The blueprint to build an MLB superteam keeps evolving. Enter the 2020 Chicago White Sox, whose philosophy could vault them from the American League basement into the thick of playoff contention. What has their process entailed? What does it say about how baseball teams view tanking? And which players could define the franchise’s next generation? On Tuesday, The Ringer examines this spring’s most fascinating major-league roster—and what it could mean for the future of the sport on the South Side.
If I hadn’t spoken to Nick Madrigal, I’d worry that I might have imagined him. Madrigal, a second baseman and former fourth pick who turned 23 last week, is, according to most public prospect rankers, one of the top 50 prospects in baseball, and one of the three or four most promising players in the stacked upper levels of the White Sox system. He’s also an utter anachronism, a player so singular and so out of step with his era that it’s almost miraculous that he exists at all, let alone that he’s on the verge of making the majors and is widely expected to succeed there.
MLB players are getting bigger by the year, but Madrigal is diminutive, listed at 5-foot-7. MLB players are stealing fewer bases by the year, but Madrigal swiped 35 last season. MLB players are hitting more homers by the year, but Madrigal, who batted .341/.400/.451 at Double-A last season and .331/.398/.424 after his Triple-A debut on August 1, hit only four round-trippers in 120 minor league games in 2019, including only one in 29 Triple-A games played with the lively big league ball. (Even that one was an inside-the-parker.) And MLB players are swinging and missing more by the year, but Madrigal’s whiff and strikeout rates would have looked low during the deadball era. Madrigal makes no sense. He’s a contact unicorn.
“I feel like I’m my own player,” Madrigal says when I ask him whether he sees similarities to his game in any established big leaguers. With anyone else, a reluctance to compare skill sets could come off as arrogance or humility, depending on the player and tone, but in Madrigal’s case, it’s simply stating a fact. He has an uncommon claim to uniqueness.
Let’s start with the strikeouts (which Madrigal, a natural leadoff guy, generally doesn’t do). The right-handed hitter struck out 16 times in his 532 plate appearances across three minor league levels last season (starting with Winston-Salem in High-A and ending with Triple-A Charlotte). That’s a 3.0 percent strikeout rate, less than half that of the minors’ second-most strikeout-averse hitter (the Rays’ Wander Franco, who checked in at 7.1 percent). The lowest strikeout rate by a qualified big league batter last season was Hanser Alberto’s 9.1 percent—more than three times as high.
“Whether it be an elite closer or an elite starter, he can put the bat on the ball with the best fastballs and the best breaking balls, which you just don’t see,” says White Sox director of player development Chris Getz. Getz, a former second baseman who hit three home runs in 1,574 career MLB plate appearances in a seven-year big league career that began with the White Sox, might see something of himself in Madrigal, but even there, the comparison falls flat: Getz has five inches on Madrigal, and almost four times the career K rate.
Minuscule strikeout rates are a rarity in the minors, too. Only 10 hitters in the Baseball Prospectus minor league database, which extends to 1978, have struck out less often than Madrigal in a season of at least 400 plate appearances. Twins non-strikeout sensation Willians Astudillo, who struck out in 2.4 percent of his 418 plate appearances in High-A in 2015, is the only other hitter to do so since the 1990s.
Lowest MiLB Strikeout Rates Since 1978 (Min. 400 PA)
Madrigal’s contact rate is similarly extraordinary. Last season, Madrigal swung 828 times at 1,745 pitches and whiffed only 43 times, good for a 94.8 percent contact rate that easily led all minor leaguers who saw at least 1,000 pitches. The gap of 3.7 percentage points between Madrigal and the second-place player—Cleveland’s Ernie Clement—was as wide as the gap between Clement and the 22nd-place player.
Highest MiLB Contact Rates in 2019 (Min. 1000 Pitches)
|Name||Pitches||Swings||Whiffs||Swing Rate||Contact Rate|
|Name||Pitches||Swings||Whiffs||Swing Rate||Contact Rate|
BP’s minor league database includes contact rates dating back to 2006. The only player in that time to exceed Madrigal’s rate is Óscar Robles, who edged out Madrigal in 2006, in far fewer swings.
Highest MiLB Contact Rates Since 2006 (Min. 1000 Pitches)
|Year||Name||Pitches||Swings||Whiffs||Swing Rate||Contact Rate|
|Year||Name||Pitches||Swings||Whiffs||Swing Rate||Contact Rate|
At the major league level, only two players since 1988 (the first year of Retrosheet’s pitch-level records) have exceeded Madrigal’s 2019 contact rate: Marty Barrett and Wade Boggs.
Highest MLB Contact Rates (Min. 1000 Pitches) Since 1988
|Year||Name||Pitches||Swing Rate||Contact Rate|
|Year||Name||Pitches||Swing Rate||Contact Rate|
No wonder, then, that Madrigal had trouble coming up with comps: Barrett retired long before he was born, and Boggs not long after. The tables above actually undersell Madrigal’s status as a contact outlier. Strikeout and contact rates have spiked and plummeted, respectively, in the past decade, which paints what Madrigal has accomplished in this whiff-happy era in even more unbelievable light.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in light of his brief track record, FanGraphs’ combined projections forecast Madrigal for the big leagues’ lowest strikeout rate in 2020—slightly lower than Astudillo’s—even though Madrigal has yet to take a hack in the majors.
Lowest Projected Strikeout Rates
|Nick Madrigal||White Sox||5.3|
|Joe Panik||Blue Jays||10.0|
What’s more, those projections don’t take into account that Madrigal has lowered his strikeout rate every time he’s spent consecutive seasons at the same level, dating back to his days as an amateur. He struck out less with each passing season in high school (Elk Grove, alma mater of four other players who’ve made the majors, as well as Cardinals top prospect Dylan Carlson) and college (Oregon State), and that pattern continued in pro ball, when he nearly halved his K rate at High-A between 2018 and 2019 before jumping to Double-A.
Madrigal’s Strikeout Rates by Year
Madrigal has described striking out as “one of the most embarrassing things you can do” on a baseball field, but he credits some of his success at making contact to keeping Ks far from his mind. “I’m not afraid to strike out,” he says. “I know it could happen, I know that’s the game, I know a pitcher could make a great pitch on the corner and you miss it or things like that, but I don’t really worry about it too much. I think if you have that in your mind and you’re thinking about, ‘OK, I might strike out,’ is when it usually happens. And so I really try not to think about it a whole lot, especially when I get to two strikes.”
Unlike Astudillo, who swings almost 60 percent of the time, Madrigal swings and walks at a roughly average rate, which makes him slightly less of an antidote to the game’s trend toward three true outcomes but a much more viable big leaguer. The plot below displays minor leaguers’ swing rates and contact rates in 2019, with the lone red diamond representing Madrigal.
Last year, Madrigal drew 44 free passes, and his 9.7 percent walk rate in Triple-A was slightly above the International League average. One ongoing challenge for Madrigal is restraining himself from swinging at pitches he knows he can hit, a category that includes almost every offering.
“That’s something I’ve tried to add to my game, just [being] more selective with my swings because I can make so much contact,” he says. “It’s just getting a pitch I can drive rather than just putting in play. … Just because I could put the ball in play, it’s not always the best thing.”
The secret to Madrigal’s special skill remains mysterious. One scout for a rival organization who saw him (and rated him highly) in high school and college credits a combination of preternatural hand-eye coordination and efficient mechanics coupled with a contact-oriented approach. “I think in general, shorter guys have more manageable/repeatable swings because of their shorter levers,” he says.
