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What Went Wrong With These Star Infielders in 2020?

Image: Twitter

2020 was a season unlike any other, a short one that consisted of just 60 games. Many new players made their debuts, and a number of players broke out. At the same time, some of the game’s biggest stars had massively disappointing seasons. Let’s take a look at one star at each infield position that struggled in 2020, and examine whether their struggles were just a fluke due to an extremely small sample size, or if there are troubling signs of worse things to come.

Catcher – Gary Sanchez

Sanchez burst onto the scene in 2016 and 2017 as a superstar offensive catcher, slashing a combined .284/.354/.568 with 53 home runs in 754 PA. Since then, he’s had two poor seasons (though his 2018 struggles were at least partially injury related) that sandwich a solid one in which he put up a 116 wRC+ in 2019. Still, 2020 was the worst of his career, posting a dismal .147/.253/.365 slash and a 69 wRC+. He also posted negative fWAR for the first time in his career. So what went wrong with Sanchez in 2020? It all comes down to the frequency of contact.

His strikeout rate spiked to an insane 36% in 2020, a full 8% worse than his previous worst. This strikeout binge was further supported by a career-worst whiff rate, one that ranked in the 11th percentile in the league. While he has always sported a whiff rate significantly higher than the league average, its continuous rise is worrisome. He made contact on just 45.5% of his swings on pitches outside the strike zone, both significantly below the league average of 59.4% and his previous career-worst of 49.7%. This wasn’t much better inside the strike zone, again setting a career-worst by making contact on just 77.9% of swings.

The one thing Sanchez does still have working for him is quality of contact. He continues to rank among the best in the league in exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and barrel rate. Additionally, his 10.1% walk rate was above his career average, so he can afford to carry a relatively low batting average.

For Sanchez to return to relevancy, he will need to drastically increase his frequency of contact without sacrificing contact quality. It remains to be seen whether he can make that adjustment, but if he can, look for Sanchez to again rank among the league’s best offensive catchers and provide plenty of surplus value given the discounted price in fantasy drafts.

First Base – Josh Bell

Bell had been an above-average offensive player his entire career, but stepped up to a new level in 2019, slashing .277/.367/.569 with a 135 wRC+. Bell was garnering early MVP votes before a poor finish to the season saw his OPS go from 1.024 in the first half to .780 in the second half. Bell’s struggles continued in 2020, as he slashed a disappointing .226/.305/.364 with a 78 wRC+.

Much like Sanchez, Bell’s 2020 struggles came down to poor plate discipline. In Bell’s case, however, his 2020 was a true outlier from his career numbers. Prior to 2020, he had never struck out at a rate higher than the league average. In 2020, he struck out an alarming 26.5% of the time, more than 7% more than his previous career high. Unlike Sanchez, Bell trended the wrong direction with walk rate, dropping to a career low 9.9%, though that was still above league average.

Diving deeper into the numbers, it’s clear where Bell’s struggles lied. While he continued to pound the fastball, he lost all sense of competency against breaking and offspeed pitches.

Table: Baseball Savant

He hit just .174 with a .239 SLG on breaking pitches, with just one home run coming on a breaking pitch. He was even worse against offspeed pitches, hitting just .132 with a .158 SLG and no home runs. His expected stats weren’t much better, suggesting that it wasn’t just bad luck.

While his exit velocity actually went up on fastballs, it tanked on both breaking and offspeed pitches. His average exit velocity on breaking pitches was 88.1 MPH, while his average exit velocity on offspeed pitches was a brutal 83.9 MPH. It is worth noting, however, that both of these came in small sample sizes.

In addition to his struggles on breaking and offspeed pitches, his whiff rate also went up significantly on all three types of pitches.

Perhaps the most concerning stat of Bell’s is his change in launch angle. His 2019 breakout came in part from an increase in launch angle to a career-high 12.9 degrees. In 2020, he regressed to a career-worst 5.9, a number more in line with pre-2018 Christian Yelich, prior to his breakout.

While Bell was still hitting the ball hard in 2020, he will need to return to hitting the ball in the air to provide any sort of meaningful power contribution. That, combined with the other concerning plate discipline signs, paint major red flags for Bell. From a fantasy perspective, he’s likely one to avoid in 2021.

Second Base – José Altuve

Of all the players on this list, Altuve is perhaps the biggest star. A former MVP and perennial All-Star, his struggles in 2020 came as a shock to some and as a welcome sight to others.

While it’s quick to write off his past success as a product of the Astros’ cheating scandal, his success predated the known timelines of the cheating scandal. Still, it makes some wonder why his season fell flat after the cheating scandal was uncovered. Let’s dig in.

Unlike the others on this list, Altuve didn’t seem to experience a major spike in strikeout rate in 2020. While it’s true his 18.6% strikeout rate was a career-high, it was only moderately up from 2019 and continued a career trend he has shown since the introduction of StatCast in 2015. His strikeout rate was still better than the league average, and his walk rate remained above his career average.

Exit velocity, hard hit rate, and launch angle were also not concerns for Altuve in 2020, as they hovered around his established normal. It’s worth noting that Altuve has always maintained a below average exit velocity and hard hit rate.

Still, Altuve showed signs of a decline in quality of contact. His sweet spot rate dropped to a career low, and his barrel rate was his worst since 2015 by a fairly significant margin. This led to subpar expected statistics, most notably a .280 xwOBA that barely exceeded his .274 actual wOBA, and an uninspiring .303 xwOBACON. This is due at least in part to an increase in weak contact, posting a career high rate of 8.5%.

