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Despite a injury-induced slump to end 2021, the sky is still the limit for Andrew Vaughn.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

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Andrew Vaughn is Still Too Good to Trade

Don’t let rookie struggles fool you — here’s why he still looks like a future All-Star hitter.

Though it’s gotten a fair amount of play on the internet, the idea of going into 2022 with some sort of Andrew Vaughn/Gavin Sheets platoon in right field wasn’t simply conjured up by an overanxious fanbase. It was broached by Rick Hahn in a press conference. It might have been unthinkable a year ago, but even though there’s very little chance of it actually coming to fruition, it speaks to how well Sheets acquitted himself in 2021.

Unfortunately, it also speaks to the degree to which Vaughn’s stock has fallen, considering how monumental the gap between the two rookies was entering the season. Dating back to before the trade deadline, the combination of Vaughn’s struggles and Sheets’ flair for the heroic made it become routine to see the idea of a Vaughn swap bandied about various circles of internet fandom.

It can still feel like an attractive thought. Vaughn’s counting stats in 2021 weren’t very impressive — at the very least, they probably weren’t what many were expecting from a bat-first, top-three draft pick — so why not give the risk to someone else, get something nice in return, and let Sheets do the rest?

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox
Superhero Sheets.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s understandable that Vaughn’s raw numbers from 2021 might make some more wary of his potential for stardom. But the spread that many will see from this past season — .235/.309/.396 with 15 homers, 48 RBIs, and 41 walks in 469 plate appearances — doesn’t tell the full story.

Any way you look at it, that’s not a pretty final line. It was good for a 94 wRC+ and 92 OPS+ — below league average. At the same time, anybody who followed the White Sox regularly knows that’s not quite how it happened.

Anecdotally, there were three fairly distinctive parts to Vaughn’s season. In the first third, he encountered fairly straightforward rookie struggles, as one would probably expect from the weird circumstances of his debut and the preceding year.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Chicago Cubs
Professional run producer, Andrew Vaughn.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Then Vaughn turned on the jets. For a while in the middle of the summer, with White Sox Heaven full to the brim with injuries, he caught fire and looked like one of the most dangerous hitters in the lineup for a significant stretch of games.

And after another while, pitchers adjusted to him, and like many around the league, Vaughn struggled with injuries down the stretch.

The stats map themselves pretty neatly onto that narrative. A rolling graph of his wOBA shows some pretty stark points of departure for when Vaughn started and stopped hitting like a star.

To get a more accurate statistical read on what Vaughn’s season looked like, we can break it up into three distinct parts, with boundaries around game numbers 55 and 105.

That middle portion there — a plurality of his season, by these measures — would be pretty great over a full campaign! And if you’re looking for silver linings to the brutal month Vaughn had to end the year, the fact that his walk and strikeout rates held steady at better-than-average should be super promising.

None of this should be super-duper surprising. Hitters and pitchers are always playing a game of adjustments, and it’s especially true for rookies who are facing the league for the first handful of times. Many of Vaughn’s ups and downs last year mapped themselves well onto patterns of pitchers adjusting how they attacked him, and vice versa.

I guess by “soon” I meant “three months,” but hey, who’s counting?

Anyhow, at this point, the “why?” of Vaughn’s 2021 is most significant in foretelling what to expect out of him in 2022. Or, at the very least, what kinds of adjustments Vaughn will need to make to ensure that he can sustain his midseason form over a full campaign.

To start, there’s one change in his batted-ball profile that needs to happen if he’s going to tap into the power that showed up in the form of 50 home runs in just fewer than 600 at-bats in college at Cal. One of the reasons Vaughn only manifested his power into 15 homers in 2021 was that he pulled the ball in the air at one of the lowest rates in the league. Just more than 11% of his batted balls were fly balls and line drives to the pull side, 210th out of 261 hitters with at least 200 balls in play. Looking at overall pull percentage, it gets even worse, as his 31% is 233rd out of those 261.

We care about pulled fly ball percentage because, simply put, that’s where the most power comes from. When hitters reach their maximum exit velocity, it’s because they’re hitting the ball in front of the plate and getting the full energy of their swing into it. It’s also how players who you don’t think would have much power wind up with bunches of home runs. The Top 10 of the pulled fly ball rate leaderboard includes names like Jorge Polanco, José Ramírez, and José Altuve, all of whom posted 30-homer 2021 seasons despite being no taller than 5´10´´ and having 30-grade power in the minor leagues.

Counterintuitively, some of Vaughn’s struggles pulling the ball in their might stem from the fact that he’s such a preternaturally good hitter.

What does that mean? Let’s revisit what might have been his top highlight of the season:

In case we’ve forgotten, that was a locked-in Aroldis Chapman, who hadn’t even given up an earned run to that point in the season. I don’t care that it was right down the pipe, either: Even Chapman’s mistakes down the middle are better than anything most pitchers could dream of. When he throws it down the middle at 99 mph like he did to Vaughn, Chapman still allows just a .241 wOBA and .565 OPS that would be elite for any fastball, period.

