We’re only a week into the 2021 season, but it’s never too soon to look at the Statcast data and try to pick out the players who are poised for big years.
So, let’s do it. Here are the Statcast standouts from the season’s early goings. These could be players who are hitting the ball harder than ever before, or who are showing us a skill set we didn’t know they had, or who are adding velocity and spin, or who are showcasing stuff so elite they’re answering the big questions we had about them entering the year.
Here are 10 players — five hitters and five pitchers — who posted eye-opening numbers during Opening Week.
Gavin Lux, 2B, Dodgers
Key stat: 29.6 ft/sec avg. sprint speed
Lux was one of baseball’s top overall prospects before a weird 2020 season in which he could never really crack a loaded Dodgers roster. But now, in 2021, we’re seeing the talent that could make the 23-year-old an all-around star.
Lux is playing great defense (his +3 Outs Above Average so far lead the Majors), he’s hitting (.343 expected batting average based on his contact quality) and, maybe most interestingly, he’s really fast. Lux had an average sprint speed of 29.6 feet per second through Opening Week, placing him second on the sprint speed leaderboard behind only Washington’s Trea Turner.
MLB’s average sprint speed is only 27 ft/sec. Lux has already exceeded the elite sprint speed threshold of 30+ ft/sec on two of his runs — and both of those were infield hits. That means his speed is making a real impact.
Byron Buxton, CF, Twins
Key stat: 114.1 mph max exit velocity
Only a week into the season, Buxton has already hit a ball harder than he has in his career — a 114.1 mph, 451-foot home run he crushed off a 96 mph fastball at the top of the zone. When you can reach a high maximum exit velocity like that — and especially drive that ball in the air for a home run — it’s meaningful, because hitting the ball really hard is a skill you can’t fake.
All of Buxton’s home runs have been impressive. He’s hit another one 111.4 mph and 456 feet, powered out a moonshot with a 109.6 mph exit velo and sky-high 40-degree launch angle and hit a fourth off Corbin Burnes’ electric cutter. Right now, Buxton ranks near the top of the Majors in nearly all of Statcast’s quality of contact metrics.
The Reds are crushing everything, and Naquin is leading the charge. The 29-year-old, who’s always been toolsy but has never put it all together, has been hitting everything. Of Naquin’s 13 batted balls entering Friday, 12 had been hard-hit (exit velocity of 95 mph or harder). That’s an absurd MLB-high 92.3% hard-hit rate.
Four of those balls had been barreled, the best type of contact you can make, giving him a first-week barrel rate of 30.8%. Naquin’s average exit velocity was 100.5 mph, leading all players with as many batted balls as him.
Akil Baddoo, OF, Tigers
Key stat: 63.3% hard-hit rate since Spring Training
Baddoo, a Rule 5 Draft pick who hit his way onto the Tigers’ roster, is stealing the show. And the thing is, behind the big moments — the homer on the first pitch he saw in the Majors, the grand slam the next day, the walk-off hit the day after that — there are some impressive underlying numbers.
Baddoo is hitting the ball hard, and he’s fast. He had one of the highest hard-hit rates of any player in Spring Training (71.4%), and he’s carried it into the season (44.4%), to go along with a lot of contact in the launch-angle sweet spot of 8-32 degrees (66.7%).
Baddoo has also reached the elite 30+ ft/sec sprint speed mark twice (once in the regular season, once in the spring) and tracked six other runs in the also-very-fast 29+ ft/sec range. There’s some real power/speed potential for the 22-year-old.
Nate Lowe, 1B, Rangers
Key stat: 111.2 mph average HR exit velocity
Lowe has easy power, as he’s shown by crushing two 110+ mph home runs already, including a 113.9 mph, 465-foot monster shot off the Royals’ Brady Singer, and a third homer just under that mark (109.5 mph). That’s an average home run exit velocity of 111.2 mph, which is a good place to be when it comes to peak exit velo on air contact.
The 25-year-old is also driving the ball to all fields. Lowe has one home run to left-center field, one to straightaway center and one to right-center, and his hits have been to all parts of the field, too. He’s got a good-looking spray chart.
Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH, Angels
Key stat: 2,449 rpm average 4-seam fastball spin rate
Ohtani wowed in his 2021 pitching debut by reaching 101.1 mph and touching 100 mph nine times … while also crushing a 115.1 mph, 451-foot home run as a hitter. But even aside from the return of his old velocity, the most interesting thing about Ohtani’s fastball was its new spin rate.
Until this year, Ohtani has always thrown a low-spin fastball — he averaged 2,164 rpm on his four-seamer in 2018 — and those can be easier to square up. But in his first start of 2021? Ohtani averaged 2,449 rpm.
His fastball has jumped from a low-spin fastball to a high-spin fastball, and a high-spin fastball gives you the potential to throw a swing-and-miss, “rising” fastball — if you spin the ball efficiently. We’ll see if Ohtani is getting that rise effect as more data come in.
Tyler Glasnow, RHP, Rays
Key stat: 87.7 mph slider velocity/2,818 rpm slider spin rate
Glasnow was already an elite strikeout artist as a two-pitch pitcher. His fastball/curveball combo is that overpowering. But he’s worked hard at adding a slider as a third pitch this season, and it looks pretty good so far.
Glasnow’s slider is just different enough from his curveball to work in tandem — the slider is averaging 87.7 mph to his curve’s 84.1 mph, and 2,818 rpm to his curve’s 3,057 rpm, with 40.7 inches of vertical movement to his curve’s 56.1 inches. The pitch heat maps also show how Glasnow is deploying his new arsenal. The Rays’ power righty is using the slider to attack the low, glove-side corner of the strike zone, while he buries his curveball below the strike zone as his primary strikeout pitch.
Michael Kopech, RHP, White Sox
Key stat: +2.5 inches of fastball rise vs. average
Kopech looks dominant in his return to the mound from Tommy John surgery. He’s throwing an elite rising fastball, and he knows how to use it. Kopech’s four-seamer is averaging 96.9 mph and 2,560 rpm, with top-10 overall rise — it drops less than 10 inches on its way from his hand to the plate, putting him in a group of power-fastball pitchers that includes Aroldis Chapman, James Karinchak, Gerrit Cole and teammate Liam Hendriks.
Kopech is elevating nearly all of those heaters, and hitters are whiffing on nearly half their swings against them. The fastball tunnels well with his slider, which has similar spin (2,520 rpm) but comes in 10 mph slower and drops 25 more inches. Hitters have whiffed on more than 80% of their swings against Kopech’s slider so far. It’s a wipeout four-seam/slider combo.
Jameson Taillon, RHP, Yankees
Key stat: +146 rpm change in 4-seam spin from 2019-21
Taillon’s Yankees debut was worth monitoring, as he implemented the changes in approach he’d been working on. Chief among those was his move to scrap the sinker he threw with the Pirates to emphasize his four-seam fastball.
In his first start of 2021, Taillon threw that four-seamer up in the zone repeatedly, recording four of his seven strikeouts on fastballs and flashing an increased spin rate that gave his four-seamer the rising effect it never had before. Taillon’s fastball averaged 2,474 rpm, up from 2,328 rpm in 2019, despite a slightly lower velocity (normally velo and spin move in the same direction together).
And thanks to that spin, Taillon got +1 inch of rise above average with his four-seamer, when he’s never once had above-average fastball rise in his career.
Tanner Houck, RHP, Red Sox
Key stat: +2.2 mph of fastball velocity, +2 inches of slider movement
Houck is currently at the Red Sox’s alternate training site because they needed roster flexibility, but the 24-year-old’s pitching during Opening Week was more than big league-caliber — he has 10 strikeouts in six innings so far in 2021.
Boston’s No. 7 prospect per MLB Pipeline was nasty in his brief debut stint in 2020, too, but his stuff got even better. Houck is throwing 2 mph harder in ’21 than he did in ’20 — his four-seam velo has jumped from 92.8 mph to 94.6, and his sinker velo has jumped from 90.9 mph to 93.7, giving him an overall velocity spike of +2.2 mph.
Houck’s wipeout, crossfire slider is moving even more, with his average horizontal break up to 15.9 inches from 13.9 in 2020. That break is a huge +9.2 inches above average, when you compare Houck’s slider to similar ones based on velocity and release point. And Houck is getting the most out of it, throwing his slider 42% of the time so far, his most-used pitch type. With that stuff, he’ll be back soon.