Is Nick Madrigal Actually Hitting Better, or Is He Just Getting Better Results?

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Is Nick Madrigal Actually Hitting Better, or Is He Just Getting Better Results?

Chicago Cubs

Last night, Nick Madrigal was the only Cubs player to reach base safely more than once against the Cardinals, recording yet another multi-hit game (his sixth since returning from the IL) with a walk mixed in for good measure.

In the 65 plate appearances he’s taken since August 4 – we’ll call this “Period 2” – Madrigal is slashing .321/.406/.357 (124 wRC+). Obviously, that’s a little less slug than we’d expect/hope to see (even from him), but it’s still an extremely useful player overall. If that’s the player Nick Madrigal turned into as a Cub, you’d very gladly take it.

I’m just concerned he’s not really playing all that better than he was during his first, injured stretch of the season, which ignited our concern in the first place. In 115 plate appearances from Opening Day to June 10 when he hit the IL for a second and longer time (we’ll call this “Period 1”), Madrigal slashed just .222/.263/.250 (46 wRC+) with an uncharacteristically high 14.8% strikeout rate.

Here are those numbers again, side-by-side.

Period 1: .222/.263/.250 (46 wRC+); 14.8 K%
Period 2: .321/.406/.357 (124 wRC+); 10.8 K%

What I want to do today is look under the hood of both stretches to see if he’s actually earned the huge leap in performance here in Period 2.

The obvious place to start is the highest level, and just investigate how frequently his batted balls are falling in for hits. His BABIP.

Period 1: .264 BABIP
Period 2: .367 BABIP

Wowsa.

Now before we freak, there’s some very important context to consider here. For one, Madrigal’s career big league BABIP before coming to the Cubs was .338 (it’s .325 including his time with the Cubs, a larger, more dependable sample). Meanwhile, his career Minor League BABIP is .313.

So all else equal, yes, he’s probably getting lucky on the balls he’s putting in play in Period 2, but he was also probably not quite as bad as he was supposed to be in Period 1.

… But is “all else equal”?

BABIP is a great first step to help contextualize a performance, but it’s also driven (if not totally, at least in large part) by the quality of contact a hitter makes. And that’s where I’m starting to really doubt Madrigal’s Period 2 performance.

Period 1: 86.4 MPH EV, 30.4 Hard%
Period 2: 86.2 MPH EV, 16.0 Hard%

2022 MLB Average: 88.6 MPH EV, 38.2 Hard%

The “new and improved” Nick Madrigal is still not hitting the ball hard. In fact, he’s hitting the ball less hard (and hard less frequently) than he was in Period 1, let alone comparing it to the league average, which he’s trailing wildly. Madrigal was never a guy that smoked the ball, even when he was succeeding with the Sox. For him, it’s all about putting the ball in play as often as possible, but a 16% hard-hit rate is just shockingly low, even for him. And my incredulity is making me lose the thread here: A 16% hard hit rate does not support a career-high .367 BABIP. Nor does it support a career average .325 BABIP.

On the quality of his contact, alone, there’s a strong argument that Madrigal has been extremely lucky in Period 2.

That’s not to say there wasn’t *any* improvement. In fact, there was one big and important improvement from Period 1 to Period 2 that does soften the blow a little:

Period 1: -0.6 degree launch angle
Period 2: 3.3 degree launch

Madrigal is still hitting WAY too many ground balls, but he has at least begun to elevate a little bit more since returning from the IL. He’s got just a 1.9 degree launch angle for his career (1.7 with the Sox last season), so I guess this is an improvement. Still really low overall, though.

But even this has some caveats, and they’re a little reassuring.

For one, a player like Madrigal, who just isn’t going to make a lot of hard contact, is likely better off NOT elevating the ball too much — if he did, he might wind up flying out way too often, since he won’t have the depth required for a ton of wall-scrapers.

For another, “average” launch angle doesn’t really tell the whole story here. In reality, Madrigal has two buckets of launch angle, one really bad and the other not too terrible. Here’s a look at both visually in Period 1 and Period 2:

To me, this looks like an improvement, as Madrigal has maybe traded in some of that <0 degree launch angle bucket for a little more on the top end. He still has his spikes of beating the ball into the ground, but maybe he’s starting to reduce the frequency of those balls in play, which should help him overall.

Either way, anecdotally, it does not feel like he’s been spraying line drives all over the field, so he’ll need to continue his work on this front if the slash line is going to stay above average overall.

Hey, let’s end this discussion on a *definite* positive.

Like I said up top, Madrigal’s strikeout rate in Period 1 was equal parts surprising and alarming. For a guy that’s going to live and die by balls in play, he needs to be putting a LOT of balls in play. So his Period 1 14.8% was weird and concerning and unlike him. Fortunately, he seems to have made some very big improvements to his swing decisions and contact ability here in Period 2.

Out-of-Zone Swing%

Period 1: 33.1%
Period 2: 29.5%

In-Zone Swing%

Period 1: 59.9%
Period 2: 67.9%

Zone Contact Rate

Period 1: 92.5%
Period 2: 97.4%

Whiff Rate:

Period 1: 4.7%
Period 2: 3.2%

In short, since returning from the IL, Nick Madrigal is swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone, many more pitches in the zone, and is making more contact with pitches in the zone as well as more contact overall. That’s very good to see, because that’s supposed to be his bread and butter. Perhaps, then, with these underlying metrics, we can accept his launch angle improvements and expect some better contact to come. It also helps explain how he’s taken six walks this month, despite having just five walks on the season before returning from the IL in nearly twice as many plate appearances.

So at the end of the day, I don’t think Madrigal has done enough YET to support his dramatically better numbers at the plate in Period 2, but there are definitely some signs of life.

With more distance from the injury and better swing decisions – and outcomes – at the plate, I’m open to believing in some better, more sustainable results through the end of the year for Nick Madrigal. The work continues.



Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami