Checking in on Anthony Volpe
by EJ Fagan
May 5, 2023
NOTE: The following comes from EJ Fagan's substack page and is shared with permission.
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We all felt the excitement when the Yankees announced that Anthony Volpe would break camp as the starting shortstop. It felt like another Derek Jeter era was beginning. But in the back of my mind, there was always a little doubt. Anthony Volpe was a great prospect, but lots of great prospects flop in the majors.
We’re now a month in. Anthony Volpe has 116 major league plate appearances. The Yankees started sheltering Volpe in the 9th spot, but was thrust into leadoff duty when the injuries started to pile up. How is he doing?
The overall numbers are solid, but unspectacular:
Volpe defense has graded out strong. My eye test is that he looks like a pretty slick shortstop, although without a ton of range. Volpe makes a lot of tricky, heads-up plays. He’s a strong major league shortstop, but not a gold glover. The scouting reports pretty much nailed it.
On offense, the story is more complicated. He’s been somewhere between a below-average and average hitter, depending on if you want to look at xwOBA or wRC+. Given that he’s fast and loves to get the extra base, I’d trust wRC+ for now. He walks a lot, but otherwise hasn’t been great at controlling the strike zone. He’s also the second most valuable baserunner in the majors, behind Cedric Mullins, according to Fangraphs. He’s the third best rookie hitter by fWAR and the 7th best shortstop overall.
In other words, Volpe has already been a huge improvement over Isaiah Kiner-Falefa on all sides of the ball, but not yet a breakout superstar.
But what about the trends? With the caveat that small samples get smaller when you divide them up into time periods, here is Volpe’s wRC+ over the season:
Volpe had a rough first ten games or so. He was stealing a lot of bases, but struggled to do much else. I started to get a little nervous. Then, something clicked. Let’s set an arbitrary cutoff as April 13th, when the Yankee homestand began Since then, Volpe has hit .277/.382/.446.
What about the plate discipline? Here are his strikeout, walk and swinging percentage at balls outside the zone:
These paint much more of a mixed picture. Volpe’s mid-April surge was all about plate discipline. His strikeout rate came down toward the league average. He walked a ton. He stopped swinging at bad pitches. Over the last week or so, those trends all went in the wrong direction. Volpe started swinging wildly, didn’t take walks and struck out a ton. Before last night, he hadn’t stolen a base in almost two weeks.
I think we’re seeing the classic rookie pattern with Volpe. He took a moment to adjust to the big leagues. Then he flashed some talent. Then the league adjusted back to him. Now Volpe has to adjust back. We’re not out of the prospect danger zone yet.
We haven’t really seen a big game or hot streak from Volpe yet, other than maybe going 2 for 3 with two walks against Minnesota. He has never had more than two hits in a game. His best hit streak has been five games. However, he’s been a capable leadoff hitter. If he can get his strikeout rate below league average, I think Volpe could really take off.
That said, I’m reminded of Derek Jeter’s rookie season. The Captain won Rookie of the Year, but by no means was he an instant superstar. Jeter, a year older than Volpe, hit .314/370/.430, but in the high-octane offensive environment of the mid-90s, that was only good for a 106 wRC+ and 2.2 fWAR. Thanks to better baserunning and defense, Volpe is already on track to be more valuable than ROY Derek Jeter, without guessing at the trends and a year younger.
Let’s say that I started out this season with 6 out of 10 confidence in Volpe. He looked great in the Spring, had the intangibles and a strong minor league pedigree. But, he was a prospect. I’m now at a 7 out of 10. It’s been a good month.