There are three hitters in Major League Baseball with a Chase rate below 25 percent, a Barrel rate above 10 percent and a Sprint Speed in the top 10 percent (min. 145 plate appearances): the Angels’ Mike Trout, Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr., and the Astros’ new everyday center fielder, Chas McCormick.
It’s not often that a team with the American League’s best record through July willfully turns over the starting center field job to a rookie. But that is the position the Astros have put themselves in following an unexpected deadline day trade. It’s a bold play this late in a season, one with fairly substantial risk, but with that risk comes considerable upside.
Upside in the realm of Trout or Acuña? Probably not. As talented as McCormick is, chances are he’s not a generational talent. Nevertheless, the 26-year-old rookie has an intriguing mix of skill and physical ability.
McCormick entered 2021 as Houston’s fourth outfielder despite not yet having made his big-league debut. Four months later, he’s now the undisputed starting center fielder for one of baseball’s top clubs. It’s a swift evolution for a player who was projected by many evaluators to merely be a reserve outfielder, albeit a capable one.
As impressive and well-rounded as McCormick’s minor-league track record is, numerous projection systems pegged him as a slightly below-average offensive player, per Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). Nearly 200 plate appearances later, his 110 wRC+ is comfortably above average.
McCormick has been productive despite a troubling 30-plus percent strikeout rate, a figure that’s fairly surprising given his low minor-league strikeout totals. Concurrent with the uptick in whiffs, however, is McCormick’s emerging power. Across Double-A and Triple-A in 2019, he hit 14 home runs combined in over 450 plate appearances. The former 21st-round pick has already slugged 10 in his first 187 plate appearances in the bigs.
It’s a development that is rather astonishing when contextualized: McCormick had never hit more than four home runs in a single season prior to 2019’s power surge, the year he began to lift the ball more frequently. He’s translated that ability to The Show, as evidenced by a launch angle that’s well above average.
But it’s not just hollow loft in McCormick’s swing; there’s legitimate thump. Only Yordan Álvarez and Kyle Tucker possess a higher Hard-hit rate among Astros hitters. The list is identical in terms of Barrel rate, except Jason Castro, who continues to receive few starts for reasons unbeknownst to man, is also ahead of McCormick. And, for good measure, McCormick’s Blast rate is second only to Álvarez, an elite masher whose prodigious batted ball data deserves its own deep dive.
Squaring up balls is key to McCormick’s game, but what distinguishes him from many rookie hitters is his ability to remain disciplined at the plate. According to Statcast, the Astros’ lineup has the fifth-lowest Chase percentage in the major leagues. McCormick’s is the fourth-lowest on the team behind Carlos Correa, the sharp-eyed Alex Bregman and — you guessed it — Castro.
While he’s been effective at the dish, McCormick has also displayed his prowess and blistering 94th percentile Sprint Speed in the outfield. The small sample size notwithstanding, various advanced defensive metrics such as Outs Above Average (OAA), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) rate McCormick’s defense favorably. Statcast’s OAA ranks him 12th among all outfielders.
Of the 65 games McCormick’s played in the field this year, only 15 have been in center field. Although it would appear he lacks ideal experience for the position, he did split time fairly evenly across all three outfield spots while in the minors. In any case, his tremendous speed should allow him to play competent or better defense at his new permanent post.
A multi-faceted present profile with upside going forward is likely what enabled Astros general manager James Click to effectively promote McCormick when the second-year GM traded center fielder Myles Straw to the Indians for reliever Phil Maton and a catching prospect. Straw is amid what could end up being an impressive three-win campaign.
That being said, McCormick has also fared relatively well in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), accruing a 1.1 bWAR that isn’t much worse than Straw’s (1.7), and he’s done it in 200 fewer plate appearances.
With Straw now in Cleveland, McCormick will receive consistent playing time over a stretch that will be more extensive than anything he’d experienced earlier in the season. Coincidentally, it could be the most crucial portion of the Astros’ schedule as they near the homestretch.
Getting regular at-bats could lead to enhanced production — particularly in the contact department — and with the postseason two months away, it could prove to be just enough time for the Astros rookie to establish himself as a legitimate everyday center fielder.
The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant, FanGraphs and Pitch Leaderboard