Written by: John Storey
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Toronto Blue Jays | RHP Julian Merryweather
Among all the exciting parts of the 2021 season thus far for the Blue Jays has been the brief showing of Julian Merryweather. This is Merryweather’s third year in the Toronto organization since coming over from Cleveland in exchange for a (then) apparently ageing Josh Donaldson. It was one of those deals that often receive snap judgment before the return(s) reaches the majors. In this case, it didn’t help that Julian, a PTBNL, was coming off a 2018 season lost to Tommy John surgery.
He returned to the field to toss six mediocre minor league innings in 2019, and another six in the Arizona Fall League. Without the minor leagues, 2020 wasn’t much more productive, however, Toronto found 13 innings for him with the big league club. And while they were fine (15 Ks, 11 Hs, 6 BBs, 6 ERs) what he accomplished earlier this season was far more impressive.
Immediately after earning a roster spot out of camp, Merryweather turned heads. Despite only throwing four and two-thirds shutout innings before an oblique injury forced him off the field for a few weeks, Julian struck out seven and walked one of the 14 batters he faced. It’s a small sample size, but the more predictive peripherals are where Merryweather shone. His fastball sat at 98.2, a little less than 2 miles per hour more than what he sat at last season. His slider also saw a jump in velocity going from 85.9 to 88.2 MPH. The added velocity and another 100 RPM on his fastball increased its rise by about 2 inches.
With his now elite fastball paired with a changeup and slider that have already suppressed a run each, once he’s recovered his oblique, so long as he picks up where he left off in April, Julian could be a huge weapon out of Toronto’s bullpen, especially if they find themselves in a competitive position down the stretch.
Baltimore Orioles | OF Cedric Mullins
After performing rather lacklustrously in his first two big-league seasons with Baltimore, Cedric Mullins had an improved campaign in 2020. He saw gains in virtually every offensive category and landed himself a starting role in the outfield. He’s carried that role into 2021 and brought some even bigger strides with him for the new season.
Slashing .271/.315/.407 last year was a massive step in the right direction. But it felt and objectively looked very incremental. In some aspects, the campaign was very similar to what he’d accomplished in 2018 and ultimately, it was generally average production. What Mullins has been able to do this year has given the Orioles a reason to fix him at the top of their lineup long term.
The new-look 2021 Mullins features his all-time low launch angle and that’s been a big part of what’s allowed him to achieve the best-expected slash stats of his career. While he’s still not prolifically barreling the ball, he’s making more hard contact than ever (43.1%). He’s also walking more than ever, nearly doubling his walk rate of the two previous seasons, even if the 9.5% walk rate he’s posted this year is far from something special in the context of Major League Baseball. Now making contact 86.1% of the time, Mullins’ 2021 profile is a strong bat leading off for the Orioles.
Two big differences have helped Mullins produce as well as he has this year. First, despite his launch angle coming down, he’s managed to shrink his ground ball rate to 46.6%, the lowest of his career. He’s now hitting more fly balls and over a quarter of his batted balls have been line drives. In addition, Mullins has done a tremendous job hitting breaking pitches. Through 74 offerings, he’s achieved a .417 batting average, slugged .625 with a .466 weighted on-base percentage. While his expected stats don’t have quite the same prominence, they’re still strong, and better than those against fastballs.
Mullins may not sustain the .329/.393/.474 slash he’s put up so far, but so long as he’s able to sustain the refinements he’s made to his approach, he’ll be well poised to play a big part for the Baltimore Orioles this year and beyond.
Boston Red Sox | 1B Bobby Dalbec
Dalbec’s gleam seems to have tarnished in the last few years as the Red Sox have amassed a few other notable prospects and young players, but there’s no reason to demerit him. Bobby received some playing time in 2020 and put up some impressive numbers. Mashing eight home runs in just 92 plate appearances Dalbec posted a .338 isolated slugging. Perhaps even more impressive was his .359 on-base percentage. As a power first player, Dalbec’s ability to get on base may not dictate his value, but it will discriminate between whether he’s an all-star or just a slugger.
