Coming into the season, Taylor Ward wasn’t expected to play a big role for the Los Angeles Angels. He was sent down to the alternate site after Spring Training, and at 27-years-old, the former first-round pick was likely to serve as depth and be up-and-down between AAA and the Majors, which was the case for him in the three seasons prior. Especially with the Angels expecting to compete for a playoff spot, with a crowded outfield consisting of Mike Trout and good corner options in Justin Upton and Dexter Fowler, the numbers game certainly wasn’t in Ward’s favor coming into the year.
However, once the season got going, both Trout and Fowler ended up injured, and Upton followed not long after. Top prospect Jo Adell, despite good numbers in AAA, is seemingly still not ready for everyday playing time at the Major League level after a poor showing in 2020. All of that, then, opened the door for Ward to get a longer look.
For the most part, Ward has picked up the slack in the Angels outfield. Shohei Ohtani is deservedly getting most of the attention, but Ward has done just fine, too, with a .235/.317/.432 triple slash, good enough for a 108 wRC+ in 184 plate appearances. They’re not the best overall numbers, but after a slow start, Ward has been playing much better in the past month or so. Since May 20th, Ward is hitting .265/.348/.479 (130 wRC+), which has surely helped the Angels overcome some big injuries and uncharacteristically poor play from one of their stars, Anthony Rendon.
Ward has been a player in which I’ve had a bit of interest in at one point. He did some things in past seasons in limited samples that I thought maybe made him an underrated player or a player to keep an eye on in the future. I considered writing about him late in the offseason but ultimately decided against it considering he has just 150 Major League plate appearances through the end of the 2020 season, which, to be honest, made me not all that confident about what his stats said about him. Alas, since he is playing well now in a larger sample, I feel like it’s worth revisiting, and also that Ward is deserving of some further attention.
What made Ward interesting to me after last season was mostly that he did three things well in that limited sample–three things that usually lead to good results. First and foremost, he hit the ball hard. Again, it all comes with a small sample size caveat, but in 2020 he had a hard-hit rate of 47%, and even going back to 2019, he hit the ball hard in limited looks, with a 52.6% hard-hit rate. Combined together, he had a 48.2% hard-hit rate in those two small sample years, which, suffice to say, would be one of the highest rates in the game over a full season. But, it wasn’t just that on its own. For instance, when he did the ball hard, it was hit at a good launch angle, with an average hard-hit launch angle of 12 degrees, higher than his 10.6-degree overall average mark and a bigger difference than the league’s average.
It may not seem that extreme, but Ward did go from having a below-average launch angle overall to being above-average when he hit the ball hard. Additionally, another point in his favor last season was that Ward was quite strong at maintaining his average launch angle. Looking at launch angle tightness (essentially just standard deviation of launch angle—a measure of how consistently a hitter replicates his launch angle), he had one of the best marks of all hitters last year:
Also notable was that he didn’t hit a single pop-up last year, which is often a good indicator of a hitter being consistent with their launch angle. As it looks, Ward, at the very least, showed off good batted-ball skills in limited samples. He hit the ball hard and did a good job of maintaining his launch angle. It’s a good start, and that is usually enough to be interesting on the surface, but at the same time, it’s probably not enough on its own.
Fortunately, there were other things to consider too. The other important thing that Ward did was that he had a low chase rate. He had near-identical chase rates in 2019 and 2020 at 24.2% and 24.5%, respectively. Both of those rates are better than the league average of somewhere around 28%. With that, Ward also didn’t whiff all that much compared to league-average. He did whiff at a ridiculously high 41.7% in 2019 (keep in mind that he had just 48 plate appearances), but in more playing time in 2020, he whiffed at a more manageable 23.4% clip, which was better than league average. Having both rates end up better than average gives me some confidence that, despite a 27.5% strikeout rate in 2020, Ward might not strike out at such a high rate going forward. Generally speaking, hitters that are better than league average in terms of chases and whiffs don’t have super-high strikeout rates:
With a strikeout rate ten percent higher than the average of other hitters who were better at avoiding chases and whiffs, Ward does seem like an outlier. It’s not a perfect exercise, but it does show that with that type of chase/whiff combo, Ward would perhaps be expected to have a lower strikeout rate. And so far this season, those rates have mostly held up. His chase rate is up only one percent from where it’s been in the past. The whiff rate has spiked up three percent, but it’s just slightly worse than average at 26.9%, but his strikeout rate has dropped slightly to 25.8%. We’re still figuring out just the type of hitter Ward is at the plate, but for the most part, he’s shown a consistently good batter’s eye and not an outlandishly high whiff rate, both of which are good things.
The third thing that I liked about Ward from last season, and it does go sort of in hand with his whiff rate, as mentioned earlier, is that Ward made a good amount of contact. It was more of an issue in 2019, as we saw that he had a super-high whiff rate, but in 2020 that seemingly was corrected:
The contact rates in 2019 are outstandingly bad, so it was good to see things swing back the other way in 2020. The rate of zone contact, in particular, is what really stands out here. It was miles ahead of the league average and ranked in the top-25% of all hitters last year. It’s probably unlikely to expect him to continue going at such a great rate going forward, but it was good to see him show the ability to make contact, especially after having issues in that department previously.
