Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll receive an up-to-date and current column to kick off the day from one of the MLB writers at SI.com.
There is an article frequently cited within baseball analysis circles written by Russell Carlton of Baseball prospect what does he discuss small sample sizes concept. Speaking in the broadest terms, there comes a time in the season when a data sample size is “large enough” to carry broad weight when looking back at player performances. If, say, Ronald Acuña Jr. is 0-for-4 in consecutive games, it’s probably not enough information to conclude that something was fundamentally wrong with his swing in those two games; sometimes that’s the way the cookie falls apart.
But many readers who have come across this story in the nearly 15 years since its initial publication have come to the wrong conclusion. Like Carlton later noted in a follow-up, the “stabilization point” where a sample size is no longer too small to be taken seriously is not as useful in predicting future performance. As much as we try to find answers for what the future holds, there is simply no magic, specific point in the season where what we’ve seen becomes reliable instructive for what’s to come.
Still, that knowledge won’t stop us from trying to crack the code. Although nothing is set in stone even two months into the season, there are conclusions that can be drawn from the games played so far that may give us a clue as to how the rest of the season might unfold. By digging below the surface of performances during the first two months of the season, we can identify players who have not delivered thus far and who may be poised for a resurgence in the future.
With that in mind, here are five falling sluggers who have struggled to this point, with cases for each hinting at better days ahead.
In his first two seasons with St. Louis, the six-time All-Star and two-time MVP runner-up slashed .270 / .364 / .473, with 123 wRC + and nearly 30 home runs per 162 games. Through 53 games this year, his walk rate (8.3%) has dropped below 10% for the first time in his career, and his isolated power (.144) is also the worst of his career. Qualify as a below-average hitter (97 wRC +) for the first time as a Major League Baseball player.
Those surface-level stats don’t quite square with advanced metrics. Goldschmidt hits the ball harder (92.7 mph on average) and makes hard contact more often (51.3%) than ever during the Statcast era (since 2015). He ranks in the 70th percentile in expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, and average exit velocity, which should translate to a well above average hitter.
Unfortunately, not all hard contact is good contact. Goldschmidt’s average launch angle of 19.3 degrees is easily the highest of his career, reflected in an 18.8% shot rate in the frame, the worst of his career. Even though it still ranks near the top in the average launch angle, the Goldschmidt moving average in that department has steadily declined over the past two weeks after peaking at 28.4 degrees in mid-May. The results have yet to follow, but the quality of the contact is indicative that Goldschmidt still possesses the skill set to be among the best hitters in the game. A shift in focus could ultimately translate those skills into increased production.
Braves fans have been disappointed all season, bogged down with a losing record in what has been a mostly disappointing National League East. Among the key reasons is a slow start from the current National League MVP. Freeman is hitting .230 / .360 / .455 with 119 wRC +, his worst since 2012 and a far cry from his 187 mark last season.
Atlanta fans’ concerns about their team as a whole might be well placed, but they shouldn’t worry too much about Freeman. Freeman is near the top of virtually every expected stat leaderboard, including ranking at the 96th percentile on the expected wOBA (.409). He has a hard hit rate of 50.7%, which is below 2020, but is the second highest of his career. Freeman’s .225 batting average on balls in play is sure to improve sooner rather than later, and his court line should look pretty normal by the end of the month.
Last season’s rising star has seen his power sapped beyond recognition throughout 46 games this year. Smith’s .299 isolated power was the fifth highest in the National League in 2020. He’s dropped to .101 so far in 2021, putting him in the league with high-contact hitters like Nick Madrigal and JP Crawford. His strikeout and walk rates are nearly identical to last year’s numbers, although his average exit velocity has dropped a few ticks.
Although the ball doesn’t hit the bat as hard as it did a year ago, that’s not always the best determinant of success. TO most trusted brand monitor is the percentage of contact in the “fair point, ”Or a ball hit with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. Smith’s sweet spot rate is 41.5%, ranking 21st among all players with at least 50 balls batted. A key for Smith will be to regain his success against the broken balls. He has hit just .160 against breakthrough pitches this year after hitting .388 against them in 2020.
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Lowe is one of the most underrated stars in the game, so the casual fan may not notice his slow start, or may not care much. Throughout his first three seasons, Lowe hit .262 / .342 / .513 with an All-Star appearance in 2019 and an eighth-place MVP in 2020. He failed to meet those standards in his first 53 games, hitting. 188 /.303/.366 with a strikeout rate of 30.7%.
Like Smith, Lowe’s reasons for optimism lie primarily at its ideal rate. He has been making strong contact more consistently as the season progressed, although the results have been slower. Lowe was a fastball killer in previous seasons, though he’s hitting just .214 against heaters so far. However, his expected batting average is .263, so it shouldn’t be long before hits start to drop more often.
Gomes showed signs of a resurgence in a shortened 2020 season, during which he hit .284 / .319 / .468 in 30 games. He has put up an 81 wRC + so far this year despite being in the 95th percentile in expected batting average (.304). Gomes has made huge strides in his contact rate over the years. His strikeout rate has dropped every year since 2018, to a career low of 15.4% this season. Putting the ball in play often is sure to bring better results, and Gomes should drive at least one league average hitter with some positive regression. That regression couldn’t come soon enough for a Nationals team mired in last place.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.