The Brewers could have non-tendered Rowdy Tellez earlier this winter if they wanted.
Despite his team-leading 35 home runs in 2022, the club could have made a convincing case for cutting ties with Tellez and searching for a new first baseman. While his power numbers were impressive, he finished the season with a poor .306 on-base percentage. The one-dimensional nature of his offensive production limited him to a 110 wRC+.
That’s still an above-average showing at the plate, but it’s barely enough to compensate for Tellez’s negative value in the field.
Tellez plays first base, which is regarded as one of the least difficult positions to field. As such, positional adjustment metrics ding him pretty heavily off the bat. Furthermore, Tellez is not a strong defensive first baseman.
Tellez is a brick wall at first. Brick walls stop any projectile that hits the wall. Tellez has excellent hands, so he easily handles anything hit directly at him. He also prevents plenty of errors by successfully scooping throws in the dirt, but most experienced first basemen do so as well.
Brick walls are also stationary. Tellez’s range in the field is dreadful and is why most defensive metrics dislike him. He finished the 2022 season with -6 Defensive Runs Saved and -4 Outs Above Average. Plus/Minus Runs Saved, the DRS component that measures range, accounted for -5 of those -6 runs.
Ultimate Zone Rating is the only metric that gave Tellez’s defense a positive review (1.7 runs) but still agreed that his range is subpar. According to UZR, his surehandedness in the field (2.7 Error Runs) helped make up for his lack of range (-1.3 Range Runs).
Regardless of which metric you prefer, Tellez’s defense limited him to 0.8 fWAR (which incorporates UZR) and 0.9 bWAR (which utilizes DRS). WAR is more an estimation than an exact science, so we can say that Tellez was essentially a one-win player.
An organization like the Brewers, one that constantly searches for the most efficient way to appropriate its financial resources, could have non-tendered Tellez, repurposed the money that would have otherwise gone toward his projected $5 million salary, and searched for an upgrade at first base.
Speculation arose that the Brewers were preparing to do just that when they added slugging first baseman Jon Singleton to the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 Draft protection deadline. Instead, the tendered Tellez, who still projects as the club’s starter at first.
There’s a reason why the Brewers retained Tellez. The ingredients are in place for the 27-year-old to have an explosive 2023 season at the plate.
As one would expect from a power hitter, Tellez frequently makes loud contact. His 12.9% barrel rate placed him in the 88th percentile and ranked 17th among qualified hitters in 2022.
Most hitters who hit the ball with that much authority also strike out at hefty rates. Of those top 17 hitters in barrel rate, 15 have a strikeout rate above the league average.
Then there’s Tellez, whose 20.2% strikeout rate makes him one of two players in that top 17 to punch out less frequently than the average hitter. The other is Astros star Yordan Alvarez.
18.2% of Tellez’s swings produced hard contact, which puts him in great company with names like Freddie Freeman, Manny Machado, Corey Seager, and Teoscar Hernandez.
Perhaps the closest comparison for Tellez’s blend of barreled balls without big strikeout totals is Mets slugger Pete Alonso, who posted a 12.3% barrel rate, 18.7% strikeout rate, and 78.6% contact rate last season. Alonso hit 40 home runs and slashed .271/.352/.518 (143 wRC+).
That’s an overly-simplistic analysis, so it doesn’t prove definitively that Tellez will turn into Pete Alonso next year. The larger point is that Tellez has a strong foundation that few hitters possess, and those who do are often highly productive.
Why didn’t this unique profile translate into more success for Tellez last season? The primary culprit was abnormally terrible luck on batted balls.
Tellez’s .215 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was the second-lowest among all qualified hitters in 2022. For reference, the league average BABIP was .290, and Tellez’s career BABIP entering the year was .281.
Furthermore, Tellez’s .349 xwOBA (calculated based on Statcast batted ball data) was over 20 points higher than his actual .327 wOBA, providing additional evidence that he deserved a better fate on balls in play.
Positive regression figures to be on Tellez’s side in 2023, and he’ll receive an additional boost from the incoming ban on infield shifts.
Teams shifted against Tellez in 78.4% of his plate appearances last season, and he was one of the top victims of the overshift. Tellez regularly saw an infielder stationed on the grass in short right field.
There’s a reason teams deployed this shift. Look at how many ground balls and line drives Tellez hit into right field that were fielded for outs by an infielder.
That’s a significant number of would-be singles that turned into outs. In September, Sports Info Solutions estimated that Tellez tied for second in baseball with 15 hits lost due to the shift. He likely lost a couple more in the final three weeks of the season as well.
These aren’t soft ground balls that will now be scooped up by an infielder ranging to his left instead of from a stationary position. Tellez’s 44.8% hard hit rate and 90.2 mph average exit velocity on ground balls dwarfed the league averages of 33.3% and 85.7 mph. Infielders won’t have time to reach these balls when starting from standard positioning.
Had Tellez recorded 17 more singles last season, he would have finished with a .251/.334/.493 line, which would represent a 60-point boost in OPS.
Tellez had the ingredients for a breakout season last year. In addition to his strong barrel rate and solid strikeout rate, he refined his eye at the plate. Tellez lowered his chase rate to 31% and increased his walk rate to 10.4%, both career bests.
Unfortunately, a perfect storm of bad luck and perfect positioning derailed his first full season in Milwaukee. Those obstacles will no longer stand in Tellez’s way in 2023. His unique profile will get a chance to shine, and he could easily break out as a big bat in the heart of Milwaukee’s lineup. The Brewers’ starting first baseman stands a good chance of achieving a 130-140 wRC+ next year.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.