Most Improved Hitters of 2022

Hitters today are fighting a constant uphill battle against the game’s incredible array of pitching talent.

That makes it all the more impressive when they can adapt and take a big step forward on the record. And that’s exactly what a number of batters from 2021 to ’22 did.

This isn’t so much about your standard back-of-the-baseball card results, which often don’t tell the full story, especially in a small early-season sample. Instead, we judge this based on the expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), a frightening-sounding stat that simply evaluates a batter based on strikeouts, walks, and quality of contact (i.e. exit speed and launch angle), which helps to filter out factors such as defense and luck. For context, the MLB average xwOBA this year is .328.

MLB.com has already featured some of the biggest winners of late: sophomore sensations Jazz Chisholm Jr., Wander Franco and Ke’Bryan Hayes, Giants breakout Joc Pederson and Mike Trout impersonator Taylor Ward. Here are seven more batters who have made it a lot better so far in 2022. (Numbers are up to and including Thursday’s games).

Tim Anderson, SS, White Sox
xwOBA win: 83 points (up to .412)

It’s been a tough time defensively for Anderson (nine errors) thus far, but the 2019 AL batting champion continues to hone his craft at the plate. And this is a player who has surpassed a .300 average and an OPS of .800 for three seasons in a row.

Anderson is making more frequent hard contact in 2022 and has replaced some ground balls with flyballs and line drives, giving him an elite sweet-spot rate. But the real headline here is that the 2021 All-Star has halved its roughly average strikeout rate and is now in the 94th percentile. Anderson continues to be a very aggressive batter, but he also gets the bat on the ball more than ever. It paid off, with a .333/.369/.514 line (163 OPS+).

Some enhancers are pimples and some are rebounders. Yelich falls very much in the latter camp, having fallen from NL MVP Award winner (2018) and runner-up (’19) to a barely league average batter (2020-21). We probably won’t see Yeli’s most ostentatious peak numbers again, but it’s certainly an eye-opener to note that his 2022 xwOBA is nearly identical to what he posted during that MVP campaign (0.416).

Simply put, Yelich is back to crush the ball again — even if it’s not exactly clear why he stopped in the first place. Here’s the story: In all of 2021, he ran 22 balls, meaning he made the best possible type of contact, the type that normally produces extra-base hits. In slightly more than a quarter of the number of plate appearances, Yelich already has 16 barrels this year.

This is a case where the raw stat line is clearly insufficient. Taking into account the decrease in fouls across the league, Torres’ OPS had risen from 7% below average to 14% above average. In addition, Torres suffers from a huge gap between his projected and actual production, masking the gains the 25-year-old has made after a very disappointing season in 2021.

The former top candidate, who hit 38 home runs in 2019, is doing a nice trick this year. He has increased his hard hit rate more than almost anyone, from the 26th percentile to the 90th percentile of MLB hitters. And he did it while hitting the ball more in the air and striking out at a low level in his career. If that continues, the Yankees will be celebrating a lot of Gleyber Days this year.

As a marketing strategy, hitting .304/.413/.522 seems like a good choice to jump-start your final season on your way to free agency. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but it’s especially encouraging that Contreras — who turned 30 Friday — supports that line in a big way.

There are two things you want to do as a batter: make a lot of contact and make good contact. Contreras will do both much more often in 2022. He tops the MLB standings with Aaron Judge, Yordan Alvarez and Giancarlo Stanton, while hitting about 11 percentage points of his strikeout percentage. If the Cubs don’t straighten the ship in the next two months, Contreras will be on track to become a much sought-after Trade Deadline target.

Jean Segura, 2B, Phillies
xwOBA win: 75 points (up to .394)

Segura had hit safely in 10 consecutive games through Thursday, hitting .457 over that period and raising his line to .307/.369/.485. His career high 147 OPS+ was the team’s second best, sandwiched between sluggers Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos. Improvements from both Segura and third baseman Alec Bohm have been huge for a Philly club scrambling to say the least in the hunt for NL East.

Segura has always been good at putting the bat on the ball, but not so much at doing authority. In the first seven seasons of Statcast tracking, his hard hit rate ranged between the 18th and 44th percentiles among MLB hitters. Last year it was on the 30th. This year? The 96th. Segura came in on Friday tied for sixth in that category’s qualifiers, just ahead of Trout and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. If the 32-year-old can keep it that way, his $17 million club option for 2023 looks like a steal.

Rowdy Tellez, 1B, Brewers
xwOBA win: 113 points (up to .453)

It looks like Tellez, a 30th round Draft pick in 2013, has found a home with the Brew Crew after being traded with Toronto last July. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound lefty slugger has become an important middle-of-the-order bat for a surprisingly robust Milwaukee attack, slugging .528 and second in NL in RBIs (27).

Even that production trumps it, because while Tellez has always been more than capable of wrecking baseball, in 2022 he will be doing so at a truly elite level. Of the qualifiers, only Trout, Judge and Stanton have better production on contact than Tellez. Combine that with a whiff and K-rates around the average, and you have a hitter that suddenly looks like a top slugger.

Have the Rays discovered another gem? Ramirez is 27 and part of his sixth organization after being taken over in late March for a Minor League infielder from the Cubs, who bought him last November from Cleveland, which picked him off waivers from Miami before the ’21 season. In 818 at bats in his career, Ramirez was 10% below the league average offensively.

Left-handed Ramirez doesn’t play every day and he isn’t looking for power. He still takes his hacks (36.7% chase rate). But his pass rate is in the 92nd percentile and his line-drive speed has risen to one of the game’s highest (33.3%), following in the footsteps of teammates Franco and Manuel Margot (another big winner). That helped him beat .311 with 128 OPS+ for the two-time defending AL East champion.

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