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The numbers behind Andrew Vaughn’s strong start

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The White Sox rookie’s bat has shown plenty of pop to start the season

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners
Andrew Vaughn is starting to hit like ... the White Sox’s top hitting prospect!
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Vaughn admitted to putting unnecessary pressure on himself at the plate to start his career. It makes sense, considering Vaughn needed to learn a new position in left field in his first major-league stint, while being looked at as a way to fill the gigantic hole left in the batting order by Eloy Jiménez’s injury — all before his first career at-bat.

It led to an 0-for-9 start through his first three games. Now that Vaughn looks more relaxed at the plate, he’s hitting like the White Sox envisioned from MLB.com’s No. 12 prospect.

In his past 14 games, Vaughn sports a .333/.417/.452 slash line and .869 OPS. He has nearly as many multi-hit games (three) as hitless games (four) during that stretch.

While he has been helped by a .412 BABIP, it’s been somewhat deserved luck given how often he smokes the ball. Vaughn is tied with José Abreu for a team-best 52.9% hard-hit rate and leads the White Sox with an average 93.6 mph exit velocity — ranking No. 17 in baseball. And it seems like Vaughn has only been hitting the ball harder with more experience. Since his first multi-hit game on April 23, Vaughn has his five hardest-hit balls of the season, going 4-for-5 with two doubles on those batted balls.

He’s been hitting the ball hard since his very first hit, though.

As the weather warms, hopefully it translates into home runs, as well. While there’s more to hitting home runs than exit velocity — Vaughn’s 4.1-degree launch angle is 29th-worst in baseball and he gets on top of the ball 41.2% of the time — he’s the only player among the top-59 average exit velocities without a dinger this year.

Although, if as a rookie Vaughn continues to have an OPS comparable to prime Tim Anderson, I’d be fine waiting for the home run power to show up. Whether his BABIP luck withstands like Anderson’s is another discussion, though.

Vaughn doesn’t look as overwhelmed at the plate. While his strikeout rate is 28.8% and he’s struck out in 13 games, it’s a small sample size of 17 career games and 59 plate appearances. Vaughn’s history at California and during his lone season in the minor leagues in 2019 — sporting a 15.5% strikeout rate across three low levels — suggests there should be improvement with time.

For Vaughn, it’s more about continuing to make contact more often, compared to Luis Robert’s rookie season when Robert also had a habit of expanding the zone. Here’s a comparison from the start of Vaughn’s rookie year to Robert’s complete rookie season.

Other than low and outside, Vaughn overall has been selective with his pitches. He sees around four pitches per plate appearance.

Baseball Savant

As expected for a rookie, Vaughn’s swing-and-miss rate is higher on breaking (44.8%) and off-speed (42.9%) pitches. However, inside the strike zone, he whiffs on fastballs (23.1%) more than any type of pitch. But like Vaughn’s entire season, it’s about how impressive he’s been when he does make contact. On fastballs, that translates to a .283 xBA.

Maybe surprisingly, I’ve gone this long without discussing his playing time. It’s been a growing discourse between White Sox fans whenever Tony La Russa releases the batting order. To start the season, it made sense to ease him into action; Vaughn was learning a new position and wasn’t necessarily hitting his way into more playing time. The emergence of Yermín Mercedes certainly took away potential plate appearances for Vaughn at DH, which might be understated when discussing Vaughn’s playing time.

But Vaughn is hitting now, and he doesn’t look like a liability in left field. Losing a Gold Glove center fielder in Robert won’t help the transition to the outfield, but it’s also a perfect opportunity for La Russa to make Vaughn a fixture in the batting order. The White Sox really don’t need a combo of Billy Hamilton/Leury García/Jake Lamb as the starting mix in the outfield. If Adam Engel gets healthy, that’d be a welcome addition, too.

Vaughn looks like a quality major league hitter after his first month (122 wRC+ and 118 OPS+), and his flaws certainly won’t improve on the bench. He’s hit his way into a bigger opportunity.