to-ball skills." In 2019, Madrigal struck out 16 times in 532 minor league plate appearances, or 3.0 percent.
The White Sox summoned Madrigal to the big leagues last year and he struck out seven times in 109 plate appearances, a 6.4 percent rate that is positively elite, and also nearly double his 2021 strikeout rate. Our R.J. Anderson ranked Madrigal as Chicago's No. 4 prospect coming into the season. Here's his scouting report:
Madrigal is a unique talent. He has elite bat-to-ball skills that allow him to make contact on nearly 90 percent of his swings; he's also a fast runner and a skillful defender at the keystone. What he's not is someone who's going to draw many walks or hit for any power. His average exit velocity during his big-league stint was 84 mph, which put him in company with the likes of Tony Wolters, Delino DeShields Jr., and other undesirable hitter types. The good news for Madrigal is that those individuals are still big-league players, and that his maximum exit velocity (112) was a good deal higher, suggesting he's still likely to hit for a better average than they can and do. He'll need it in order to avoid the bottom of the order.
Contact doesn't automatically equal production -- Newman's ultra-low strikeout has translated into a .198/.231/.256 batting line -- but Madrigal is hitting .313/.364/.413 in his 88 plate appearances. In 52 games and 197 plate appearances, he's a career .328/.371/.388 big league hitter. Lots of guys can get the bat on the ball. Few can do it and produce like this.
Madrigal is aware of his skill set and he's not modest about his goals. Over the winter, he told reporters he considers 3,000 career hits a "very reachable" goal. From Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports Chicago:
"I've seen a lot of great hitters in this league growing up and watching guys. The 3,000 mark is not easy at all, there's very few people that do it. But I feel like that's very reachable," he said. "I know that's throwing a big statement out there, but I believe in myself and I know what it takes to play this game and I feel confident I can do that.
"I haven't broke it down exactly by season, but I know it's going to take a lot of getting on base."
Not surprisingly, Madrigal's teammates gave him a hard time about the 3,000 hits comment -- they all wore t-shirts with Madrigal's face and the caption "Mr. 3,000" in spring training -- and I'd bet against him reaching 3,000 hits only because so few players do it, but hey, it's good to have confidence. Madrigal has the skill set to pile up base hits. Reaching 3,000 hits is a question of longevity as much as anything.
For now, Madrigal is a unicorn. He's an ultra-high-contact hitter in an era of gaudy strikeout totals, and he's producing at a high level for a team expected to contend for a division title, if not a World Series title. The ability to get the bat on the ball consistently has always been valued and it has never been as hard to find as it is now. Madrigal is truly an outlier in this day and age.