Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Alex Verdugo.
The Question: Is there consistent power in Alex Verdugo’s bat?
Alex Verdugo is in perhaps the most unique position I can remember a Red Sox player being in at the start of his career with the team, and I don’t say that as a positive. For some reasons that are, at least allegedly, his fault — allegedly being present for the assault of a 17-year-old runaway — and others that are out of his control — being traded for Mookie Betts, one of the most popular and best players of the last half-century in the franchise’s — Verdugo is going to have a lot of people eager to turn on him if he doesn’t come out of the gate hot. To say he has an uphill battle to get on fans’ good side would be a bit of an understatement.
As far as that performance on the field goes, he has a fairly straightforward skill set at the plate, particularly for a player with a relatively limited track record at the highest level. Long a top prospect in the Dodgers farm system, it took him a long time to get his chance in the majors due to Los Angeles’s depth on their major-league roster. Through the minors and his stints in the majors, though, we know he is very good at making contact and often turning that contact into hits, consistently posting strikeout rates in the 10-13 percent range as a pro and always posting above-average batting averages on balls in play.
The question with him, and the difference between him being a fine player and him being a potential All-Star caliber bat is whether or not he can hit for power. The 23-year-old (he’ll be 24 in May) has been graded as having above-average raw power in the minors, but his style at the plate has never allowed him to tap fully into it. As such, he’s been a below-average power hitter for basically his entire pro career, though certainly not a total zero either. That said, it’s a profile that reminds me a lot of Andrew Benintendi’s, which is to say it’s a good player but having both corner outfield spots potentially occupied by below-average power hitters would seem to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.
Ultimately, offense is offense and if both guys are hitting at near their peak value even without the power the Red Sox will be happy. It’s just that having that power to fall back on can be nice when the singles and potential doubles aren’t falling in. The good news is that Verdugo never looked more able to tap into the aforementioned raw power than last year.
The 2019 season was the longest amount of time Verdugo had ever spent in the majors to date, playing in 106 games and getting 377 plate appearances. His season was cut short with an oblique injury (that turned into the back issues that were going to hold him out to start the season had it started when it was supposed to. There’s no word on what will happen now since, ya know, we don’t have the slightest clue when baseball will be played). When he was able to play, though, he hit .294/.342/.475 for a 114 wRC+. Most importantly his .181 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) was the highest of his professional career of any stint of at least 100 plate appearances.
So, what changed? Well, we’ll start with the stuff that can actually give us some optimism moving forward, and that lies with his batted ball data. Remember when I said Verdugo’s hitting style prevented him from tapping into his raw power? Well, that’s because he hits a lot of ground balls. In his other couple of stints in the majors, albeit short ones, he carried ground ball rates well above 50 percent and sometimes over 60 percent. The same was true in the minors in 2017 and 2018. Last season, however, his ground ball rate in the majors fell below 50 percent. On top of that, he hit the ball hard more consistently and soft less consistently than any other stint in the majors. That all led to a home run to fly ball ratio of 14 percent, his highest of his professional career.
So that could be read as a changed approach with better contact, which bodes well for his future. Again, he doesn’t even turn 25 until 2021, so this kind of improvement is not unheard of. On the other hand, those numbers need important context. First of all, 2019 was the year of the juiced ball. That Verdugo had his best power season in a year when a whole lot of people were having their best power season calls some of that into question. Hell, both his ISO and his home run to fly ball rate were slightly worse than league average.
Furthermore, his home park with the Dodgers was a very good home run park. According to FanGraphs park factors (which are from 2018, to be fair but nothing has drastically changed since then) Dodgers Stadium was tied for eighth in home run effects for left-handed hitters. Fenway, on the other hand, was second to last. To be fair, Fenway is a lot easier for doubles and triples, but as far as the over-the-fence power, the move east will be much more difficult, at least at home.
As I mentioned above, Verdugo doesn’t need to hit the ball over the fence to be productive at the plate. He makes enough contact, and good contact, to get a lot of hits and Fenway will help turn some singles to doubles. But when you are hitting the ball over the fence, you aren’t relying on defensive players of just sheer luck, and Verdugo has shown some struggles with doing that. He made real strides with his batted ball data last year, but it remains to be seen how much of that was due to the juiced ball and his home park and how much will translate in any year or any park.