Last season’s performance may not be something Dalbec is ever able to sustain across a full 162 game season, but it shows his profile can play at the major league level. Bobby Dalbec’s start to 2021 hasn’t been nearly as exciting as his 2020 season was. But there are some takeaways from his first 18 games that, combined with a little bit of who he was last year, could mean big things for the Dalbec and the Red Sox.
First, Bobby has matured at the plate. Last season, Dalbec swung at 35.6% of pitches he saw outside the strikezone. This year, he’s managed to trim that to 30.6%. Now, that’s far from impressive – but it’s an improvement. He’s also improved the number of pitches outside the strikezone he makes contact with by a whopping 21.1%, and cut his swinging strike rate by 3.6%. Bobby Dalbec will never reach a league-leading level of plate discipline. But he doesn’t have to – his value remains his power.
Despite not hitting a home run yet in 2021, Dalbec’s power hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, according to StatCast, Dalbec’s home run count would be up to 3 in more accommodating ballparks (Seattle, New York (Yankee Stadium), Chicago (Guaranteed Rate), San Francisco and Cincinnati). His launch angle is down four degrees this year, which may contribute to the comparatively lower home run rate. That shouldn’t be a detriment to Dalbec, though. It’s made him an even better player.
His expected slugging percentage sits at .577, far higher than it was last year (and far higher than his slugging percentage is in practice this year). His expected isolated slugging is a very healthy .273. His batted balls have also projected a .304 batting average and .393 weighted on-base percentage – both better than the 80th percentile. Dalbec is simply making great, productive contact. Despite his barrel rate sinking, he’s maintained his hard-hit rate, and boosted his sweet spot rate by 20.2%.
Bobby Dalbec, who’s spent the season hitting eighth and ninth for the Red Sox has quietly been off to an excellent start. A career backed by prospect pedigree, he’s beginning to show why at the highest level. If the Red Sox anticipate sustaining their early dominance, expect Bobby Dalbec to be a big part of the reason why.
New York Mets | RHP Sean Reid-Foly
Sean Reid-Foley has been trying to consolidate his talents for some time now. Acquired by the Mets in exchange for Steven Matz, Sean is currently at the bottom of New York’s bullpen. He was recalled from AAA days ago to relieve a taxed ‘pen. Since, he’s been given the opportunity to throw three shutout innings, striking out four without walking a batter.
Reid-Foley’s ceiling isn’t suddenly high. He’s always looked strong and capable. But he spent 2020, pitching some of his best big-league innings, even if there weren’t many of them (6.2). In fact, there haven’t been many major league Sean Ried-Foley innings at all – he hasn’t had a ton of opportunity beyond the 2019 season in which he threw 31.2 rather unsuccessful innings. The 2019 season was preceded by a strikingly similar 33.1 innings in 2018.
Sean’s biggest burden is his walk rate. His command in general has suffered. Across his career, he’s managed to place the ball inside the zone just 41.1% of the time. For a guy like Reid-Foley who now throws his four-seam fastball nearly 75% or over 60% in 2020, that’s unacceptable. That’s not to say Reid-Foley should reduce the pitch’s usage.
In the past, he’s struggled to suppress runs with the fastball, but that’s not the case anymore. It’s as good a pitch as any for him. Despite the small sample sizes, he’s boasted great whiff rates with it over the last two years and his expected slash stats are strong off the pitch. With 93% transverse spin and roughly 13.7 inches of vertical movement, the pitch isn’t just the best it’s been in Reid-Foley’s career, it’s in the upper fifth of the league.
He just has to trust the pitch. Most often, he’s missing at the top of the zone. So, he knows how to use the pitch, he just has to trust it and prioritize the pitch landing in the zone, rather than trying to miss bats with it.
