Nick Madrigal Is Good. Can He Be Great?

Let me get this out of the way: Nick Madrigal is really good at baseball. Or at least, he’s really good at one aspect of it, and that aspect is one of the most important ones. Madrigal’s bat control is borderline otherworldly. Per FanGraphs’ measurements, Madrigal entered Sunday’s contest with a 100% in-zone contact rate. 100%! That’s zero swings and misses in the zone. Nearly 20 games into the season, that’s a remarkable achievement. Arguably more impressive is his 90.2% contact rate out of the zone. When he chases, he still hits the ball. Currently, only 31 qualified hitters have a higher in-zone contact rate than Madrigal has when leaving it. In terms of putting the bat on the baseball, Madrigal is a pure 80. It’s an amazing ability, and it’s one reason that, barring injury, it’s easy to see him hitting .300 or better for the next decade or more.

The question is how valuable can Madrigal be beyond his remarkable ability to make contact. He’s the ultimate “empty average” guy due to an aggressive approach and a complete lack of power. Entering Sunday’s game, Madrigal is a .327 hitter in his young, 47-game career. He has a .757 OPS to go along with that. Again good, but not as good as you’d expect from someone challenging for a batting title. ZIPS sees the weird combination of plusses and minuses and has Madrigal peaking at 2.3 WAR with a 101 OPS+. In order to go from good to really good, Madrigal is going to have to either walk more or hit balls harder, and he has a harder path than most in terms of making either happen.

Scouts call players like Madrigal “early action” players. Swing at a lot of pitches, make a ton of contact. That’s Madrigal in a nutshell. He’s not going to walk, and he’s not going to strike out. In fact, he’s going to do those two things less often than anyone in the game. We’re all familiar with walk and strikeout percentages, but what happens when we combine them? Let’s call it Early Action Percentage:

2021 Early Action Leaders
Player Team Early Action %
Nick Madrigal CHW 8.8%
Kevin Newman PIT 9.8%
David Fletcher LAA 13.8%
Whit Merrifield KCR 15.3%
Jeff McNeil NYM 16.7%
Tommy Edman STL 16.7%
Albert Pujols LAA 17.0%
Miguel Rojas MIA 17.4%
Nicky Lopez KCR 18.3%
Raimel Tapia COL 18.6%

Not only is Madrigal your Early Action leader, he dwarfs much of the competition with an EA% less than half that of those in the bottom part the top 10. So can he walk more? “Maybe” is the best answer, but it’s going to be a real challenge. Teaching plate discipline has been one of player development’s greatest challenges for decades. Numerous methods have been implemented in an attempt to improve a player’s pitch-tracking ability, but none have gotten consistent results. Success stories are few and far between, and have yet to provide any sort of a road map for future work in the area.

Further complicating matters is Madrigal’s unique ability to make contact. Step one in teaching plate disciple is trying to get players to only swing at pitches they can hit, but Madrigal does that now. The problem is he can hit everything. Next, you try to get players to only swing at pitches they can drive. There’s just one problem with that when it comes to Madrigal: he doesn’t drive anything.

Here’s Madrigal ripping a 97 mph fastball from Shohei Ohtani right back up the box for a hard single:

That’s a nice piece of hitting. Good wood on it, some might say. With a 104 mph exit velocity, it’s also Madrigal’s hardest hit ball going for a knock all year. For reference, 43 different players got a base hit with an exit velocity over 104 mph on Saturday alone, including two (Carlos Correa and Corey Seager) who did it twice on the day.

Now let’s look at Madrigal’s first triple of the year, which was also the first of his career:

Fantastic. Nathan Eovaldi didn’t get a 97 mph heater to the outer edge as much as he’d have liked, and Madrigal ripped it into the corner, using his plus speed to take three bases. It’s wonderful, but it’s also Madrigal’s hardest hit ball in the air all year, with an exit velocity of 98 mph. Madrigal doesn’t have power. Scouts should use the entirety of the 20-80 scale, but they’re reticent to drop a 20 on anything — it’s just too harsh. Still, look at this spray chart of Madrigal’s hits in 2021.

If that’s not 20 power, what is?

It’s going to be a challenge to get Madrigal to walk more, and there’s little indication of power, or of more coming. But let’s experiment with potential improvements anyway and see what it takes for Madrigal to take the next step forward.

