Of all the second generation big leaguers scattered throughout professional baseball right now (and there are more than you might think), it’s the Toronto Blue Jays that most commonly capture our attention, likely due to volume and the serendipity of them all arriving at virtually the same time. And while both Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Cavan Biggio are set up to have strong seasons in their own right, it seems to be Bo Bichette who has the spotlight shining firmly on him entering 2021.
I have many questions about Bo Bichette—most prominent among them being: what constitutes a “good” year for him in 2021? And what exactly are we going to judge this upon? Average & on-base skills? Power increase? Play in the field? I’ll get to this, as well as my other questions shortly. First, a little context for what Bichette has turned in thus far in his Major League career.
Bichette has yet to play a full season at the Major League level. His 2019 and 2020 game totals have featured 340 plate appearances wherein he’s slashed .307/.347/.549/.896. His ISO over that span comes in at .241 (.260 in 2019), while he’s also gone for a 22.6 percent strikeout rate against a 5.6 percent walk rate. It all culminates in a 134 wRC+ in his first 340 PAs, painting him as a well above average hitter early in his career. So it’s no wonder folks are chomping at the bit to see what he’ll produce in 2021.
I mentioned before that I had questions about Bichette. And those questions mean nothing in the way of pessimism or to indicate that Bichette isn’t going to be an extremely high quality shortstop—he is. But should we expect to see more power after it fell off some in 2020? Can Bichette sustain his success with his current approach? And, of course, the most overarching of the questions: when it’s all said and done, what will we need to see from Bichette in order to declare this a “good” season and a step forward?
First up is the power question. After A-ball, Bichette hadn’t posted a .200 ISO season until he got to Toronto. Conventional wisdom also tells us that a young hitter with raw power will eventually make the transition from the gaps to over the outfield wall. In all honesty, either one would suffice for a potent Blue Jays lineup. But after posting that .260 figure in 2019 during his brief run, it fell to .211 in 2020. It’s possible that his knee injury did inhibit his ability to hit for power a touch. His ISO when he returned was just .113 for the remainder of the season, so it probably goes without saying.
But the simple answer to the power question is: yes. Because it’s probably already there. Bichette does maintain a fairly high quality of contact. Take a peek at this histogram here:
We love a histogram with that kind of skew, and it does speak to the quality coming off of Bichette’s bat. He ranked in the 57th percentile in both average exit velocity and HardHit% in 2020, but also in the 82nd percentile in Barrel% and the 89th in xSLG. His xISO alone, which was in the 84th, indicates that he likely should have seen a higher figure here. And then consider that both exit velo and HardHit% could both be improved with slight refinements to pitch selection and things suddenly become very easily optimistic.
Perhaps even more indicative of a potential power surge, Bichette ranks in the lower portion of the league in that he only puts the ball on the ground roughly 40 percent of the time (much to the chagrin of Vladito, who did it at nearly a 55 percent clip last year). What’s interesting is that despite a lower groundball rate in 2020 than in 2019, and virtually no change in his contact trends, his HR/FB ratio fell pretty significantly. It went from 22.4 percent to 15.6 percent. It’s hard to put too much stock into anything from 2020, but especially in this case. Bichette was just hitting the wrong flyballs in the wrong ballparks, and didn’t have the variety that he’d normally have in order to maintain a higher HR/FB ratio.
So there’s actually a lot to indicate that the power is already there. His quality of contact, combined with his ability to elevate the baseball, further compounded with a much higher xISO than what ended up resulting, as well as his HR/FB trends all come together to indicate that not only is there a chance for more of an upswing in the power game, it’s probably already there. And it ultimately doesn’t matter if it’s power to the gap or power over the fence.
Additionally, there is a rather significant question as to whether or not Bichette’s early success is sustainable in its current form. And by current form, I’m referring to the always dangerous high BABIP, as well as his general approach at the plate. It’s important to note that in each of his first two seasons, respectively, Bichette went for a BABIP of .368 and .352. Even at the minor league level, these numbers were always very high, so it’s entirely characteristic of Bichette to have high marks there. As easy as it is to look at a BABIP like the ones he posted in 2019 and 2020 and read that as an easy declaration that regression is on the way, well, that’s not entirely true.
