The 2021 MLB regular season is less than two weeks old and, to be completely honest with you, this is the worst time of year to analyze baseball. The sample sizes are so small and it is damn near impossible to differentiate what's meaningful from what's nothing more than baseball being weird. But, we soldier on.
With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at one team's one-man offense, a potential breakout pitcher, and a young hitter's struggles. Last week we examined the Phillies bullpen and the Red Sox's issues at Fenway Park.
Atlanta's one-man offense
It's been an up-and-down start to the season for the Braves. They lost their first four games and were outscored 15-8 in the process, then they won four straight, and now they've lost three straight. A 4-7 start is hardly a disaster. It's annoying, but it's not a disaster. They still have 151 games remaining, after all. The Braves are surely hoping to right the ship soon though.
Atlanta's biggest bright spot early this season: Ronald Acuña Jr. The club's franchise outfielder is 18 for 42 (.429) with five doubles and four home runs through 11 games, and his 1.1 WAR is right behind Byron Buxton (1.2 WAR) for the MLB lead. Acuña has an extra-base hit in seven of 11 games, and he's reached base multiple times in eight of those 11 games.
In addition to being extremely good at baseball, Acuña has spent the first two weeks of the season doing very cool things.! He also beat out a routine ground ball to shortstop Sunday night. It's not often you can call a routine ground ball electrifying, but this qualifies:
That ball was well-struck (108.6 mph exit velocity) and Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius played it cleanly, and Acuña still beat it out. I have him at 3.7 seconds down the line and folks, that is insane -- insane -- for a right-handed batter. It's elite for a lefty batter. For a righty, it is out of this world. There is so much incredible young talent in the game today and Acuña is right there with anyone.
"I mean, this kid had some kind of weekend and has had some kind of start from all ends," Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters, including MLB.com's Mark Bowman, this past weekend. "He's shown you all the five tools since we've started play. The scary part is he's going to go continue to get better. It's pretty special what he's been doing."
Unfortunately for the Braves, Acuña is pretty much the only position player on the roster pulling his weight in the early going. The Braves are averaging 4.27 runs per game this season despite Acuña's heroics, the 16th most in baseball, and the rest of the offense has been putrid. The numbers:
Rest of Braves (non-pitchers only)
Reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman is 7 for 39 (.179). Marcell Ozuna is slugging .275. Ozzie Albies has a .563 OPS. Acuña leads the Braves with 37 total bases and Freeman is a distant second with 20. At the outset of Tuesday's game, only three players in the starting lineup were hitting over over .189: Acuña (.447), Travis d'Arnaud (.267), and Ehire Adrianza (two hits in five at-bats). Eek.
There are indications the non-Acuña Braves are about to snap out of their collective funk. The Braves scored eight runs Tuesday night and they've scored 30 runs in their last five games, raising their team batting line from .170/.234/.319 to .218/.286/.415 in the process. The differences between their actual stats and their Statcast expected stats (based on exit velocity, launch angle, etc.) are among the largest in the game. To wit:
|Batting average||Slugging percentage||Weighted on-base averaged|
Statcast expected stats
.037 (2nd largest in MLB)
.089 (3rd largest in MLB)
.048 (2nd largest in MLB)
Weighted on-base average, or wOBA, is a souped-up version of on-base percentage in which each event is more properly weighted (on-base percentage says a walk is equal to a single is equal to a homer, etc.). It is scaled to on-base percentage and the Braves should have been much better than they've been. Slumps happen, but an entire team underperforming this much won't last long.
The Braves averaged 5.80 runs per game last season, second most in baseball, and they have the same lineup with the same in-their-prime players. They did lose the DH spot, like every National League team, but that alone doesn't explain this. Acuña has been incredible. At some point (likely soon), the rest of the Braves are going to wake up and make some poor pitching staffs pay.
"As long as we can stay above water a little here until all that happens, I think that's a good thing," Snitker recently told reporters, including Gabriel Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Kikuchi poised for a breakout year
Three years ago the Mariners signed lefty Yusei Kikuchi, formerly of the Seibu Lions in Japan, to a unique contract that guarantees him $34.2 million across three years and could be worth as much as $100.2 million across seven years, once adjusted for 2020's salary proration. Seattle has a long history with Japanese-born players (Ichiro Suzuki, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenji Johjima, etc.) and they saw Kikuchi as a potential impact pitcher.
