It’s difficult to believe that a young hitter with blistering exit velocity and an advanced approach at the plate is being overlooked heading into 2020. But that’s exactly what’s happening with Ryan McMahon. The Rockies second baseman is being taken near the 20th round of fantasy drafts yet could produce like an All-Star if he makes some incremental improvements in 2020.
Blistering Exit Velo
The first thing that jumps out about McMahon is batted ball authority. His 91.4 mph exit velocity ranked in the top 20 in baseball and ahead of names like Juan Soto, JD Martinez, and Bryce Harper last season. McMahon’s hard-hit rate, a measure of the percentage of balls hit at above 95 mph, also ranked in the top 20. For a 24-year old (McMahon turned 25 over the off-season) to acquit himself in the 90th+ percentile of those metrics is mighty impressive.
Unfortunately, McMahon’s OPS in 2019 was limited to a pedestrian .779 because he hit so many of those hard-hit balls directly into the ground. His 8.7 degree launch angle was in the bottom 20th percentile of the league. But that isn’t totally surprising for a young hitter. Christian Yelich, a fellow lefty with a similar-looking swing to McMahon, hovered in the 7-9 degree range for several years before breaking out.
The important thing to remember is that ability to hit the ball hard trumps ability to lift the ball every time. Tom Tango recently found that exit velocities – even at very low launch angles – were far more predictive of future batted ball success than launch angles themselves. It’s likely that McMahon sustains his strong exit velocities while learning to lift the ball more as he adapts to MLB pitching.
In addition to hitting the ball hard, McMahon does three other things at the plate that indicate he is an advanced hitter:
No Platoon Split: McMahon actually had a higher OPS against lefties (.785) than righties (.775) last season. This was backed up by nearly identical xwOBA markings against both. That’s a rare feat for a lefty hitter in general, and especially for a young one at that.
Hits Breaking Balls: McMahon hit the same number of home runs off breaking balls as fastballs in 2019 (10 each). His exit velocity on breaking balls was also a bit higher than fastballs. In fact, his breaking ball exit velocity was the fifth-highest in baseball! The other names in the top five? Judge, Hiura, Moncada, Bell – and Yelich at six.
The ability to hit breaking balls is significant because it shows that McMahon is reacting rather than guessing. So many modern hitters go on a two-month tear by sitting fastball and then get shut down for the rest of the season after pitchers adjust (*cough* Hunter Renfroe and Rhys Hoskins *cough*). Instead, its pitchers that will have a more difficult time adjusting to McMahon.
All Fields Approach: McMahon boasts an aesthetically pleasing spray chart, with singles, doubles, and home runs spread to all corners of the field. Similar to his ability to hit breaking balls, McMahon’s ability to go to all fields indicates that he’s versatile enough at the plate to react to what the pitcher gives him.
McMahon’s ability to hit multiple pitch types to multiple fields – off both lefties and righties – indicates that he is an advanced hitter. However, he does have some things to work on.
Things to Improve
The biggest deficiency in McMahon’s game is his penchant to swing and miss. His strikeout rate was nearly 30% while his swinging strike rate hovered around 15% in 2019. Whiffing at these rates puts a ceiling on production and puts a lot of pressure on batted ball performance to make up the slack.
The thing is that hitters with high exit velocities, like McMahon, also tend to have high whiff rates. As a result, it’s likely that McMahon will always struggle to make contact. But if he can make marginal improvements, like lowering his strikeout rate from 30% to 25%, that would go a long way in raising his offensive ceiling.
In addition to cutting down on strikeouts, McMahon will need to lift the ball more to achieve his full potential. Fortunately, he’s already on a positive trajectory, increasing his launch angle from -4.6 degree in 2017 to 7.1 in 2018 and finally 8.4 last season.
Analysis by Peter L’Oiseau at the Hardball Times shows that players tend to gain launch angle as they age. Expect McMahon to continue the trend and increase his launch angle further in 2020.
Tying it Together
McMahon’s positives – scorching batted ball authority and a well-rounded approach – are exceedingly rare traits for a young hitter. His flaws – a high whiff and groundball rate – are issues that young hitters typically improve upon with experience.
McMahon finished with 24 home runs and 83 RBIs to go along with a .250 average in his first-full season. If he can make some incremental improvements in contact rate and launch angle, which seems likely given his advanced hit tool, those figures could eclipse 30/100/.280 this season.