Welcome to our 2020 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we take a look at the 2020 season for Alex Verdugo.
2020 in one sentence
Alex Verdugo replaced the greatest right fielder in Red Sox history, a nearly impossible task, but managed to win over a good chunk of Red Sox fans with his play.
Verdugo came to the Red Sox as part of the infamous Mookie Betts trade with the now World Series champion Dodgers. Immediately the reaction from the vast majority of the Red Sox fan base was toxic. Some of that was due to the trade, some was due to the fact that there were injury concerns before he even started playing, and of course some was related to the off-field incident from his minor-league days. Come the start of spring training little and less was expected of him.
Following spring training, with COVID-19 in full effect, the season was delayed and Verdugo was able to utilize this time to heal his stress fracture in his back and get himself ready to go for the start of the season. When things finally got underway he began the year in a true platoon with Kevin Pillar in right field. And while he was batting in the lower part of the order at first, he immediately made his presence felt whenever he got the chance.
After not too long of a wait, Verdugo was entrenched as the starter in right field and he was no longer being platooned. Platooning him was a curious thing to do in the first place since he had never showed any meaningful platoon splits. He then rewarded the team by slashing .320/.378/.413 against lefties with a 117 wRC+ over the course of the season. He was even more productive against righties, posting a line of .302/.360/.513 with a 131 wRC+.
Not only was Verdugo now playing Betts’s old position but by the time mid-August rolled around he was now leading off for the Andrew Benintendi-less club. Benintendi had floundered in that roll before ending up on the injured list. Verdugo remained in the leadoff spot for the rest of year posting a 115 wRC+ from that spot.
Every day he was in the lineup Verdugo brought an energy. He hustled down the line every time he made contact, showed off his impressive arm on more than one occasion, and he never appeared like the game was too fast for him. He looked like he was having fun in a year that was, frankly, not very much fun. In Verdugo the Red Sox found their next leadoff hitter and a quality defender in right field.
As impressive as Verdugo’s end of season slash line of .308/.367/.478 is one can’t ignore that it was fueled by a .371 BABIP. Statcast measures his expected batting average from last year at a paltry .239. There was a lot of blue on Verdugo’s Baseball Savant page including a 27th percentile hard hit rate and an average exit velocity of just 87 mph, good enough for 20th percentile. Moreover, he hits way too many ground balls posting a 52.2 percent rate while hitting fly balls just 16.6 percent of the time. One thing that was good for him was his 68th percentile sprint speed, but overall these numbers need to change.
While I don’t think Verdugo is quite as bad as his expected stats say, I do believe real changes need to be made for him to continue at his current level of results or progress forward. There is plenty of reason to expect that things will get better for him though. In 2019 he had an average exit velocity of 89.4 mph over a larger samples size leading to a .293 xBA. With a full offseason of health and the ability to continue adding strength I think that seems much more in line with my expectations for Verdugo.
Verdugo also saw a huge jump in his strikeout rate from 2019 to 2020, going from just 13 percent to 20.4 percent. Steamer projections have his strikeout rate settling in at 16.5 percent—numbers right in line with his small cups of coffee in 2017 and 2018. Verdugo remains a true contact hitter with the elite bat to ball skills. While he excelled against fastballs and breaking offerings in 2020, posting a wOBA (same scale as OBP) of .383 and .404 respectively, he struggled against off-speed pitches his mark was just .222. He will see a steady diet of off-speed until he can correct that mark.
On the bases Verdugo was a mixed bag. He made some obvious base running errors that you would expect of a 24-year-old, but he also managed to take the extra base on several occasions and graded out as the third most valuable baserunner on the team behind Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. He can go from good to great in that department by just improving his decision making skills.
In the field, Outs Above Average graded him out as a neutral right fielder ranking 14th in baseball while FanGraphs’s metrics had him as the 12th rated defender. He did grade out quite well by FanGraphs ARM metric which measures what runners do on a hit or a fly ball out. Bottom line here is that right field at Fenway is tricky to learn. Verdugo’s athleticism and arm in addition to his 98th percentile outfield jump have me believing he can ultimately be a positive value there.
The Big Question
This remains the biggest question for a Red Sox outfield that, as currently constructed, is light on power. So far Verdugo hasn’t shown an ability to get to much power hitting just six home runs in 2020 while posting an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) of .169. With that being said, he tied Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez for the team lead with 16 doubles and it isn’t hard to imagine more balls leaving the park if he regains some of his lost exit velocity and lifts the ball a bit more.
Looking ahead to 2021
Heading into 2021 it’s hard to imagine that Verdugo won’t be locked in as Alex Cora’s leadoff hitter in an offense that should be very good. I fully expect Verdugo to make the most of this offseason, making strength and athleticism gains that should lead to increased power. Having a healthy offseason makes that prospect a whole lot easier. In addition to this I expect him to cut down on his strikeout rate and maintain a high batting average and on base percentage. On the bases and in the field Verdugo will need to show dedication in working with his coaches to improve his decision making, his reads, and all other aspects of the game. I also expect him to mesh well with Alex Cora and not only replicate his 2020 performance but ultimately surpass it.