Kikuchi, now 29, has not been that impact pitcher. Year 1 with the Mariners was legitimately terrible. Kikuchi pitched to a 5.46 ERA in 161 2/3 innings in 2019 and the various performance estimators (5.24 xERA, 5.71 FIP, 5.17 SIERA) all said he was comfortably below-average based on strikeout and walk rates, contact quality allowed, things like that. His debut season in MLB was more Kei Igawa than Yu Darvish, that's for sure.
Year 2 with the Mariners was unusual for many reasons. It was a 60-game season, first and foremost, and Kikuchi had a 5.17 ERA in 47 innings. That is objectively bad. Under the hood though, there were promising signs. For example, he ...
- ... increased his strikeout rate from 16.1 percent in 2019 to 24.2 percent in 2020.
- ... cut his home run rate from 2.00 HR/9 in 2019 to 0.57 HR/9 in 2020.
- ... held righties to a .689 OPS in 2020 after they had a .904 OPS against him in 2019.
- ... increased his average four-seam fastball velocity from 93.5 mph in 2019 to 95.0 mph in 2020.
- ... scrapped his curveball entirely and began throwing a new cutter.
"Everything that he was doing suggested that he should be experiencing more success," GM Jerry Dipoto told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times in spring training. "I don't know that we had a single pitcher that was probably more unlucky than Yusei last year. Some of it was due to a bullpen that didn't do him a ton of favors with the runners he left on, and some was just luck. I know it's been an inconsistent couple of years, albeit one truncated season."
Kikuchi being hurt by his bullpen isn't exactly true (Seattle's bullpen allowed just one of the six runners they inherited from Kikuchi to score last season), though there are indications things just didn't go his way. The same performance estimators that backed up the 5.46 ERA in 2019 had him as a much more effective pitcher in 2020 (3.37 xERA, 3.30 FIP, 4.34 SIERA), and his strand rate was an insane 59.9 percent. Only Jordan Lyles (57.2 percent) and Rick Porcello (59.5 percent) had a tougher time stranding runners.
The league average strand rate hovers around 72 percent each year and it typically does not vary wildly from pitcher to pitcher. In a normal 162-game season, the very best pitchers will finish with a strand rate around 80 percent and the worst around 68 percent. 59.9 percent is unheard of. That reeks of small sample size weirdness, as does Kikuchi's .351 batting average on balls in play with men on base. He had a 70.8 percent strand rate in 2019 and, had he matched that in 2020, he would've had a 3.83 ERA. Hmmm.
The performance estimators and strand rates and all that are what they are. I'm much more interested in the adjustments Kikuchi made from 2019 to 2020, specifically the increased velocity and replacing the curveball with a cutter. Kikuchi did more than replace his curveball with a cutter, really. He replaced his curveball and a whole bunch of four-seam fastballs with the cutter, which helps explain the improvement against righties. Kikuchi now has a pitch to get in on the hands of righties.
"Last year, there were many major adjustments. I was just trying to attack each hitter. I'm just trying to be aggressive," Kikuchi told Divish. "... Gain more control of all my pitches, more command and to simplify my mechanics. I worked on the mental side of the game. If I were to just have confidence in all my pitches, being able to throw all my pitches in any count. Command often leads to confidence. That was my main focus."
In his first start this season Kikuchi struck out a career-high-tying 10 batters in six innings against the Giants. In his second start, he fanned six and held a very good Twins offense to two runs in six innings. That's 16 strikeouts and only three walks in 12 innings so far, and his strikeout rate has jumped from a below-average 16.1 percent in 2019 to a league average-ish 24.2 percent in 2020 to a well-above-average 32.7 percent in the super early going in 2021. That's an encouraging trend in a small sample.
I think Kikuchi is a fascinating pitcher with the potential to be a lot better than the 5.39 ERA his posted in 208 2/3 innings from 2019-20. He (probably) won't be a Cy Young candidate or anything like that, but the new cutter is a tangible reason to buy into last year's shiny underlying numbers, and a reason to believe Kikuchi is no longer the same pitcher he was in 2019. There's enough weapons here to be a workhorse who chews up innings at a better than league average rate. A Patrick Corbin type, let's say.
The Mariners have a decision to make with Kikuchi this offseason. Three days after the World Series, they must decide whether to pick up a four-year club option that will pay him $16.5 million a year from 2022-25. If they decline the club option, Kikuchi has a one-year player option worth $13 million. Even with a strong 2021 season, that four-year club option seems a little rich (it's essentially Nathan Eovaldi money, though Eovaldi signed his deal when he was two years younger than Kikuchi is now). If I had to guess right now, I'd say the Mariners decline the club option and try to sign Kikuchi to a multi-year extension at a lower salary.
