Five of 2019’s Breakout Hitters

By: Henry Ettinger | May 23, 2019

Somehow we are already over a quarter of the way through 2019 MLB season. With some statistics starting to normalize a bit, we at STATS wanted to take a look at which hitters are having a breakout season so far this spring. To do this, we combined some of our proprietary hitting statistics and our own hitter heat maps to determine who has made the most improvement and how they have done it.

STATS’ heat maps are a little different because they assign a value to every pitch in an at-bat rather just than on balls put in play. The hitter receives a value for every pitch based on what the league-average hitter does with a corresponding pitch, factoring in location and type. If the result is better than the league-average on an identical pitch, the hitter gets a higher grade (indicated by the shade of red) or vice versa (blue).

Also, laying off certain pitches is factored in as well. Hitters who lay off pitches just off the outside corner, for example, are given a higher value in those zones since those pitches are frequently chased by the league-average hitter. If they do the opposite like take a two-strike pitch that is right down the middle, then they are given a lower value.

Based on those maps and some of our other statistics, STATS has highlighted five players who have made massive improvements at the plate so far in 2019.

Cody Bellinger – Los Angeles Dodgers

*All heat maps are from the pitcher’s perspective*

Bellinger has already been an all-star and is definitely the most established player on this list, but he has taken his batting to a whole new level in his third season. Just look at all of the dark red in that heat map. He is leading the league in essentially every basic statistical category including batting average, slugging, and on-base percentage. According to STATS’ run value above average statistic (RVAA), Bellinger has produced runs 111% better than the average hitter at the plate this season, the second-best mark in the league behind Anthony Rendon. To get a better picture of how he is doing that, let’s dive into some of STATS’ more advanced numbers.

Bellinger has been absolutely crushing pitches thrown up and away to him as a lefty batter. Using STATS’ BIP+ metric, which rates the quality of balls put in play for a player compared to the league average (set at 100), we can see Bellinger’s improvement in that area. His BIP+ prior to this season was 126 or 26% above league average. So far this season, his BIP+ is a whopping 379 or 279% better than league-average on pitches in that shaded zone.

Bellinger is also more aggressive seeking pitches out in that location. He swung at pitches in the highlighted zone 60% of the time in his first two seasons, but in 2019, he is swinging at them 77% of the time. The combination of his improved contact and aggressiveness has basically made it impossible for pitchers to use that part of the strike zone without paying a devastating price.

Gio Urshela – New York Yankees

After limited playing time in his first few years, Gio Urshela is getting a much bigger opportunity with the Yankees this season because of injuries, and he is making the most of it. Using STATS’ contact+ rating, which measures a batter’s contact rate relative to the average contact rate on the pitches that they swing at, we can see that Urshela is making contact 10% more often than the average batter when he swings. Among batters with at least 100 plate appearances, Urshela’s contact+ rating ranks 19th in the league.

Urshela’s biggest leap in improvement has come on pitches that are low and inside to him as a right-handed hitter. Urshela has always been a free swinger in that area, swinging at 81% of pitches thrown there before this season and 78% so far this year. However, he is hitting the ball much harder now compared to earlier in his career. Urshela’s BIP+ in that area was a deplorable 11 over his first three years, but it is up to 146 this season. In other words, he used to hit low and inside pitches 89% worse than league average, but now, he hits them 46% better than league average.

Paul DeJong – St. Louis Cardinals

DeJong was solid at the plate for the Cardinals in his first two seasons at the major-league level, and as you can see on the general heat map, his improvement appears to be mostly the result of doing just a little bit better in every part of the zone. So why are we highlighting him? Well, DeJong is a great example of why STATS’ heat maps capture part of the story that other heat maps are missing. 

One of DeJong’s greatest improvements has nothing to do with when he takes the bat off his shoulder. Instead, he has improved immensely from a discipline standpoint, letting pitches go that are just out of the zone. DeJong used to swing at 42% of pitches in that highlighted area just off the outside part of the plate for him as a righty. Those pitches are not strikes and very difficult to hit. This year, he is only swinging at 26% of those pitches, and he has cut his whiff rate from 13% in the past to 6% in 2019.

Josh Bell – Pittsburgh Pirates

Bell is a switch-hitter. We looked at his performance from both sides and determined that he is better as a hitter this year because of the damage he is doing from the left-side of the plate. The heat maps shown above and below are specifically for when Bell is batting lefty against right-handed pitchers.

Bell’s success has come from hitting middle-in pitches. Of course, this is usually an area where most hitters excel, and Bell’s contact rate is just below league-average in that region. So what separates Bell? Two things. First, he is being very aggressive. He is swinging at 89% of the pitches in that shaded zone, almost never letting a quality strike go by him. Second, when he makes contact, the quality of that contact is extremely high. The quality of the balls he puts in play (his BIP+ rating) went from 16% below average in his first three seasons to prodigious 294% above average this year. Just watch this video of him launching a ball out of the stadium and into the Allegheny River.

Jorge Polanco – Minnesota Twins

After an okay first full season in 2017, Polanco elevated his numbers during his second season, but he only played 77 games because of an 80-game suspension at the start of the season for performance-enhancing drugs. Well, it appears those 77 games were not a fluke. He has been even better in 2019.

Polanco’s raised his game because of the work he has done as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitchers when they try to work the outside of the zone. What used to be one of his weakest areas as a hitter has become one of his strongest. His quality of balls in play has jumped 197% compared to league average and his run value above average for that part of the zone went from 17% below the MLB average to 336% above it. Yeah. Becoming a full-zone hitter has made Polanco an impossible out.