Baseball

New World Order: 2020 White Sox Previews – Nick Madrigal

There is perhaps no more polarizing player amongst White Sox fans than second baseman Nick Madrigal. After a great college career at Oregon State that concluded in a College World Series Championship, the Sox took the diminutive infielder with the fourth overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, passing on a number of high upside high schoolers for the high floor but low ceiling 2B who finished his college careers as one of the best contact hitters ever. Heading into 2020, Madrigal figures to be the Sox’ starter at the keystone for most of the year, but may Sox fans are still divided on him. Let’s dig into why:

2019 MiLB Stats

.311/.377/.414, 5 HR, 55 RBI

8.3 BB%, 3.0 K%

.366 wOBA, 117 wRC+ in AAA (29 games)

4 Total Errors across all levels

Last Week on Nitro: Madrigal played across three levels of the minors last year, and he was quite good at each stop. His worst slash line at any level was the one in High-A, which means that he got better as the competition did. The real encouragement came from his performance in AA, where he hit .341/.400/.451 with a .391 wOBA and 150 wRC+ across 42 games in Birmingham, which is notoriously stifling to offense. Along with that, Madrigal improved his walk rate from 2018 from 4.7% to 7.8% in A+, continued that same rate at AA and then jumped to 9.7% at AAA, which was a welcome sight considering his contact heavy profile saw a lot of swinging and not as much patience in his college career and he first few months of his pro career. The real headliner, though, is the strikeout rate, which was so low it has garnered plenty of attention from national outlets. He kept it steady at 2.8% in both Winston-Salem and Birmingham before seeing a minimal bump to 3.7% in AAA. With plenty of strikeout-prone sluggers in the lineup, having a guy like Madrigal who makes consistent contact and damn near never strikes out will be a nice piece to have in the lineup to counteract some of that. That combined with his 65-grade speed and baserunning abilities makes him seem like your prototypical leadoff hitter moving forward, and his glove has drawn plenty of “Future Gold Glover” praise from scouts.

The main area of concern for Madrigal is his power, or more accurately his lack thereof. Madrigal totaled just 36 extra base hits last year, and 27 of those were doubles. He hit just 5 dingers, and even that is a bit misleading as one of them was in fact *not* a dinger because he had one inside-the-parker. To his credit, he had a few wall-scrapers, but that also could point to the problem – he has wall-scraping power at best. Most scouting reports hesitate to even credit him with gap power, while his biggest detractors go as far as to place a 20-grade on his power tool which essentially figures to a zero power rating if you were creating him in MLB The Show. Even the jump to AAA, where they were using the same golf ball imitation that MLB was, saw Madrial’s SLG% drop from .450 in Birmingham to .424 in Charlotte. We will talk more about this below, but this is certainly an area of concern when looking at his MiLB numbers considering that it’s only going to get harder for him to hit the ball with power in the bigs.

TOO SWEET (WHOOP WHOOP): Madrigal seems destined to start the year in AAA, and while normally sending a top prospect who had success at every level of MiLB the year prior to AAA to start the year would scream service time manipulation, I truly don’t believe that is the case here. As just discussed, there is a serious power element missing to his game, and it’s not hard to believe that a bit of time with the tennis ball in Charlotte could help that a bit. The Sox have plenty of power in the lineup, so they don’t need a ton of round trippers from Madrigal, but they’re gonna at least need him to start hitting with doubles power. Of course, the ideal outcome there is that his elite batter’s eye allows him to consistently avoid strikeouts enough to the point that pitchers have to choose to either walk him or throw him a pitch he can really hit a long ways, and he starts elevating the ball more to make use of the relatively batter-friendly Sox Park. I refuse to get ahead of myself here, but I think seeing him post an 8+ walk rate while keeping the K-rate below 10 and hit even just 10 home runs could allow him to be a hugely impactful player right away.

YOU FUCKED UP! YOU FUCKED UP!: Okay, let’s just rip the bandaid off here – there is a chance Nick Madrigal doesn’t even become a league average player, not just for 2020 but long term. If you want me to just tell you a worst case scenario for 2020, it largely starts with Madrigal getting hurt, because that would indeed be bad, but I think the Sox could survive it because, again, ther is a chance he may not be a league average player, largely because of that power issue. Let me tell you what I mean. Per last week’s Keith Law Podcast, Madrigal averaged just over 84 MPH exit velocity last year, and looking at the statcast leaderboard for exit velo, the player names that are living in that realm are not exactly comforting. Now, the most optimistic of fans will point to the fact that Jose Altuve averaged just 86.1 MPH last year, but I don’t need to explain to you why there is plenty of reason to think that may not have been legitimate. There are a few encouraging names in the 87 MPH range – Paul DeJong, Adam Eaton, Starling Marte, Kris Bryant (please do not fire me, Sam) – but I’m ignoring a LOT of “dear God I don’t want Madrigal to be THAT GUY” contestants to give you these names. Now, Sox Park is hardly a hitter’s nightmare, so he might be able to make due with his current power, but if he ends up being Dee Gordon, Neil Walker, or *gulp* Yolmer Sanchez, all of whom were in the 86 MPH range for average exit velo last year, that is going to be a huge disappointment.

BAH GOD, THAT’S MADRIGAL’S MUSIC: This is a really tough one, because I truly do not know what to expect from Madrigal. If he was playing 20 years ago, he’d be a fucking star from jump street. He’d probably win multiple MVPs. But in today’s game, where strikeouts are not viewed as a huge negative and power is the real premium tool, Madrigal almost seems like a misfit. I don’t want to place everything on Madrigal’s power, because just about every other tool he has is average or plus. He’s one of the best hitters the minors have ever seen from a strikeout and contact profile standpoint, he fields well and runs well. All of those things could enable him to be a good player without hitting for power. But the lack of power could also hold him back from becoming a great player. All of this is more big picture, though. For 2020, I expect Madrigal to be productive at AAA before coming up to become the Sox everyday 2B, and fitting in well right away. I think he will still be hard to strikeout, and draw walks at a decent rate to make him an OBP threat, but overall I think he will finish 2020 with a wRC+ below 100 (meaning he will be a below average hitter). But if he can bring the upside with his glove and the basepaths that he has in the minors, that could still be enough to be a high-level player at the keystone.

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