The Comeback Effort

Spring Training has given a glimpse into who could come back in 2021.

The 2020 season brought an onslaught of challenges for hitters. A shortened season created an inability to work through short-term problems with more at-bats. Players who weren’t immediately producing were hurting their team’s playoff odds by the plate appearance. The short sprint caused teams to manage their lineups with shorter hooks than you’d expect, but it was necessary to keep their playoff hopes alive.

There was also no in-game video for hitters to watch and make adjustments off of which could have affected even more hitters. Some of the hitters that I will discuss might fall into that category. I will be avoiding players who are returning from a major injury and instead focus on players who played in 2021 but struggled during that season while appearing to be mostly healthy. 


J.D. Martinez

If there is one person you’re thinking of as a comeback candidate offensively, J.D. Martinez is probably that guy. Coming into 2020, Martinez was thought of as one of the best hitters in baseball. Over three years, from 2017-2019, Martinez had a wRC+ of 158 which was second only to Mike Trout during that time. In 2020, Martinez struggled at all parts of the game. The season presented an ambush of challenges, but it seemed like at times Martinez just didn’t want to be there. That greatly affected his play on the field. 

Martinez posted a .213/.291/.389 line with a 77 wRC+. His -1.0 fWAR was the worst in baseball last year. What’s somewhat stranger is that Martinez’s quality of contact indicated he should have turned it around at some point. He was in the 60-70th percentile in xSLG, xISO, and Hard-hit rate. He’s capable of much more than that as those were his lowest-rated percentiles since Statcast began tracking those categories.

He also hit fewer balls on the ground this past year than in previous years and hit more line drives than ever. His 90th percentile exit velocity (shout-out to Jeremy Siegel for his well-thought article that you can read here) was around 103 mph which is still good but he’s capable of more. Those things lead me to believe that he is still capable of making hard contact consistently. The real area of intrigue for Martinez is his plate discipline. 

Martinez was not the same discipline hitter that he had been in years past. Martinez has had a walk rate of over 10% each of the three previous seasons. It dipped to 9.3% in 2020. His chase rate rose, as did his swing percentage. Nothing took a dramatic turn, all the more reason to believe that he can snap back into the great form he had previously, but it was enough that in the small sample size, it could hurt him. His whiff rate was still lower than his historic 2018 season.

Martinez has been known to make adjustments using in-game video in the past, and it could have affected him more than we know but more than anything, I think Martinez was just too aggressive and that led to some bad swings in bad counts. Some more discipline will lead to better swings and thus the J.D. Martinez that we’ve grown to appreciate will return.


Gary Sanchez

The Gary Sanchez experience has some epic highs, and some depressing lows. The 2020 season probably defined the lowest moment of Gary Sanchez’s career. He was benched in the postseason for Kyle Higashioka who was just playing better than him at the time. When Gary is going right, he’s the most talented catcher in baseball. When he’s going bad, you wonder if he can be a major league-caliber player.

Offensively, Gary just missed more pitches than he ever had before. On fastballs inside the heart of the plate, Gary Sanchez had a 16% SwStr% in 2020. The league average was 11%. For comparison’s sake, in 2019, Gary Sanchez had a 14% SwStr% on those same fastballs. His xwOBA on those fastballs fell by almost 400 points from 2019 to 2020. He was in a funk at the plate. Which led to the highest strikeout rate of his career at 36%. I wouldn’t count on that repeating in 2021. 

The good news about Gary is that when he did make contact, he continued to crush the ball. He had a barrel rate of 17.4 and a hard-hit rate of 50%! The upside in Gary’s bat is very real. Hitting one out of every two balls over 95 mph is a very impressive feat. Again, Gary has to make contact though, and he didn’t do that much in 2020.

Sanchez went through a bit of a mechanic change in his swing and after a successful winter ball stint, seems to be in a groove to open spring training. He already has three home runs in 13 plate appearances. A good sign that he is seeing the ball better including this mammoth shot for his first of the spring. 

Sanchez still has questions to answer defensively though. His framing stayed relatively the same on a rate basis, might have slightly improved in 2020 but his blocking took a step back as he learned the one knee stance that has become popular. To his credit, Sanchez has repeatedly worked at the defensive side of his game and maybe this is the year we will finally see some strides.