Madrigal insists that his exceptional proclivity toward contact isn’t purely a DNA-given gift. “With how much talent is out there, I think anyone’s able to do it,” he says, which sounds somewhat implausible considering that no one else does. Madrigal claims his ability to put the bat on the ball isn’t mirrored in any off-the-field superpowers. “It’s kind of funny,” he says. “I’m not sure that anything jumps off the charts. … There’s no, like, crazy special talent or anything I have out there at this point.”
No special physical talent, at least. “I always believe that hitting is mostly mental,” he adds, suggesting that his blend of an unflappable mental state, focus, and commitment to preparation is “the biggest reason why I don’t strike out as much.” Those qualities were present from an early age. “He has always had an extraordinary work ethic, with no off switch to his game,” says Elk Grove head baseball coach Joe Bellotti. “Because he is always ‘on’ you rarely see at-bats get thrown away. ... He was someone who always had a discipline to stick to a plan whenever he was hitting; off a tee, in the cage, in a game.”
Madrigal says he’s swung with wearable devices attached to his bat and body, but his incredible capacity for contact is more instinctive than data-driven. “I have no idea what it all means,” he says of the results. Getz alludes to cognitive testing that revealed a rare capacity to process information at the plate. “We’ve had him be part of that testing, and it definitely is not surprising,” he says. “It does point toward someone that recognizes quickly and early.” Getz goes for an all-of-the-above explanation for Madrigal’s signature skill: “His maturity level, his calmness in the box, his cognitive abilities, and the mechanical simplicity, let’s call it, that he brings to the table as a hitter, all kind of help him when it comes to his elite contact ability.”
Putting pitches in play at the rate that he does makes Madrigal a curiosity, but that alone wouldn’t make him a star. Barrett and Boggs debuted in the same season, occupied the same infield, and boasted similarly lofty contact rates, but Boggs became a five-time batting champion with 3,010 career hits, while Barrett led the league only in sacrifice bunts. Boggs had better plate discipline, but he also had more power and a lofty batting average on balls in play. Madrigal has the contact covered, but he has work to do on what happens after pitches are put in play.
According to front-office sources with multiple teams, Madrigal’s minor league exit velocities lie much closer to the bottom of the scale than the top. Madrigal’s average exit velocity (85 mph) and 95th-percentile exit velocity (98 mph) placed him in the 11th and seventh percentiles, respectively, among Triple-A hitters with at least 100 batted balls in 2019. According to Baseball Prospectus, he also posted the fifth-highest ground ball rate among Triple-A hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. That’s not a recipe for power, and his lone Triple-A homer barely reached the warning track.
Then again, warning track power is adequate when the outfield plays in.
Madrigal doesn’t sound concerned about being a singles hitter. “My ultimate job is to get on base for the team and to score runs,” he says. However, he isn’t downplaying his power potential, adding, “I know it’s going to come.” In the age of the lively ball—assuming the ball is still lively—size and power aren’t tightly tethered, and it’s not hard to envision Madrigal popping a few over the fence.
Madrigal showed up in camp this spring looking a little bit beefier than he did last year. He dismisses his muscle gains as “a couple pounds,” although he grudgingly concedes that it wouldn’t be inaccurate to classify him as being in the best shape of his life. “One of the biggest focuses I had this last season was trying to get my body as strong as I can,” he says. For the first time, Madrigal spent the offseason in Arizona, where he trained at a sports performance facility called EXOS to enhance his strength, mobility, and flexibility.
Nick Madrigal has definitely added muscle to his frame. You can see it when he’s on the field. Looks different even from last year.— Chuck Garfien (@ChuckGarfien) February 15, 2020
“He has a fundamental skill set that is very hard to teach, that’s already built in there,” Getz says. “Now it’s more or less taking advantage of that. ... There are areas of growth which he believes and we believe will lead to higher exit velocities or more power.”
