To fully understand each of these hitters we must also explore the context surrounding their core Statcast gains, and we can help with that.
*Year to year statistical gains are formatted: (2020) -> (2021)
xBA: .194 -> .292 / xSLG: .376 -> .661
Talk about a complete 180… O’Neill went from being a bottom-of-the-barrel (no pun intended) hitter in 2020 to one of the best in the league in 2021, and how he’s doing it might surprise you. O’Neill has been this elite despite having some of the worst control of the strike zone of anyone in the entire league. If you thought I was exaggerating – O’Neill is fifth percentile or lower in K rate, walk rate, and whiff rate while “shining” in the chase rate department where he finds himself in the 31st percentile. Those numbers are absolutely brutal, so how is O’Neill so dominant? To sum it up, I’d say that O’Neill is making close to all-time great contact when he actually connects with the baseball. Tyler is recording a barrel nearly a quarter of the time when he makes contact while also hitting the ball 95+ MPH 53.8% of the time. Because his launch angle is nearly 20 degrees and he’s using the whole field, O’Neill’s proclivity for destroying the baseball is playing up even more. When ultra whiff-prone players with immense raw power like Tyler O’Neill are discussed you always hear people ask “well, can he actually get to his power in-game?” That skepticism is valid 99% of the time, but O’Neill’s has been the exception to the rule in 2021.
xBA: .265 -> .330 / xSLG: .454 -> .621
Unlike O’Neill, Tucker’s surface stats haven’t caught up with his Statcast numbers just yet, as he’s hitting “just” .268 with a .506 SLG. Tough luck aside, Tucker made a foundational change in his approach this season and he’s now utilizing the entire field after being very pull-heavy earlier in his career. Teams are yet to adjust to Tucker’s new approach it seems, as they’re shifting against him 85.2% of the time despite the fact that Tucker cut his pull rate from 47 percent all the way down to 32.7%. Somehow, MLB teams haven’t yet caught on to Tucker’s improvements even though we’re almost halfway through the season. Tucker’s wOBA when teams don’t shift is a paltry .223, but when they do shift his wOBA rises all the way up to .374. I’m no MLB manager, but I can tell you right now that teams are not scouting Tucker well at all. Beating shifts is great, but Tucker has an excellent 17.8 degree launch angle and he’s smashing the ball, hence him being in the 85th and 86th percentile respectively in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. Overall, Tucker has speed, rarely whiffs, hits the ball hard in the air, and he can no longer be shifted against effectively – it’s time for take off!
xBA: .238 -> .295 / xSLG: .369 -> .481
Baseball is full of variance, so while it’s not terribly unusual, it is a bit mystifying to see that Verdugo’s actual batting average is lower in 2021 than it was in 2020 despite the xBA’s suggesting very strongly that it should be the opposite. Verdugo’s unsustainable .371 BABIP from 2020 is the main culprit there, but why are Verdugo’s underlying power and contact data so much better in 2021? The first and most impactful thing that jumps out is that he’s hitting the ball harder, raising his average exit velocity to 89.9 MPH this season after it sat at just 87 MPH last year. Verdugo has also raised his hard-hit rate to 40.7% in 2021 compared to just 34.4% in 2020. The added exit velocity is the key, but Verdugo has added the exit velocity without compromising his innate ability to make contact, as he’s actually in the 95th percentile in whiff rate this season after he was in the 86th percentile in 2020. Overall, Verdugo could stand to improve on his 6.6-degree launch angle to turn some doubles into home runs, but it’s hard to complain about a hitter who is performing every bit like a .290 hitter with 20 home run pop.