Gary Sanchez creates a lot of discourse with his play, this is a make-or-break year as the Yankees have Austin Wells waiting in the wings and a decision may have to be made on his future. For now, I will sit and wait for him to perform like I know he can. 


Austin Meadows

Now, I know I said I would be avoiding major injuries and Austin Meadows was lingering from an injury, but he still appeared in 36 games during the season which is enough because he was being platooned against left-handed pitching anyway, so he will make this list.

There’s no question that Meadows struggled in 2020. The first thing that jumps out is the 32.9% strikeout rate. That is an anomaly. In his entire professional baseball career, the highest strikeout rate he had in a season with more than 100 PA’s was 23.4%. He swung through more pitches than he ever had before. He had a 31.4 whiff rate which was the bottom 20% of the league. He did chase more pitches out of the zone too, which will help contribute but his whiff rate jumped by nearly 8%. Unlike Gary Sanchez though, Meadows wasn’t crushing the ball when he made contact. 

The hits didn’t pile up for Meadows, and if anything, he might have been a little lucky. He finished the year with a .270 xwOBA which was 20 points below his wOBA. He did maintain his 42.9% Hard-Hit rate, but his xwOBACON fell by more than 100 points on the year. A big reason for that was Meadows had a 10% pop-up rate. He got under the ball on 40.5% of his balls in play during the year. To put it simply, Meadows was hitting balls just as hard but at too high of a launch angle for him to doing anything with it.

Like before though, these all feel like massive outliers. He was derailed by a nagging injury and appears to be healthy now as he has three spring training home runs already. He seems like a clear choice to bounce back if he is proven healthy. 

In the field, Meadows will offer positional variability with OF and DH availability. The Rays outfield has some questions with rumors that they may look to trade Kevin Kiermaier at some point. There is no clear and present solution to that for now so Meadows will be seeing time in right field and DH. This will make him a higher overall ADP due to the multi-positional availability, but you shouldn’t find too many issues with drafting Meadows in the early to mid-rounds. 


Javier Baez

Admittedly, I am not the strongest believer in Javier Baez’s offensive profile. For his career, Baez has a 4.7% walk rate and a 28.4% strikeout rate. Neither of those things screams sustainable long-term success to me which has long been my issue with Baez. He is a free swinger, unafraid of striking out if it means he can groove a pitch that he likes.

However, I think having a 57 wRC+ with a career-low walk rate and the highest strikeout rate since his rookie season would be reason enough for me to believe that Baez will bounce back in 2020. I could probably just leave it there and everyone reading would agree but I want to try and answer to what degree will Baez bounce back? Let’s start by looking at max exit velocity. 

To preface this, no Javier Baez is not Giancarlo Stanton who makes hitting balls at 120 mph look like lifting a 5-pound dumbbell. However, Baez had the 7th highest max exit velocity in baseball last year at 116 mph (min 1 BBE). That was in front of names like Bryce HarperAaron Judge, and Ronald Acuña Jr. Despite being the free swinger that Javier Baez is, he can crush a baseball. He just wasn’t doing it consistently in 2020. Baez is similar to Sanchez in a just more extreme way. That makes him uniquely difficult to understand and evaluate because of his serious lack of plate discipline. 

In 2020, he seemed more than willing to take a few pitches, something he has never really done. He wasn’t chasing as many pitches or swinging as much as he normally does. Yet, a common theme amongst these comeback candidates he swung and missed more than ever before, setting a career-high in whiff rate.

For a player like Baez, the swings and misses are a part of his game as he’s ranked in the bottom five percentile in whiff rate in each of the last four seasons. It only becomes a problem when a player doesn’t make great contact enough to become a serviceable offensive player, which is what happened to the Cubs shortstop. People believe that like Martinez, the lack of in-game video hurt Baez because he was unable to make adjustments as needed. 

All of these things are to say that a hitter who never cracked a 100 wRC+ in his first four seasons will be able to become a 131 wRC+ hitter again are unlikely, but the 110 mark is very reachable for him. He still hits the ball hard and won’t be swinging and missing as much as he did in 2020. If he can work on consistently hitting hard-line drives, then Baez will be fine. He’ll never reach the offensive ceiling of his counterparts however and I think we will never see the type of season we saw from him in 2018 again. 


