After a week’s worth of games—plus a couple more in Japan—the Mariners offense has been the talk of baseball. As a team, they’re leading the league in runs scored, home runs, isolated power, stolen bases, and they’re third in walk rate. They completely torched the Boston Red Sox starting rotation, scoring 28 runs off a staff that was among the best in the majors last year. As last night showed, no hot start can last forever. Trevor Cahill did an excellent job shutting down the Mariners, keeping them off balance all night long. Still, this offense looks like it’s much better than anyone expected.
We’ve seen glimpses of production like this from each member of the lineup in the past, but seeing them all produce at the same time like this is completely unexpected. Perhaps the most surprising performances have come from Tim Beckham, Domingo Santana, and Ryon Healy. I want to take a look at these three hitters to see if they’ve made any discernable adjustments that we can pick up on with limited data. Of course, a small sample size caveat applies to almost everything I’m going to be talking about here, but there are some stats that stabilize quicker than others, and I’ll lean on those over others. Just a quick reminder that the two games in Japan didn’t have any Statcast data associated with them, so they won’t show up in any of the data I’m referencing below.
After a breakout year in 2017, Beckham suffered through an injury-plagued season for the Orioles. His wRC+ dropped from 109 to 79 and he “accumulated” -0.5 fWAR in 96 games. He regressed so much, Baltimore—a team that is starting a rule-5 pick at shortstop this year—designated him for assignment this offseason. The Mariners picked him up as a placeholder while J.P. Crawford acclimates to the Northwest (picking up an extra year of team control along the way), but his hot start might keep Crawford down in Triple-A a little longer.
It certainly looks like Beckham is healthy. The core surgery he went through last season likely sapped his power, leading to a huge drop in production. But any doubts about his health should be put aside after he launched three home runs in the first three games of the season. His average exit velocity this season is 90.8 mph, up four miles per hour over last year and higher than what he posted in his breakout 2017 season.
Even more encouraging are the improvements Beckham has made to his plate discipline. Even during his breakout season, there were some real concerns about his strikeout rate and his tendency to swing and miss far too often. In just eight games this year, he’s cut his chase rate (O-Swing%) by almost 10 points, pushing it all the way down to 22.5%. This season, Statcast has introduced new “Attack Zones,” breaking up the area over the plate into four distinct zones: heart, shadow, chase, and waste. The shadow zone is the area straddling the edge of the rule book strike zone so that a pitch located in this area might be called a strike. The league average swing rate in the shadow zone is 52%. Over the last two seasons, Beckham has swung at 55% of these borderline pitches. This year, that swing rate is down to 47.7%. The increased selectivity has led to more damage per swing and a jump in his walk rate. Overall, he’s swinging less often, but his contact rate is basically unchanged. That’s a very good sign that he’s made some real adjustments to his approach at the plate.
Like Beckham, 2017 was a breakout year for Santana. It’s proof positive that he can really mash if given a full season’s worth of at-bats. Last year, a slow start and some real trouble with his strikeout rate pushed him out of the Brewers lineup and into the doghouse. But his ability to hit for massive power has never been in question. His exit velocity this season is right in line with his career norms. The biggest problem he’s had is with his batted ball profile. His ground ball rate has been a little high for a slugger. Hitting hard ground balls is fine, but there’s a reason why “elevate and celebrate” has become a popular saying around baseball recently. In 2019, Santana has increased his average launch angle to almost 20 degrees, a much more optimized angle of attack for a power hitter. Like you’d expect, his ground ball rate has fallen to just 26.1%, easily a career low.
Santana’s biggest improvement has been in his plate discipline. Through eight games, his strikeout rate is sitting at a career low 25.6%, a seven point drop from last season. But the underlying metrics are even more encouraging. He’s increased his contact rate to a career-high 78.1%, a 12 point increase over his disastrous 2018 campaign. A corresponding drop in whiff rate certainly explains some of that strikeout rate improvement. And like Beckham, he’s also reduced his chase rate by seven points, down to 24%. Getting back to those Attack Zones I introduced above, the chase zone is the area just off the plate where pitchers attempt to induce a swing on a pitch out of the zone. The league average swing rate in the chase zone is 22%. Last year, Santana swung at 25% of the pitches thrown in the chase zone. This season, he’s swung at just three pitches in this zone, an 8.3% swing rate. Santana is now spitting on the pitches that have been his Achilles heel in the past.
Healy’s adjustments are remarkably similar to his two teammates above. His average exit velocity is right in line with his career norms. Based on his batted ball characteristics, his expected wOBA (.320) last year was way out of line with his actual wOBA (.296). He was making hard contact like Santana but a lot of it was on the ground. This year, he’s increased his average launch angle to 27 degrees. That alone explains why eight of his nine hits this year have gone for extra bases. That launch angle is far too high to be sustainable—the highest average launch angle last year was 23.1 degrees—but it’s a good step in the right direction.
Healy’s plate discipline adjustments are similar to Beckham’s and Santana’s, though they’re a little less encouraging. He’s lowered his chase rate by nine points, to a career-low 23.3%. And like Santana, his swing rate on pitches in the chase zone is much lower. Over the last two years, he’s swung at 31% of the pitches in the chase zone but he’s only swung at four pitches in that zone this year (a 16.7% swing rate). But his contact rate hasn’t seen an improvement like his two teammates. In fact, he’s making less contact than ever before and a lot of those whiffs are coming on pitches in the zone. It’s nice that he’s being a little more selective about the pitches he swings at, but if he’s struggling to make contact on pitches in the zone, that could indicate some underlying problems that cap his potential ceiling.