Since coming to Boston as the centerpiece in the Mookie Betts trade, Alex Verdugo has had to deal with unusually high expectations. But Verdugo has met these expectations with flying colors through his first 80-ish games as a member of the Red Sox. He’s hit with consistency, played solid defense at all three outfield spots, and his passion/competitiveness has helped him quickly become a fan favorite among Sox fans, even during a forgettable 2020.
The 2020 Red Sox didn’t have many bright spots, but Verdugo sure was one of them. He played in 53 games during the shortened season, compiling an .844 OPS, 126 wRC+, and was a +7 by Defensive Runs Saved. Those numbers look quite impressive, but there were many red flags beneath the surface.
Firstly, Verdugo’s batting average on balls in play finished at .371, much more inflated than the league average and his career average. This number wasn’t exactly fueled by exceptional contact either, as Verdugo’s exit velocity was below the major league average. His 52.5 percent groundball rate was much too high as well – hitting that many groundballs made Verdugo even more reliant on his inflated BABIP.
Lastly, Verdugo’s strikeout rate climbed up to 20.4 percent, the worst rate of his career and a number he never came close to in the minors. The combination of these factors contributed to a below-average .298 expected wOBA and showed he may not have performed as well as his actual .362 wOBA appeared.
Thanks to these underlying numbers, I did not think Verdugo would have a big breakout season in 2021. He would still be a solid contributor in my mind for sure, but I was definitely expecting some sort of regression to hit him if he didn’t improve in multiple facets on offense. Which, notably, he has.
The most remarkable improvement Verdugo has made is in the strikeout category. In an era when it’s expected for hitters to strike out upwards of 20 percent of the time (and it looked like Verdugo was trending that way), he’s lowered his strikeout rate to 11.6 percent, a number that places him in the top three percent of the league. He’s revamped his approach at the plate and is swinging at more pitches in the zone than he ever has, chasing less than he ever has, and swinging and missing less frequently than he ever before.
Verdugo is also making much better contact than he did in 2020. His average exit velocity has jumped more than three mph to roughly 91 mph while his hard-hit rate has increased from 34 percent to 43 percent. Additionally, Verdugo’s been able to get the ball in the air more – his launch angle has risen almost three degrees, and his groundball rate is at a career-low. His BABIP is back to a reasonable .313 as well, a mark that can be expected to stay consistent through the season.
All told, Verdugo has already accumulated 1.1 fWAR in just 34 games this year (nearly a five-win pace over 150 games), and his expected wOBA sits at .369, providing great evidence of his newfound stellar contact and sharpened approach at the plate. The improvements that he’s made across the board have blown me away, and he’s become a lock for a good at-bat in the important two-spot in the Sox’ order. With Verdugo soon to turn just 25 years old, I’m excited to see what he has in store for us, not just in 2021 but in years to come.