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2021 in Review: Alex Verdugo was equal parts frustrating and clutch

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The left fielder continued to make progress at the plate but needs to tighten up his defense and baserunning to become a reliable player on a nightly basis.

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Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Two Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every weekday we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at the year that was for Alex Verdugo.

2021 in one sentence

Alex Verdugo drove fans nuts at times, but his countless clutch hits were essential in getting the Red Sox to October.

The Positives

Verdugo’s slash line may have ticked down from the short 2020 season but don’t let that fool you. With a .371 BABIP in 2020, the eighth highest in baseball, he was unlikely to match the .308/.367/.478 line that he posted. Hidden in that slight downtick overall were improvements in specific areas, most notably cutting down the strikeout rate. He slashed that from 20.4 percent while hitting mostly out of the leadoff spot in 2020 all the way down to 15.9 percent while hitting mostly out of the two-hole in 2021. That latter strikeout rate put him in the top 20 percent in baseball in that category.

Additionally, he improved his exit velocity from 87 to 89.8 mph and hard hit rate from 34.4 percent to 42.6 percent, per Baseball Savant. Overall, Verdugo finished with a solid .289/.351/.426 slash line to go with 13 home runs, 63 RBI, and 88 runs, all good for 2.0 fWAR.

The outfielder also stayed healthy in 2021, which has been an issue for him as a professional. He played in 146 games (137 starts), including 82 appearances in left field, 41 in center, and 22 in right. His nine assists in the outfield were tied for tenth in baseball and, along with Enrique Hernández and Hunter Renfroe, contributed to a terrifying outfield for baserunners that rivaled any in baseball.

An interesting split for Verdugo was his performance in team wins compared to team lossts. In the 83 Red Sox wins Verdugo appeared in, he hit .345 with all 13 of his home runs and 52 RBI. Conversely, in 63 losses, he hit .209 without a single long ball and only 11 RBI. This can, of course, be looked at in two ways, but I’ll take the positive approach. He was something of an engine to winning offensive performances, at least a good chunk of the time.

Seven of his 13 HRs this season came in tie games, and with Verdugo hitting .315 in those tie games, .335 in one-run games, and .321 with two outs & runners in scoring position, it shows that his hits seemed to come in huge spots throughout the season. In fact, we noted that late in the season. While his 13 home runs are not eye-opening, he contributed 32 doubles, and none were bigger than in Game 162 against the Nationals. Down 5-3 with two outs in the seventh inning, Verdugo launched his third hit of the day, a two-run double to tie the game at 5-5. He continued his solid play in the postseason, posting a .310/.383/.452 while playing in each of the team’s 11 postseason games, with five walks and only three strikeouts.

The Negatives

It was a good thing that Verdugo came up with the big hit as often as he did in 2021 because it often canceled out defensive and/or baserunning lapses earlier in the game. His -6 Outs Above Average (the defensive metric from Statcast data) put him in the bottom 5% of the league. While it’s more difficult to measure baserunning, he didn’t pass the eye test in a combination of ill-advised and lazy decisions throughout the season.

As an example, on August 25, in a game where the Red Sox made numerous baserunning mistakes with the AL East slipping away, Verdugo stood at home plate on a ball that did not leave the yard in a game the Red Sox trailed 4-0. The relay throw nabbed Verdugo returning to first base to end the inning, leading to some strong postgame words from Alex Cora about his team’s effort postgame. In the final game of the playoffs, replays showed Verdugo not prepared to take his lead in the strikeout/caught stealing double play that proved to be the last real threat of the 2021 Red Sox season.

Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox - Game Four Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images

In his first season with the Red Sox, Verdugo had seemed to prove that he should play every day, regardless of the pitcher’s handedness, but this took a significant step back in 2021. Verdugo slashed a paltry .228/.269/.286 again left-handed pitching with two homers and 12 RBI in 201 plate appearances, resulting in an ugly .058 ISO and a 48 wRC+. This compared to .321/.392/.501 against righties with a 137 wRC+ in 402 plate appearances, exactly double the number of plate appearances he had against lefties. A .554 OPS is just not going to get it done against southpaws.

Verdugo had spent the early part of the season in center field but it became clear by May that Cora was far more comfortable with Enrique Hernández moving to center from second base, moving Verdugo over to left, the lowest degree of difficulty by far at Fenway Park. It remains to be seen if the team will be comfortable putting him in either of the other spots going forward.

The Big Question

Will more aggression from Alex Verdugo lead to fewer strikeouts?

This has to be a ‘yes.’ As mentioned earlier, Verdugo’s strikeout rate dropped 4.5 percent down to 15.9 percent in 2021, which is almost exactly where his career rate of 15.8 percent falls. Seeing 59 percent fastballs at the plate, he dropped his whiff rate from 18.7 to 15.3 percent. The downtick in whiffs against fastballs, combined with a stark improvement in exit velocity against fastballs, shows an improvement in bat speed in general, which I would love to see continue in 2022.

Via Baseball Savant

Verdugo made 89 starts hitting second in the order and 23 starts hitting sixth, and the drop in strikeouts will likely put an end to the leadoff spot experiment for good, a spot he frequented in 2020.

2022 and Beyond

As Verdugo enters his age-26 season, it will be important to get back to basics and fundamentals to take the next step as the replacement for Mookie Betts, as well as be a leader in the Sox clubhouse. Defense and baserunning need to improve first and foremost, but also returning to acceptable stats against left-handed pitching so that the rest of the lineup falls into place.

Traditionally, players enter their prime at age 26, and a hit tool like Verdugo’s provides a safe floor with the possibility to make a jump to a .300-plus hitter with a .370 OBP in those prime years. Projection models have him falling just short of that in 2022 with 15-16 HRs, which seems fair, but a jump towards 20 HRs would make for a far more valuable player as Verdugo enters the first of his three arbitration seasons before free agency in 2025.