Ultimately, Sean’s ability to achieve his ceiling will be depending on his ability to use his tools, which means commanding his fastball. Surrounded by an elite, diverse pitching staff featuring some of the game’s best, there will surely be plenty of opportunity for development this year. And if he’s able to find the strikezone, there’s no reason he can’t be a big weapon for the Mets this year.
Washington Nationals | OF Yadiel Hernandez
Hernandez is off to a strong start to 2021. Especially after his rough 2020. Signing out of Cuba at the age of 29, he was an inherently difficult bat to project for evaluators. He possesses plenty of tools. And he’s hit at virtually every stop he’s made throughout the minor leagues. He doesn’t put the ball in the air enough to be much of a traditional power threat, but hammering the ball hard, even if it’s into the ground, has earned him favourable reviews and some lofty, yet likely sustainable BABIPs.
Among Yadiel’s other talents is an ability to produce a generally low strikeout rate. Although he’s never been an especially prolific walker, he’s suppressed his strikeout rate in favour of more contact. He carried a sub-20% strikeout rate through the minors (walking a little more than half as frequently). This is a big part of why we didn’t see the real Hernandez in 2020. He collected as many strikeouts as he did games played and just generally didn’t conform to his abilities.
In 2021, while his hot start may not be fully indicative of his true talent, his BABIP is closer to what he accomplished throughout the minor leagues and suggests we’re seeing something closer to the real Yadiel Hernandez this year than we were last. To sustain his performance (or avoid last year’s) he’ll need to ensure he doesn’t fall for bendy-breaking balls. He’ll need to keep his chase rate down and maintain the higher chase contact rate he’s had this year.
As long as he can stay away from strikeouts and make contact, Hernandez’ talents will take over. His bat-to-ball skills and the strength he’s always hit the ball with will grant him success in Washington as they have throughout the rest of his career. Settling into Major League Baseball and restoring those career norms this year will help Nationals’ fans quickly forget about Yadiel Hernandez’ 2020.
Tampa Bay Rays | LHP Jeffrey Springs
Springs is a first-year Ray, his third organization is four years. He’s found himself a significant role in Tampa Bay’s bullpen since the Rays have been decimated with injuries. He was strong in his rookie year with Texas. He pitched to a 3.38 ERA with an 8.72 K/9. His xERA and FIP were less kind, at 4.60 and 4.25, respectively. Things got worse from there. Jeffrey spent the next two seasons in Texas and Boston but was unable to match anything close to the success he had in his rookie year.
If becoming a Ray wasn’t enough reason to believe in Springs, he’s made some apparent changes that provide optimism for Springs in 2021. First, in the 7.2 innings, he’s thrown so far, Springs has slashed his walk rate. Obviously, it’s still early, but even reviewing Springs’ approach on the mound and the location of his pitches offer encouraging signs.
Vastly reducing the usage of his sinker, Springs is relying on his slider more than ever. So far, he’s called on it more than 42% of the time. And he’s done a tremendous job at locating it at the bottom of the zone, certainly more consistency than he ever has before. He’s no longer committed to throwing his sinker, a chronically troublesome and unexciting pitch, over the plate for a strike. Being able to rely on the slider for a strike has given him the flexibility and confidence to go outside the zone with his changeup, which only enhances his arsenal.
Springs has allowed a lower ground ball rate, which could dampen his ability to maximize the number of outs he collects. Although he’s always dealt with higher BABIPs it’s something to consider. On the contrary, his walk rate, something that’s improved throughout his career’s progression, is as good as ever. It’s among the best in baseball thus far – a sparkling 3.1%.
Springs is yet another high upside arm the Rays have bought into. They believe he has the chops to make significant contributions to their pitching staff and there’s not a lot of reason to believe otherwise. If all goes well for Jeffrey Springs and the Rays, he may be the next key cog in the Rays’ ever-evolving pitching staff.
