Going Deep: Can the Sock Man Deliver in 2020?

If you’re not a Yankees fan, or from the New York area, then you are probably unaware that one of the funniest nicknames in MLB belongs to Yankees outfielder Mike Tauchman. Tauchman, aka Sock Man, earned his nickname from a John Sterling call after hitting his first career home run on April 16 against the rival Boston Red Sox. Here’s the call.

But his nickname isn’t the only thing that makes him great; he produces. Bursting onto the scene in 2019 for the Yankees, Tauchman quickly made an impact on both sides of the ball. A consistent hitter at the plate and one of the best defenders in the outfield, Tauchman began to make a name for himself. But where exactly did he come from?

When he was acquired in a trade where the Yankees gave up LHP Phillip Diehl, Tauchman was a bit of a mystery. He was never a top prospect in the Rockies farm system, nor did he ever really get praise for loud offense. In a 2016 Fangraphs’ Rockies preseason prospect rankings, Tauchman was listed outside the top 24 and graded out as less than a 40 FV (Future Value), yet was still intriguing enough to be included. Here’s what Carson Cistulli, former Fangraphs contributor and current analyst for the Toronto Blue Jays, had to say about him.

“On paper, Tauchman bears a considerable resemblance to a player already employed by the Rockies — namely, DJ LeMahieu. LeMahieu had, of course, already played a couple seasons by Tauchman’s age. As for the basic profiles, though — high contact, little power, strong defense — they’re entirely comparable.”

As we all know, life has a funny way of working things out. Now Tauchman and LeMahieu, who also had his career-best season as a 2019 Yankee, sport pinstripes together. But is the hype around Mike Tauchman deserving, or was his 2019 production better than what we should expect in 2020? Let’s find out.

 

The Good

There’s a lot to be excited about from Tauchman’s performance in 2019. He played just 87 games, having 296 PAs, and produced 2.6 fWAR (!!!). Offensively, he slashed .277/.361/.504 with 13 homers and an impressive 11.5% walk rate. All this helped in producing his above-average 128 wRC+. Tauchman’s breakout comes with some questions marks, since he doesn’t have much of an MLB track record, but if we look into the numbers he posted in the minors, we can see a trend.

PA HR SB BB% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2015 (AA) 563 3 25 8.3% .294 .355 .381 114
2016 (AAA) 527 1 23 7.6% .286 .342 .373 92
2017 (AAA) 475 16 16 8.4% .331 .386 .555 139
2018 (AAA) 471 20 12 12.7% .323 .408 .571 153
2019 (AAA) 114 2 4 14.0% .274 .386 .505 126

In 2015 and 2016, Mike Tauchman was who he was projected to be: a high-contact hitter with the ability to steal bags. Paired with his above-average defense, there probably isn’t much wrong with that in the eyes of most teams. But then something changed. Whether it was a mechanical adjustment or change in mental approach, who knows. But in 2017, Tauchman found some power, smashing double-digit homers two years in a row, while also improving his walk rate and maintaining his high-average profile. But does this mean he’s going to continue to mash in 2020? Maybe. But let’s go further.

Possibly the most promising thing about Tauchman is the great approach he displayed. Tauchman swung at just 22.8% of pitches out of the zone (referred to as O-Swing rate). Among all hitters with 250 plate appearances last season, his O-Swing rate ranks as the 20th lowest. His swing rate of 43.1%, contact rate of 80.4%, and SwStr (swing and miss) rate of 8.5% rank 64th, 85th, and 69th, respectively. There were 320 qualified hitters, and Tauchman ranked in the top 85 in all noted plate discipline statistics. His ability to lay off poor pitches, patient approach, and consistent contact should allow for him to consistently reach base safely, even if it isn’t with the 11.5% walk rate he produced this past season.

Lastly, Tauchman had six stolen bases in 2019, while not getting caught stealing once. He stole quite a bit in the minors, but didn’t do so very efficiently. However, last year he was a combined 10-10 in steals between the two levels he played at. His sprint speed was in the 72nd percentile, he had 90-feet running splits in the top 100, and his outfield jump was the 21st best in the league. We know he can run well. Maybe all it took was the brainiacs in New York to teach him how to steal efficiently. Nonetheless, Tauchman has easily enough speed to steal 15-20 bags in a full season.

 

The Bad

With as much good as Tauchman did in his limited playing time, there are a few drawbacks we must identify. Many of these come in the form of expected statistics and batted-ball metrics. These are useful in painting a better picture of what should have happened, as well as what we may want to expect in the future. To start, Tauchman had a pretty significant difference between his expected stats and actual stats.

BA SLG wOBA
Actual Stats .277 .504 .364
Expected Stats .248 .412 .323
Actual – Expected .029 .092 .041

As we can see, he outperformed his expected stats pretty drastically. This doesn’t just mean he got lucky or is due to regress, but it does mean that based on how he hit the ball in 2019, we would have expected his results to turn out worse. A large reason for these expected results is that Tauchman did not hit the ball awfully hard. His average exit velocity sat at just 88.5 MPH and his hard-hit rate (balls hit over 95 mph) was just 39.2%. When you begin to break down his batted-ball metrics, they don’t look very pretty. Here’s how he ranks among the 342 MLB hitters with at least 150 batted-ball events last season.

Average EV Max EV Hard Hit % Brls/BBE % Brls/PA %
Value 88.5 MPH 109.9 MPH 39.2% 6.3% 4.1%
League Rank 202nd 181st 149th 208th 222nd

He ranks well below the 50th percentile in all metrics except hard-hit rate, where he barely makes it into the upper half. Not all batted ball metrics dislike Tauchman, but the ones that do are some of the most important. His inability to hit the ball hard consistently makes it hard to believe that a .504 slugging-percentage is repeatable or sustainable.

