How big is Nick Madrigal’s potential?

I was very skeptical of Madrigal before he came up. I couldn’t help but wonder: What if his hit tool just doesn’t transfer to the big leagues? I’ve seen too many prospect evaluations that raved over hitters’ contact skills in the minors, just for a promotion to the big leagues be the one filter that finally weeded them out.

But Nick can hit. Even the highest level of MLB pitching couldn’t stop his slap-single ways. His baserunning and fielding haven’t come around as quickly as his hitting, but these tools are usually projected with more accuracy and I expect him to take a step forward in those departments from 2020.

Which brings us to power. It was understood that Nick was going to bring value in every other department instead, and at this point I’d rather have him do what he does best than to trade that off simply to be more well-rounded. It’s still possible for him to develop power; after all it’s better to get a good hitter and hope for improvement in power than it is to draft or acquire a power guy and develop more contact. In the interest of being realistic over idealistic though, let’s just call Nick Madrigal what he is: a great hitter with little power.

This is something that’s made Madrigal so interesting and divisive. Power has jumped across the league and Nick is a rarity in today’s game. Front offices started to properly value slugging percentage and adjusted their sights accordingly. Players changed their approach from techniques like swinging down at the ball in the hopes of creating backspin (how that idea made its way into baseball astounds me) to focusing on launch angle so that they can “elevate and celebrate.” Most importantly, the baseball changed in 2015, giving us the gift of watching MLB slowly change its response from “nothing has changed,” to “the baseball is still within regulations,” to “the ball is pretty different and we should implement it in Triple-A so that players in the minors can adjust.” No matter what you think is most important, the results show that the last four years are not like the rest:

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Average season ISO 0.146 0.144 0.150 0.143 0.135
% of 450 PA players seasons with ISO above .110 21.02% 17.14% 15.79% 14.12% 24.56%
2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Average season ISO 0.151 0.162 0.171 0.161 0.183
% of 450 PA players seasons with .110 ISO or less 22.16% 9.71% 6.63% 9.29% 4.70%

I’m not sure what the best number is to split up players into two groups of ISOs, but Madrigal’s highest ISO in the minors was .110 in Double-A, and it’s also what FanGraphs projects him for 2021, so it’s interesting here.

I wanted to see how players with low power have fared these past 10 [full] seasons. No power can’t be a positive, but I doubt it’s a death sentence. Players who field poorly, pitchers with little velocity, etc. have all found ways to be above average before. If you only judge players by their weakest quality, you’re not going to see anything that you like, or what they could bring to the table. Still, it’s always good to know what they’re up against.

Here’s a little color chart of players grouped into WAR:

Now here’s that same grouping but only with players with an ISO of .110 or below:

The biggest thing is how many fewer players there are in the second chart, but also that everything has shifted to the left. Obviously separating a stat by good numbers and bad numbers is going to show a decrease, but how much it affects an all-encompassing stat like WAR is important. I wouldn’t expect to see this much of a shift with fielding or baserunning. How it affects offense is even more obvious. wRC+ works so that an average offensive season is 100, and dropping it down to 95 shows every player that had a just-about-average season. This is how it looks when you input that same division:

% of players with a 95 wRC+ or above

All ISOs ISOs above .110 ISOs .110 or below
2019 76 80 13
2018 72 77 29
2017 72 76 42
2016 73 77 35
2015 69 80 31
2014 75 84 45
2013 75 82 33
2012 73 81 26
2011 71 79 33
2010 70 81 30
Average 73 80 30

So these players have an average season or better at the plate 30% of the time. Do they make up for it in other areas? Sometimes. The difference between a replacement player and an average one is roughly 2 WAR, but since I dropped the PA threshold to 450, I dropped the WAR to be an average player to 1.5. These low ISO players hit 1.5 fWAR or more 49% of the time, which is a decent jump.

I know this is all seems pretty bleak, but I’m just trying to illustrate the uphill battle that a player like Madrigal has. It’s not impossible, and since 2010 there have been 13 seasons by 11 different players where they produced more than 4 fWAR even though their ISO was .110 or lower. That means there’s two players on this list who have done it multiple times, and Ichiro Suzuki did it seven times if you go further back than 2010. I’ve put these seasons together to try and find some patterns, and possibly learn what low-power players are able to still be stars, and how they did it. Take a look at some of these low-ISO stud seasons, itemizing offensive, defensive and baserunning runs:

