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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Alex Verdugo.
The Question: Can Alex Verdugo get more balls hit in the air?
Ever since the Red Sox closed out the pre-lockout period of the offseason by sending 2021 starting right fielder Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers in exchange for Jackie Bradley Jr. and a pair of solid prospects, a lot of the focus around the Red Sox outfield has focused on what is not there rather than what is. But while there is a glaring hole and the attention given to that hole here and elsewhere has been more than warranted, they do return two-thirds of last year’s outfield in Enrique Hernández and Alex Verdugo. Today we’re going to focus on the latter, who was one of the focal points on the roster heading into last season, but this year seems to be on the periphery of people’s minds.
It’s not really surprising that he’s settled into that spot in the Red Sox zeitgeist, for lack of a better term, because it fits the kind of player he is. That is, he is a solid player who doesn’t really jump off the page statistically. (Though he does jump off the TV screen with his style of play, to be fair.) Last season Verdugo hit .289/.351/.426, good for a very solid 107 wRC+, putting him seven percent better than the league-average hitter by that metric. That’s not great production for a guy who spent the bulk of his time in left field, but it’s also far from detrimental to the lineup. Given his ability to put the bat on the ball — he struck out just 16 percent of the time last year — there’s a good enough floor here that you know you can always be comfortable with him as a starter.
The thing is, the way that Verdugo currently approaches things at the plate does not give him very much of a ceiling, and that becomes much more noticeable if he continues to play in left field where the bar is much higher when it comes to expected offensive production. One of the ways to do that would be to draw more walks and combine that contact ability with elite walk rates to get on base at a high clip. However, while not an undisciplined hitter he tends to make enough contact so as to not walk all that much. He walked 8.4 percent of the time last year, which was roughy league-average, and that was an improvement on each of the previous two seasons.
So that just leaves the power, which is the biggest shortcoming for Verdugo. This was always known to not be a massive part of his game even when he was coming up through the Dodgers system as one of the top prospects in the game. He was rated so highly more for his contact ability, and while again that does provide a floor, unlocking more power would raise that ceiling and allow him to be a productive starter even if he was slotted into left field more often than not. And looking at his batted ball data, it’s pretty clear that low launch angles are keeping him from unlocking more power.
This is not a new issue for Verdugo, and in fact is a calling card of his style at the plate. Something of a throw back in this era of launch angle, he hits a lot of ground balls and low line drives, which comes from a shorter swing that enables him to make so much contact, and allows him to convert more of those batted balls into hits. He had a .327 batting average on balls in play last season, and his career mark is .324. But on the other side of the coin, his Isolated Power in 2021 was just .138 compared to a league-average mark of .167.
Nobody is expecting Verdugo to suddenly hit 35 homers per season and post .250-plus ISOs moving forward, but there is clearly another level to be reached here. That’s especially true after seeing that he does hit the ball hard, finishing in the top third of the league in hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, and expected wOBA, the latter of which is partially based on quality of contact. The issue is that so many of those hard-hit balls are on the ground, and that helps them more frequently squeak by for singles, but not for home runs, or even doubles.
That should be Verdugo’s goal this spring, and something he hopefully was working on a bit over the offseason. Last season he hit the ball on the ground 50 percent of the time he put the ball in play compared to a league-average ground ball rate of 45 percent. If he can get that number down to league-average and convert some of those hard-hit ground ball singles into doubles, triples, and home runs, suddenly he’ll be back to being in the 120 wRC+ range and a bat that can play in any outfield spot comfortably.
With all of that being said, there is of course a trade off that happens here, and any adjustment like this needs to be done without sacrificing too much of his contact. It’s unrealistic to think he could add more power and more balls in the air without altering his swing to the point of adding more strikeouts, but it’s a matter of degree. If Verdugo can add more of that power and get his ISO into the .160-.180 range while still keeping his strikeout rate in the teens — and he has some wiggle room there — then that’s a big improvement for the Red Sox. If he can’t make that leap, and also doesn’t make a big jump in his walk rate, suddenly the Red Sox either have to be comfortable with him in right field or they have a fringy starter at the left field spot.