Edouard Julien, Are You Gonna Rule Again?

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Edouard Julien had a remarkable rookie season. Called up for good in late May, he knocked 16 home runs and ran a 136 wRC+ over 109 games, finishing seventh in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Among second basemen with at least 400 plate appearances, that 136 wRC+ ranked third in baseball, behind Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve and ahead of Luis Arraez. That’s pretty good company. Using the same plate appearances threshold, his 17.2% chase rate was the lowest in baseball, which enabled him to run a 15.7% walk rate, good for fifth highest. John Foley recently wrote an excellent breakdown of Julien’s patience over at Twinkie Town.

There are also plenty of non-baseball reasons to enjoy Julien. He’s the bearer of the fanciest name in MLB, and so far as I can tell he’s just the second player in big-league history whose name includes the vowels O, U, and A all in a row. The first was also an Edouard: Joseph Albert Rolland Édouard, better known as Roland Gladu. A French-Canadian like Julien, Gladu played all over the world, homering in the professional leagues of five different countries: Canada, the United States, Mexico, Cuba, and Great Britain. Julien’s name also flows off the tongue in a pleasing way. Because of the scansion of Edouard Julien, whenever I think about him for an extended period of time, this song gets stuck in my head:

I even wrote a Julien-inspired version of the song — mostly because I couldn’t not write one — which you can listen to at the bottom of this piece.

Back to baseball, there was a bit of helium in Julien’s 2023 numbers. His wOBA outpaced his xwOBA by 18 points, and his .371 BABIP ranked fifth in all of baseball. Understandably, the projection systems see him stepping back to a wRC+ around 115 next year. There are still some holes in Julien’s game. He doesn’t make enough contact, especially on pitches in the zone. Combined with his preternatural patience, that leads to a big, scary strikeout rate of 31.4%. While that did help him fit in with the rest of Minnesota’s roster, it’s not exactly ideal.

Today we’re going to worry about a different part of Julien’s profile: hitting left-handed pitching. To say that it wasn’t a highlight of his rookie campaign would be an understatement. Julien’s splits against righties and lefties were downright historic. In fact, he took home the first annual Scooter Gennett Award for Offensive Asymmetry, which goes to the player with the largest difference between their wRC+ against righties and lefties (minimum 400 PAs). Since 2002, which is as far back as our main leaderboard tracks handedness splits, 4,418 player seasons have met that PA minimum. Gennett became the face of the award thanks to a 2014 season when he put up an excellent 118 wRC+ against righties and a downright depressing -40 against lefties. In 2023, Julien put up a wRC+ of 151 against righties and 22 against lefties, for a difference of 129. Since 2002, only 10 players have had a wider range.

Keep in mind, a lot of this is small sample size theater. There aren’t that many left-handed pitchers, and if your team doesn’t trust you to hit against them, you’re not going to get what few chances are available. This can also create a chicken-and-the-egg situation. You can get fewer PAs against lefties because you can’t hit them, or you can fail to hit lefties because you don’t see them often enough to get comfortable. Julien had just 48 PAs against lefties in 2023. Of the 4,418 seasons in our sample, only 42 of those players faced lefties less often than Julien’s 11.8%. Julien would probably improve against lefties if he ever got regular plate appearances against them, but even if he doesn’t, it would be foolish to assume that a wRC+ of 22 represents his true talent level.

However, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in December, Nick Nelson noted Julien’s splits with Double-A Wichita during the 2022 season. Julien slashed .332/.465/.566 against righties and .210/.373/.276 against lefties. If you’re keeping score at home, that works out to OPS splits of 1.031 and 649.

There’s one more important caveat before we dive into the numbers: The splits don’t matter that much. Most pitchers are righties. That means Julien will get to face righties most of the time, and it also means that finding a righty to platoon with him won’t be terribly hard. If his platoon splits were to stay exactly the same, Julien would still be a league-average hitter as long as he didn’t face lefties more than 40% of the time, and that’s not going to happen. Of our 4,418-season sample, only 27 players ever saw lefties that often.

However, none of that made me less curious about what was going on when Julien faced lefties, so I broke down the splits.

