Nick Madrigal's Contact Quality is Alarmingly Bad, and It Is Impacting the Defensive Positioning Against Him

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Nick Madrigal’s Contact Quality is Alarmingly Bad, and It Is Impacting the Defensive Positioning Against Him

Chicago Cubs

I feel like I find myself discussing it every year with a contact-oriented, batting-average-driven position prospect who is doing very well at the lower-levels of the minors: yes, but power is necessary.

The point is not necessarily that hitting a lot of homers is necessary to be a useful big leaguer, but instead is about how “hitting the ball hard and in the air sometimes” is really important to any hitter’s overall success. With the high-contact, lesser-power types – the guys whose production is mostly driven by batting average – you still need to be slugging some in order to keep that average up.

Why?

Lots of reasons. Even setting aside the actual production you get from slugging, there is the impact your slugging ability has on the pitcher and the defense. Without any real fear that you’re going to do serious damage, better and better pitchers will stay in and around the zone more often, which will crush your walk rate, and increase your strikeout rate. And without any real fear that you’re going to burn them, outfielders will increasingly cheat in to cut off more of your would-be singles. It’s just a quadruple whammy as you climb the ladder, and we so often see guys who are hitting .300/.330/.400 in the lower minors become unplayable .250/.270/.300 guys by the time they reach the upper minors.

But, you know, this topic isn’t exclusive to the minor leagues. We’re seeing it play out in the big leagues with Nick Madrigal, and it’s been really painful to watch.

Sahadev Sharma got into it today at The Athletic, writing at length about how defenses have adjusted dramatically to his inability to hit the ball deep into the outfield. The article includes a spray chart from Statcast, which shows you everywhere Madrigal has landed a hit this year:

Madrigal has no barrels this year, one of just three hitters with at least 75 batted balls not to have a barrel (Lorenzo Cain and Jose Iglesias). His average exit velocity (86.0 mph, per Statcast) is only 48th worst in baseball, but his -0.9 degree average launch angle is the second worst in baseball. The average distance of his batted balls is 100 feet, which is not only the lowest in baseball, it is the lowest by A LOT (111 feet is second worst, and there are only seven batters under 120 feet).

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Nick Madrigal is currently making the worst contact in baseball.

Other teams have noticed, and they are adjusting their defenses accordingly.

From the piece, after discussing broadcaster A.J. Pierzynski’s comments on how Cardinals outfielders this weekend were playing shallower for Madrigal than he’s ever seen for a batter:

Scouts who have watched Madrigal of late pointed out that opponents are “shrinking” the field on him, and perhaps he’s finally reached a level of the game where he’s just not big enough ….

One scout who had always been high on Madrigal wondered if he was just flat-out being overpowered. That was never the case for him in the past when he was on Team USA in high school or playing in the Pac-12 in college. Madrigal always looked like he belonged and often thrived against high-level competition. Now he’s struggling to hit the ball with authority and at times doesn’t seem confident at the plate. He continues to say all the right things, but a significant injury followed by extreme struggles can’t be easy to take.

Sharma goes on to note that the extent to which Madrigal cannot hit the ball with authority this year has generated concern among “talent evaluators who were once big proponents of his when he was drafted fourth by the White Sox in 2018.”

Madrigal obviously has had very productive stretches in his career, and it would be premature to say that he’s definitely toast or anything like that. But it has been plenty long enough to say that something is definitely off, and the conversation about letting Madrigal work at Triple-A for a while is completely reasonable at this point. When your entire game rests on the ability to spray line drive singles all over, and defenses are currently able to defend you like a pitcher, there are going to be serious problems with productivity. (Especially when Madrigal isn’t even doing his normal line drive thing very often, either.)

With guys like Jonathan Villar, Seiya Suzuki, and Yan Gomes returning soon (TBD on David Bote), and with a desire to let some other guys at the big league level get regular at bats (moving Chris Morel around means pretty much any other one guy can play when Madrigal sits, including a corner outfielder like Clint Frazier), it’s quickly reaching the point where optioning Madrigal to Triple-A Iowa for a while is not merely something that should be considered, it’s something that should be demanded. You just want to give him a realistic chance to get back to driving the ball with a little more authority, and maybe that isn’t going to happen against big league pitching right now and the pressures that come with it.



Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.