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Breakout by the Numbers: Alek Thomas

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I hope you all had a great holiday season. I thought it might be fun during this down time to spend some time familiarizing myself with some new stats, so I started taking a deeper dive into some of the guys on the team and found some reasons for optimism. If people would like and its a fun conversation starter I could post more. Here is what I found on Alek Thomas and my outlook moving forward:

When looking at the 2023 Arizona Diamondbacks, there is little doubt they were a better team when Alek Thomas was playing center field. The guy is a human highlight reel and that alone should keep him on the field in 2024. Despite his abilities in CF, there are still many questions surrounding his offense including some troubling trends against lefties. Despite the offensive struggles, the team has shown the willingness to leave him in the lineup to keep that potential gold glove in center field and they seem to still be high on his offensive outlook. With that in mind, lets dive into the numbers to see if there is some cause for optimism.

When looking into the offense of Thomas, the first thing that jumps off the page is his extremely low launch angle of just 2.2%. For context, there were only 2 players in MLB with at least 400 PA that had a lower launch angle and they were far from productive hitters. So what does having a low launch angle mean?

Launch angle is actually an average of the launch angles that a player produces. For instance, if you look at the launch angle of Thomas’ home run against Kimbrel in the NLCS, that swing had a launch angle of 25 degrees. The real reason Thomas’ average launch angle is so low is his propensity to top the baseball. Fortunately baseball savant has this as a batted ball profile and a topped ball is defined as batted balls hit with a negative launch angle directly into the ground. So even though Thomas hit that home run with a 25 degree launch angle, if he tops the next ball and hits it at a -25 degree launch angle straight into the ground, his average launch angle would be 0 degrees. Another problematic aspect of topped balls is that the batting average on them is just .180 and it is literally impossible to hit them for a home run. Thomas topped the baseball 43.7 % of the time in 2023. Which was 3rd highest in MLB last season behind only Tim Anderson and Elvis Andrus. Now we can see the problem. Here’s what that looks like for the past 2 seasons:

Season

LA

Topped%

2022

2.6

47.1

2023

2.2

43.7

MLB AVG

12.2

32.8

On the other end a barrel is defined as a batted ball with an exit velocity of 98mph or over and a launch angle of 26-30 degrees. As you might guess batting average on a barrel is .795 and a slug of 2.733. Unfortunately for Thomas, his barrels % has been low at just 4.5 for his career when MLB average is 6.9%.

If Thomas can lower the amount he is topping the baseball and there were fewer of those negative launch angles, we could definitely see the rate of his barrel% skyrocket due to his ability to hit the ball hard. Thomas has a pretty good amount of thump for his slight frame and when he gets the ball into the air, good things tend to happen for him:

Season

Barrel%

FB%

HR/FB

2022

3.8

15.7

10.3

2023

5.1

16.7

12.2

Fortunately for us fans, we got a taste of what is possible for Thomas in the 2023 postseason. His season mark of 12.2 HR/FB rate already ranks above average, however in the postseason that number jumped to 25. For context, Shohei Ohtani’s HR/FB ratio was tops in MLB last season at 31.2 so I’m not saying that will be something Thomas can realistically maintain over a longer sample size. However, given his ability to impact the baseball and his above average HR/FB ratios if Thomas can get more balls into the air in 2024, we could really see an offensive breakout.

Is it possible to see such a drop in topped batted balls in a short period of time? Here are a couple of comps:

Player & Seasons

LA1

Topped%1

Barrel%1

LA 2

Topped %2

Barrel% 2

Christian Yelich 18-19

5

42.2

12.9

11.3

30.7

15.8

Gunnar Henderson 22-23

2

45.1

9.8

11.4

32.9

11.4

Ketel Marte 18-19

5.8

41.4

5

11.5

33.4

9.3

2024 Outlook If Alek Thomas can reduce the amount of times he tops the baseball and get the ball in the air more consistently, there is a good chance he could breakout and put up some impressive slugging numbers especially given his speed. When you think about the fact that he gave away essentially almost half of his batted balls by topping the ball 43.7% of the time, there is a tremendous amount of room for growth. We caught a glimpse of that during the postseason with his elite 25 HR/FB ratio. Whether the adjustment is mechanical or approach based, if he can get the ball into the air more we could see more of the postseason Thomas and a 20/20 season could very well be in store as Thomas’ baserunning value is already in the 98th percentile.