Personally, I absolutely love prospects. And in particular there are a couple of types of prospects who I consistently find myself gravitating toward. On the offensive side, some of my favorites are the prospects who are great defenders, with plus hit tools. I’m less concerned with power, and follow the philosophy that it’s easier for good hitters to develop power, than it is for power hitters to develop a hit tool.
Going into this year, Luis Garcia was my favorite Nats prospect, and it is pretty easy to see that he fits that mold. I could talk about Garcia (who I think is going to be a great player once he learns to be Luis Garcia), but as you could tell by the title, I’m talking about former Nationals prospect Andrew Stevenson. Why am I talking about Andrew Stevenson? Because he does not look like the Andrew Stevenson we’ve seen in previous years.
To get a couple things out of the way, you will really not see them mentioned beyond this paragraph. I DO NOT care that Stevenson slashed .366/.447/.732. I DO NOT care that his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was a completely unsustainable .464. I DO NOT care that he was “on a 20/20 pace” given 500 at-bats. I DO NOT care that he played in 15 games this year and had only 47 plate appearances. Sample size caveats will apply here to an extent, but we’re going to take a deep look and attempt to work around the small sample to the best of our abilities. Just because our sample is small, does not mean it is useless.
Stevenson’s profile was that of a great “range” defender and glove with good bat to ball skills, but he also featured little to no power. In 1,993 MiLB at bats from 2015-2019, from Rookie Ball to AAA, Stevenson hit 17 home runs. That’s something like 4 homeruns every 500 at-bats. However, 12 of those homeruns were hit at AAA from 2018-2019, in 664 at-bats. That’s about 9 homeruns every 500 at-bats. Still not great, but it showed Stevenson was maturing into some power, though he was still below average in that department.
This is 2020 though, and in 2020 Stevenson broke out in the power department. When I first started to dive into Stevenson’s 2020 season, I was doing so with the intention of illustrating that he was likely still the same player, and had simply hit some good luck. Needless to say, I have since changed my mind.
|Year (Batted Ball Events)||Avg Exit Velocity||Max Exit Velocity||Hard Hit%|
Max Exit Velocity
Stevenson this past year, hit a ball 2 MPH harder than he had ever hit a ball before (in the majors anyway). Now, 107.8 is not exactly world beating. In fact, of 142 qualified batters it would have ranked 120th. However, the players even in this lower range are still quality hitters. Marcus Semien had a Max EV this year of 108.0, and that’s more or less right in line with his career high of 108.4.
So why is the Max EV important here, if it is still below average? Two reasons: One, it clearly shows a tangible change in how hard Stevenson was hitting the ball. He hit the ball significantly harder than he had ever hit it before, that’s a positive sign. Second, we’re comparing his Max EV to MLB Regulars. Teams know the value of hitting the ball hard, the game has been trending that way for a while. If we instead look at any hitter to have at least 40 PA (which would then include Stevenson and his 47 PA) the numbers look very different.Stevenson is now ranked 282 out of 442. Not amazing, but suddenly much closer to the middle of the pack.
Average Exit Velocity and Hard Hit %
This is where my jaw dropped. If we keep our plate appearance threshold at 40, out of 442 players, STEVENSON HAD THE 10th HIGHEST AVERAGE EXIT VELOCITY IN BASEBALL. His Hard Hit% ? 164th out of 442.
Now, you might think to yourself, “Isn’t there a disconnect? How was his average exit velocity so elite, when his hard hit% is only above average?” Well, that’s because Stevenson actually ranked EVEN HIGHER in one batted ball stat. Out of 442 batters, Stevenson had the 6th lowest soft contact percentage in baseball, at a measly 6.7%.
Now, the last three stats I’ve mentioned here (Average EV, Hard Hit%, and Soft Hit%) are subject to small sample shenanigans. But our goal here isn’t to say Andrew Stevenson is now an elite hitter, it is to say Andrew Stevenson has been able to do what elite hitters do. Of course you have to consistently repeat the success while making adjustments and that is what an elite hitter does over a full season.
The Positives Don’t Stop There
Needless to say, there are a couple ways to drive a power spike like this. The obvious one is adding muscle so you hit the ball harder. At 26, it’s certainly possible (quite frankly it’s likely) that Stevenson has benefited from bulking up a bit.
But there are also some much more tangible changes we can view. And what it comes down to is that Stevenson’s plate profile looks much better.
|Year||Zone%||Zone Swing%||Zone Contact%||Edge%||Meatball%|
Quick primer to help explain some of these stats.
Zone% is the percent of pitches that player was thrown that were in the zone.
Zone Swing% is the percent of pitches in the zone the player swung at.
Zone Contact% is the perfect of pitches swung at in the zone that the player made contact with.
Edge% is the percent of pitches that player was thrown that were on the edge of plate.
Meatball% is the percent of pitches that player was thrown that were down the heart of the plate.
This, is one of the real changes that Stevenson made. He saw fewer pitches in the zone, AND swung at fewer of them. The jump in Zone Contact% quite frankly is remarkable. Combined with the huge change in Zone Swing%, suggests to me that he was doing a better job of waiting for his pitch. He didn’t just swing at a pitch because it was in the zone, he waited for GOOD pitches in the zone. And incredibly, this rather basic analysis also suggests he saw BETTER pitches this year (relative to location). He saw more pitches on the edge of the zone, and fewer down the middle.
