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Sam Hilliard won’t keep this up all year, but the Braves still may have found something interesting.

Looking at the curious case of Sam Hilliard.

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Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Ok, let’s get this part out of the way right from the start. Sam Hilliard is currently running a 166 wRC+ with a 39% strikeout rate and a .545 batting average on balls in play. That profile hasn’t exactly a zero percent chance of maintaining itself over a full season, or even half a season. This is a classic “April profile” that only exist in the wild and random first month of a baseball season.

So the question is not “Can Sam Hilliard keep this up?” Cause the answer to that question is a clear no. No one can. The question is “When Sam Hilliard’s profile finally stabilizes, will there still be enough there for him to be a productive contributor for the Braves?” The answer to that question is much less clear.

First of all, this Hilliard isn’t really all that different than the version we saw in Colorado. He’s always been a freak athlete for his size, much faster than you might initially think, and therefore an asset on the bases and in the outfield. Just like he has been so far in Atlanta.

Hilliard has always had a good eye at the plate, drawing more than enough walks to run a good offensive profile. He’s always had power, showing an ability to crush balls when he barrels them and he’s always shown that he will swing and miss a lot. A ton actually. And again, all of those things are still true in 2023.

On the surface, it looks like Hilliard is the exact same player he’s always been and is just enjoying a fortunate .545 BABIP, and once that runs out, so will most of his production. And that may be true. But beneath the surface, there are some interesting changes we should note.

Hilliard is currently averaging 93.5 mph in exit velocity this season, the highest mark of his career. 56% of his batted balls have come with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher this season, easily the highest percentage of his career. He’s also averaging 18 degrees of launch for every batted ball this season, which is, you guessed it, the highest launch angle of his career. All this together has allowed him to tap into his substantial power, which is why if he’s running a .289 ISO, or a .622 SLG%.

And the power is very important because the power is how you help cancel out the lack of consistent contact. And Hilliard has always had problems with consistent contact. The reason strikeouts are a bigger deal for pitchers than they are for hitters is because hitters can overcome strikeouts with power. Essentially it’s replacing the quantity of your contact with the quality of your contact. Ronald Acuña Jr has run this concept for years, with the exception of this year, striking out a ton but absolutely destroying the ball when he does make contact. Hilliard strikes out way more than Acuña and probably way too much to be a full-time starter, but remember the question we’re answering at the top: “Once his profile stabilizes, can Hilliard still be a productive contributor?” The Braves don’t need a star and really don’t even need a full-time starter. They just need a contributor. And if Hilliard hits for power to go along with great base-running and above average defense, the Braves would be ecstatic.

There’s one more thing Hilliard is doing this season that I want to note. He’s swinging less. Not just swinging less at bad pitches, but swinging less period. For his career, Hilliard has swung right at 45% of the pitches he sees. This year he’s at 37%, which is a substantial drop.

Here’s a helpful graph to illustrate the point:

Sam Hilliard Swing%

As you can see, Hilliard is currently swing at pitches at lower rate than he ever has before. He’s also swinging less at bad pitches, as you can see from the next graph, which certainly helps, but is not the entire point:

Sam Hilliard O-Swing%

Now you might be asking, what does that matter if he’s swinging less, but if you’ve read Eno Sarris over the years over at The Athletic, then you already know where this is going. Eno, along with Tom Tango, MLB’s Senior Data Architect, reached the conclusion that swinging less is better. I’ll let you read the piece for yourself, it’s fantastic, but essentially the penalty for swinging at a ball out of the zone is severe. And the penalty for making contact with a ball out of the zone is even worse. When a major league hitters put a ball out of the zone in play, they averaged a .206 SLG%. When they put a ball in the zone in play they averaged a .488 SLG%. And as we’ve already stated, power is the key to Hilliard’s offensive profile, cause it’s the only way to cover up the strikeouts.

Any kind of number-based analysis done in April of a baseball season is risky because we just don’t have enough data yet. Once that BABIP stabilizes, Sam Hilliard might be absolutely terrible again and you’ll never think about him or this piece again. I don’t know. But the Braves care about power over strikeouts and have for years and letting Hilliard unlock his power might be the key to turning a tooled-up promising outfielder into an actual major league contributor. Time will tell.

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