For me, the best part of any given baseball season is whoever steps up as the out-of-nowhere sensation. Last year, of course, that title belonged to Sandy Leon. If you go back to 2013, it was the entirety of left field between Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp. There hasn’t really been one of those this year, with some solid players taking a step forward like Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez. Over the last few weeks, Tzu-Wei Lin is trying to change that. The infielder was on literally nobody’s radar as a potential 2017 contributor heading into the year, but after a breakout season at the plate in Double-A he has come up to the majors and been legitimately productive in his first couple of weeks with the team.
Although Lin’s shine had worn off in a major way coming into this season, once upon a time he was someone the organization thought very highly of. They signed the infielder out of Taiwan back in 2012 for over $2 million. Since that time, he has never really gotten things going with the bat at any level of the minors. Prior to this season, the highest OPS he had posted at any level of the minors was .698 and he was the owner of sub-.600 marks for many stops along the way. His glove has always made him an intriguing player and allowed him to continue to climb the ladder, but he was never destined for the majors unless something changed at the plate.
This season, something changed. There was almost certainly a multitude of changes made by Lin in Portland this season to lead to better production, but the most notable adjustment he made was to be more aggressive at the plate. Rather than focusing on seeing plenty of pitches, he’s been more willing to jump on early pitches this season and it’s paid off in a major way. He still drew plenty of walks — it’s not as if he turned into Pablo Sandoval at the plate or anything — but he started to make better contact and he suddenly put up an .870 OPS with the Sea Dogs to go along with his typically great defense. He’s continued to hit well since coming up to the majors, and while the sample is far too small to count on Lin for the rest of the season, there are some reasons to be encouraged about how he’s performing thus far.
To this point, Lin has only played in 15 major-league games and has just 47 major-league plate appearances under his belt. Clearly, this is not enough on which to base any major judgements. Still, it’s hard to ignore the infielder’s .333/.435/.436 line to start his career. It’s clear that he doesn’t have much power, but that’s always been the case. Even the most optimistic projections for Lin don’t include big power numbers.
Instead, if he’s going to perform at the plate it’ll be because he gets on base at a high rate. This has certainly been the case for him early in his career, and his plate discipline is one of the biggest reasons to feel encouraged. Despite facing the best pitchers he’s ever seen — and remember, he skipped Triple-A so the jump to the majors was even larger than your typical prospect’s — Lin has walked in just about 15 percent of his plate appearances. He’s actually going back to the extreme patience, but it’s clearly working out thus far. According to Baseball Prospectus, he is swinging at a rate that would put him in the bottom four percent in terms of swing rate. He’d rank far down the leaderboard for swing rate on pitches both in and out of the zone, but his swing rate on pitches out of the zone is particularly impressive at just 23 percent.
Despite the low swing rate, he’s not finding himself hurt by getting deep into counts. He’s striking out only 21 percent of the time — about a league-average rate — and he’s making plenty of great contact. In fact, along with his plate discipline, it’s the quality of contact that is so impressive for Lin this year. The infielder has been all over major-league pitching, hitting line drives a whopping 32 percent of the time (per Fangraphs). For context, the league-average line drive rate is 20 percent. Meanwhile, he’s also hitting the ball back through the middle 63 percent of the time, which shows that his timing is not being thrown off by major-league pitching. Dwight Smith of the Blue Jays, who has even fewer plate appearances than Lin, is the only non-pitcher with a higher rate of balls hit into center field.
It’s really easy to simply ignore everything Lin is doing because of the small sample in which it has happened. It’s an understandable decision and probably the correct one. It’s also the boring thing to do. There isn’t much in this life more fun than an out-of-nowhere sensation a la Sandy Leon in 2016. Lin has been that in a very small sample, and there are encouraging signs that this could continue for the rest of the year. I wouldn’t go betting my life savings on Lin being a fixture of the lineup for all of 2017, but I’ll certainly enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.