Jared Walsh Has Simplified Things

When you pull up the MLB position player leaderboards for September, you’ll find some familiar names. Freddie Freeman has launched himself into the middle of the National League MVP race with his incredible form this month. José Ramírez is challenging Mike Trout and José Abreu in the battle for the American League MVP. But nestled among these stars is one surprising name: Jared Walsh. He’s put up a 222 wRC+ in September, notching hits in all but one game this month. Eight of his 24 knocks have left the park — including a mammoth grand slam yesterday afternoon — giving him an impressive .390 ISO this year. He has truly been one of the few bright spots for the floundering Angels.

Best known for being developed as a two-way player, Walsh has finally tapped into the power that he’s displayed throughout his minor league career. A 39th-round pick back in 2015, Walsh quickly moved through the Angels organization, powering his way through each minor league stop. He posted a .237 ISO during his minor league career, though all that power came with plenty of strikeouts. He made his major league debut last September, struggling through 87 plate appearances and five appearances out of the bullpen. A strikeout rate over 40% really hampered all of his efforts at the plate, and those relief appearances all came in mop-up duty where his 26.1% walk rate could do little harm.

With such a disappointing audition in 2019 and the Angels seemingly focused on a playoff run, Walsh was likely relegated to a mere depth piece on their depth chart entering this season. But nothing in 2020 has gone according to plan, and the Angels quickly found themselves looking up from the bottom of the standings. When they traded away a couple of players at the trade deadline, it opened up an opportunity for Walsh, and he has run with it.

The biggest difference has been a noticeable change to his swing mechanics. When Walsh first came up in 2019, his swing was noisy as though he was trying to use his entire body to generate power. He certainly noticed the problems — borne out in his strikeout rate last season — and worked hard to fix them at the alternate training site this summer. Using his teammates Trout, Anthony Rendon, and Albert Pujols as inspiration, he went about adjusting his hand load. Here’s how he described this process to Jeff Fletcher of the OC Register:

“I had a lot going on. It worked sometimes, but it wasn’t consistent enough. There were some timing issues that I kind of realized when I got called up last year that I wanted to address. As hitters, we build habits, good and bad. For me it was trying to be more direct to the ball, a little more efficient, and stuff like that.”

Here’s an example swing from 2019:

And here’s an example from this season:

The difference is stark. Instead of all those moving parts in his pre-swing load, he’s much quieter in the batters box now. He’s still relying on a big leg kick as a timing mechanism, but everything else about his swing is smoother and more direct. Very little movement is wasted.

The result of these changes has been a 10-point increase in his contact rate, moving it from well below average to above league average. He’s reduced the amount of swing-and-miss in his game, particularly on pitches in the zone, by simplifying his swing and being more direct to the ball. His contact rate on pitches in the zone went from 76.3% to 89.2%. Simply making contact with the ball more often has helped unlock all of his raw power that he had displayed throughout his minor league career.

On the surface, it looks like his approach at the plate hasn’t changed much beyond the increase in contact. He’s still chasing pitches out of the zone at the same rate, a little above league average, and his overall swing rate is only a little higher. But when you break down his approach by pitch type, you can see that he has been more refined. He’s been far more aggressive on the fastball, increasing his swing rate against heaters by 10 points.

On breaking balls, he’s decreased his chase rate from 41.9% to just 22.0%. He’s chasing more fastballs and offspeed pitches instead, so his overall chase rate is unaffected, but he’s able to make contact with those types of pitches more often. The net effect is a significant reduction in swings and misses on pitches out of the zone. When combined with his improved contact rate on pitches in the zone, you can see why his strikeout rate has fallen from 40.1% to just 14.3%.

All these adjustments and changes to his swing haven’t affected his ability to hit for power. His underlying metrics last year were actually pretty encouraging, but he had little to show for it. Those skills are still intact this year.

Jared Walsh’s Power Numbers
Year Avg EV Max EV Avg EV FB/LD Hard Hit% Barrel%
2019 91.3 109.7 93.3 50.0% 13.6%
2020 88.9 112.8 94.1 39.7% 13.2%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Even though his average exit velocity has dropped slightly, he’s still making hard contact on balls in the air regularly and his barrel rate is unchanged. He’s also increased his max exit velocity from good to great, something that could indicate a significant increase in performance if the season were longer. He isn’t selling out for power by pulling everything either. Here’s his spray chart grouped by exit velocity.

He’s showing an ability to hit for power to all fields. Last year, he was pulling more than half of the balls he put in play. That’s dropped to 45.6% this year. A third of his fly balls he’s hit this year have left the park, a rate that’s bound to drop. But all the underlying metrics indicate that he should continue to mash the ball as long as he’s able to make contact with it regularly.

With Albert Pujols under contract for one more year and Shohei Ohtani likely taking the bulk of the playing time at designated hitter, Walsh’s future role is a little uncertain. He could serve as the designated hitter on days that Ohtani is pitching if he ever returns to the mound. And if the Angels are serious about trying to make a run at the postseason again next year, giving Pujols regular playing time probably isn’t a good idea. There isn’t a guaranteed full-time role for Walsh, and while there will be at-bats to be found here and there, he could force the Angels hand if he continues his impressive adjustments.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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3 years ago

It is definitely a positive adjustment to his game that is leading his charge. Although it has been a transformation, his lack of repetitions isn’t the only worrisome matter yet to be resolved; the issue, in particular, is that his success hasn’t been against strong pitchers (with Lynn being the only major name he’s homered on).

Luckily we will have a front-row to examine him this week. First, the Padres will be lining up some strong pitchers, and then the Dodgers who will do the same to end his season. A challenge like this doesn’t diminish his success but could tell us more about where his break out stands. A struggle confirms there has been growth, but the gains will need tempering. And any success will greatly legitimize the growth.

3 years ago
Reply to  Manco

sure, but small sample size caveats

3 years ago
Reply to  Manco

Well, by definition, batters as a whole have more success against less successful pitchers, so I’m not sure why that would be much of a concern for any individual player…

3 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

A small sample size alone creates difficulties in projecting a player. The litany of late-season breakouts only to flounder the following season often leads to putting these players under a microscope. I merely was interested in understanding what level has he developed with his new swing (is he Kole Calhoun or is he a teoscar Hernandez breakout?). So while you are right that batters generally have more success against poor pitchers, I was talking about whether Walsh can carry over his success against this week’s stronger starting pitchers. Having success against upper-tier pitchers like Kershaw and Clevinger can help differentiate, so I honestly don’t understand why there is so much dislike in the idea.