Justin Upton

Justin Upton has drawn mixed reactions to a potential comeback or if he will continue to his downward spiral towards early retirement. There’s no question that Upton should be a DH. However, the Angels have Shohei Ohtani and Albert Pujols. So Upton will continue to log innings in left field where he probably isn’t that good anymore, which will ultimately kill a lot of his value. However, there’s still reason to believe in the bat. 

I know that back-to-back sub 100 wRC+ seasons for a player that is currently 33 years old is not exactly a good sign, but (there is always a but here) Upton is still capable of hitting the ball hard. His max exit velocity was similar to guys like Rhys HoskinsLuke Voit, and Paul Goldschmidt. Hoskins struggled in 2020 but seemed unlucky more than anything while Voit and Goldschmidt had stellar offensive seasons. The cause for concern with Upton is the fact that he was hitting the ball consistently hard at a low rate at a surface-level glance. Looking deeper though, in Upton’s last 100 plate appearances, he was consistently hitting the ball hard. 

In Spring Training, Upton continues to look good at the plate. Again, Spring Training is not real but it’s an encouraging sign that he carried something over from his late-season success. If he can continue to do that, Upton may be in line for a bounce back.

The only thing holding me back is Upton walked at a career-worst rate. He wasn’t chasing more pitches though and swung at his career average rate. He simply got more pitches in the strike zone and hit more of them than he had before as he had the lowest whiff rate over the last 5 seasons. That’s an encouraging sign for Upton, but the counter will likely be that he sees fewer pitches in the strike zone. That will be the ultimate test to an Upton comeback; if he can lay off the pitches out of the zone while maintaining his lower whiff rate. If he can do that, he may give some life to that comeback effort. 


Joey Gallo

Many have already banked on the comeback effort of one, Joey Gallo. Chad Young of Pitcher List wrote an article about Gallo that’s fantastic that gives a great dive into his ability as a hitter. It’s easy to look at Joey Gallo and say he just strikes out too much to ever be a great hitter but instead I turn that on its heel.

In baseball history, Joey Gallo has the highest wRC+ in a single season with a batting average under .210. The upside in Gallo is unreal even with the strikeouts. What if I told you he struck out less in 2020 than he did in 2019? You’d probably be thinking that he is getting better, but he did much worse. 

Yes, strikeouts are still a problem for Gallo, but he’s getting better at it. Both his whiff rate and SwStr% are going down over the years. His chase rate in 2020 was a career-low and he still walks 12% of the time. In 2020, Gallo saw more pitches in the strike zone than he ever had before and by putting more balls in play than he ever had before. Pitchers attacked Gallo thinking they might be able to catch him off guard, and it worked. 

Gallo had a career-high pop-up rate and career-low barrel rate. He was getting under more balls and thus was still crushing the baseball, but not in the way that he did in 2019 because he was under the ball so much. Gallo will have to adjust his launch angle back to his 2019 form and hit the ball on a line more. His line drives will be home runs at pretty much every ballpark. It won’t matter that he isn’t hitting as many fly balls because a 115-mph line drive from Joey Gallo will go very far. 

The question for Gallo is if he will be in Texas by the end of the year. The team is rebuilding and retooling, and Gallo is about to enter his prime years. He could get quite a return in a trade package. A contending team in desperate need of an outfielder may be willing to give a considerable number of pieces to get him. Watch out for Tampa Bay making a move. Joey Gallo in the AL East parks? Sign. Me. Up. 


Honorable Mentions

There are a few other players who are capable of bounce-back years like Rhys Hoskins and Shohei Ohtani who have already been mentioned. Hoskins is recovering from surgery so I didn’t want to talk about him and Ohtani is too complex to get into when we add in the fact he will be pitching as well. Gleyber Torres is the focus of my next article and is another stellar choice for a comeback. The Yankees shortstop was in shape and healthy coming into camp and it will be exciting to see what he can do. Opening day is three weeks away; it’s time to see what’s real and what’s not. 

Photo by Roland Harrison/Mark LoMoglio/Actionplus/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Max Greenfield

Former Intern for the Washington Nationals, now a Going Deep Writer analyzing the next possible breakout pitcher.

One response to “The Comeback Effort”

  1. preston says:

    No Mitch Haniger?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login