One of the great things about baseball is that in order for a team to succeed, there needs to be production from just about every player on the active roster — both the well-known and not-so-well-known guys.
Mike Trout is a perfect example of this. He could end up being the best baseball player to ever play, but the Los Angeles Angels have only made the playoffs once since his first full season in 2012. Why is that? Well, the Angels have mostly been “Trout and all the other guys” for the majority of his career.
But in 2019, the following 5 players, though, they don’t generate nearly as many headlines as some other players, put up some impressive and noteworthy performances, particularly early in the season.
Tommy La Stella, Los Angeles Angels
For whatever reason, La Stella’s journey out west has come with a tremendous power surge. Through his first 947 big-league plate appearances, the infielder slugged 10 home runs. In his first 154 plate appearances with the Angels, he’s hit 11 dingers. His previous single-season career high was five, which he passed on April 21st.
Heck, he’s even already had three different multi-homer performances.
While his 33.6% fly-ball rate is more than 10 percentage points higher than last year, it’s not much different from his career rate (30.7%). The difference has been in his quality of contact — La Stella’s 44.4% hard-hit rate is much higher than his career number (31.4%), and a drop in soft-hit rate (16.3% career vs. 12.9% so far in ’19) doesn’t hurt, either.
He’s also taking a page out of the Mike Trout school of hitting, as he’s swinging less often than ever before (39.9%) but making more contact than ever before (91.4%). Combine that with a huge lift in hard-hit rate and good things are bound to happen.
Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves
Calling Mike Soroka an “unheralded MLB player” is a bit of a stretch. After all, the soon-to-be 23-year-old was a consensus top-30 prospect for Baseball America and MLB.com heading into this season. I decided to add him in here because when people talk about impressive rookie pitches so far this season, the conversation seems to focus on Chris Paddack.
While Paddack does lead qualified rookie starters with a 1.4 fWAR (Soroka has 1.2 so far), Soroka easily has him beat in the ERA department (1.01 to 1.93). The Braves’ starter has some catching up to do in innings pitched — he’s tossed 44.2 so far in ’19 — but he’s just been straight-up dominant. He’s made seven starts, with each of them being at least five innings (he’s gotten into at least the sixth on six occasions).
Of those seven starts, Soroka has yet to allow more than one run per outing.
There are obviously some statistics that’ll need to come back to reality, like his 87.2% strand rate and .203 BABIP. However, he’s doing the work to earn those numbers. His ground-ball rate is up to 56.5% (44.0% last year), while his line-drive rate has gone from 32.1% to 20.9% and his soft-hit rate allowed has improved from 14.1% to 23.5%.
Giovanny Urshela, New York Yankees
The Yankees have been completely ravaged by injuries and have still found a way to get themselves into first place in the American League East. It’s seriously scary to think about the amount of depth they have.
One of those depth pieces is Urshela, with all parts of New York’s original left side of the infield (Miguel Andujar, Didi Gregorius, and even Troy Tulowitzki) on the Injured List. He hasn’t experienced a huge power boost by going to Yankee Stadium, but the infielder is slashing .336/.387/.478 with a 132 wRC+. Prior to this year, he never finished with a wRC+ higher than 67.
The difference here all lies within his batted-ball profile, which is pretty easy to digest when you look at US online sportsbooks. Just look how things have changed since 2017:
This helps explain his sky-high .389 BABIP, which is among the top-10 for hitters with at least 120 plate appearances. He’s also accomplished this despite a 40.5% chase rate and 75.0% contact rate on balls outside the strike zone.
Luke Weaver, Arizona Diamondbacks
Following a 2017 season in which he posted a 3.88 ERA over 60.1 innings for the St. Louis Cardinals, Weaver appeared to be part of the team’s young rotation heading into the foreseeable future. A year later, he was involved in the trade that netted the Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
Life comes at you fast, but the young right-hander has taken full advantage of this fresh start. He’s already accumulated 1.5 fWAR in just 57.1 innings thanks to a 3.14 ERA, 26.6% strikeout rate, and 5.2% walk rate. It didn’t take him long to eclipse last season’s 1.4 fWAR, which took him 136.1 innings to reach.
The most notable difference in Weaver’s game is a rise in cutter usage — after using it at a 4.8% clip in ’18, that number is currently up at 14.8%. This has likely helped the effectiveness of his changeup, which he’s throwing 25.0% of the time. Opposing hitters are slashing .136/.197/.242 with a 28 wRC+ and 26.8% strikeout rate against that offering, which is a huge improvement from last year (.267/.300/.477 with a 116 wRC+ and 18.8% strikeout rate).
Daniel Vogelbach, Seattle Mariners
The Mariners have officially faded from the top of the American League West division to the bottom, but they can still hit, and Vogelbach is a product of that. As he’s received more playing time since debuting in 2016, he’s progressively gotten more productive.
Check out how his strikeout rate, ISO, and wRC+ have progressed over the years.
The kind of progress every hitting coach dreams of seeing.
Vogelbach has already slugged 14 homers because of a fly-ball-heavy approach — his 52.6% fly-ball rate is the highest in baseball among qualified hitters as of Wednesday night. He’s posted a top-20 homer-to-fly-ball ratio (27.5%) because it’s been accompanied by just a 5.9% infield-fly rate.
And he’s doing this with only a 52.4% swing rate on strikes, along with an 80.8% contact rate in this situation. As a frame of reference, the league averages are 67.6% and 84.7%, respectively.