When Michael Brantley went down with an injury two weeks ago, it opened a door for Chas McCormick. The result was regular playing time for the rookie outfielder, having only played in brief spurts beforehand. With Brantley due back imminently, however, it’s possible that McCormick will no longer have an everyday role.
While Brantley will resume his normal duties in left field — the position McCormick’s primarily played in the veteran’s absence — there’s still an opening in center field. At least, there should be.
Perhaps no other player on the Astros’ roster has been under the microscope more this season than Myles Straw, who’s been the club’s starting center fielder from the outset. Over 200 plate appearances later, the 26-year-old speedster is on schedule to meet his unremarkable preseason projections.
One of the various systems, ZiPS, projected Straw to slash .251/.319/.312 and finish the year with a mediocre 1.2 fWAR. A little more than a third of the way through the season, his current slash line is .242/.315/.289. He’s accrued an fWAR of 0.4.
Straw appears to be the player many people thought he’d be: A fifth outfielder whose best role is that of a defensive replacement/pinch runner.
Three weeks ago, I wrote about how Straw’s defense was lacking. My analysis was based on several advanced metrics, and there seemed to be a consensus. Fast forward to today, and things look inversely. Though his Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) remains below average, other metrics such as Outs Above Average (OAA), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) indicate Straw’s been an above-average defender this year.
As I noted in the referenced article, this is what happens when you evaluate defense over a short period of time. Abnormal fluctuations often occur.
I’m inclined to believe Straw is a legitimately good defender in center field given his elite speed, but here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter anymore. It would in a world where Straw is the only Astros player capable of playing center field, but we do not live in a Chas McCormick-less world.
In terms of range, McCormick’s is similar to Straw’s, evidenced by their identical sprint speeds. McCormick might not be as experienced at the position, but he ostensibly has the potential to be equally as effective a defender in center field as Straw.
This clip helps reinforce that notion:
MY GOODNESS, CHAS McCORMICK!— Round Rock Express (@RRExpress) July 24, 2019
If this @Chazzyfizz diving catch isn't @SportsCenter #SCTop10 worthy, then what is? @ESPNAssignDesk pic.twitter.com/b5WHOrljDH
It’s more or less known now what kind of hitter Straw is, but there is a relative amount of unknown with McCormick, and with that unknown comes upside.
Though McCormick is yet to even log his 100th plate appearance in The Show, there are two particular aspects of a hitter’s profile that don’t require large sample sizes in order to accurately assess. According to The Athletic’s Eno Sarris ($), Barrel rate and chase rate are key indicators that can show early on how viable a player is at the plate.
Pegged as a solid all-around but unspectacular outfield prospect by FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen coming into 2021, McCormick has displayed impressive power against big-league pitching, with 5 of his 15 hits being home runs. Moreover, his Hard-hit rate is the fourth-highest on the team, his Barrel rate ranks third, and his Blast rate second, closely behind Yordan Álvarez in all three cases.
Plate discipline has long been a strength for McCormick. In 2019, he walked more times than he struck out at the Double-A level and came close to replicating the feat at Triple-A. This year in the bigs, his chase rate is a sterling 23.3 percent, one of the best marks among Astros hitters.
Prior to McCormick receiving steady playing time, he had a lowly .263 xwOBA in 39 plate appearances with a 5.1 percent walk rate. Since May 22, when he began to play regularly, his xwOBA has been .356, with a 13 percent walk rate. Time will tell how valid these improvements are, but simply receiving consistent at-bats can do wonders for a player, especially one who is young and unproven.
If nothing else, it’s telling that McCormick’s bWAR (0.5) is better than Straw’s (0.3), despite the significant discrepancy in plate appearances (90 - 214).
It’s a fairly exciting profile that McCormick has manifested in merely a few weeks. His surprising mixture of considerable power and blazing speed is a potent one by itself. An outstanding eye at the plate only elevates it. There’s still work to be done, especially in regard to making contact, but he did excel in that department at every level in the minors.
McCormick was thought to be a high-floor, low-ceiling player. Considering the alternative, the Astros would be remiss if they did not give their promising rookie more time to show just how high his ceiling is.
The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Pitch Leaderboard