New York Yankees | RHP Jonathan Loaisiga
Jonathan Loasisiga has served the Yankees for three years heading into 2021. He’s always been someone New York expects to make a serviceable, if not strong, contribution. In 2021, the Yankees will need him as much as ever. What’s left of their starting rotation isn’t a list of elite arms who will be reliably pitching deep into games (at least not beyond Gerrit Cole). Their inevitable reliance on the bullpen makes pitchers such as Loaisiga invaluable.
The extra opportunity may be just what Jonathan needs to excel. He’s already off to a great start this season, building on the best of his past. Loaisiga hasn’t been able to retain the elite strikeout rates he boasted at the onset of his career. Instead, he’s sat around 8 or 9 Ks per nine innings. Without the effectively wild approach that granted his 12 or 10 strikeouts in his first two big-league seasons, Loaisiga has been able to increasingly limit traffic, lowering his WHIP in each of his four seasons with the Yankees.
Speaking of traffic, Loaisiga’s improved control is paying dividends. His elite walk rate (a big part of his WHIP) is helping Jonathan boost his baseline value where strikeouts won’t. Now pitching out of the bullpen, Loisiga can air out his already speedy arsenal. The way he’s commanded this ball this year, especially, shows a great deal of maturity and development. He’s masterfully worked his changeup and sinker around the edges of the zone to outsmart hitters.
He’s achieved a career-high 41.4% swing rate on pitches outside the strikeout – 6.4% higher than 2020. He’s also collecting many more swings on pitches inside the strikezone – 79.5% versus the 61% he generated last year. Perhaps the most important part is Loaisiga has been able to accomplish all this without sacrificing any contact – his contact rate is currently 4.2% lower than last year.
Jonathan Loaisiga has developed from the hard-throwing, four-seam fastball dominant prospect he once was into a thoughtful pitcher whose talents are far from exclusive to his arm. Now, the Yankees need him more than ever. He’s got a golden opportunity to demonstrate his last three years of development and become a mainstay in an already competitive Yankees bullpen.
Miami Marlins | SS Jazz Chisholm Jr.
Here’s an easy one. Chisholm has been touted to do great things for a while now. Last season, Jazz received a cup of coffee in Miami, about the same length as the tenure he’s had in 2021 so far. Last year’s 62 plate appearances did not go nearly as well as this year’s first 80 have. Last season he was only able to muster a 56 wRC+ with a .248 wOBA. In 2021, he’s been a prolific offensive force, nearly tripling his wRC+ to 155, his wOBA surging to .394, all thanks to a discreet change.
His strikeout rate hasn’t changed much and his walk rate has only increased by roughly 3%. Surprisingly, his plate discipline is also very similar to what we saw out of Chisholm last year. The most dramatic change he’s displayed is a 10.4% drop in contact on pitches inside the zone. Everything else has remained steady within a few percent, frankly, well within the error margins for the sample sizes we’re dealing with here. Blind to the results in each season, without digging any further, you might be inclined to think Chisholm hasn’t changed.
The key behind much of Chisholm’s success is his new-look batted ball profile. Jazz’s batted balls have taken a slightly different shape this year. While he’s not hit more ground balls, he has increased the number of fly balls he hits. He’s hitting far fewer popups. His launch angle, while just 2 degrees lower on average, has a distribution that is far better optimized. 35.6% of that distribution accommodates batted balls hit on the sweet spot – an 8.6% increase over last year.
Likely a byproduct of barreling up more pitches, Chisholm’s exit velocity has also increased. These subtle changes have allowed him to dramatically inflate his expected stats. His BABIP of .390 may be a little high, but he’s sure to settle somewhere between it and the unreasonably low .200 he posted in 2020.
The performance we’re seeing from Jazz is what a lot of prospect evaluators foresaw in him and very likely what we’re going to continue seeing from him in Miami. He’s sure to be a cornerstone of the Marlins’ future, and this year could be the start.