fWAR Year Player Pos Season ISO Career ISO wRC+ O-Runs D-Runs B-Runs
5.7 2018 Lorenzo Cain CF .109 .125 124 24.8 10.7 6.4
5.9 2015 Francisco Cervelli C .106 .114 117 9.4 30.6 -0.8
4.8 2015 Dee Gordon 2B .085 .075 116 16.6 8.4 4.8
4.6 2015 Xander Bogaerts SS .101 .167 111 12.0 9.9 3.9
4.6 2014 Howie Kendrick 2B .104 .136 114 11.6 9.5 0.9
4.4 2014 Lorenzo Cain CF/RF .110 .125 109 10.3 14.4 5.1
4.2 2014 Erick Aybar SS .100 .101 101 3.2 14.8 2.6
5.1 2011 Brett Gardner LF/CF .110 .141 97 7.5 20.9 9.6
6.2 2010 Brett Gardner LF/CF .103 .141 112 19 20.5 10.9
5.0 2010 Yadier Molina C .080 .123 84 -15.7 48.3 -5.8
4.8 2010 Ichiro Suzuki RF .079 .091 110 13.5 6.6 4.6
4.4 2010 Michael Bourn CF .080 .091 89 2.2 21.8 10.5
4.1 2010 Austin Jackson CF .107 .124 101 8.3 7.5 7.3

For the season strikeout and walk rates, I color-coded anything that was over/under 4% of that given season’s average for strikeouts, and over/under 2% of that given season’s average for walks.

First thing to look at is position: You can’t make this list playing first base or DH. The positional adjustment is just too steep to make up for with a low ISO. Power guys can make their offensive contributions in big chunks that can take their wRC+all the way into the 190s, while the guys on this list only break 120 once. Over half of the seasons here feature more defensive runs earned than offensive runs. Premium positions only in this exclusive club.

The next category to look at is BABIP. While strikeout and walk percentages have varied year by year, BABIP is somewhere between .295 and .300 for every year of this period. Most of those rates make it look like a bunch of lucky seasons, which is why I have them side by side with their career rates. The majority of these hitters regularly put the ball in play with better results than average. This is not just random fortune, this is their game.

For balls not put into play, check the colors. When putting the ball in play is a part of your expertise, striking out is not an option. There’s only one season here in the red, and that’s also the only season that exceeds the strikeout rate average of that given year. I was expecting to find better walk rates, since that’s an offensive contribution that doesn’t raise ISO, but that wasn’t the case. There’s three seasons notably above average, five around average, and five notably below. Walks are great, but they’re usually not as valuable as base hits no matter how many times you heard your little league coach say “a walk’s as good a hit.” When your BABIP is as high as some of these seasons, you don’t need walks to have a great on-base percentage.

Lastly, there’s the ISO — specifically compared to their career ISO. This list comprises low-power guys playing their game, no-power hitters who found a different way to be valuable. Xander Bogaerts doesn’t fit the mold anymore, but at the time he did. He didn’t really discover his power stroke until 2016 or 2018. During his 2015 season, he was doing what most of the other guys on this list were doing: playing their small game as best as they could with excellent results.

Before I felt good about Nick Madrigal’s hit tool, I was worried he might be similar to Yolmer Sánchez. That’s a great guy off the bench, but a waste of a No. 4 overall draft pick and future I no longer envision for him. We need a guy who we can measure in Wins Above Average, and not just Wins Above Replacement, if he’s going to be part of a core that the Sox build around, and I’m growing more confident that we have that. Now the next divider would be whether he’s a starter or a possible star. There are few guys with little power who can do that, but the ones who do check these boxes:

  • Plays a valuable defensive position
  • Doesn’t strike out
  • Gets good results putting the ball in play
  • Plays the grinder game at the plate

Check, check, check and check. So yes, it has always been rare that slap-hitting ballplayer can have that good of a season and rarer now more than ever. But if you’re trying to think of a player who fits the mold all you have to do is check the title again.

(Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire)

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Swinging down at the ball in the hopes of creating backspin

My HS coach played a couple years in the Royals organization in late 90s/early 00s, and this was drilled into him and then drilled into us. Crazy to me how much the game has moved away from this.

For what it’s worth, this approach never worked for me lol! Although I probably would have been a shit hitter no matter what 🙂


Nick Madrigal Batting Champion

John SF

Has there ever been an individual award bet before a season started where they gave someone 1:1 odds?

Madrigal is going to win the batting championship next year as long as he qualified for it. Then he’s going to win it 3 more times in a row, each by a larger margin than the last. By the 5th season, how could anyone bet against him?

Josh Nelson

Mike Trout AL MVP before the 2020 season was at +150 with some books.


