Expectations were low for the 2022 Cincinnati Reds and their new utility infielder, Brandon Drury. Drafted in the 13th round of the 2010 draft by the Atlanta Braves, Drury became a bit of a journeyman after debuting with the Diamondbacks in 2015. Before signing a minor league free-agent deal with the Reds last year, he had trouble staying on a major league roster for a full season. But 2022 would be different.
After a cup of coffee in the big leagues with the Diamondbacks in 2015, Drury’s career was off to a promising start. He entered 2016 inside the top 100 of both Baseball America’s and Baseball Prospectus’s prospect rankings before delivering a solid rookie campaign with a .282/.329/.458 slash line and 16 home runs in 134 games. His sophomore season was less flashy, but strong as he slashed .267/.316/.447 with 13 home runs over 135 games. Before the 2018 season, he was traded to the Yankees in a three-team deal with Tampa Bay that sent Steven Souza Jr. to the desert.
The strong start to Drury’s career was not to survive the trip to the east coast, as his 2018 season was derailed early by severe migraines. He even conceded that he would frequently step to the plate with blurry vision. After a stint on the injured list, he was sent to AAA before being traded to Toronto as part of the deal for J.A. Happ. It wouldn’t be long before injuries once again befell him in the form of a broken hand.
Drury earned a regular role in the Blue Jays’ 2019 lineup but failed to produce. He produced a meager .642 OPS and .271 wOBA in 447 plate appearances before being relegated to a bench role in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He made 49 plate appearances that season, his last in Toronto, before totaling only 88 plate appearances with the New York Mets in 2021.
A Career Revived
Given the precipitous fall from grace Drury experienced in the preceding years, he garnered little attention in free agency after the 2021 season. After signing a minor league deal with the Reds, he broke camp with the team and hit the ground running.
— Cincinnati ? (@CincyProblems) April 8, 2022
In his 92 games with the Reds, Drury saw improvement across most every offensive category. From 2015 to 2021, Drury slashed .249/.296/.415 with 51 home runs in 1,708 plate appearances. He exceeded 60 RBI in a season only once, in 2017, and hadn’t generated more than 50 extra-base hits since. With the Reds, his slugging percentage jumped to .520 with a gaudy .246 isolated slugging percentage, indicating a serious uptick in extra-base hits. Indeed, he hit 20 home runs, 22 doubles and two triples during his stay in southwest Ohio, driving in 59 runs and scoring 62 times himself.
Naturally, the struggling Reds flipped Drury at the deadline to the San Diego Padres for a teenage shortstop prospect. His production waned after the trade, slashing a much weaker if still respectable .238/.290/.435 with eight home runs in 46 games. He ended the season slashing .263/.320/.492 with 28 home runs, 87 RBI, and 87 runs scored.
Is it Sustainable?
Another change of venue is in store for Drury this season, as he agreed to a two-year, $17 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels in free agency. The question that both fantasy players and Halos fans alike should be asking: can he come close to repeating his 2022 offensive production?
A few things were different for Drury in 2022. First of all, he was healthy. His stays in New York and Toronto were marred by sight-compromising migraines and injuries, stifling his chances at consistent opportunity. It was also his first season as a regular player since his dismal 2019 campaign. He also made the offseason decision to replicate the swing he had during his time in Arizona, which he changed after 2017 in pursuit of improved launch angle.
Now, it’s impossible to ignore the Great American Ballpark-sized elephant in the room, but perhaps it is more useful to first examine what Drury did in 2022 absent external factors. The good news is that at first glance, no underlying 2022 metrics scream regression. His .293 BABIP doesn’t indicate any outlandish luck, and his average exit velocity and launch angle sit comfortably above league average. His barrel rate of 10.2% (41 barrels) was strong and by far a career-best.
While there are no obvious signs of regression, there’s also little in the periphery that screams, “This guy rakes!” Among qualified hitters in 2022, he was 91st in barrel rate, 90th in xwOBA, 103rd in hard contact rate, and 112th in ideal plate appearance percentage; all solid, none exceptional. In other words, one might look at his peripherals and envision a solid hitter. One likely would not conclude that this profile would translate to 28 home runs and a .492 slugging percentage (both good for 30th among qualified hitters). So how did he do it?
Handicapping hitters based on where they play their home games is tricky and arguably overused (see: Nolan Arenado.) In determining the sustainability of power output, it is, however, worth exploring. Anecdotally, Drury has a lot working against him here. Great American Ballpark is a great place to hit, and Drury’s production dropped off when he moved to Petco Park.
Something that does stand out about Drury’s 2022 is the frequency at which his fly balls went for home runs. He was in the 85th percentile of HR/FB percentage at 19.3%. This alone doesn’t mean that Drury was a benefactor of friendly venues or luck; Aaron Judge led the league in this metric and probably will again this year. However, we can add some context to this number by looking at exit velocity on fly balls. Here, Drury ranks only in the 38th percentile of big-league hitters. As a result, it does seem that he overperformed Baseball Savant’s expected home runs (Savant credits him with 29 home runs instead of 28, but the point remains.) A quick look at a few players with similar HR/FB percentages illustrates this dynamic nicely.
None of this is to say that there aren’t things to like about the way Drury achieved his results in 2022. For one, he put the ball on the ground at a below-average rate and hit fly balls at an above-average rate. He also pulled the ball on 44.4% of balls in play. Occasionally, he really ran into one.
Brandon Drury 27th Homerun of the Season pic.twitter.com/FonGjq6vob
— Homers MLB (@homers_mlb) September 17, 2022
2023 and Beyond
Drury makes a lot of sense as a signing for the Angels. They’ve sported a top-heavy lineup and lacked infield depth, and $8.5 million a year is hardly a fortune for a player coming off a 3.0-WAR season. He also mashes lefties, adding his 2022 slash line of .299/.329/.626 against southpaws to a lineup that managed a meager .226/.289/.369 against them.
His early season struggles this year have driven his ownership to 36.9% in ESPN fantasy leagues, which presents an interesting question for managers. Is this a buy-low opportunity or the inevitable fizzling of a true flash in the pan?
It’s tough to put too much stock in what happens in the first week of a season, but an elevated strikeout rate, skyrocketing whiff rate, and drop in exit velocity are concerning signs for Drury. However, while there’s little chance he’ll produce at the rate he did last year, he could easily return to the output he generated early in his career. His multi-position eligibility and 20-homer potential make him worth taking a flier on for teams lacking depth. Just don’t expect the world-beater we saw through July of 2022.
Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)