Atlanta Braves | RHP Huascar Ynoa
Ynoa enters his third big-league season with Atlanta, still bouncing between relief roles and time in the rotation. Atlanta looks to be working hard to turn him into a full-time starter and this year they’ve found some success doing so. Huascar has typically struggled to work inside the zone as much as necessary, but that appears to be changing this year.
His arsenal does make him more of a swing and miss arm. He’s worked inside the zone roughly 35-40% of the time, reaching 43.7% of the time this year. And collecting both more swinging strikes and called strikes than ever is a big part of what’s allowed Ynoa to reach career highs in strikeout and walk rate. His 29.8% strikeout rate and 4.8% walk rate are perhaps unsustainable, but they provide strong evidence that there’s more to Ynoa than the pitcher he has been in years past.
This year, he’s being much more precise with his slider and fastball. While Ynoa has added a bit more velocity, rise and spin to his four-seamer, his usage of the pitch at the top of the strikezone is one of the most critical components to his success. The improvements to the pitches’ characteristics have allowed him to reduce the frequency hitters can make contact with the pitch, never mind barrel it. His refined location of the pitch helps him establish the upper third of the zone, before sinking his slider down low.
His slider had undergone virtually no change, and thus, much of the success he’s had with the pitch can be attributed to its superior command. Both pitches benefit from and better each other, as well.
The only reason one might ignore the success Ynoa’s had across five starts so far is the low BABIP (.200) and relatively unchanged expected stats. It’s still too early to put much (any) stock in these numbers, but unless Ynoa finds a way to stabilize them, or reduce the amount of contact he allows even further, he may be due for some regression.
In any case, Huascar Ynoa is in the best position of his career for success. And with some of the injuries the Braves have suffered, he’ll likely have some leash to prove he’s capable of starting big-league games. If he can maintain an improved strikeout rate and continue to command the ball well, Ynoa will be key in Atlanta’s efforts toward capturing the National League East for a fourth consecutive season.
Philadelphia Phillies | RHP Sam Coonrod
Coming over from San Francisco, Coonrod will be stepping into the Phillies’ bullpen in hopes of preventing the late-inning problems Philadelphia suffered last season. He’s got the benefit of throwing all the pitches in his deep arsenal hard, sitting 98 with his sinker and four-seamer. Although his arsenal is deep, those two pitches make up 80% of the righty’s offerings. Throwing a mix of pitches in that last 20% is what makes Sam so projectable.
A slider, changeup, a few cutters and the odd curveball make up the final 20%. Few relievers use such a mix, and Coonrad has the benefit of inducing all sorts of spin with his pitches. His slider and cutter compliment his sinker and changeup well, providing Coonrad multiple options in either direction. His fastball’s velocity and release mimic that of his sinker before his sinker drops off to spin and ultimately move arm side, a lethal combo.
Early on, Sam’s done a better job at keeping his fastball in the strikezone this year. His sinker has always lived on the edge, inside to a right-handed hitter. Altogether, Coonrad can stay inside the zone a little less than 50% of the time. The optimization of his pitches has allowed him to attain an excellent strikeout rate – 28.9% – and the polished command has allowed just one walk across 10 innings of work this year.
Coonrad’s success collecting strikeouts and limiting walks is a big part of his success in the early going this season, but he’s also been fairly good at limiting effective contact. While Sam hasn’t tended to rely excessively on ground balls (and does so increasingly less), he’s ensured that hitters don’t square up the ball, typically inducing weak contact in the air. Thus, keeping his home run rate tamed will be key to a productive season for Coonrad.
Sam’s sinking sweet spot and solid contact rates, his crafty arsenal, and the lofty launch angle at which hitters are skying his pitches into the air may be just enough to propel him to a high leverage relief role with the Phillies, just what they need out of their bullpen’s off-season trade acquisition.
All data sourced from fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.