This is great analysis, but to me, it shows how much value Madrigal will have to generate in other ways to compensate for his lack of power. The playoffs showed that – despite his reputation – he may not actually be good enough defensively or on the basepaths to become a productive player overall. I say now is the time to sell high on him.


I’m not sure it’s fair to say a three game sample “showed” anything.

The running and defense were not great, but he’s played 29 MLB games. Let’s at least give the guy a few months before we declare the data and scouting from five years of high level baseball bunk.

Jim Margalus

My guess is that he’ll solve the defensive issues before the baserunning issues. The former seems like an issue with the speed of the game, and it should slow down with reps. The latter is a byproduct of the specific way he plays the game, probably partially because of his size, and I think that’ll be harder to grind out of him.


My impression was that in college he was fast enough relative to the competition to successfully take an extra base, steal second, or beat a throw home, but the throws in the majors are a little faster and little more accurate, and his speed doesn’t play up as much at this level. But that’s just.a first impression, and I am certainly willing to let him prove that wrong.

John SF

The thing about being praised with “the best baseball instincts I’ve ever seen” (a direct quote from a pro scout for a non-Sox team), is that the line between taking an extra base or not is so thin.

I think his instincts will play up in the bigs as much as in College, he just needs time to recalibrate them. And, as any musician could easily tell you, nothing is more awkward than how it sounds while you’re practicing how to change a technique.

That’s when you find yourself making a million other unrelated mistakes, because you usually do all that stuff without actively thinking about it.

Maybe Madrigal’s speed relative to other players goes down enough to substantively subtract from his value. Then again, could be the opposite, and Madrigal’s marginal extra aggression pays off more in conservative MLB than it did in College, once he correctly calibrates it to the league.

Time will tell, but I don’t see his base running failures in 2020 as any reason to be concerned about that part of his game.

Side note: We’re really going to know Madrigal is going to be a star when Tampa Bay comes asking for him in a Snell trade.

Josh Nelson

I had a 60 to 70 grade speed for Madrigal watching his college games prepping for our draft coverage. Even speaking with other draft analysts and scouts, they all had at least a 60-grade speed for Madrigal.

After this season, and thanks to StatCast, it’s closer to 50 – 55 grade (If you believe 55 grade scores)

As Cirensica

Madrigal doesn’t need to hit homers to be a star, he needs to find gaps between outfielders for doubles. If he can hit 30 to 40 doubles, he will be an around 4 WAR player and that’s pretty good.


How do WAR, etc., value [double] versus [single+stolen base]? I imagine doubles are more valuable because they’d tend strongly to better advance/score baserunners?

It’s really just a curiosity/academic question. Like 100 singles and 40 stolen bases versus 70 singles, 30 doubles, and 10 stolen bases. The second is surely graded out better (?).

Last edited 2 years ago by evenyoudorn

I was going to say doubles are preferred because they are less likely to result in getting thrown out, but that may not be true for Madrigal. For him, doubles may work as a kind of early steal on the OF since he’ll usually be trying to stretch the single into the double.


Notably, WhereIsRobin’s post literally does not mention home runs a single time.


Despite a clear opening in their outfield, the White Sox are “extraordinarily unlikely” to sign George Springer this winter, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports. The longtime Astros slugger has plenty of interest elsewhere, and Passan suggests that the ChiSox aren’t keen on paying “center-field prices for a corner outfielder.”

Well knock me over with a feather. Jerry is still his usual miserly self.

Last edited 2 years ago by dwjm3
John SF

The way you get a good outfield is by paying center fielder prices for a guy who you play in a corner.

Considering Robert is going to be keeping us cost controlled in CF for the next 8 years, it’s not like we don’t have some outfield money to spend.

My preferred solution is to move Timmy to mostly-RF, trade for Gallo in LF, and convert Eloy to mostly-DH. But a Schwarber / Engel platoon could also work, or Joc / Engel. Or Springer, obviously.

The only reason I don’t think we need Springer is that we can replicate that production much cheaper with a lefty+Engel platoon.

Note that all of those involve 3+ centerfielders. Timmy *could* be a gold glove CF but *will* be gold glove RF for sure. Gallo & Springer are both strong LF gold glove candidates, especially with Robert in CF. And Engel obviously bolsters that defense either as a platoon or a defensive backup.

Josh Nelson

This is great analysis @WhereisRobin

Looking at your player leaderboard, there are two players I’m circled on when it comes to Nick Madrigal: Lorenzo Cain and Dee Gordon.

I feel Cain is the ceiling, and Gordon is the floor. It’s a pretty wide WAR range, but I feel it’s fair when projecting Madrigal long-term.


Nellie Fox is the floor. Eddie Collins is the ceiling.