Is it Legit? Solak, Riley, and Maeda

What to make of two hot hitters and an ice-cold pitcher.

Now that we’re one month into the season, we’re starting to see new stats starting to stabilize and become useful tools for our analysis.  According to Eno Sarris’s wonderful “Inflatable Expert” article on The Athletic, we now have a large enough sample to trust pitchers’ swinging-strike rates and Command+ metrics, and hitters’ swing rates. Let’s dive into three early season surprises with our handy-dandy stats and see where they lead us.

 

Nick Solak

 

Batting .290 with a .367 OBP, seven home runs, 15 RBI, 19 runs scored and two stolen bases, Nick Solak has been one of the most productive hitters in baseball, and has given a much-needed spark to the Rangers’ offense. That’s a 42 homer, 90 RBI, 114 run and 12 SB pace. Should those of us who rostered Solak now ride into the sunset assuming we’re guaranteed an Alfonso Soriano-type stat line?  Not so fast, says his swing rate. A low swing rate is better because it usually translates to more walks and homers. However, Solak has posted a higher swing rate so far than he has during either of his previous two seasons in the bigs: 46.4%, up 2.6% from last season. At the same time, Solak’s chase rate is up about 7% from last year. In fact, his plate discipline and contact numbers are down across the board. Solak is making less contact, and is swinging at more “bad” pitches than ever before.

So how has Solak been raking despite these concerning trends? It appears his success has been largely driven by absolutely crushing fastballs: He’s hitting .370 with a .741 SLG and has six of his seven homers against the heater in 2021. He has, however, done much better at hitting the ball in the air with authority: His exit velocity of 96.4 mph on fly balls and line drives is a big improvement over his 90.6 mph mark last season, and his barrel rate of 14.1% is well above his career average of 7.9%. However, it will take another month for barrel rates to stabilize, and his average exit velocity, max EV and hard-hit rates are all within range of his career norms, so he’s not generally hitting the ball harder. I would expect his barrel rate to move closer to his career average in the coming weeks. It’s also going to be tough to maintain a 27.5% line drive rate and a 35.% HR/FB rate, which are well above his career norms of 19.9% and 13.7%, respectively.

Verdict: NOT LEGIT (but still valuable). Solak’s numbers certainly reflect a hitter who is on an absolute tear right now, but it’s not yet a reflection of sustainable skills growth. That said, even if Solak’s contact numbers tumble further and the power regresses, he has the speed and the lineup context to put together a valuable overall line. I would project Solak for a lower batting average and OBP this season due to the regression in his plate discipline, but his other numbers should stay solid. Put me down for a .245 AVG and .310 OBP the rest of the way, but with 15 homers and 10 steals and a healthy run and RBI count in the top third of the Rangers’ lineup. Basically, a poor man’s Ozzie Albies!  If I had the opportunity to sell high on him, I absolutely would.

 

Austin Riley

 

While Solak has the results but plate discipline trending in the wrong direction, Austin Riley’s success is matched by some encouraging skills growth. The Braves’ young third baseman has put up three homers, 16 runs, seven RBI, and an impressive .329 BA in 28 games. That batting average must be especially surprising for those who’ve rostered Riley, as he hasn’t hit better than .239 in either of his previous two seasons in the majors. In fact, Riley’s contact and plate discipline skills have been bad enough to make us wonder if he’ll be able to stick in the majors long-term and fully tap into his 70-grade raw power. This season, Riley has has dropped his swing rate by more than 10%, and has cut his chase rate by 9%.  This patience has led to the best BB/K rate of his career (.44) and has also come with improved contact skills, as Riley is posting the highest contact rate and lowest swinging-strike rate of his career so far. Another early sign that Riley is developing as a hitter has been his ability to hit the ball to all fields, as his batted balls have had nearly a nearly equal split between being pulled, centered, and opposite field. Riley has made this growth while generating a hard-hit rate of 43.9% (64% percentile) and max exit velocity of 112.2 mph (88th percentile) that is consistent with his production in previous seasons.