Madrigal’s sui generis set of skills makes him a polarizing prospect for scouts and statheads alike. Thanks in part to the trailblazing efforts of Dustin Pedroia and José Altuve, evaluators are less likely to write him off based on his compact body, but there are valid reasons to find fault. At Baseball Prospectus, Madrigal has been the subject of statistical deep dives and roundtable debates, and he’s hotly debated inside front offices. “He comes up all the time,” one analyst for a non–White Sox team told me. Public prospect rankers differ on his potential, too. Prospect experts at Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, ESPN, and FanGraphs rank him in the 40s overall, but some have him much higher or lower.
The Athletic’s Keith Law is the low man on Madrigal. Law left him off his top 100 list, as well as his piece about players who just missed the list. It’s not that Law doesn’t like him—he ranked him fifth on his White Sox list and projected him to be a “longtime big leaguer”—but he doesn’t see a ceiling that would justify placement on his overall list.
“You have to have some chance to be at least an above-average regular to make my top 100,” Law says. “But also, the floor isn’t ‘regular’ for him. If he can’t hit .300+ regularly, he’s probably not an average regular. And very few guys do that with [isolated powers] under .100.”
At the other end of the spectrum sits Baseball Prospectus’s Jarrett Seidler, the high man on Madrigal. BP has ranked Madrigal 15th and 13th, respectively, in the past two springs. “It’s something I’ve thought about more than nearly any other prospect grading/ranking puzzle over the last year and a half,” Seidler says, adding, “He is a unique player … and that presents evaluative challenges that are a bit different than normal.”
Who wants a home run? Nick Madrigal does. pic.twitter.com/IL9cWlvJPj— Chuck Garfien (@ChuckGarfien) February 13, 2020
Seidler points out that most top prospects have conceivable downsides below big league regular, and he believes that Madrigal’s hit tool gives him “batting champion–type upside.” If Joey Gallo could hit for enough power to survive his historically high strikeout rates, maybe Madrigal can make enough contact to survive his paucity of power. Seidler also notes that even if Madrigal shows nonexistent game power and a sub-Boggsian BABIP, his secondary skills—speed and defense—could compensate and allow him to be a productive player. Although Madrigal’s contact is his carrying tool, BP’s stats say he was worth more than four runs on the bases last year (despite getting caught stealing 13 times) and another five runs in the field. Last year, MLB Pipeline rated Madrigal the best defender in the White Sox system, noting that he has “the hands and actions,” if not the arm, to thrive at shortstop. More recently, Madrigal tied for third in an MLB Pipeline poll of general managers, scouting directors, and other executives about the sport’s best defensive prospects.
Any loud doubts that do reach Madrigal’s ears quickly become motivation. “There’s been tons of people on the way who’ve not believed in me as much as I did myself and my family did,” he says, sounding like a long line of underdog athletes. “I heard things in high school and always, just, they didn’t really think it was possible for me to get drafted, and then they would say, ‘OK, you’ll never be a first-round draft pick,’ and things like that. … And I know there’s always going to be people out there like that, but I’m confident in my abilities and don’t really pay a whole lot of attention to those people.”
The most likely outcome, of course, is that Madrigal ends up as neither a superstar batting champion nor a marginal major leaguer clinging to a 25th or 26th roster spot. Law says, “I think the industry is closer to me than fans realize,” while Seidler acknowledges, “I do think the industry in general has him a little lower than us.” Seidler borrows a comp from colleague Lucas Apostoleris to capture what may be Madrigal’s middle ground: Marco Scutaro. No, that’s not sexy—statistically, at least—but Scutaro (who was blocked by Edgardo Alfonzo and an over-the-hill Roberto Alomar when he came up with the Mets) stuck in the big leagues for 13 years and amassed about 20 wins above replacement despite not starting full time until he was 28.