While Altuve wasn’t great against breaking pitches in 2019, he was even worse in 2020, hitting just .135 with no extra base hits in an admittedly small sample of 52 at-bats ending in breaking pitches. While some are quick to chalk that up to sign stealing, it’s not even the most concerning part of his profile.

The more concerning aspect is Altuve’s struggles with the fastball. He went from an elite hitter against the fastball in 2019 to a mediocre one in 2020. Notably, the sample size against offspeed pitches in 2020 in the graphic below is just 19 at bats, so there aren’t many conclusions that can be drawn there.

Image: Baseball Savant

Altuve’s profile is not one that would be expected to return him to stardom. However, Altuve is a player that has surprised before with his success. Given that the second base position is generally a weak one, it’s possible he returns value in 2021. There just doesn’t seem like there’s a ton to get excited about just yet. For a different type of analysis of Altuve from back in August, check out this piece from Jacob Hubbard.

Shortstop – Javier Baez

Baez broke out back in 2018, slashing .290/.326/.554 with a 131 wRC+ and backed it up in 2019 with a similar .281/.316/.531 slash. Though that was only good for a 114 wRC+ because of an increased offensive environment across the league and a low OBP, Baez appeared to have established a baseline true talent level.

Things came apart in a big way in 2020 however, with Baez slashing a dismal .203/.238/.360 with a 57 wRC+ that ranked among the league’s worst. A quick glance at the statistics shows a decline in plate discipline, a similar picture to that of Bell and Sanchez. His strikeout rate in 2020 was a career worst 31.9%, and his already low walk rate further dipped to 3.0%, ranking in the second percentile of the league. His whiff rate was 38.0% and ranked in the fourth percentile.

However, even beyond a lack of plate discipline, Baez throws up even more red flags. When he did make contact, it wasn’t of the same quality we are accustomed to seeing with Baez. His exit velocity dipped to an unimpressive 89.4 and his barrel rate dropped to 8.1. Notably, his barrel rate was identical to his 2017 season, in which he was a below-average hitter. Baez also saw declines in sweet spot percentage and xwOBACON, with both being the worst of his career. Simply put, even when Baez made contact, he wasn’t doing enough damage.

Much like Bell, Baez suddenly seemed to forget how to hit breaking pitches. He went from elite in 2019 to downright awful in 2020. Notably, while he hit for his highest average against fastballs, he slugged just .398 off the fastball in 2020, a far cry from his .520 SLG against fastballs in 2020. It’s important to note that the offspeed pitch data below consisted of just 22 at-bats in 2020, so we can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from that small sample.

Image: Baseball Savant

Baez has always had a concerning offensive profile given his high strikeout rate and almost non-existent walk-rate. In his two good seasons, he made up for that with quality contact, something he could not replicate in 2020. While it’s possible that the short season and time off played a role in that, Baez’s profile is too concerning to buy into for 2021, especially given the multitude of other options.

Third Base – Nolan Arenado

From 2015 through 2019, Arenado hit at least 37 HR and posted a wRC+ of no less than 121 in each season. For baseball traditionalists, Arenado also drove in at least 97 runs and scored at least 110 each year, while batting .287 or higher. Simply put, Arenado was as reliable of a hitter as you can get.

The same did not hold true in 2020. He slashed just .253/.303/.434, equating to a measly 76 wRC+ in the hitter-friendly environment in Colorado. That gave Arenado the worst season of his career and only his second below average season. It’s likely that a shoulder injury played at least some role in his struggles, though it’s unclear how much of a role.

As you might expect, the first place to look to attempt to explain Arenado’s struggles was his plate discipline. However, this was not the issue for Arenado. He actually exhibited great plate discipline, posting the lowest strikeout rate and whiff rate of his career. While his walk rate dipped a bit, the dip was not overly concerning.

In Arenado’s case, it seems he may have actually been making too much contact. On pitches in the strike zone, he made contact on a career high 90.5% of swings. On pitches outside the zone, he made contact on a career high 67.2% of swings.

That contact, however, was not of the same quality we are accustomed to seeing from Arenado. His hard-hit rate, barrel rate, sweet spot percentage, and average exit velocity were by far the worst of his career. This led to his expected statistics all lagging behind his actual numbers, further painting a black cloud over his season. Most notably, his xwOBACON was just .278, a number you’d expect from a weak-hitting backup catcher or utility infielder. This was at least partially supported by a slight increase in weak contact percentage, a career-high 3.0%. Still, that alone wouldn’t have explained the entirety of his struggles

In an attempt to determine why Arenado was making such weak contact, I dove into his batted ball profile. At first, there didn’t seem to be any meaningful changes, as his ground ball, fly ball, and line drive percentages all remained around his career normals. The same can be said about his spray chart, as he didn’t see a significant increase or decrease in pulled, centered, or opposite field batted balls.

However, one thing did stand out about Arenado’s batted ball profile. Arenado hit significantly more pop flies in 2020, popping up 16.3% of the time. This is supported by two pieces of data: his percentage of time hitting under the ball and his average launch angle. His flyball percentage increased to 41% in 2020 after never exceeding 32.9% previously.

Additionally, his launch angle rose to a career-high 19.1 degrees. While it’s true that, generally, the modern baseball philosophy is to raise launch angle, Arenado took it too far. As one may expect, pop-ups tend to lead to outs more times than not, leading to a good deal of Arenado’s struggles in 2020.

The good news with Arenado is that he seems to have the easiest path to a rebound. His plate discipline has not wavered. He simply needs to lower his launch angle back toward his career norms to improve his quality of contact. I’d expect Arenado to make this change and again become an offensive force in 2021.

Kyle Berger

Reds contributor for Max’s Sporting Studio. Follow on Twitter @KB_48