Before we get too over the moon for what Riley is doing, know that his new approach is not without risks. The more patient approach also comes with the potential for a higher strikeout rate as he works deeper into counts; Riley’s 29.5% CSW is higher than last season and just 0.3% better than 2019, when he struck out 36.4% of the time. It’s also important to put Riley’s skills growth in perspective of what he was going into this season: a young player who was just as likely to get sent back to AAA as to be an everyday player for the Braves. Riley also is not a base stealer; he has exactly zero steals in his short major league career, and he is more likely to hit No. 5-7 in the Braves order than in the top half of the lineup.

Verdict: LEGIT. It is possible that Riley’s newfound patience at the plate will be short-lived, or that his spray-to-all-fields approach could cap his prodigious power upside. However, if his new approach yields a higher batting average and helps make him a more consistent hitter, it will help him stay on the field and make him more productive overall, and it’s really encouraging seeing him develop the rough edges of his game. Riley is a hitter you could likely acquire fairly cheaply, but who could sustain success throughout the season. I agree with the projection systems on his home run and counting stat totals, and think he’ll end the year around 25 homers and 75 runs, with 80 RBI. But I think if he holds his new plate approach, he could outhit his BA and OBP projections by 20-25 points each (.265 BA, .340 OBP).

 

Kenta Maeda

 

With all the early success stories of mid-round starting pitchers, Maeda has been the depressing exception. A paragon of consistency over the first four seasons of his major league career, Maeda always finished with an ERA between 3.48 and 4.22 before breaking through last season with an outstanding 2.70 mark in year five. Currently punching in with a 6.56 ERA and 1.76 WHIP, Maeda has managed just a 17.9% strikeout rate and a 1-2 record so far in 2021. While you would normally look at a .372 BABIP and call it fluky, the quality of contact Maeda has allowed thus far explains why so many batted balls are landing in the grass (or the stands). To be specific,  Maeda has given up a 45.9% hard-hit rate, which represents more than a 20% increase from 2020 and puts him in the 20th percentile in that category.  Maeda has also given up a 9.4% barrel rate and 26.9% HR/FB rate, which would be easily the highest marks of his career.  Simply put, the dude is getting crushed out there.

The natural next question is what’s behind all this pain and suffering, and when will it end? Looking at Maeda’s arsenal, I don’t see any significant pitch mix or pitch shape changes; he’s throwing pitches generally at the same frequency and with similar velocity and movement as he did last year. His swinging-strike rate is currently 13.6%, which is down from last season’s career best mark of 17.2%, but it is well above league average and is in line with his career norms. The biggest single stat I can point to to describe Maeda’s struggles is his Command+. For those unfamiliar with Command+, it’s a metric produced by STATS LLC and introduced to the fantasy baseball community by Eno Sarris. The statistic seeks to measure how effective pitchers are at hitting their spots, and then creates an index (where 100 is average) to describe their effectiveness compared to their major league peers. Last season, Maeda was at 108, and this year, he’s at 92. The strike zone plots of his pitches show that everything is hanging up just a few inches higher than it was last season, and that’s often the difference between a swinging strike and a hard-hit baseball. Another way you can see Maeda’s eroded command is in his first-pitch strike and zone rates. When everything is working for Maeda, he can get away with a 40% zone rate because of his ability to spot first pitch strikes and then get batters to chase once they’re behind in the count. This season, Maeda is falling behind more often in counts and is living (and dying) in the zone more often.  

Verdict: LEGIT. It’s complicated, because there are a lot of things he is doing well, but by and large I do think there are legitimate concerns about when we’ll see the old Maeda again. On the plus side, the quality of Maeda’s arsenal has remained consistently strong, and he has a broad repertoire of pitches. And while his command has been subpar this season, he has a long track record of plus command throughout his career, and I think he can get the feel back over time. But I don’t know if that’s going to be in his next start, or if it won’t click until July. Maeda is also a pitcher who doesn’t typically give you a lot of volume; he averaged roughly 147 innings per season from 2016-2019 when he was with the Dodgers, so this combination of uncertainty about how long his struggles will last plus the potential for injury and wearing down, I don’t think it’s foolish to consider selling low.

 

Featured image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Brian Holcomb

Charlotte-based outdoor educator and Philly sports fan whose Pitcher List involvement stems from a decades-long fascination with baseball statistics, trading cards, and debates about player valuation. When not thinking about fantasy baseball, can regularly be found exploring the trails, rivers and rocks of North Carolina.

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