Ultimately, seeing Ward be above-average in terms of hitting the ball hard, staying disciplined, and making contact last season is definitely encouraging. One thing, though, that wasn’t so great about Ward’s profile, and one area that I thought could potentially be an area of improvement, was that he hit a few too many balls on the ground. We know that he generally hit the ball hard, and yet, the power metrics weren’t all that good, which likely has to do with groundballs. He hit them at a 45.5% mark last season. On its own, that’s not exactly an alarming rate. But, considering that he did so many other things well on the batted-ball side, it would definitely be better if he got more balls in the air, not only for the obvious reasons in that groundballs don’t usually lead to the best results, but also due to the fact he hit his air balls very hard. With an average exit velocity of 94.2 miles-per-hour on his fly balls and line drives, he ranked in the top-30% of all hitters last year, which is pretty encouraging.
All told, though, Ward did a lot of positive things at the plate in a small sample last year. He hit the ball hard, he didn’t chase much, and he made plenty of contact. Those three things usually lead to good results, so the thinking would then be that if Ward could maintain most of that profile in the future, good things would probably be on the horizon.
Fast forward now to 2021, and has that held up? What does Ward look like a hitter now? Looking at his overall profile, it looks like a lot of those things that made him interesting before have translated into the new season. We saw earlier that his chase rate is nearly identical to where it’s been in the past and that he’s whiffing a little bit more, but there is still a lot to like here.
Most notable is that he’s still hitting the ball hard. While he was probably unlikely to make those 52.6% and 47.0% hard-hit rates from the last two years stick long term, he does still have a hard-hit rate of 42%, which is comfortably above the league average of around 35%, and just like last year, when he hits the ball hard, he’s hitting it in the air, with a similar difference between his hard-hit launch angle (8 degrees) to his average launch angle (16.1 degrees).
So, not only does Ward hit the ball hard at a strong rate, when he does hit it hard, it’s at a good angle, which generally means that good things should happen when he hits it hard. And, just as suspected, good things tend to happen to Ward when he hits the ball. He is in the top half of the league in terms of both wOBA on contact and xwOBA on contact at .388 and .414, respectively. It seems that Ward is just making a lot of quality contact this season. And that is the case when we look at both the rate of barrels and solid contact—the second-best category of batted-ball per Statcast. Here’s how Ward compares to the rest of the league in both categories and when they’re combined together:
Ward looks pretty good here, as he lands in the top-10% of all hitters (minimum 100 plate appearances) in terms of the rate of barreled and solid contact. It’s made even better by the fact that he has also maintained his status as a launch angle tightness champion this year. Meaning, he hits the ball well and does a good job of consistently holding his launch angle. This time around, he’s tied for the best in the game:
That’s a pretty impressive feat for a relatively unknown hitter, and it is also more of a positive due to his launch angle being up this year, which you may have noticed is up almost six degrees to 16.1 degrees. That reflects a lower groundball rate—one of his weaknesses last season—at a much better 39.4%, and also explains some of the improvement in barrel rate, as getting more hard contact in the air usually leads to a higher barrel rate, which is good for obvious reasons.
Not just that, but Ward is also pulling the ball more this year. It was one thing that was truly weird about his profile last year; he just didn’t pull the ball that much at just 19.7%. It’s probably just a small sample size thing, but still, it was very odd. This year, his pull rate is up to 37%, which looks a lot more normal. While Ward isn’t an extreme pull hitter, most of his hits go to the pull-side, and he does tend to get his best results when he pulls it. Looking at his spray chart and breaking things down by direction will show that:
All told, Ward’s .561 wOBA to the pull-side is one of the top-50 highest in the game this season, and the argument could then be made that Ward would be even better with an even higher rate of balls to the pull-side. That would make sense in theory, but that remains to be seen for now. His pull rate during his hot month of June is the same as his season rate of 37%, so it’s not as if this all been spurred on by an onslaught of more pulled balls. The extra pulled balls likely are a good explanation for his improved ISO this year, up almost 100 points to a much better .198 mark. It makes sense, as fewer grounders and more balls to the pull-side usually equals better power.
Overall though, this looks like a pretty good profile from Ward. After making some positive initial impressions in smaller samples in the last two seasons, Ward is finally getting extended playing time and getting the chance to show what he can do, and right now, he’s performing well. In the past, he showed the ability to hit the ball hard, maintain his launch angle, lay off bad pitches and make a good amount of contact for him to perhaps fly under the radar.
He got off to a poor start to the season where it did not look pretty at all, but he has done much better from late May through the end of this month. He’s maintained his reputation as a hard-hitter, now encouragingly in a more extended sample, and has become even better at maintaining his launch angle, all while getting more balls off the ground and still not chasing much.
With him making a lot of high-quality contact, improving his ground ball rate, and pulling the ball more, Ward’s overall performance has jumped, and especially in the power department. Right now, it’s helping to provide a spark to an Angels lineup that is missing some key pieces.
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