Let’s talk a little bit about Rowdy Tellez. You might think there’s not much reason to, as he’s outshined on his own team by other young stars such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, and also because Tellez’s 2020 role isn’t even solidified. In addition, his 2019 slash line of .227/.293/.449 isn’t exactly inspiring, and he was struggling so much during the season that he was sent down to Triple-A Buffalo. He’ll be 25 in March and has yet to play a full MLB season. He wasn’t a top prospect, hasn’t received the hype, and hasn’t broken out like the other young Blue Jays studs have.
If you take all of that into consideration, you’d likely dismiss Tellez—and I wouldn’t blame you. This isn’t a Tellez hype post, because let’s face it: He will likely go undrafted in most fantasy leagues, and I’m not going to advocate drafting him over other first base studs come the spring. But, when I was parsing through some Statcast leaderboards, I saw Tellez’s name toward the top of some of them—and ahead of some notable names—which I found pretty interesting. Take a look at his xSLG compared to those of some other notable hitters:
Yes, it is only one stat and a cherry-picked one at that, and expected stats aren’t everything, as Tellez does have the lowest actual slugging percentage of the hitters in this group, and his .476 xSLG certainly isn’t outstanding, as it was only the 76th-best in 2019. However, Tellez’s xSLG from 2019 is justified and could even improve in the future.
First and foremost, he hits the ball well, and he hits it hard. If you like barrels, for instance, Tellez gets a lot of those. Among hitters with at least 250 batted-ball events in 2019, Tellez’s 13.2% rate is inside the top 20 and well above the 7.9% average. If we compared him to the same hitters as in the table above, Tellez stands out yet again:
Tellez is far and away the leader in this group. This table also only considers these four hitters, but Tellez is also ahead of some other notable names such as Juan Soto (12.3%), Anthony Rendon (12.0%), and Mookie Betts (10.3%). If we add in solid contact, Tellez is again toward the top with a 20.6% rate of barreled and solid contact, again well above the league average rate of about 14%, and ahead of the other hitters in the table above. In fact, that 20.6% rate is inside the top 20 among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances.
Looking further into his batted-ball data, there are other things to like. I touched on how he hits the ball hard, and he does. His 90.7 mph average exit velocity isn’t the best, but it is clearly above the league average of 87.5 mph. That’s nice and all, but what good is a solid exit velocity if you don’t distribute your batted balls in an efficient way? To get more clarity on this, I calculated the rate of fly balls and line drives hit for each hitter with at least 400 plate appearances. I then looked at the top hitters in the appropriately named “Fly Balls + Line Drive Rate” statistic and then filtered to look only at hitters with an average exit velocity above 90 mph. Would you guess that Tellez shows up toward the top here too? Here’s a look at the top 15 hitters by this metric:
|Ronald Acuna Jr.||90.6||38.5||29.4||27.3||56.7|
For the most part, this is a group of some of the best hitters in the game. While this doesn’t exactly mean Tellez is likely to be on the same level as these hitters, it does show that his good xSLG from 2019 is probably justified and that he hits the ball well. Speaking of hitting the ball well and putting it in the air, when Tellez hits fly balls, he really hits them. Again among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances in 2019, Tellez ranked pretty well regarding his results on fly balls. See for yourself:
When Tellez hit fly balls in 2019, he was essentially the top 30 of all hitters. If you prefer percentage ranks, these numbers would put him inside the top 15 percent of hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. The point of these tables isn’t to show Tellez is going to go on a tear in 2020, but instead, these tables show there is more to him than what his mediocre slash line would suggest. In fact, Tellez did underperform his slash line compared to his Statcast numbers. One particular oddity about him is that in 2018, when he first came up and put up a nice slash line of .314/.329/.614 for a 151 wRC+ in just 73 plate appearances, he really overperformed his Statcast peripherals, while in 2019 he put up a not-so-great slash line—but actually underperformed his Statcast peripherals:
I don’t how much this actually matters, but it likely suggests we haven’t seen the real Tellez yet. He’s not likely to be that 151 wRC+ hitter he was in a brief 2018 cameo, but I don’t think he’s likely to be the hitter his 2019 slash line indicated he was either. Again, expected stats aren’t everything and shouldn’t be treated as the be-all, end-all, but Tellez’s batted-ball stats give me confidence that he should perform well when he makes contact, and there is a solid foundation upon which he can build.
While these are good signs, there is more to hitting than just what happens when you put the ball in play. Hitting it hard is always a good thing, and Tellez does it well, which is good to see. What makes the hitters he was compared to in the earlier tables really stand out is that there is more to their profiles. In plain English, they stand out because of their plate discipline, which is where Tellez’s biggest weakness lies.
For him to make a true impact, he’ll need to improve his plate discipline. Upon being demoted to Triple-A Buffalo in mid-July, Tellez’s on-base percentage was just .280, with walk and strikeout rates of 5.9% and 29.0%, respectively. Unless you’re Javier Baez, you’re not going to have much success with rates like those. His struggles in the plate-discipline department are odd, though, as he never really struggled with that in the minors. His strikeout rates usually were slightly below 20% in all levels, and while he was never a prolific walker in his minor league career, it usually sat around 10%, which is not great, but not bad either.
While on assignment in Buffalo, Tellez credited working with hitting coach and former major leaguer Corey Hart with helping him get back to who he usually was as a hitter. He walked at a 12.8% clip in Buffalo, and his OBP surged to .450 in that 26-game stint there. While those minor league stats are just that—minor league stats—and should be taken with a grain of salt, sometimes a short trip back to the minor leagues works for young hitters. Tellez is obviously too good for Triple-A at this point (especially a Triple-A that uses the juiced MLB ball), but his going back and working with a hitting coach he had worked well with previously surely couldn’t have hurt. He didn’t all of a sudden become a plate-discipline wizard upon his return in August, but he did improve:
Everything to the right of the vertical black line are games after Tellez’s recall in August. Right away there were improvements in his walk rate—before a drop that corresponded with a higher strikeout rate—but he ended the season with a very encouraging drop that saw his O-Swing rate fall to its lowest point of the season, and his strikeout rate drop to a near season low, with a jump in walk rate to go along with it. His 9.8% walk rate in the second half of the season was more in line with his minor league numbers, which is a good sign. Additionally, the 3.8-point positive increase in walk rate from the first half to the second half of 2019 was one of the largest in baseball, as it put him inside the top-20 biggest improvers.
Seeing that Tellez was able to make improvements in his weakest area is definitely a good sign; now it’ll be up to him to make it stick over a whole season. It’s not that a 9.8% walk rate is amazing because it’s not, but if he can maintain that, it would make him a better overall hitter.
How he hits the ball gives me confidence that he can get good results upon putting the ball in play. He hits the ball hard, as his rate of barreled and solid contact is toward the top of the overall league leaderboard. Additionally, he hits a lot of fly balls and line drives, which combined with his strong exit-velocity figures, should be a recipe for success. Going forward, if he can maintain, or even improve the level of plate discipline that he showed in the back half of the 2019 season, I think he should profile as an above-average hitter.
Tellez isn’t likely to become a star, but I do think he has more potential and that he’s been better than what he’s shown. As the Toronto Blue Jays go through the next stages of their rebuild and move closer to their contention window, I imagine they would like to know who their first baseman of the future will be. Tellez may or may not be that guy, but he at least deserves a full season’s look.
(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)