Bo Bichette Is Walloping the Baseball

While it did keep the record-setting streak of days with a position player pitching alive — it’s now up to seven, running the already record-level total number of such appearances this season to 80 — Richard Ureña‘s mop-and-bucket outing at the tail end of the Blue Jays’ 16-3 loss to the Dodgers was not the most notable thing about Tuesday night’s game. No, that would be Bo Bichette’s utter annihilation of two Clayton Kershaw pitches, one on the ace southpaw’s second pitch of the game, and the other in the sixth inning, before things really got out of hand:

For a brief and perhaps unprecedented moment, my Twitter timeline was unanimous:

Per Statcast, both of Bichette’s blasts came off his bat at 105.8 mph, the first one with a 25 degree launch angle and an estimated distance of 423 feet, the second with a 30 degree angle and a distance of 411 feet. None of those numbers were out of character for the 21-year-old rookie shortstop, who at this writing has clubbed seven homers in 103 plate appearances since being recalled on July 29, in a move that appeared timed to take some of the sting out of Marcus Stroman being traded to the Mets. Among Bichette’s blasts are a 107.5 mph, 441-footer off the Yankees’ Domingo Germán and a 107.7 mph, 436-footer off the Royals’ Jakob Junis, the latter his first in the majors on August 1. This was his first multi-homer game, and his first homers off a pitcher who had made an All-Star team or won a Cy Young award, though, so it counts as a momentous occasion.

Did I mention that Bichette is hitting .333/.379/.677 — that’s 12 doubles and seven homers from among his 32 hits — for a 173 wRC+ in those 103 PA? Or that he’s the 38th player since 1908 to hit at least seven homers in his first 21 games? He is, and on the latter front, he’s the sixth player to do that just this year:

Most Homers Through First 21 MLB Games, 2019
Player Team HR
Aristides Aquino Reds 11*
Austin Riley Braves 9
Yordan Alvarez Astros 9
Pete Alonso Mets 8
Michael Chavis Red Sox 7
Bo Bichette Blue Jays 7
Fernando Tatis Jr. Padres 6
Will Smith Dodgers 6
Keston Hiura Brewers 6
Matt Thaiss Angels 5
Nate Lowe Rays 5
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Blue Jays 5
Cavan Biggio Blue Jays 5
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = includes one homerless game in 2018

Yes, seven homers and 21 games are arbitrary cutoffs, but we’re just trying for a bit of perspective here, and the dizzying, record-setting rate of balls leaving the yard — 1.41 per team per game, 12% ahead of the previous record, set way back in 2017 — means that sometimes, we have to grab onto whatever is right in front of us. Forgetting those cutoffs for a moment and turning to a larger point, if you want a quick-and-dirty testament to the league’s simultaneous trends towards youth and dingers galore, consider this list covering the 30-team era of major league baseball:

Most Seasons with Rookies Hitting 10 Home Runs Since 1998
Year 10 HR Rookies
2015 26
2017 23
2019 22
2018 22
2016 21
1999 20
2006 19
2003 18
2007 17
2005 16
2004 15
2014 14
2009 14
1998 14
2010 13
2008 13
2002 13
2001 13
2000 13
2012 12
2011 12
1995 12
2013 11
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Roughly 78% of the way through the season, it appears we’re on our way to a new record, as another nine rookies have hit between seven and nine homers, Bichette included. Aquino, whose career-opening feats I marveled at just last week, wasted little time in joining the 10-homer club, homering three times in his next four games.

Back to that first table, I extended it down to five homers in part to include Bichette’s teammates, both with Hall of Fame fathers (the first such pair on a team). Bichette’s own father, Dante Bichette, wasn’t in their class as a player, but in addition to getting off to a faster start than both in the home run department, Bo has outhit both Vlad Jr. (.272/.356/.466, 117 wRC+) and Biggio (.210/.332/.371, 91 wRC+), and outdone them in WAR (1.0, to Guerrero’s 0.8 and Biggio’s 0.6). Some of that is the advantage of small sample size (Guerrero has 392 PA, Biggio 296), and some of it is playing a premium defensive position, though right now all three are underwater according to UZR; Bichette’s -0.9 UZR prorates to -7.7 per 150 games, Biggio’s -1.3 UZR in 54 games at second base (-4.4 UZR/150) is accompanied by -2.7 UZR in just 17 games at other positions, and Guerrero’s -8.8 UZR in just 74 games at third base suggests that there’s truth to the “he has to work on his defense” trope.