In Madrigal’s quest to transcend Scutaro—or a contemporary equivalent, the Angels’ David Fletcher—and fulfill his potential, the internal pressure that pushes him forward may make up for the height and power he lacks. “I think his best attribute is his competitiveness,” Bellotti says. The coach continues, “Everything Nick has accomplished is all very exciting, but at the same time none of it surprises me. It is just who he is.” Madrigal’s makeup consistently gets great grades: In the MLB Pipeline poll, 31 percent of respondents named Madrigal when asked to identify the prospect with the “best baseball IQ.” No other player received more than a 12 percent share.
Madrigal comes from an athletic family—his twin brother pitches for Division I Saint Mary’s College—and he acknowledges that his competitive drive is as strong in informal family games as it is on the field. As long as someone is keeping score, he wants to win. It’s easy to tilt between beneficial competitiveness and self-sabotaging red-assery, but Madrigal thinks he stays on the positive side of the line. “I don’t think of it as a bad thing,” Madrigal says. “I think I’m in control. … I know there are a lot of people that get frustrated. Early on in the game, it ruins the rest of the game for them. But I’m not like that at all.”
It’s trivial to find ways in which Madrigal is unlike other players, but most of the players he is like have been dead for decades. A reader recently drew my attention to Hall of Famer Joe Sewell’s strange 1927 season. That year, Sewell finished with fewer strikeouts (seven) than times caught stealing (16). The reader wondered whether a player could ever do that again. No way, I thought: That sort of season hasn’t been a common occurrence since Sewell’s day. No qualified player has done it since 1951, and no player has done it in a season of at least 200 plate appearances since 1978. Yet mightn’t Madrigal end the drought? Last year, his Ks outnumbered his caught stealings by just three. Maybe he’ll start striking out more frequently or stealing more efficiently (or less prolifically), but because of his oddity, we can dare to dream of seeing something few living fans can recall.
The upper levels of amateur ball, and the lower levels of pro ball, are home to a host of statistical extremophiles who eke out unusual existences under conditions that differ dramatically from the majors. Take another Nick, former Blue Jays outfielder Nick Sinay. Sinay, a 22nd-round pick in the 2015 draft, managed a .229/.412/.282 professional line. He couldn’t hit, but he could get hit—70 times in 676 plate appearances, following 47 plunkings in 483 plate appearances in his last two college seasons. Those of us who realized early on that we wouldn’t reach the big leagues legitimately may wish it were possible to be plunked all the way to the Show, but baseball has a way of winnowing the weird. Sinay, who never made it past A-ball, is now a real estate agent in upstate New York.
Every once in a while, though, weirdness wins for a while, exposing us to something magical: R.A. Dickey’s UCL-less knuckler, or Ichiro’s eerie batted-ball placement, or Shohei Ohtani’s two-way wonders, or Pablo Sandoval’s bad-ball hitting, or Terrance Gore’s speed. Madrigal’s contact rate is one such wonder of the world, a riveting trait so inescapable that I felt bad about bringing it up. “He doesn’t love talking about it, because I think he’s asked about it so often,” Getz says. “And I told him, ‘Listen, man, when you do something that stands out above the rest, sometimes you’ve gotta celebrate it. I know it’ll be annoying, but that’s what the story’s gonna be.’”
Regardless of how it ends, that story has been fun to follow. Madrigal’s name and profile are familiar to prospect hounds and White Sox fans, but at some point this season—possibly soon—they’ll become better known to neutral fans who follow the majors. He lacks some of the standout skills of other White Sox blue-chippers—the five-tool talent and prototypical frame of Luis Robert, the terrifying fastball of Michael Kopech, the tater potential of Andrew Vaughn—but his one-of-a-kind bat control may make him as entertaining as any of them. As the White Sox transition from rebuilding to contending, only his own limitations and the likes of Leury García stand in his way.
“It’s going to be very valuable to our team to have a guy that, regardless of where we’re at in the game, what the situation is, there’s going to be action,” Getz says. If Madrigal is good, he won’t just be valuable to his team. He’ll be valuable to a contact-starved sport.
Thanks to Lucas Apostoleris of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.