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One Big Question: Will more aggression from Alex Verdugo lead to fewer strikeouts?

It would help counteract some batted ball regression likely coming his way.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Alex Verdugo.

The Question: Will Alex Verdugo be more aggressive moving out of the leadoff spot?

Alex Verdugo came to the Red Sox in something of an impossible spot last season. Not only was he playing for an objectively bad team, in an organization that is not really used to fielding objectively bad teams, and not only was he doing so amid a pandemic, but he was replacing a one of the best players in franchise history, who was in his prime, coming in on the other end of a trade that was met largely with scorn. Given all of that, along with the fact that he only had one season in which he really had anything resembling consistent playing time in the majors, it wouldn’t have been too surprising if he just kind of meandered on with a mediocre season.

That’s not what happened though. Instead, he never even seemed to be the tiniest bit fazed by the circumstances, and if anything may have been feeding off of them. In a season that was bland at its best moments and unwatchable more often than that, he provided rare glimpses of excitement for the Red Sox. Ultimately he wasn’t the best player on the team — Xander Bogaerts probably had the better season — but he certainly felt like it for big chunks of the year.

It’s also worth pointing out that Verdugo was not just replacing Betts defensively, but he also took the leadoff spot as well. However, it does not appear this will be the case this season, with all indications pointing to Kiké Hernández running with that spot in the lineup to kick off the season. Keaton discussed the merits of this last weekend, and for whatever it may be worth I largely agree from a team-building standpoint that Verdugo is the better option atop the lineup. But, if we’re only looking at Verdugo, I think there’s a chance him moving out of that leadoff spot could actually be better for him at the plate.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Overall, it was a good season offensively for Verdugo in 2020. Over 221 plate appearances, he hit .308/.367/.478 for a 126 wRC+, meaning he was 26 percent better than league-average. But amid those numbers he carried a 20 percent strikeout rate. Now, in today’s game that’s actually a bit better than league-average, so it’s not as if he was Joey Gallo or anything like that. But it was still more than he had struck out in previous major-league stints with the Dodgers, and it was more than his minor-league career would have suggested.

Given the type of hitter Verdugo is, for him to repeat the production he put forth in 2020 he’ll need to cut that strikeout rate down. He’s not a slap hitter by any means and he has some power to speak of, but it’s also not a big part of his game. Instead, he’s the kind of guy who can be expected to his something like 15 homers per season and then supplement that with a ton of doubles and a handful of triples. Fenway’s dimensions should help with that as well. He finished last season with a .169 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) which seems like a good, rough expectation for the coming season. On the other hand, he also finished with a .371 batting average on balls in play, and while he’s certainly the kind of hitter — i.e., hard-hit liners with a batted ball profile that is hard to shift against — who can carry a high BABIP, even the most optimistic projections are looking at at least a 40-point drop there.

And so, if the expectation is that he’ll hit for roughly the same kind of power last year and his BABIP is likely going to fall, he needs to find a way to counteract that regression. Drawing walks doesn’t seem to be a likely path to that success. In 2020, he walked just under eight percent of the time. Looking at his disparate major-league samples as well as his minor-league numbers, something between eight and nine percent is probably the expectation moving forward, so there won’t be much there to counter the BABIP. That really just leaves those strikeouts that we talked about above.

To me, it’s pretty clear what led to the increased strikeout rate for Verdugo, which, again was not bad, but it was worse than his professional norms. This wasn’t a case of him expanding the zone and getting in trouble by swinging at a bunch of junk. Instead, it was quite the opposite. Verdugo got much more patient at the plate despite seeing pitches in the zone roughly 50 percent of the time, per Baseball Savant. Looking a little bit deeper, the dip in his swing rate was largely due to his not swinging at pitches in the zone. On top of that, the lack of swings came early in counts, with his first pitch swing rate coming in at 12 percent compared to 19 percent the year prior and a league-average rate of 29 percent.

There’s nothing inherently wrong at not swinging at the first pitch, but if you’re getting strikes as often as he was last year, it sets you up to play from behind in every at bat. And this is where the speculation part of this comes in. It seems plausible to me that Verdugo was swinging less because he was the leadoff hitter, which can bring with it some expectation of patience and grinding down hitters for the rest of the lineup. Perhaps a move out of the leadoff spot will allow him to feel more comfortable to attack early and put the ball into play at a higher rate than he did a year ago.

Verdugo is going to be an important part of this Red Sox team. They need their offense to be very good for them to realistically contend. The expectation is that he’ll hit second, so if he can hit all of those singles and doubles he will be putting the meat of the order with Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez into a good place to drive in runs. And the easiest way for Verdugo to get these hits while still dealing with the expected BABIP drop is to jump on hittable pitches early in counts and hit them hard. He’s always going to be a little patient, but he needs to let that patient come on pitches out of the zone and attack the ones in it. If he does, he can very well match last summer’s production and give the Red Sox a chance at one of the better offenses in the game.