That said, I’m not here to nitpick Guerrero and Biggio, or to obsess over small sample defensive metrics. I am here to marvel at Bichette, a 2016 second-round pick out of a St. Petersburg high school who has already gotten further than older brother Dante Jr., a supplemental first-round pick by the Yankees in 2011 who’s currently playing for the Nationals’ Double-A Harrisburg affiliate, that after spending parts of two seasons in independent leagues. On the occasion of Bo’s callup, Kiley McDaniel detailed the way that the older brother’s lack of success prejudiced scouts against the younger brother. From Bo’s 2018 writeup: “Many teams didn’t take him seriously as a top-two-round prospect, partly souring after his brother busted with a similar swing, but Bo has rare bat and body control along with good enough pitch selection to make his approach work, something his older brother did not.”

Long story short, by the beginning of this season, Bo was ninth overall on our prospects list and similarly anywhere from eighth to 13th on those of Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, ESPN, and MLB Pipeline. Our team graded him as a 60 Future Value prospect (later upgraded to 65), with plus raw power and arm, and a potential plus for his hit tool. As Kiley and Eric Longenhagen summarized, Bichette “still has a shot to be a 60 hit/60 power middle infielder.” Their present and future grades of his game power were just 40 and 55; while I’m no scout, and while I’m acutely aware of the conditions under which this league-wide barrage of homers is occurring, I think it’s fair to say that what we’re seeing is well beyond that 40 grade.

What’s striking about Bichette isn’t just his combination of exceptional bat speed and a strange (but effective) swing — “garage band noisiness,” to quote Kiley and Eric — it’s that when he gets to two strikes, he ditches the signature leg kick (“something we’re not certain is all that helpful based on visual evidence”). Here’s the aforementioned shot off Germán, which came on an 0-1 count on August 8:

And here’s his August 17 homer off the Mariners’ Taylor Guilbeau, on a 2-2 count:

That’s actually the only home run Bichette has hit with two strikes, but he also has five doubles from among his nine hits under such conditions. He’s batting just .153/.231/.288 in 65 PA when he gets to two strikes (the AL average is .175/.249/.293), with a 38.4% strikeout rate (the AL average is 42.3%). Small samples, sure, but about par for the course — which isn’t nothing when it comes to a 21-year-old in his first taste of the majors.

Through his first 98 PA (in other words, before Wednesday night’s game), Bichette had produced an average exit velocity of 91.7 mph, the same as Bryce Harper, Matt Olson, and Gary Sánchez, and good enough to place in the 92nd percentile if he had enough playing time to qualify. His 52.2% hard hit rate was just 0.1% below Olson and Joey Gallo, who rank in the 98th percentile. Bichette’s average launch angle was just 8.5 degrees, with jibes with Kiley’s observation that he “doesn’t lift the ball that much in games now.”

He’d produced a 43.3% groundball rate, more in line with what he did last year at Double-A New Hampshire (42.7%) than this year at Triple-A Buffalo (50.0%), and a 32.8% fly ball rate; his 1.32 groundball/fly ball ratio was well above anything he had done prior to this year; he was at 1.05 at New Hampshire, but 1.87 at Buffalo. His 43.3% pull rate was higher than at any other stop, about 10 points higher than at Buffalo and six points higher than New Hampshire; he was hitting for a .517 average and 1.138 slugging percentage (with five homers) when he pulls the ball, that despite the fact that when he hits fly balls, they’re more often oppo (45.3%) than pulled (27.3%).

Anyway, even with the modest launch angle, Bichette had produced a .383 xwOBA, which is sandwiched between those of Olson (.393) and Sanchez (.370) produced by average launch angles of 19.4 and 19.3 degrees, again coupled with the same exit velocity. That’s 91st percentile stuff, jibing with Kiley’s assessment from February: “Status quo Bo is still a doubles machine who probably stays on the infield, and is a likely All-Star.” Of greater concern are Bichette’s current 6.8% walk rate and 24.3% strikeout rate, the latter owed in part to a 38.9% O-Swing rate, suggesting that pitchers can find a way to exploit him; he’s currently carrying swinging strike rates above 20% on both curves and sliders, with a 51.7% O-Swing rate on the latter.

The cat-and-mouse game of batter and pitcher adjustments is just beginning, but the Blue Jays have to be very pleased with what they’ve seen from Bichette so far. A power hitting middle infielder is something to dream upon, a foundational piece for a winning team, and right now the Jays appear to have one.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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Baron Samedi
3 years ago

Never walk, hit dingers.