We are beginning to see the makings of the next contending Mariners team (Logan Gilbert, Marco Gonzales, Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis, Julio Rodriguez, Evan White, etc.) and it's not unreasonable to think Kikuchi can be part of it. This year and a full season of information about the new cutter and velocity uptick will go a long way to determining whether he's worth keeping around long-term. I think there's a much better pitcher in there than what Kikuchi has shown to date.
Hiura still overpowered by fastballs
Four years ago the Brewers made Keston Hiura the No. 9 pick in the draft and two years ago Baseball America ranked him the 17th-best prospect in the sport. "Hiura has a compact, powerful stroke with tremendous bat speed and the hand-eye coordination to barrel pitches consistently. With so few moving parts in his swing, he should be able to avoid long droughts," said their scouting report at the time.
In 2019, Hiura lived up to that scouting report, authoring a .303/.368/.570 batting line with 19 home runs in 348 plate appearances en route to a 1.9 WAR rookie season in only 84 games. Last year though, that ability to avoid long drought was not evident. Hiura struggled throughout the 2020 season and finished with a .212/.297/.410 batting line in the 60-game season. His 84 strikeouts led the National League.
"Last year was such a weird year. For a lot of us, every game was kind of amplified," Hiura told reporters, including Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, last week. "Whereas now, with everything back to normal, it's getting back into that mindset and flow of the game where you know there are hundreds of at-bats to have later this year. You definitely want to be competing at the plate every single game. Every single at-bat matters. But it's something where you do kind of relax a little knowing there's plenty more games to be had."
Most worrisome than the slash line are Hiura's contact rates, which were among the very worst in baseball last season. Among the 203 players with at least 150 plate appearances in 2020, Hiura had the ...
- ... lowest in-zone contact rate at 67.1 percent (Gregory Polanco was a distant second at 70.3 percent).
- ... third-lowest overall contact rate at 59.5 percent (Polanco had the lowest at 59.1 percent).
For comparison's sake, Chris Davis in his worst season had a 75.1 percent in-zone contact rate and a 62.6 percent overall contact rate. Hiura's contact rates last year were worse than Davis' in his worst year. Yikes. This game is difficult and contact is trending down around the league, but those are alarming contact rates for a young player who is a bat-only guy and was expected to be a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter.
"It's been alarming this year," Brewers manager Craig Counsell told The Athletic's Will Sammon last September about Hiura's propensity to swing and miss in the strike zone. "It's more than it's ever been for him but it's a sign that he's a little off. He's been trying to get back to getting right. Keston is a swinger. He's going to swing because he does damage when he swings."
Hiura, who is still only 24, opened this season with a 0 for 20 slump, during which he struck out 10 times. Overall, he is 4 for 34 (.118) with 14 strikeouts on the season following a big ("big") weekend against the Cardinals. The contact rates, as the strikeout total suggests, remain abysmal. Hiura has a 65.5 percent in-zone contact rate and a 59.7 percent overall contact rate in the early. There have been way too many misses on hittable fastballs in the strike zone in particular. To wit:
On average, MLB players hit .290 and miss with 17.7 percent of their swings against fastballs in the strike zone. Since Opening Day last year, Hiura is hitting .272 against fastballs in the zone while missing with 39.6 percent -- 39.6 percent! -- of his swings. That is bad. It's scary bad. You're not going to last long in this league if you can't hit fastballs in the zone, especially when you offer little to no defensive value.
Perhaps the Brewers put too much on Hiura's plate this year. Not only does he have to make the necessary adjustments following a disappointing 2020 season, he also has to learn a new position. Hiura moved over to first base following the Kolten Wong signing, and the Wong signing didn't happen until early February. It's not like Hiura had an entire offseason to learn to play first base. He had a spring training crash course and that's it. Trying to fix your swing and learn a new position at the same time is tough.
I suppose the good news is first base is not the most difficult position to upgrade in-season -- how long until the Brandon Belt to the Brewers trade rumors arrive? -- but Hiura not figuring things out would be very bad news for Milwaukee. As a small-market team, a high draft pick and former top prospect flaming out would be devastating. Productive players in their cheap team control years are the lifeblood of a small-market contender, and right now Hiura may be playing his way out of the long-term picture.