To close the door on the negatives of Tauchman’s batted ball metrics, let’s compare his batted ball profile to other players in the league. A batted ball profile includes the kind of contact a hitter makes. There are eight different categories: barrel, solid contact, flare-burner, poorly under, poorly topped, poorly weak, walk, and strikeout. So, in other words, here are the three hitters who made contact most similar to Tauchman.

Match
Neil Walker .8
Francisco Cervelli .79
Johnathan Villar .79

The closer the value is to one, the more alike the batted ball profiles are. Neil Walker was once considered an above-average hitter, but in 2019 he posted a 99 wRC+ — roughly league average.  Villar was slightly better with a 107 wRC+ and Cervelli was much worse than both with a 73 wRC+. As you can see, Tauchman is not in good company.

 

The (not so) Ugly

We addressed the good. We addressed the bad. Now comes the part where I convince you why you should pack your suitcase and climb aboard the Mike Tauchman hype train. Let’s go back to what Tauchman has always been praised for — his hit tool. I talked a lot about his batted-ball metrics, but I never touched upon one metric that may translate really well for a hitter like Tauchman. That metric is called sweet spot rate, or SwSp% for short. Sweet spot rate measures exactly what it sounds like it measures — how well a hitter can hit the ball in the “sweet spot” of his bat’s barrel. But, in a more scientific definition, it’s how often a batted ball is hit with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. Since a line drive has a launch angle between 10 and 25 degrees, you can assume most balls hit in the sweet spot result in a line drive. Tauchman had a sweet spot rate of 38.9%, 44th best in the league among hitters with 150 batted-ball events. To illustrate the same point with a different stat, Tauchman had the 50th best line drive rate among all hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. He hit a line drive 24.9% of the time, tying him with Nick Markakis and Yordan Álvarez, and ranking him just ahead of Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuña Jr. Furthermore, where he hit the ball makes him as close to a “pure hitter” as you can get.

Pull% Cent% Oppo%
31.6% 33.2% 35.3%

It’s no wonder teams shifted against Tauchman just 36 times in his 292 total plate appearances. He hits the ball to all fields about as well as you can and even utilizes the opposite field more than his pull-side. The direction of his batted balls, paired with his consistent line drive rate, makes for a strong case to believe in Tauchman as a hitter, but don’t just take my word for it. Let’s look at the findings from someone a lot smarter than me.

A recent study was written by Rotographs’ Alex Chamberlain investigating the correlation between the standard deviation of a hitter’s launch angle and their BABIP. I highly recommend you take a look at the article for the full scoop here. The general conclusion Chamberlain came to was that there is a moderate correlation between the two variables. The smaller the variance in launch angle, the more likely a hitter is to have a high BABIP. Chamberlain notes that his findings help to actually measure a player’s hit tool. So how did Tauchman fare with regards to launch angle tightness? 8th. He had the 8th best standard deviation in launch angle last season. This data tells us that Tauchman has a swing that is really consistent in producing the same launch angle. It’s just more evidence that points towards Tauchman’s ability to really hit and the sustainability he may have in outperforming his expected stats.

Now let’s go back to talking about the power numbers. Can he be a 20 homer guy for the Yankees in 2020? I know I said the low exit velocity and barrel rates are cause for slight concern, as those are typically the best predictors in power, but they aren’t the end-all-be-all. Mike Tauchman has one gigantic advantage. He’s a left-handed hitter who gets to call Yankee Stadium his home. An even more recent study, written by our own Alex Fast, explored the effects of park factors with regards to barrels. It’s another great piece you can find here and should definitely read. In Fast’s own words, he wanted to know in which stadiums batted-ball direction matters the most. When Fast looked at which parks are the friendliest to left-handed hitters, it’s no real surprise that he found it to be Yankee Stadium, where pulled home runs had a difference in wOBAcon and xwOBAcon of 0.897. Simply put, pulled home runs by a left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium performed a ton better than they should have performed. This means that left-handed hitters don’t need to barrel the ball as often to right field to still hit a homer in Yankee Stadium. This is a concept Didi Gregorius illustrated throughout his time as a Yankee. Between 2017 and 2018, Gregorius hit 52 total home runs, including 28 pull-side home runs at Yankee Stadium. However, only 17 of these 28 pull-side home runs were barrels. This means that 39.3% of Didi’s homers at home and 21.2% of his total home runs reaped the benefit of Yankee Stadium’s short porch. It’s safe to say that as long as Tauchman can pull fly balls at home, he will continue to hit some home runs. But there’s just one issue.

 

Trouble with the Curve

Just trolling: Tauchman can hit the curve just fine, I just felt the need to use another Clint Eastwood movie title. The Mike Tauchman hype should be at an all-time high heading into 2020. He’s a pure hitter with great speed, some pop in the bat, and unreal plate discipline. There are slight playing time concerns with a crowded Yankee outfield, but give it some time. Tauchman is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. Pair his defensive prowess with his on-base ability and even a 36-year old with grit won’t be able to take playing time from him. The Sock Man can deliver, and the Sock Man will deliver.

Tauchman currently has an ADP of 388.87. His kind of value so late in a draft should be considered stealing. Now, enjoy this thing of beauty.

 

Featured image by James Peterson (@jhp_design714 on Twitter)

Kyle Horton

Kyle is a senior baseball player at Quinnipiac University, Cincinnati Reds fan, and Joey Votto's biggest stan. Please follow him on Twitter @WhoHearsHorton, he already told his mom that you did.

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