We are now just starting the third season for Alex Verdugo in a Red Sox uniform, and it’s been an interesting ride thus far. He was put in a seemingly impossible situation back in 2020, not only having come in as the face of the Mookie Betts trade return, but literally having to replace his spot in the lineup. He seemed unfazed by the expectations, representing a rare bright spot in an otherwise miserable 2020 season. Then last year, he took a bit of a step back, providing solid but unspectacular production with somewhat declining defense, largely being relegated to left field. So as we headed into this third season with him in Boston’s full-time outfield, Verdugo has appeared to be a solid player with a high floor given his ability to make contact, but also a relatively low ceiling because of a general lack of power.
It should of course be noted, and will continue to be noted throughout this piece and every other piece for the next few weeks at least, that we are still very early in the schedule. Boston has played only nine games, all of which have featured Verdugo in the lineup. But in that small sample, he’s turning that lack of power narrative on its head, already hitting three home runs en route to a .300/.361/.633 line on the young season. Considering his career high in home runs is only 13, last season, and his career-high Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) is .188 compared to this small sample mark of .333, it’s worth wondering if this is only small sample noise, or if there’s some actual change here to note along with any small sample noise.
The natural place to start here is certainly with how much hard contact is being generated, because obviously it is much easier to hit for power when you are squaring the ball up and hitting it hard. And for Verdugo, that has been the case, though depending on how you look at it the change hasn’t been that large compared to last season. In terms of straight hard-hit rate from Statcast data, which defines a hard hit by anything with an exit velocity over 95 mph, he’s made contact on hard-hit batted balls 45 percent of the time, up slightly from last season’s 43 percent rate. That’s only a marginal change, but if we look at barrel rate, which combines launch angle and exit velocity and marks the ideal combination of the two, that rate is roughly doubled from around seven percent to about 14 percent. So he’s meeting that hard-hit threshold at roughly the same rate, but more often that contact has been of the ideal variety.
And that brings us to the really big change, which comes down to that launch angle. This has been the biggest deterrent to Verdugo more consistently tapping into his power, as he’s had issues getting the ball up off the ground. For his career prior to this season, he’s generally hit the ball on the ground around half the time he put it into play, compared to a league-average rate in 2021 of 42 percent. This season, his average launch angle is up to 12 degrees compared to seven in 2021, and that ground ball rate is down at 34.5 percent. Over a larger sample, more fly balls will likely result in fewer singles, but combined with his ability to make good contact that should be cancelled out with more power being produced, especially as Verdugo is still making a ton of contact with a strikeout rate of just over eight percent.
Of course — and we have to mention it again — this is a tiny sample, and trends have certainly not evened out to what we can expect throughout the season. And on that front, the thing that stands out the most to me how pitchers are approaching Verdugo. So far this season, per FanGraphs data, he has seen fastballs a whopping 65 percent of the time compared to 52 percent over his career. My first thought was that perhaps, due to pitchers not being fully ramped up and thus more relievers being used, fastballs are up around the league. Fastball usage is actually down a bit compared to 2021, though. And in fact, Verdugo’s rate of fastballs seen is the second highest among qualified hitters, trailing only Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers.
Seeing all these fastballs has been the catalyst to a lot of this power, too, as all three of his homers have come against the heat. Now, this is not to say that there is not improvement afoot here as well. Even just looking at his performance against fastballs, he’s still getting the ball in the air much more often early on this season compared to in the past. As to why he’s seeing so many fastballs, this is probably a good argument to keep him where he is hitting fifth in the lineup ahead of Trevor Story, as moving him back a spot as I would’ve suggested before the season would likely result in fewer fastballs with much less intimidating hitters behind him.
Is Verdugo going to finish the season with the 54 homers which he’s currently pacing for, or a .333 Isolated Power that would’ve trailed only Shohei Ohtani last season? No. I’m confident in saying that without any hedging. There is certainly some small sample noise here, and he’s likely not going to see the same rate of fastballs that he has seen early on this season. Having said that, there are encouraging signs here for this power to carry over to some extent. Verdugo is managing to continue making his high rates of contact while also putting the ball in the air more often, and especially with Fenway’s spacious outfield that should help lead to more doubles and triples, his power surge has a real change of continuing, which in turn raises the ceiling both for his own personal stats as well as the overall production from the Red Sox lineup.