Edouard Julien’s Big Ol’ Platoon Splits
Overall 31.4 15.7 .263 .381 .459 .366 .345
vs. RHP 31.1 17.2 .274 .401 .497 .388 .364
vs. LHP 33.3 4.2 .196 .229 .217 .202 .201
Difference +2.2 -13.0 -.078 -.172 -.280 -.186 -.163

His strikeout rate is higher against lefties, but the walk rate is what really jumps out. It’s 13 percentage points higher against righties than against lefties. That’s an enormous difference! All of our small sample size caveats apply, but in terms of walk rate, depending on the handedness of the pitcher, Julien goes from very nearly Juan Soto to literally worse than Javier Báez. Let’s take a look at what’s going on under the hood:

Edouard Julien’s Big Honkin’ Plate Discipline Splits
Split Swing% Z-Swing% O-Swing% Whiff% Z-Whiff% O-Whiff%
Overall 37.6 61.3 14.3 29.1 22.2 58.1
vs. RHP 36.9 61.1 13.5 28.3 21.7 57.0
vs. LHP 44.3 63.2 21.5 35.1 26.7 64.7
Difference +7.4 +2.1 +8.0 +6.8 +5.0 +7.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Well that’s simple enough. Julien swings a lot more against lefties, especially outside the zone. He’s still patient by any reasonable standard; a 21.5% chase rate is still in something like the 92nd percentile. However, Julien also whiffs more, and not just outside the zone. His zone contact rate is already the most worrisome part of his profile, and against lefties it’s even worse.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t stop there. When he does put the ball in play against lefties, Julien not only hits the ball a lot softer, but he hits it straight into the ground.

Edouard Julien’s Big Freakin’ Batted Ball Splits
Split EV HH% Soft% Med% Hard% LA GB/FB GB%
Overall 89.1 44.9 13.1 54.2 32.7 7.8 2.10 50.2
vs. RHP 89.9 47.3 12.0 51.1 37.0 10.3 1.66 45.4
vs. LHP 84.5 30.0 20.0 73.3 6.7 -7.9 24.00 80.0
Difference -5.4 -17.3 8.0 22.2 -30.3 -18.2 22.34 34.6
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

There’s a big difference if you go by Statcast’s hard-hit rate, but take a look at the soft, medium, and hard percentages, which come from Sports Info Solutions. By their reckoning, Julien’s hard-hit rate is more than 30 percentage points lower against lefties. And then there’s the launch angle. Julien hits the ball on the ground more than would be ideal against righties, but against lefties? That’s not a typo; just one of Julien’s 30 batted balls was a fly ball. That’s how you get a 24:1 ratio of groundballs to fly balls. What does that look like in a heat map? It looks like never hitting the ball out of the infield.

This doesn’t seem to be a pitch location issue. When facing Julien, lefties have targeted the bottom of the zone more often than righties have, but only slightly. The same is true of his swing decisions. Julien swung at lower pitches from lefties, but just barely. It doesn’t seem to be a pitch type issue either. Against lefties, 56.7% of his balls in play against came on sinkers, breaking balls, or offspeed pitches, compared to 48.4% against righties. That’s not an insignificant difference, but it’s nowhere near enough to explain an 18.2-degree shift in launch angle. It just seems to be the way he hit the ball against lefties.

This is, I swear, the last time I remind you that everything I’ve just said is based on small samples, but seriously, the samples are very small. I’m hoping that we’ll get some bigger samples in 2024, but so far that doesn’t seem likely. He started just seven of the 38 games the Twins faced a left-handed starter with him on the roster, ceding the keystone to Kyle Farmer and Jorge Polanco. Polanco’s current contract ends after 2024, with a club option for 2025. Even if the trade rumors around Polanco turn out to be true, Farmer and the Twins just agreed on a one-year deal, avoiding arbitration, with a mutual option for 2025. It’s a bit disappointing. I would love to see what Julien could do over a bigger sample. If he does turn out to be passable against lefties, it would be extremely fun to watch and it could propel him to another level. And if it turns out that a 22 wRC+ really does represent his true talent level, that would be pretty interesting, too. More importantly, it would lock up the Scooter Gennett Award for Offensive Asymmetry for years to come.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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2 months ago

Long live NotGraphs