Small-sample Statcast: 4 notable starts to the 2020 season

Parsing a week’s worth of data is a fraught exercise. Anyone can have a good week. Anyone can have a bad week. Mike Trout, baseball’s best player, hit .160 with a .460 OPS over a seven-game stretch last summer. It’s baseball. Small samples beget weirdness.

Still, just because a week’s worth of data doesn’t necessarily have predictive value doesn’t mean it can’t be illuminating or interesting or hint at something sustainable. With that in mind, let’s take a look at four players whose Statcast numbers through the first week of the 2020 season were particularly notable.

Eloy Jimenez, White Sox

Even after slugging 31 homers as a rookie last season, Jimenez has gotten off to a particularly auspicious start in 2020, going 4-for-11 (.364) with a home run and a double through his first four games amid a dramatic improvement in his contact quality, which is decidedly off the charts early on. Nobody is hitting the ball harder than Jimenez, who leads the majors in average exit velocity at 99.4 mph, according to Baseball Savant, an increase of more than eight ticks over last year. Only two of his batted balls thus far have failed to meet Statcast’s “hard-hit” threshold. When you’re hitting the ball that hard on a regular basis, you’re going to get results. Batted balls with an exit velocity of 99-plus mph produced an astronomical weighted on-base average of .789 last year.

Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

In fact, Jimenez’s launch angle has actually decreased from 2019, dropping from 9.3 degrees to 6.9 and resulting in a 50% ground-ball rate. Yet the 23-year-old still leads the majors in barrels per plate appearance – a “barrel” is a batted ball with an expected batting average of at least .500 and an expected slugging percentage of at least 1.500 – with about one every four trips to the plate (23.1%).

Some regression is to be expected, of course – his average exit velocity is 3 mph higher than Aaron Judge’s league-leading mark from 2019 – but Jimenez was one of the game’s most highly touted offensive prospects for so long for good reason. Based on these early results, it very much seems like his transition from promising youngster to legitimate star is underway.

Dustin May, Dodgers

It wasn’t clear throughout summer camp what role May, the hard-throwing, 6-foot-6 right-hander and consensus top-25 prospect, would play with the Dodgers in 2020. A week into this shortened season, however, the emergent 22-year-old looks like an indispensable part of Los Angeles’ rotation. May, who unexpectedly landed the Opening Day start after Clayton Kershaw was felled by a back injury, dazzled in his first two outings, posting a 2.35 ERA without allowing a home run across 7 2/3 innings. In fact, he’s barely allowed any hard contact at all.

Harry How / Getty Images

May is one of just three qualified starters yet to allow a “barrel.” He also boasts the lowest average exit velocity among those qualified starters, at just 82.1 mph. (Only one qualified hitter, Billy Hamilton, managed a lower average exit velocity in 2019.)

As a late-season call-up last year, May showed he can suppress quality contact simply by throwing fastballs, primarily his triple-digit sinker and a plus cutter. But now that he’s added a curveball back to his arsenal – he scrapped the pitch while pitching primarily in relief down the stretch in 2019 – May looks like a burgeoning ace. Opponents are whiffing nearly 19% of the time against his curve, and May’s .275 expected wOBA is better than that of Max Scherzer and Chris Paddack.

Eric Hosmer, San Diego Padres

Coming into the 2020 campaign, Hosmer, who signed an eight-year, $144-million contract with the Padres two winters ago, seemed like a sunk cost. The first baseman had typified replacement level through his first two seasons in San Diego, slashing .259/.316/.412 (97 OPS+) while hitting for less power than Freddy Galvis because of his extreme ground-ball tendencies; 58.2% of his batted balls from 2018 through 2019 were grounders, tops in the majors. With six years to go on his deal, it didn’t augur well for the Padres. Suddenly, though, Hosmer looks like an entirely different hitter, one capable of producing offensively as a first baseman should.

Rob Leiter / MLB / Getty Images

Hosmer has been hitting the ball in the air like never before, with an average launch angle of 31.2 degrees, the sixth-highest mark in the majors and easily the highest of his 10-year career. As it happens, batted balls with a launch angle between 31 and 32 degrees produced a slugging percentage of 1.248 last year. Adding that kind of loft to his swing would by itself transform Hosmer, whose average launch angle finished in the negatives in 2018, but the one-time All-Star is also hitting the ball harder in the early going, upping his average exit velocity more than two ticks from his 2019 mark, to 93 mph. Hosmer has three extra-base hits already – he didn’t record his third extra-base hit of 2019 until his 10th game – to go along with a 1.583 OPS and an expected wOBA in the 96th percentile among big-league hitters.

Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

Adrenaline, it seems, had nothing to do with deGrom’s unexpected velocity spike in his season-opening start against Atlanta. The decorated right-hander actually threw harder on Wednesday in his second start – his four-seam fastball averaged almost 99.2 mph – and it very much appears as though baseball’s best pitcher has somehow improved his stuff following a second successive Cy Young campaign.

Mike Stobe / Getty Images

DeGrom’s fastball was already overbearing. Batters mustered a meager .292 wOBA against his four-seamer in 2019 and whiffed about 13% of the time. Now, though, it’s unhittable. Literally. No batter has managed a hit yet off deGrom’s heater, which accounts for almost half of his pitches, and they’re whiffing more than 17% of the time. And with such an oppressive fastball at his disposal, deGrom has ultimately been harder to face than ever, posting career bests in expected batting average (.161) and expected wOBA (.245) through his first couple outings while fashioned a 1.64 ERA and 0.55 WHIP.

Jonah Birenbaum is RunSportBet’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.