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Revisiting preseason “questions” about Bo Bichette

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After pondering what a “good” 2021 season looked like from Bo Bichette, how have things transpired over the last six months?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Way back in March, which seems like both a lifetime ago and also yesterday, I wrote about Bo Bichette and what constituted a “good” 2021 for the Toronto Blue Jays shortstop. Long story short, I looked at some of the projections, included a pinch of what others had written, and came to the following conclusions:

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.

So the key elements I considered when looking at what a potential 2021 looked like were the BABIP, power, the approach, and defensive play. In what became a mildly complicated scenario, I half-expected a regression on his average when putting the ball in play while simultaneously hoping for an uptick in the power and approach elements of his game. The defense isn’t something we’re going to evaluate here, as it’s kind of maintained metrics-wise even if falling just slightly below average.

Between his 2019 arrival in Toronto and the 2020 sophomore campaign, Bichette had accumulated 2.5 fWAR. His wRC+ between the two seasons was 134, with a slash that went .307/.347/.549/.896. Notably, especially for the purposes of evaluating a “good” 2021, his BABIP between the two seasons was .361, while he carried a K% over 22. His combined walk rate sat at 5.6 percent but was also buoyed by a 6.6 mark in 2019 before regressing to just 3.9 in 2020. Similarly, his ISO was up at .260 in 2019 before falling to just .211 last year, leading to a deceptive .241.

Additionally, he was a touch more aggressive in 2020 than the previous 200-or-so PAs of 2019, swinging at a 57 percent rate against a 53 percent clip. However, his contact rate did rise exactly 3.0 percent, up to 79.6. He whiffed slightly less, and his quality of contact trends remained almost identical between the two.

So, with all of this in mind, has Bichette taken the steps forward that we hoped he would to declare this to be a “good” year from him? The answer harks back to those elements mentioned earlier: BABIP, power, and approach.

With BABIP, I questioned whether or not there would be a regression, while also noting that Bichette could survive a modest, if expected, regression if he showed development elsewhere. The BABIP itself has experienced the regression, down to .333. There’s likely one primary reason for that. Bichette is hitting the ball harder (more on that momentarily), but he’s driving it into the ground at a higher frequency. That 49.2 GB% is almost a full nine-point jump from last year. However, as is also to be expected, his oppo tendencies are aiding him in the BABIP game. His Oppo% remains strong, at 33.6 percent, with a Hard% in that direction that aligns perfectly with his general trends (also 33.6). Bichette’s BABIP on contact to the opposite field is up at .349.

Nothing surprising, or diminishing, there. The regression from what was likely too high a BABIP has occurred. But hitters hit, and Bichette’s skill set has allowed him to evade anything detrimental to his overall output.

However, as positive as his overcoming the decline in BABIP (the BABdip, if you will), his power hasn’t come to fruition in the way that we might’ve hoped, especially given that the expectation (from me) was that the power would prove to be the inverse of said BABIP. This is where things get interesting.

Bichette’s ISO for the season is just .173, his lowest mark since Double-A back in 2018. Like I said, a big contributor to that is the increase in groundballs. Bichette has A. Hit the ball harder (36.0 percent) and B. Experienced an increased HR/FB rate (18.0). So it’s an oversimplification to say that he hasn’t experienced the uptick. The 24 home runs would probably say otherwise. However, that low ISO is still Not Good, regardless given the general expectation (from me). What’s the deal there?

We’ll talk about approach in a second, but Bichette’s zone coverage and pitch selection provide some pretty good insight into why the power game hasn’t been a consistent element for Bichette this year. For the entirety of his career, Bichette has generated a lot of his power from the inner portion of the plate. This makes sense, given his (beautiful) compact stroke. His three spots with the highest ISO are all low and inside.

Despite that fact, Bichette has actually done a lot of his hacking on the outer portion of the zone. This is his heat map for Swing% in both 2019 and 2020:

Bichette 2019 and 2020 heat map
via FanGraphs

And here’s so far in 2021:

Bo Bichette 2021 heat map
via FanGraphs

Bichette is swinging at almost an identical rate to that of 2020 (56.7 this year vs. 57.0 last year), but the distribution has clearly wandered far more to the outer portion of the zone. That obviously helps an ever-increasing Oppo% but doesn’t necessarily do a lot for the consistency of his power given where it is largely generated from. Overall, while that we haven’t seen the power distributed consistently, in terms of the gaps and over the fence, it’s too simple to say that he hasn’t seen the increase. He has. Just not in the way that we’d expect. Does that make it any less of a positive development? Probably not. It’s not homer-or-bust, and he’s still maintaining a presence on the basepaths even if he’s less liable to start on second or third base instead of first.

At this point, we’ve established conclusions about two of those elements. The BABIP and the power. Regression in BABIP, increase in power. Nuance required to evaluate both. Almost directly related to the latter, though, is the approach.

It’s one thing to say “hitters hit” in a vacuum, but as adept as Bichette may be at making contact, an ideal world would feature him reigning it in a bit as well. Like I said, the swing rate itself hasn’t changed, and the contact rate is extremely similar. It’s not as if a sub-60 percent mark was anything obscene, anyway. What has been particularly helpful is that the Swing% is identical, but the O-Swing% has dropped about four percent (41.0) and the Z-Swing% has jumped about seven (80.4). While he’s done that, he’s cut down on whiffs (11.4 SwStr%; 22.0 CSW%) and gotten back to a more reasonable walk rate (6.2 percent). He’s still the same aggressive Bo Bichette, but he’s become more choosey in that aggression.

As of this writing, Bichette’s numbers for the year read as follows:

  • .292/.342/.466/.808
  • 19.4 K%/6.2 BB%
  • .173 ISO
  • 119 wRC+
  • 4.1 fWAR

Those are some very visually appealing numbers. Based on the criteria established (by me) as to what constitutes a “good” year from Bichette, we can likely declare it to be a rousing success. You’ve got the survival of the BABIP drop, the power increase (even if not reflected in the ISO), and a visually improved approach. He passed all three tests. He’s playing on an incredibly fun team scorching toward a potential postseason berth. While there are some shades of gray here, Bo Bichette has been every bit the player we were hoping we’d see in 2021. And there’s room for development yet.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.