All that’s to say It takes a lot of skill to hit one over the fence to the opposite field against a regular Chapman, much less one who’s on a roll. In the Statcast era, only three hitters have ever hit an opposite-field home run against one of Chapman’s fastballs: J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, and Andrew Vaughn.

Good company! It also illuminates part of the problem. Because Vaughn has a special combination of strength and bat control that allows him to unlock rare opposite-field power, his approach often leads him to go up-the-middle and opposite-field more than he probably should. Approaching every pitcher like you would Chapman isn’t a winning recipe, either!

Against pitches outside and harder fastballs down the middle, it’s perfectly fine. As we just saw, it’s part of what can make him a special hitter. Take this 95 mph Hirokazu Sawamura fastball, which most hitters would probably swing through or (at best) foul off ,unless they were anticipating it well enough to pull it. Not Vaughn!

On the flip side, it doesn’t serve Vaughn well to do the same thing on inside fastballs and breaking balls over the plate that he should be turning on and hitting for power. Here’s a spray chart of where Vaughn hit the ball when it was on the inside half of the plate:

That kind of spread looks more like something David Fletcher might do than someone with 65-grade power. Some of it ought to fix itself if Vaughn’s pitch recognition improves with experience, as it ideally will. That big mass of gray dots at shortstop is the result of repeatedly getting too aggressive and rolling over on low sinkers and sliders like this one:

Even if Vaughn cuts down on those misjudgments, the rest of the balls scattered around the outfield are still a problem. A lot of the gray dots in right and center field would probably be orange and blue if they had been hit to left, instead. Here’s what the same chart on the same pitches looks like for Paul Goldschmidt, another hard-hitting first baseman with a similar-ish contact profile to Vaughn:

A fully realized Vaughn is going to have a spray chart that looks much more like that one right there, filling the big empty gap he has in left field with the line-drive singles, doubles, and homers that hitters like Goldschmidt eat up.

It’s pretty easy to see how this problem works in practice: When Vaughn gets a fat fastball over the inside part of the plate and tries to sit back and go oppo-taco anyway, this is what happens.

A single. Cool! On the other hand, it also sometimes leads to outs that might have been extra-base hits had he caught the ball slightly differently:

Not so cool. Anyway. This is what happens when Vaughn gets the same pitch and he’s ready to turn and burn, so to speak:

One more, since we’re here already:

Those are pretty! Let’s do more of that!

Coming into the 2022 season with a full year of experience and a much better idea of how pitchers are going to attack him, Vaughn should have an easier time running into more and more of those pull-side tanks. During that 53-game stretch where he was hitting the lights out of the ball, Vaughn wasn’t pulling it any more or less than he did the rest of the year, but 70% of his extra-base hits were pulled. When he takes advantage of his pull-side power, really good things happen. It’s worth waiting to see whether he’ll be able to make the adjustment.

You still might be asking why this makes Vaughn that much different than Sheets, whose power actually showed up without needing to do much adjusting. The short answer is right up above. Vaughn has a chance to be Goldschmidt. Sheets might be Lucas Duda, if everything stays good for a few years. Vaughn didn’t look a whole lot like Goldschmidt in 2021 on the whole, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t still plenty of promise lying just under the surface.

We can see how those misleading numbers show up in Vaughn’s Statcast sliders, those wonderfully overblown catch-alls that we use to infer way too much information. His page doesn’t seem particularly exceptional, on first glance:

The fact that Vaughn hits the ball hard is nice, but lots of people hit the ball hard and don’t do much else. Don’t let the fact that there’s not much red after that top row fool you, though. If we cherry-pick things a certain way, we can reveal something about Vaughn’s skill set.

Let’s take four of those stats up there: Exit Velocity, Barrel%, K%, and Whiff%. A pretty well-rounded group of related offensive stats. Vaughn’s rankings in all four of them are good, but not particularly exceptional.

Put it all together, though, and you see something different. Here are all the players who ranked as high or higher than Vaughn in all four categories: Juan Soto. Freddie Freeman. Max Muncy. Kyle Tucker. Manny Machado. Matt Olson. That’s the kind of offensive upside we’re talking about here for Vaughn, even if it was hard to see at times.

With that being said, let’s take a step back. Entering the 2021 season, Vaughn was 55 games removed from the NCAA, the last of those games was in 2019, and none of them came above High-A. Three days before the start of the season, he was told that he would be playing his first year in the major leagues at a position that he had never once played at a remotely high level. It’s impressive that Vaughn was able to keep his head above water for the whole season, much less run a .900 OPS for a healthy chunk of it. Those are all things to keep in mind when trying to make sense of Vaughn’s rookie season — and reasons to believe his ceiling is no lower than it was a year ago.

If it wasn’t clear before the White Sox stood pat and watched the rest of the league give out more than a billion dollars in contracts over the past 72 hours or so, they don’t go get Goldschmidt types when they’re available in free agency. They rarely go get them in trades, either. Andrew Vaughn can be the kind of hitter that this current iteration of the Sox simply isn’t going to find anywhere else.

As frustrating as these last months have been, the team’s core still has many seasons’ worth of games to play together. The White Sox could make few bigger mistakes than letting impatience separate them from what may be their fourth consecutive decade of an All-Star caliber bat at first base.

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