From 2018-20, 28 second baseman accumulated 1,000 or more plate appearances. Madrigal’s career OPS of .757 is firmly above average. But what would it take to be very good, or even great? Among those 28 second basemen, the 10th best OPS is .792. Let’s call a top 10 placement very good. The fifth best is .834. Let’s call that great. Now, let’s try to get Madrigal to those levels.

Have Him Hit More

Nobody is going to be surprised if Madrigal hits .333 at some point, but at his current walk and power rates, that alone isn’t going to get him to our very good or great levels:

Adding Hits
Madrigal Additions AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
Actual Career 168 55 6 2 0 8 9 .327 .370 .387 .757
Hits to .792 +3 1B 168 58 6 2 0 8 9 .345 .387 .405 .792
Hits to .834 +5 1B, + 1 2B 168 61 7 2 0 8 9 .363 .403 .429 .832

As you can see, giving him three more hits puts him in the top 10 with an OPS of exactly .792. But a .345 batting average is a heavy ask unless you are Tony Gwynn; Madrigal is really good, he’s not Tony Gwynn. And to get to great, Madrigal needs to be peak Gwynn. Just slapping a few balls around is not a realistic path for Madrigal becoming a top 10 second baseman. He’s going to have to add a secondary skill.

Have Him Walk More

There are probably some realistic advances he could make in terms of plate discipline but without any increases in the slugging department, Madrigal can’t just improve his walk rate; he’d need to become a very patient hitter.

Adding Walks
Madrigal Additions AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
Actual Career 168 55 6 2 0 8 9 .327 .370 .387 .757
BB to 792 +11 BB 168 55 6 2 0 19 9 .327 .406 .387 .793
BB to 834 +25 BB 168 55 6 2 0 33 9 .327 .447 .387 .834

That’s not just asking for a few improvements in strike-zone discipline; that’s asking for a walk rate to nearly double, which is just flat out unrealistic. To get into the top five, he suddenly needs to channel Kevin Youkilis.

Add a Little Pop

A few extra base hits is the best way to move the OPS needle . . .

Adding Power
Madrigal Additions AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
Actual Career 168 55 6 2 0 8 9 .327 .370 .387 .757
Power to 792 +2 HR 168 55 9 2 1 8 9 .327 .370 .423 .793
Power to 834 +4 2B + 3 HR 168 55 10 2 3 8 9 .327 .370 .464 .834

The move to .792 feels possible. Three more doubles and wrapping one around the pole gets him there. Getting into the top 10 feels like a bigger challenge. Madrigal is just 24 years old and it’s not unreasonable to see him developing 30 power down the road, but considering that spray chart and his current exit velocities, him becoming a double-digit home run threat would take an exceptionally unexpected change in skills.

Putting It All Together

Instead of getting him to greatly increase his production in one area, some minor improvements across multiple channels seems like a more realistic approach to getting Madrigal to star-level production. For the sake of this exercise, I focused on secondary skills, as despite the impressive talent on display, I have trouble asking anyone to get more than one hit for every three at-bats.

The Combo Platter
Madrigal Additions AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
Actual Career 168 55 6 2 0 8 9 .327 .370 .387 .757
Combo to 792 +1 HR +5 BB 168 55 6 2 1 13 9 .327 .387 .405 .792
Combo to 834 +2 2B +2 HR + 5BB 168 56 8 2 2 13 9 .333 .392 .440 .833

To get him into the top 10, Madrigal just needs to go deep once every six weeks. He doesn’t need to become a walker per se, but being at least a threat to walk would help. This formula to getting to a .792 OPS makes Madrigal a top 10 offensive performer for his position. To get him to true star level would take a an unrealistic amount of power, crazy as it sounds to call a home run rate around 1.0% unrealistic. But it shows that even when hitting for a top-of-the-scale average, it’s hard to be a star without doing something, anything else to complement that eye-popping average.

Nick Madrigal is good, and he’s likely to be good for a very long time. But any route to greatness is a tougher road than for most. The path to power is a difficult one, and the path to walks depends on telling a player with phenomenal contact ability to lay off pitches he can actually hit. Good players are tough to find, and the White Sox found one in Madrigal when they made him the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft. But finding greatness in a unique skillset presents an equally unique and significant challenge.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

Good read. Very informative