I’ve tried to look a bit into the mechanics of Stevenson’s swing to see if part of his surge was also the result of a swing change. There are a couple minor changes, but he hardly revamped his swing (MLB.com has no video of Stevenson hitting from 2019… So I was forced to compare 2018 Stevenson to 2020 Stevenson).
In 2020 he closed his stance the tiniest bit, to the point where it is basically no longer open. This change is almost negligible to me, as his stance was barely open beforehand. He also stood closer to the plate in 2020 and seemingly was still able to get to pitches, which bodes well. It looks like he was “on his legs” a little bit more this year as well. Part of this change in his stride includes him also going from a toe tap, to more of a slight leg kick. He previously would bring his front foot a little closer to the plate as he swung, and this has also been slightly exaggerated now. I wouldn’t call his stance closed, but at its finality it is more closed than it had been before.
The biggest change, I cannot describe any way other than “looseness”. Stevenson has a lot of twichiness pre-swing related to timing. His hands stay up, but move back and forth prior to the pitch. He lets the tip of the bat move forward and back with his hands as well. It’s hard to explain, but the movements of this just look more fluid. It seems less methodical, and more like an ingrained bodily movement. It also includes “flapping” of his elbows now, which I think is part of the reason the motion has more fluidity. He’s no longer just moving his hands, and his whole upper body seems to be more insync with the movement.
The last change is that he’s loading a bit more. In other words, Stevenson’s hands used to attack the ball from a position that was very close to the same position his hands had been in prior to starting his swing. His hands now move back more toward the catcher before attacking.
It’s possible he’s also following through with his swing a bit more, but it was hard to tell how much of that was related to swing change, and how much was simply pitch location and camera angle.
Here are a couple GIFs, as I’m sure everyone would rather look at a GIF of a swing than me describing it. The initial one is Stevenson’s first career MLB homerun in 2018. The second is his homerun last year against deGrom. It’s hard to see in the GIF, but I encourage everyone to watch that homerun against deGrom in video form if you can. The bat speed he shows to get to that pitch up is fantastic (and that’s a 94MPH slider not fastball, so it was a mistake on deGrom’s part). I’d argue this swing is almost better, even if it resulted in an out.
What should we expect for 2021?
Needless to say, I think Stevenson could have a breakout of sorts next year. I in no way shape or form think that he will put up anything close to the line he did last year. However, Stevenson has actually been pretty good for a while now. At AAA in 2019 he slashed .334/.383/.503 in 333 PA. Now, that was in the hitters paradise that is Fresno, but we’ve seen players recently come up from the minors and ADD power simply because of the juiced ball and improved hitting environment in MLB.
The projection systems are still pretty down on Stevenson. Fangraphs’ Steamer projection has him at .252./.315/.365 over 600 PA. Personally, I think the projection systems largely just haven’t caught up yet, and the much larger sample from 2015-2018 is outweighing what he’s done the past 2 years. Stevenson is far from a lock to be great, but he’s my pick to click next year on the offensive side of the ball. I really don’t think it would be out of the question to see him hit .275/.350/.430.
“Yeah, mechanically not much has changed,” Stevenson told us after reading this article. “I think it’s just been learning my body more and being as relaxed in the box as possible. Also, getting consecutive at-bats helps get in a good rhythm.”
Yes, not much changed but you could see subtle changes like a toe-tap an inch or two towards the plate and more bend in the knees and the front shoulder turned in slightly and at his load his hands are recoiled back a little bit. Subtleties of change or slight tweaks as hitting coaches like to call them are most effective instead of a full overhaul. Being relaxed at the plate helps so you aren’t squeezing the bat handle into sawdust.
To me, at this point Stevo profiles as something very close to what the Nationals hoped Adam Eaton would be. A premium defender on range, routes, and glove (which Stevenson actually is, unlike Eaton who had a lot of his defensive value tied to his arm), with excellent bat to ball skills who can also take his walks. Stevenson may strikeout more, but I also think he has a little more untapped power and speed than Eaton (Stevenson’s sprint speed was 86th percentile last year vs 72nd percentile for Eaton).
Stevenson did struggle a bit on breaking balls last year, and occasionally had trouble holding up on pitches on the outside part of the zone. Ultimately though, these are adjustments he will need to make as pitchers adjust to him, like every hitter is forced to do. I’m sure this is something the Nationals will be working on with him. Whether he’s the 4th outfielder next year, the starter in left or part of a platoon, Stevenson is going to be a major key to the success of this year going forward. If there is one area the Nationals are completely lacking, it’s outfielders in their farm system. Andrew could be just the “prospect” the Nats need to help them tackle next year and beyond.
Even if he isn’t the superstar he hit like in 2020, Stevenson is poised to be an above average regular, and that’s all he needs to be.
Here are just a couple more “fun facts” from Statcast™ regarding Stevenson:
-His xBA was .293. (xBA is a players expected batting average based on how they hit the ball).
-His xSLG was .466 (xSLG is a players expected slugging percentage).
-His Sweet Spot% was 43.3% (% of balls hit between 8 and 32 degrees. The “ideal” zone).
-His Barrel % was only 6.7% (% of balls hit over 98MPH, with an “ideal” launch angle).
-His Line Drive% was 43.3% (Line drives have the highest expected batting average).