The 2023 Nationals had their first full season where fans got to watch CJ Abrams, Mackenzie Gore, Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz all take the field together. While the results across the board were rather mixed, we did see Gray become a National League All-Star, which was a big moment in the rebuild. With 2024 set to be a vital season for the young Nationals, I will be doing a two-part series diving into what we can expect from the core four and what improvements they can make to take a step forward. First up: the position players.
Let’s begin by looking at CJ Abrams. 2023 was Abrams’ first full season in the bigs and he flashed his tools throughout, showing the type of player that he can be. July was Abrams best month as a pro, where he slashed .327/.391/.500 with a 142 wRC+ and an impressive 13.4% K rate. The issue is that was the only month of the season where Abrams had a OBP over .307 and the only month where he hit over .247. He also only had two months with a wRC+ over 95. I will not get into Abrams’ issues against lefties (40 wRC+); that is a conversation for another time. There are a couple of improvements we can be on the lookout for to see if Abrams is taking the next step as a hitter.
For someone who looks like they could fall over from a gentle breeze, Abrams does have pretty solid pop. He has a 17.7% damage rate (20% is league average) and a 103.7 mph 90th percentile exit velocity (104 is league average). Abrams hits a ton of low xBA/xSLG grounders but when you look at the profile you see a lot of impact contact being made. For Abrams to take that step and become an above average hitter improving swing decisions and pulling flyballs at a higher rate will be crucial.
Abrams chased 39.8% of the time last year (league average is 28.5%). That is an astronomical chase rate for someone that is going to be your leadoff hitter. Making better swing decisions for Abrams can also lead to him hitting fastballs better. His -14 run value on fastballs last year was the 3rd worst in baseball on all pitches. If he can stop expanding the zone, become slightly more patient and selective at the plate, we will see a great increase in his OBP. Pairing that with his speed, that is a dangerous combination. Again, all of that is easier said than done and will take time for a player to fix and adjust.
The other thing to look out for to see if Abrams is progressing is pulling fly balls. Pulling flyballs and line drives are important for the success of hitters. Elite hitters have power to all three fields and do not need to stress this as much, but to the rest of the mere mortals, FB+LD Pull% is a good indicator of success for a hitter. Why is it important to pull? You’re more likely to luck into a home run on a pulled ball as opposed to going the other way.
As seen on the graph below, CJ Abrams best months coincide with his highest FB+LB%’s. That is no mistake. Abrams has a great toolset, but it is all about putting it together. Now, becoming more selective and making better swing decisions is not easy and does take time. If Abrams makes strides with this, we can see Abrams be a 3 WAR floor player with the skillset he has.
A second thing that applies to Ruiz and Abrams is meeting the ball on the plane. As you can see on the graph below, Abrams and Ruiz are far from the absolute ideal launch angle against fastballs. In an article by Robert Orr of Baseball Prospectus, he dove into what the ideal angle to meet the ball on the plane is for hitters to have success. Not surprisingly, Ruiz and Abrams were towards the bottom against pitchers who have a flat fastball. This can be associated with a lot of the weaker contact the two made against fastballs. Bad news for them, several pitchers within the division (Spencer Strider is one big example) have a flatter VAA on their fastball. Making better swing decisions, is one large way for players to improve the contact level against fastballs.
After diving more specifically into Keibert Ruiz, what an interesting season he had. I am a massive Ruiz fan, but the regression he had defensively to arguably the worst defensive catcher in baseball last year (last in catcher framing runs among many stats) is extremely concerning. If Ruiz is going to struggle defensively, he must be more consistent offensively.
Offensively, Ruiz season is a tale of two halves. The first half of the season he was a liability, slashing .226/.279/.360 a .639 OPS a 72 wRC+. Thankfully, he turned it around in the second half where he slashed .300/.342/.467 a .809 OPS and a 117 wRC+ (Lane Thomas season slashline was .268/.315/.468 a .783 OPS and a 109 wRC+ for reference). Ruiz’s .809 second half OPS was higher than J.T. Realmuto’s, Will Smith’s and Salvador Perez’s second half OPS’.
So, what changed for Ruiz in the second half and can he use that in 2024? Ruiz quality of contact took a decline from 2022 and he chased more in 2023 than he did in 2022 while his 90th percentile exit velocity stayed relatively the same (101.6 in 2022 to 101.8 in 2023).
If the overall quality of contact remained the same, then how did he make such massive improvements in his rate stats? He began pulling the ball. The same graph from before is being used again below. Ruiz in the first half of 2023 pulled the ball 41% of the time, he increased that to 51.7% in the second half. This lead to increases in his line drive percentage (2% increase in the second half), increases in his HR/FB ratio (3% increase in the second half).
Pulling the ball works. Look at the massive jump in Ruiz’s FB+LB Pull% in the second half. In 10 less second half games Ruiz had more hits, more singles, more doubles, more RBI and 9 home runs. He also struck out more in the second half, which sounds insane but being more selective and potentially striking out more leads to better quality contact. If Ruiz can not swing so much, especially on pitches out of the zone (39.2 chase %), put that together with the improvements we saw on pulling the ball, we can expect Ruiz to put up a consistent offensive season.
CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruiz are both intriguing young players. And watching their progression this season with these in mind, can allow for an exciting watch and a potential exciting future if, they both put it together more consistently.