Blue Bird Banter has a really nice writeup on Bichette and how some of these BABIP issues could come to a head. In essence, Matt highlights the quality of contact and launch angle as reasons that Bichette could very well sustain a high level of BABIP success even if there is a slight regression. For my part, I think that Bichette’s opposite field tendencies could also play a role in allowing him to continue to thrive in the BABIP game. His 30.9 percent opposite field percentage ranks 21st among hitters from 2019 and 2020. I’m tempted to start calling him Oppo Bo. Regardless, it’s an asset to what we’re talking about here.
One element that would aid this even further is a tweak to his approach. Among players with at least 300 plate appearances in 2019 and 2020 (again, his sample size is small), Bichette ranks 22nd in swing rate, at 54.6 percent. He’s 19th in chase rate as well, with a 41 percent mark there. His Contact%, however, ranks 144th at 77.7 percent. His CSW% (accounting for called strikes and whiffs) is 119th. Neither of those latter two figures are terrible. There’s 342 players on that leaderboard given the limited number of plate appearances. But it does speak to a rather notable improvement that Bichette can make.
His walk rate is 5.25 percent over the last two years, including a 3.9 percent mark in 2020 that put him in the bottom four percent in the league. No one is trying to suggest that Bichette can’t be an effective player in being aggressive at the plate. He didn’t post a wild walk rate at any level of the minors. Even tempering it to the slightest extent might only lead to a very slight uptick in the free pass, but it can really make a difference in terms of making meaningful contact. More meaningful contact could lead to more power and a higher likelihood that he sustains those BABIP figures from earlier, or at the very least staves off serious regression there.
Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that he finds a way to resist the breaking stuff (which Brooks Baseball has him swinging at the most frequently and Baseball Savant finds is where he has the least amount of overall success) in favor of attacking the hard stuff and the occasional offspeed. It’s not a drastic change, but one that has the ability for a myriad of positive outcomes.
So what do we know about Bichette at this point? More power is likely on the way, if not here already, and it would probably behoove him to take a pitch once in a while. But the contact he does make with those free-swinging ways is pretty meaningful. With all that in mind, what exactly would have to happen in 2021 for us to call it a successful year for the emerging wunderkind?
Looking at some of the projections, ZiPS has a slash of .286/.334/.512/.846, with an ISO jump to .226. They project a strikeout rate just under 18 percent and a walk rate just a notch below seven, both of which would be very positive trends based off of the last two years of plate appearances. They also project a wRC+ of 119. For what it’s worth, their .322 projected BABIP is on the higher ender of projections.
Steamer is similar, but less optimistic in some regards. Slash goes .280/.333/.469/.802, with the K% slightly higher (19.8 percent) and the walks virtually identical. Pretty similar across the board. Where they differ much more is in regard to that power element. Steamer projects an ISO of only .188 to go along with those latter two parts of the projected slash. Those projections also feature a .310 BABIP and wRC+ of 110.
For their money, PECOTA is also not terribly optimistic on the power side for Bichette either, with a .443 projected slugging percentage that falls below even Steamer’s pessimism. Their all-encompassing hitting metric, DRC+, checks in at just 105, which would appear to indicate a pretty hefty step back for Bichette.
Those are three very popular projection models with three very different outcomes. The ZiPS projections represent perhaps the best case scenario. It’s got a modest step back in the BABIP game, but better peripherals and more power. In any scenario, it does seem reasonable to expect Bichette to take a step back on the BABIP side and, subsequently, batting average. However, compensating for even a mild regression with a slightly better approach and modest uptick in power definitely represents the best possible outcome. While it might not be terribly reasonable to look at the higher end of those projections and declare that to be a successful year for Bo Bichette, a demonstration of those trends, combined with a continued quality of contact and strong defensive play is right in our wheelhouse when we’re wondering what to look fondly upon at the end of 2021.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.