Although, we’re still very early in the 2024 season, certain players have already begun to set themselves apart and turn heads with their performance relative to what was expected of them going into the year. There is inarguably still a ton of noise in most metrics at this point, but even early on you can still begin to see ways in which players have made adjustments with some key underlying metrics. Let’s examine a few young players who have excelled thus far to get an idea of what we can expect from them for the rest of the season.

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Jordan Westburg, Orioles

Because of the sheer amount of talented young hitters in Baltimore’s system, Jordan Westburg, a first-round pick in his own right, can fly under the radar, especially considering his very average performance in the big leagues up to this point in his career. Westburg has come out of the gate very hot this year, ranking in baseball’s 20 most valuable hitters and top 15 in wRC+. His performance hasn’t been fueled by batted-ball luck, either; his .431 wOBA is backed up by a .422 xwOBA, and his 63% Hard-Hit rate is in the 99th percentile. In terms of swing decisions, Westburg doesn’t look to have made a massive change in approach. His BB% is down a tick and his K% is down from nearly 25% to 19.4%, but his Chase% and Z-Swing% haven’t changed much since last year. By SwRV+, Westburg’s decision quality has gone from a 98.5 mark in 2023 to 103.0 in 2024. Interestingly, although Westburg is swinging at fewer pitches in the zone this year, his Good Swing% is actually up from 58.1% to 60.2%. Westburg has also swung at out-of-zone pitches at a slightly higher rate than he did last year but his Bad Swing% has gone down from 43.8% to to 41.0% this year. Westburg has partially been able to get such high value out of his batted balls because he is laying off pitches he should and being more aggressive on pitches he can punish. This is a great example of why more granular and advanced metrics like SwRV are powerful. A glance at Westburg’s FanGraphs page would make you think his plate discipline quality is down, but that’s not really the case. His contact rate has actually gotten worse since last year, which makes his improvements in K% very confusing.

Westburg is one of the largest overperformers in this category in the league, and this will likely not continue. Hitters who have made contact at similar rates to Westburg this year have all run K% marks near or higher than 30%.

As for how Westburg has bumped his exit velocity and quality of contact metrics, it doesn’t look like Westburg has greatly increased his bat speed, or at least not his bat speed ceiling. Westburg’s exit velocity range is very similar to what is was in 2023 and his Max EV of 111.2 is right in line with last year’s 111.4 mark. Rather, Westburg is more consistently getting to exit velocities near his max, compared to last year.

A tradeoff in some contact isn’t bad if it is what enables Westburg to make contact of the quality he has so far, but regression, especially in the form of strikeouts, is likely on the way. He has showcased enough in the early going, though, to make me think that he can still finish out through the rest of the year as an above-average hitter in the 115-125 wRC+ range.

Michael Busch, Cubs

Michale Busch is a former Dodgers top prospect who came over to Chicago along with Yency Almonte in a trade over the offseason for prospects Jackson Ferris and Zyhir Hope. Despite his prospect pedigree, Busch hasn’t recieved much opportunity with the Dodgers and played in just 27 games total at the major league level, in which he put up a horrendous 49 wRC+. After a change of scenery, Busch is absolutely mashing with the Cubs this year, and his 186 wRC+ is 9th in MLB, one spot behind Mike Trout. Busch’s contact quality has been elite and Barrel% and xSLG are both in the top 2% in MLB. A massive area for improvement from Busch has been his swing decision quality, which he has continued to develop as he gets more comfortable with major league pitching. In 2023, Busch had a 61.8 Good Swing%, 42.0 Bad Swing%, and a 97.2 SwRV+. In 2024, those marks are 65.3%, 35.6%, and 109.9, respectively. That is the 3rd largest jump in SwRV+ from 2023 to 2024 of any hitter.

As one would expect with great swing decisions, Busch has walked a good amount this year, 12.9% of the time. His K% is a bit high at 27.1% but his whiff rate isn’t awful, ranking in the 40th percentile. A more passive approach is usually going to bring some walks but also some strikeouts, but I would expect Busch’s current rate to come down a bit, closer to 25%. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he can maintain a high walk rate going forward, even if it isn’t quite as high as what he has put up so far. He has shown the ability to lay off bad pitches and pitcher’s will likely begin to avoid the zone more if he keeps punishing his batted balls like he has been.

In addition to hitting the ball almost 5 MPH harder on average this year, Busch’s launch angle distribution is significantly better than last year. He is elevating much more than last year and his average launch angle is up from 4.7 to 22.9. He is also hitting the ball in the optimal range more frequently and his Sweet-Spot% is 42.9, compared to 2023’s mark of 15.2. Busch has tightened up his launch angle profile so much that his sd(LA) is more than 11 points less than last year, which is the biggest improvement in baseball out of any hitter with at least 40 BBE in each year, by a good margin too.

Better swing decisions, exit velocities, and launch angles are a recipe for a breakout, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that Busch’s contact rate is up to a respectable 77.1%. Although there will likely be some regression on batted ball production, the swing decisions and bat control (as evidenced by his elite sd(LA)) Busch has displayed this year give me a lot of hope for him to be a meaningful contributor for the Cubs this year.

Reid Detmers, Angels

Reid Detmers is now in his third full season and fourth season in MLB at just 24 years old. From 2021-2023, Detmers put up a 4.37 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 24.1 K%, and 9.1 BB% over just under 300 innings pitches. This year, Detmers has a 1.19 ERA, 1.61 FIP, 34.9 K%, and 8.1%. So, what has changed? Not too much, honestly. His pitch quality looks virtually unchanged: FanGraphs has his Pitching+ at 99 for 2023 and 98 this year, his botOvr went from 49 to 46, and my models have his Pitching+ at 98 for both years. Going deeper, though, Detmers has made changes to a his pitch shapes.

Despite a decrease in velocity, Detmers’ 4-Seam actually grades out better this year because of an additional three inches of ride. Fastballs are foundational to an arsenal, especially for a starter, so this is an important development. Detmers hasn’t quite been able to improve his other pitches quite as much, though. His changeup has benefitted from the improvement in fastball shape, but it’s grade is essentially the same. Both of Detmers’ breaking balls grade out worse this year than last, and FG Stuff+/botStf both generally agree that these pitches have taken a step back. His slider is his most thrown breaking ball, is down ~3.5 MPH without a drastic improvement in shape, and the Stuff+ on the pitch is a very poor 23.7. His curveball has become a little more vertically oriented and added close to a tick of velocity, but interestingly both FG models as well as my own like last year’s version of the pitch better.

This year, Detmers has taken a different approach and adjusted his locations accordingly.

Combined with the added ride on Detmers’ fastball this year, he has managed to elevate the pitch more consistently and the pitch has performed very well this year, even with diminished velocity. His fastball Whiff% has increased from 21.2% to 35.6% and the xwOBA has plummeted to .233, compared to .382 in 2023. Slug on the pitch is down as well, at .154 in 2024 so far after hitters slugged .505 on the pitch in 2023. With his slider, Detmers has done a better job of avoiding the heart of the zone and has been pretty consistently living down and in to righties and down and away to lefties. The pitch’s whiff rate is essentially unchanged, but results on contact have not been favorable for Detmers this year, but that will likely turn around soon; hitters are slugging 40 points higher this year but the pitch’s xSLG is identical in both years, at .366. A drop in velocity well over 3 MPH and relatedly a decline in stuff quality might hurt Detmers down the road, but the pitch has been alright in the early going. He kept his changeup locations pretty similar, and the Location+/botCmd marks are about the same in each year. The pitch has been a good weapon for Detmers against RHB and the xwOBA on the pitch for the year is .261. Detmers has been more North-South with has curveball as he has lost a bit of sweep on the pitch. The pitch is getting less swing and miss than it did last year, but the xwOBA is down.

It’s encouraging to see Detmers showcase a better fastball, but his performance so far is unsustainable going forward. He has no plus pitches and his breaking balls grade out especially. Without elite command, which Detmers does not have, it’s difficult to see a profile like this continuing to strike hitters out at a 30%+ clip. I expect his performance to regress towards last year’s, with a K% around 25 and a low to mid 4’s ERA.

Ronel Blanco, Astros

Ronel Blanco made headlines just five games into 2024, throwing a no-hitter on April Fool’s Day that ended a four game skid for the Astros and gave new manager Joe Espada his first career win. In 21 innings this year, Blanco has cut his ERA from 4.50 last year to 0.86, or just 2 ER allowed all season. Although his K-BB% is lower this year than last, many ERA estimators are buying his performance so far: his xERA is 1.72 and his FIP is 2.96; xFIP, though, see’s his performance so far as a bit more lucky, considering he hasn’t give up a homer yet despite giving up 25 fly balls. Hitter’s just haven’t been able to hit their fly balls with any authority, and Blanco’s 21.6 Hard-Hit% allowed is in the 96th percentile. This brings some concern, as exit velocity is largely a hitter skill and something pitchers don’t have a ton of influence over. In terms of pitch shapes, nothing looks too different from last year.

Blanco’s changeup is pretty similar to what it looked like last year, it has added an inch and a half of drop while maintaining it’s velocity but decreased fastball velocity and vertical break have somewhat hidden those improvements. Blanco’s slider also has a pretty similar shape this year but has lost a bit over a tick of velocity and profiles more like a cutter anyways, with nearly nine inches of induced vertical break. It would be interesting to see Blanco add a true gyro slider in addition to this pitch. Blanco’s fastball isn’t completely unrecognizable but has looked a little worse this year, as the pitch lost 1 MPH and some vertical break. The pitch is still a fine fastball, but nothing special.

The biggest change Blanco has made is an adjustment in locations. His 8-point jump in Location+ from 2023-24 is the highest of any pitcher by my models.

Like Detmers, Blanco has elevated his 4-Seam more frequently in 2024 and improved both his whiff rate and xwOBA. Contact quality has been super low (xSLG of .147), but it’s hard to imagine that continuing on for a sustained period, as the pitch doesn’t have any true outlier characteristics. Blanco’s best pitch, his changeup, has been placed below the zone more this year and has garnered fantastic results, allowing a measly .184 xwOBA. Although Blanco has thrown more changeups to lefties, he actually uses the pitch against same-handed hitters as well, having thrown 33 to RHB. Blanco has done a good job of keeping the slider on the outer third of the plate, but he has been getting far less whiffs with the pitch in 2024.

Although Blanco has been a good story so far, I don’t see him continuing this level of performance. There is no way for him to keep allowing fly balls at the rate he has without giving up any homers, and he doesn’t have any real out pitch currently. His command has been great, but locations can be very volatile and he hasn’t consistently shown command like this in the past. If his command regresses, I’d envision him putting up a low 20’s K% with an ERA around 4.50.

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