Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo hit his first home run of the season.
Manager Ron Roenicke appears to have finally figured out what the rest of us have been saying all along, that Verdugo is the only one among Boston’s trio of left-handed outfielders who handles himself well against southpaws. Verdugo slashed .327/.358/.485 against left-handed pitchers in 109 plate appearances last year for the Dodgers and he’s started this season 5-for-14 (.357) against them.
After riding the pine against a few lefties in the early going this season, Verdugo was in the lineup against Rays starter Ryan Yarbrough. The pitcher won the battle with a strikeout the first time through the order but Verdugo made him pay in his second trip to the plate. Yarbrough tossed him consecutive curveballs, the second of which Verdugo crushed over the wall in right field.
The home run was the first extra-base hit and first pair of RBI for Verdugo this season, snapping a frustrating drought for a player who tallied 22 doubles, 12 homers and 44 RBI in only 106 games as a rookie last season. Verdugo was expected to bring a bit more offensive firepower when he was acquired from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts deal so his lack of pop out of the gate has been a bit mystifying.
Although, the results aren’t all that surprising if you’ve watched Verdugo swing the bat this year. Something has clearly changed with his approach which has led to Verdugo hitting almost everything on the ground. You can’t hit a home run with a ground ball.
Verdugo owns an astronomically high 78.3 percent ground ball rate that would easily lead the majors if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. The home run brought that rate down from an outrageous 81 percent entering the game. His homer nearly doubled his pitiful 4.8 percent fly ball rate to 8.7 percent, which is still the worst in the majors.
While he’s always been more of a ground ball hitter, it’s never been to this extreme. Verdugo’s career 52.8 GB% is above the typical league average but hardly a cause for concern.
The reason for this massive spike in ground ball rate can be tracked to his launch angle. This is where we can see how much Verdugo’s swing has changed. He currently owns a -7.6 degree launch angle that ranks as the second-lowest in the majors, per Statcast.
Verdugo has never been a disciple of the launch angle movement but his results this year are a significant drop from last year’s 8.8 degree launch angle and his career 6.8 degree rate. The major league average is 11.9. Verdugo is one of only seven major league hitters with 20+ batted balls this season who owns a negative launch angle.
Launch angle isn’t for everyone but it’s clear that Verdugo is having difficulty finding the sweet spot on the ball with his altered mechanics. His 17.4 SwSp% is tied with teammate Jackie Bradley Jr. for the 14th-lowest in the majors. That practically cuts in half his 33.7 SwSp% from last year.
An inability to hit the ball in the air and connect with the sweet spot has led to massive declines in other Statcast data. The ball won’t go as far by rolling in the grass, explaining why the average distance of Verdugo’s batted balls is only 75 feet, which ranks next to last in the majors. That’s not even enough to clear the infield.
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Verdugo proved last year that he’s capable of hitting the ball hard. He posted a respectable 39.7 Hard Hit Percentage and 89.4 average exit velocity in his rookie campaign. This season, his 17.4 Hard Hit % rates in the bottom seven percent of the league and his 80.3 mph exit velocity is in the bottom two percent.
With an absurdly low launch angle and average exit velocity, it’s no wonder that Verdugo hasn’t recorded a single Barrel this season.
The Red Sox expected that they were acquiring a player who would improve upon his rookie results by producing at least league-average power. Instead, they have a player who is among the worst in the league at hitting the ball hard in the air.
Someone needs to lock Verdugo in a room with J.D. Martinez and video of his plate appearances so that the veteran can teach the young outfielder a thing or two.
Good things happen when Verdugo hits the ball in the air. We witnessed that last night with his home run in Tampa Bay. Perhaps the back injury that he was still recovering from in spring training is to blame. While he has fully healed, his timing still appears to be off.
Hopefully his first home run of the season is a sign that Verdugo is finding his rhythm at the plate. He’s never going to be a significant home run threat but he has the ability to provide above-average power if he can stop hitting everything weakly into the ground.