There is an adage that goes “it’s going to get worse, before it gets better”. It is one I’m rather fond of, because it speaks to the nature of confronting adversity head on, of acknowledging our flaws and learning to overcome them. It also happens to be especially true of baseball players making their debut in the big leagues, oftentimes most true for players that rarely, if ever, faced difficulty in the minor leagues. Players that make their debut and only succeed from then on are by far the exception, not the rule. Cal Raleigh had an almost entirely successful minor league campaign, in stark contrast to the struggles he has faced in the majors. I’m here to tell you that he has turned the corner, that he is leaving the “worse” behind him, and is achieving the “better”.
Making his MLB debut last year, and objectively struggling, Cal was easily overlooked in comparison to some of his teammates who also made their debuts. Logan Gilbert had a solid debut, one he has only built on this year. Jarred Kelenic also saw struggles, but given his status as a more highly regarded prospect, even that managed to overshadow Raleigh in the conversations about potential contribution. This year, the debuts of Julio Rodríguez and George Kirby have been the headline stealers. But Raleigh absolutely deserves recognition for the progress he’s made, and if the trends continue he’s going to make us all look silly for not including him more in the conversation.
If we look purely at overall season stats, there are some marked improvements this year over last, and some more subtle ones that still have significance. In about two-thirds of the plate appearances he has almost doubled his wRC+, up from a 47 to 90 on this season so far. His walk rate is also almost doubled from 4.7% to 8.1%, his ISO up from .129 to .256, and his barreling the ball more than doubled from 6.8% to 15.8%. His fWAR is up 600%. He has also seen small gains in hard hit percentage, average exit velocity, OPS, and his swinging strike percentage. Improved though they may be, the overall season stats don’t paint a complete enough picture, they betray the massive progress he has made in his recent play.
In a recap of June 4th’s game against the Rangers, Zach Mason made some excellent points about the ways in which Raleigh should play to his strengths in order to start seeing better results. He made these points after highlighting an at-bat where Cal struck out looking at two consecutive breaking balls in the zone. From Zach’s piece:
Kate’s got a working theory that Mitch Haniger fixed Cal Raleigh by telling Cal, “You’re a fastball hitter. Just hunt the fastball.” And it’s been hard not to notice Cal’s improvement since getting that advice. Since May 1, he’s got a 99 wRC+. Since May 15, it’s 125. And he’s done it largely by laying off of breaking balls, because when he does connect with a fastball, he hits the crap out of it, as he did two innings before this at bat, when he smacked a sinker at 104.4 mph for a hit. We want quality swings from Cal, not quantity. If the cost is that he’s going to strikeout looking more often, so be it.
Quality over quantity is exactly the trend Cal has made as of late. In his first fifteen games of the season, he posted a 40 wRC+ over forty plate appearances, echoing his performance from last year. In the sixteen games since he has posted a 123 wRC+, with a 173 wRC+ over the last seven games. Those first fifteen games had an OPS of .457, a .171 ISO, and an 18.6% SwStr. Since then those numbers are an OPS of .782, a .309 ISO, and an 16.7% SwStr; in the last seven games that is an OPS of .947, a .417 ISO, and an 11% SwStr.
He is simply making better, more consistent contact with the ball. This is perhaps best reflected in how much better he is barreling the ball up. He only barreled the ball twice for 10% in the first half, and has seven barrels for 18.9% since. His rising wRC+ is of course a good indicator of his hitting ability versus the league, but even when we consider his entire season his .256 ISO is good for best among all major league catchers with at least 90 plate appearances, and 19th league wide among all players with that many at bats. His seven home runs are tied for third among catchers.
His swings at pitches both in and out of the zone is relatively the same across the season, as is the contact percentage on those swings, it’s just been much better contact overall. Using the same divider of first half and since, he has raised his percentage of hard hit balls from 40% to 51.4%, also trending up in the last seven games with 61.1%. He has fifteen hits on the season, and seven of them are home runs. Three of those home runs have come in the last seven games, and they have been crucial to the recent success Seattle has had. The rising tide raises all ships, and Cal’s recent tidal wave of success is a literal game changer for the bottom third of the order that has been one of the Mariners’ biggest woes of recent years. Here are his seven home runs so far:
Cal Raleigh’s results at the plate have been getting better and better, and who knows, maybe they will once again dip into the “worse” as he continues to adjust and acclimate. One thing is clear to me though, the longer he has been in the majors the more he has proven that he without a doubt belongs here. Metrics aside, he has been passing the eye test both in his plate discipline and his defense behind the plate. It also can’t be understated that he is doing this all from the position of catcher, having to balance his personal performance with managing a pitching staff that has seen its own struggles. To top it all off he is only twenty five years old, and if the trend continues that could mean great success for him and the Seattle Mariners for years to come. The future is his for the taking.