After a successful first season with the Miami Marlins in 2020, Jesus Aguilar has come out of the gates strong in 2021. At the time of this writing, the former All-Star is slashing .271/.371/.500, good for a strong 136 wRC+.
Aguilar is off to his best start since 2018, when his 42.3% hard hit rate ranked in the 75th percentile of hitters and his 11.4% barrel rate in the 86th percentile. This time around, he is actually putting up the worst marks of his career in those categories. Aguilar’s hard hit rate is just 34.2%, and his barrel rate sits at 6.3%. Both of those are well below the league average. He does have six home runs on the season thanks to a recent tear at the plate, but it is clear that he is not hitting the ball with nearly as much authority as he did in his prime. How has Jesus Aguilar continued to find success? Let’s dive in to what has been a remarkable transformation at the plate.
The Old Aguilar
The old Jesus Aguilar had the profile that you would expect from a power hitter. He could hit the snot out of the baseball when he made contact, but there was plenty of swing and miss in his game. While his quality of contact metrics were strong, his 25.3% strikeout rate and 28.7% whiff rate were both in the 20th percentile. He did draw an above-average amount of walks, but overall plate discipline was clearly his weakness. His 0.41 BB/K ratio placed him in the bottom half of qualified hitters. This actually represented an improvement over his rookie campaign in 2017, when he punched out as 30.2% rate against an 8% walk rate.
Making up for questionable plate discipline with strong power worked well in Aguilar’s breakout season, but then something happened. He stopped hitting the ball as hard as he used to, and his power numbers cratered. In 2019, Aguilar’s hard contact and barrel rates fell to 38.3% and 7.5%, respectively, both the worst of his career at the time. He did make improvements to his walk and strikeout rates, but he was still whiffing more often than the average hitter. Below-average quality of contact and below-average plate discipline produces — you guessed it — a below-average slash line. Aguilar batted just .236/.325/.389 with 12 home runs in a frustrating season. He was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays at the trade deadline and designated for assignment after the season.
The New Aguilar
In 2020, Aguilar started to make some notable improvements with his plate discipline. For the first time in his career, his strikeout rate (18.5%) was better than the league average. His uptick in walks from the previous season stuck. His BB/K ratio was in the top 40 of qualified hitters. This was part of the reason why he managed to rebound to the tune of a 120 wRC+.
This year, Aguilar has taken those strides to the next level. His plate discipline isn’t just good, it is exceptional. The formerly strikeout-prone slugger has gone down on strikes in just 14.7% of his plate appearances. His whiff rate is down to 21.3%, and he has just one more strikeout (17) than he does walks (16), equaling nearly one walk per strikeout. In addition, his chase rate is down to 26.5%. All of these figures represent career-bests.
His quality of contact numbers may not be overly impressive, but Aguilar’s new contact-oriented approach has won the favor of other Statcast metrics. His .376 xWOBAcon is right in line with his last three seasons, so it remains a far cry from the .439 xwOBAcon he registered as an All-Star. However, because he is making significantly more contact and putting more balls in play than he has in the past, Aguilar’s .268 xBA is the second-best mark of his career — even better than his 2018 season. His .354 xwOBA is his highest since 2018.
On top of it all, Aguilar’s power has not completely disappeared. To this point in the season, it has experienced a small resurgence. He has already left the yard six times this season. The difference is that 20 home runs with Aguilar’s previous profile — middling on-base skills and a high strikeout rate — made him an easily replaceable player. 20 home runs with his new skill set — the ability to hit to contact, draw plenty of walks, and work counts — makes for a much more valuable asset. His worth is no longer completely dependent on his power.
It’s not often that a slugger with a high strikeout rate retools himself into a contact hitter, but that is essentially what Jesus Aguilar has done. He is no longer defined by his home run totals; in fact, he is on pace to post some of the best numbers of his career while making less hard contact than ever before. The Marlins first baseman has developed a new approach that features excellent plate discipline to pair with the potential to still go yard around 20 times in a season. If he is able to stick to it, he should continue to find success.
(Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)