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There’s an oft-cited piece within baseball analytics circles written by Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus that discusses the concept of small sample sizes. Speaking in the broadest of terms, there comes a point in the season when a sample size of data is “big enough” to carry ample weight when doing retrospective analysis into player performances. If, say, Ronald Acuña Jr. goes 0-for-4 in back-to-back games, that’s probably not enough information to conclude something was fundamentally wrong with his swing for those two games—sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
But many readers who have come across this story in the nearly 15 years since its initial publication have gotten the conclusion all wrong. As Carleton later noted in a follow-up, the “stabilization point” where a sample size ceases to be too small to be taken seriously is not all that useful for predicting future performance. Try as we might to find answers for what the future holds, there simply isn’t a magical, specific point in the season where what we’ve seen becomes reliably instructive for what’s to come.
Still, that knowledge won’t stop us from trying to crack the code. Though nothing is set in stone even two months into the season, there are conclusions to be drawn from the games played thus far that can clue us into how the rest of the season might play out. By digging beneath the surface of performances through the season’s first two months, we can identify players who have not delivered so far but could be in store for a resurgence moving forward.
With that in mind, here are five slumping sluggers who have struggled to this point, with cases to be made for each that hint at better days ahead.
In his first two seasons with the Cardinals, the six-time All-Star and two-time MVP runner-up slashed .270/.364/.473, with a 123 wRC+ and nearly 30 home runs per 162 games. Through 53 games this year, his walk rate (8.3%) has dipped below 10% for the first time in his career, and his isolated power (.144) is also a career-worst. He rates as a below-average hitter (97 wRC+) for the first time as a big leaguer.
Those surface-level stats don’t quite square with the advanced metrics. Goldschmidt is hitting the ball harder (92.7 mph on average) and making hard contact more often (51.3%) than ever before during the Statcast era (since 2015). He ranks in the 70th percentile in expected batting average, expected slugging percentage and average exit velocity, which should translate to a well-above-average hitter.
Alas, not all hard contact is good contact. Goldschmidt’s average launch angle of 19.3 degrees is easily the highest of his career, reflected in a career-worst 18.8% infield fly ball rate. Despite still ranking near the top in average launch angle, Goldschmidt’s rolling average in that department has steadily declined in the past two weeks after peaking at 28.4 degrees in mid-May. The results have not yet followed, but the quality of contact is indicative that Goldschmidt still possesses the skill set to be among the game’s best hitters. A shift in approach could ultimately translate those skills into more production.
Braves fans have been mostly let down all season long, mired with a losing record in what’s been a mostly underwhelming NL East. Among the key reasons is a slow start by the reigning National League MVP. Freeman is hitting .230/.360/.455 with a 119 wRC+, his worst since 2012 and a far cry from his 187 mark from last season.
Atlanta fans' concerns about their team as a whole might be well placed, but they shouldn’t fret too much about Freeman. He sits near the top of virtually all of the expected stats leader boards, including ranking in the 96th percentile in expected wOBA (.409). He has a 50.7% hard hit rate, which is down from 2020 but the second-highest of his career. Freeman’s .225 batting average on balls in play is certain to improve sooner rather than later, and his slash line should look plenty normal by the end of the month.
Last season’s breakout star has seen his power sapped beyond recognition through 46 games this year. Smith’s .299 isolated power was the fifth-highest in the NL in 2020. He’s down to .101 so far in '21, which puts him in league with contact-heavy hitters like Nick Madrigal and J.P. Crawford. His strikeout and walk rates are nearly identical to last year’s numbers, though his average exit velocity has dropped a few ticks.
Though the ball isn’t leaving the bat as hard as it did a year ago, that’s not always the best determinant of success. A more reliable mark to monitor is the percentage of contact in the “sweet spot,” or a ball hit with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. Smith’s sweet spot rate is 41.5%, which ranks 21st among all players with at least 50 batted balls. A key for Smith will be to regain his success against breaking balls. He’s hit just .160 against breaking pitches this year after batting .388 against them in 2020.
Lowe is one of the most underrated stars in the game, so the casual fan might not be aware of—or care much about—his slow start. Through his first three seasons, Lowe batted .262/.342/.513 with an All-Star appearance in 2019 and an eighth-place MVP finish in '20. He’s fallen well short of those standards through his first 53 games, batting .188/.303/.366 with a 30.7% strikeout rate.
Much like Smith, Lowe’s reasons for optimism lie mostly in his sweet spot rate. He’s been making strong contact more consistently as the season has progressed, though the results have been slower to follow. Lowe was a fastball killer in previous seasons though is hitting only .214 against heaters so far. His expected batting average is .263, though, so it shouldn’t be long before the hits start falling more frequently.
Gomes showed signs of a resurgence in an abridged 2020 season, during which he batted .284/.319/.468 in 30 games. He’s put up an 81 wRC+ so far this year despite ranking in the 95th percentile in expected batting average (.304). Gomes has made enormous strides in his contact rate through the years. His strikeout rate has dropped each year since '18, down to a career-low 15.4% this season. Putting the ball in play that frequently is certain to bring better results, and Gomes should propel himself to at least a league-average hitter with some positive regression. That regression couldn’t come soon enough for a Nationals team mired in last place.
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