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2022 wRC+ Gainers: Believe or Make Believe?

We have officially reached the off-season. Hopefully, you had a great season! Whether you were successful or unsuccessful in your quest for gold, there are always improvements to be made. Staying committed and reading articles throughout the off-season helps you to be more prepared during draft season than those who start prepping two weeks before the draft. Over the past year, I have had a running series on xwRC+. This model uses whiff %, chase %, barrel %, sweet spot %, 65th percentile EV, and launch angle to determine if a batter was lucky or unlucky throughout the season. You can read more about my process here if you would like! In this article, I look at three hitters who went from below average to above average in 2022 and look at if this was backed up by xwRC+!

2022 wRC+ Gainers

Jeff McNeil- 2B New York Mets

Before I start praising players on the Mets, as a lifelong Phillies fan I must mention their epic collapse and elimination from the playoffs. Who could have seen that coming! Anyway, back to what this article is really about, Jeff McNeil was awesome in 2022. Virtually undrafted outside of deep leagues heading into McNeil finished with a 143 wRC+. This is a 51-point jump from his 2021 number. Matter of fact, this is the second-largest increase in baseball amongst hitters with at least 400 plate appearances in both seasons. This only trails Aaron Judge which is impressive to say the least. The leagues where McNeil really had the most value were leagues that emphasized on-base percentage and total points. In my Ottoneu points league, he finished as the fourth-highest scoring second baseman in baseball.

So, the question remains: What changed in McNeil’s profile? Before this season, McNeil was a career .299 hitter with a 126 wRC+. In 2021, he saw his average plummet down to .251. This was primarily a result of his BABIP dropping down to .280. This season, McNeil’s BABIP skyrocketed to .353 (his highest mark since his rookie season). This helped carry McNeil to the National League batting title as he hit .326. There is a strong positive correlation between BABIP and LD%. Jeff McNeil raised his sweet spot percentage from 30.4% in 2021 to 39% in 2022 helping him to a 23.8%-line drive rate. While it is likely that McNeil can maintain an average right around .300 next season, it is unlikely that his BABIP remains at .353. His sweet spot percentage ranked 11th in all of baseball, and I expect him to experience some regression in this area next year.

With sweet spot percentage being a crucial part of a player’s xwRC+, it stands to reason that McNeil’s strong performance in 2021 is backed up by this model. Not only does the xwRC+ model love McNeil’s sweet spot percentage, but it also loves his plate discipline. McNeil’s 2022 whiff percentage is just 15.9%. This is the lowest mark of his career and helps prevent McNeil from striking out. Despite both things, McNeil’s xwRC+ is just 100 for the 2022 season. McNeil’s extremely high BABIP helped carry him to a high average and although his whiff percentage is great, he still chases at an above-average rate.

The main reason that xwRC+ is out on McNeil is his power output. In 2022, McNeil had just a 2.7%-barrel rate and a 93.6 65th percentile exit velocity. These numbers led to very little power production out of McNeil. In terms of fantasy performance, it is crucial to have both speed and power in your profile. McNeil has neither as he hit just nine home runs and stole four bases. McNeil is reliant on his high average to carry him in fantasy. Any turn of his luck like we saw in 2021 removes all his fantasy value. For that reason, I am not buying into his 2022 success and believe we will see regression moving forward.

Christian Walker- 1B Arizona Diamondbacks

Rarely do batters increase their barrel percentage by 5% in a single season. Even rarer is when that batter is already over the age of 30. That is exactly what Christian Walker managed to do in 2022. Walker raised his barrel percentage from 6.4% in 2021 to 11.5% in 2022, helping lead him to a 122 wRC+. This is an increase of 35 points from 2021. Walker was almost universally a top-10 option at 1B across all fantasy leagues which I do not think any analyst saw coming before the season. He blasted 36 home runs and knocked in 94 runs despite playing on a below-average offense. Walker was fourth in the NL in home runs behind Kyle Schwarber, Pete Alonso, and Austin Riley. The first three players are recognized as important fantasy baseball assets, and it is time we start considering Walker one as well.

There is more to Walker’s breakout than just increasing his barrel percentage. Looking at the image below, you can see that Walker made significant strides at the plate.

Walker made significant improvements to both his chase percentage and his out of zone swing percentage in 2022. He was able to bring both of those numbers below league average and posted a career best strikeout rate. With pitchers being forced to throw Walker mores strikes, he punished them. He made it an effort to get the ball in the air more helping him to hit more home runs. He specifically showed vast improvements and ability to hit fastballs. As you can see by the images below, Walker struggled in 2021 to hit for power off fastballs, especially those thrown 95mph or harder. His ability to adjust and turn those pitches into home runs helped unlock new heights for Walker.

All the changes mentioned above helped Walker to a career season. His 2022 wRC+ is strongly supported by the xwRC+ model. xwRC+ believes that Walker deserved a 117 wRC+ in 2022. Although breakouts past the age of 30 are rare, Walker seems to possess all the skills necessary to maintain this high level of success. You can even make the case that Walker was unlucky after posting just a .248 BABIP. I expect Walker to continue his high levels of success in 2023 and am buying into him being a top fantasy option at first base!

Anthony Santander- OF Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles had a lot of exciting young players join the team this year. Top prospects Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson almost led them to the playoffs and Baltimore fans have a lot to look forward to in 2023. Lost in the excitement, are players like Anthony Santander. Santander is not new but is still just 27 years old. After struggling to stay healthy and posting a 92 wRC+ in 2021, many were skeptical of Santander’s true value. He put those concerns to rest in 2022 by playing 152 games with a 120 wRC+. Santander blew past his previous career high of 20 home runs and smashed 33. Baltimore’s improving offense helped Santander also post a career high in runs (78) and RBIs (89). He was one of only five outfielders in baseball to post HR>30, R>70, RBI>80. The other four outfielders were:

  • Aaron Judge
  • Kyle Schwarber
  • Mike Trout
  • Yordan Alvarez

Pretty good list to be a part of!

Similarly, to Christian Walker, Santander saw his barrel rate increase in 2022. He increased it by 3.2% up to 11.6%. This helped Santander to reach 30 home runs but is not the biggest reason for his increase in wRC+. wRC+ is a prorated statistic meaning that it does not factor in games played. Santander has always demonstrated solid power posting a 25/600 home run pace last season. The biggest change was Santander’s ability to reduce his strikeouts and work more walks. He took his whiff percentage from above league average at 25.1% in 2021 to below league average at 21.5% in 2022. Santander posted a career high BB% which helped fuel his career high wRC+.

I am sure you have figured out the trend by now. Increasing barrel percentage and improved plate discipline are two ways to increase your xwRC+. The model loves the changes that Santander made in 2022. Last season his wRC+ of 92 was backed up by a 95 xwRC+. This season is no different, except his wRC+ is now above average. xwRC+ believes in Santander and based on the model, he should have had a 114 wRC+ in 2022. I am buying in on Santander as the only thing he still must prove is an ability to stay healthy.

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