by Matt Wilkes

What to make of Aristides Aquino heading into 2020

Aristides Aquino took Major League Baseball by storm last August. Little more than an afterthought before the 2019 season, The Punisher put up a monster season in Triple-A behind a new, wide-open batting stance. The 25-year-old hit .299/.356/.636 with 28 home runs in just 323 plate appearances in Louisville, prompting the Reds to promote him on August 1. That carried over to the big leagues, where he hit .321/.391/.767 in August and an all-time record 15 home runs in his first 122 plate appearances. Aquino, quite frankly, became the reason to watch the Reds as they fell out of playoff contention.

Of course, there was no possible way he would keep up that Player of the Month pace. As well as Aquino hit the ball in August, he was equally bad in September, slashing .196/.236/.382. Call it end-of-season fatigue. Call it a slump. Whatever terminology you use, it cast doubt about what Aquino could be moving forward.

Still, he put himself in the conversation as a key cog for the Reds moving forward. He could play a vital role in the team’s success, or lack thereof, in 2020. What can we glean about his game as he heads into his first full year as a major-leaguer? Let’s look at the pros and cons of Aquino’s game.

The Pros

Power has always been the focal point of Aquino’s game. In nine professional seasons, he’s tallied 143 home runs, culminating in a combined 47 bombs between Triple-A and MLB in 2019. Juiced ball or not, the power is very real — and Statcast further demonstrates it.

August 8 was when Aquino really burst on the scene, demolishing a 445-foot home run that left the bat at a blistering 118.3 mph. Only two players (Giancarlo Stanton and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) hit a ball harder last year, and no one hit a harder home run. Since 2015, the first year of Statcast, there have only been 55 balls hit at least 118 mph and just 16 players have done it.

His overall average exit velocity wasn’t quite as high as expected at 87.9 — more on that later — but that was still above league average (87.5). As the mammoth home run above shows, though, when he connects, he really connects. A whopping 13.6% of his batted balls were barrels, placing him 32nd among 478 batters who put at least 50 balls in play. (Reminder: Check out our Stat Glossary if you’re not sure what a barrel, or any of the other stat we use, is!)

Aquino also rated above average in hard-hit rate (39.0%), launch angle (18.2º), expected slugging percentage (.501), and xwOBA on contact (.431). It’s reasonable to think Aquino can easily hit the 30 home-run mark if he’s given 500 plate appearances in 2020.

Defensively, Aquino more than held his own in right field. Using his long legs and 89th percentile sprint speed (28.7 feet per second), he gets nearly a foot more jump than the average outfielder.He was worth 4 Outs Above Average in 464 innings, a strong showing in limited action. Aquino rated favorably in Defensive Runs Saved (3), as well, though he was slightly below average per UZR/150 (-1.4). Defensive metrics aren’t always reliable in such a small sample, but the early returns are encouraging.

The right-fielder also has elite arm strength. He had the hardest throw by an outfielder all season, a 101.5 mph laser on the same day he hit a 118-mph home run. Aquino was worth 3 outfield arm runs per FanGraphs, a metric that credits fielders for their ability throw out runners and keep them from advancing a base compared to the average outfielder.

Aquino’s borderline-elite speed pays dividends on the basepaths, too. While he’s not a 30-30 threat, he can steal a base when needed. Between Louisville and Cincinnati, he was successful on 12 of 13 stolen base attempts in 2020 (7 for 7 with the Reds).

The Glaring Con

Now, we get to the biggest flaw in Aquino’s game, and the one that held him back from being a highly touted prospect coming through the minor leagues: plate discipline. Despite his 2019 breakout, he did little to quell those concerns. Sure, he seemingly didn’t miss when pitchers made mistakes over the heart of the plate, but the at-times overaggressive approach and whiffs didn’t disappear.

Aquino put up a respectable 8.9% walk rate in his first two professional seasons as a teenager. Since then, he’s managed a 6.4% rate across all levels, though he has improved it slightly since 2016. He sat at 7.1% in 2019, which was quite a bit below league average (8.5%). It comes as no surprise that the 6-foot-4 slugger also strikes out a lot, and the issue has worsened since he hit Double-A in 2017. Over the last three seasons, he’s struck out in 26.6% of his plate appearances.

Not only is there a lot of swing and miss in Aquino’s game, but there’s also a struggle to lay off pitches outside the strike zone. Among 360 batters who hit the 200 plate appearance threshold in 2019, only 18 swung more often than Aquino (55.7% swing rate). Without strong contact ability, that level of aggressiveness is sometimes problematic. Case in point: Aquino swung at 38.8% of pitches he saw outside the strike zone (per Statcast), significantly above league average (28.8%). He also missed on 35.5% of his swings, also well above the league average (25.7%).

The league caught on quickly, throwing Aquino fewer and fewer hittable pitches. In September, 61.5% of the pitches he saw were outside the zone — no hitter in baseball saw fewer strikes (min. 300 pitches faced).

The graphic below shows Aquino’s swing tendencies compared to the rest of the league’s right-handed hitters:

Aquino tends to swing more than average hitter in, well, just about every part of the zone. The amount of red outside the green box, however, is the most troubling aspect. Aquino chases an unusual rate of pitches inside, low, and outside.

He also tends to offer at strikes that he can’t do much with — note the astronomical rate of swings on the edges of the zone. Swinging at all those pitches means weak contact when he does connect, hence why his average exit velocity didn’t jump off the page despite his strength and periodic eye-popping readings. His exit velocities in various parts of the zone exemplify this:

The next graphic shows Aquino’s whiff rate (percentage of misses on all swings) in every area of the zone:

There are further interesting trends here. Compared to the rest of the league, Aquino really struggles to connect with pitches high in the zone and has significant issues in one particular area — low and away — that is perhaps a result of his extremely open stance.

It’s unlikely that Aquino is going to transform into Joey Votto or even Jesse Winker in terms of plate discipline. But he needs to tone down the aggressiveness and lay off pitches he can’t make solid contact with if he’s going to become an impact, everyday starter for the Reds.

Aquino’s 2020 outlook

Among Reds outfielders, Aquino arguably has the highest ceiling. However, he probably has the lowest floor, too. His big-league performance in 2019 showed that, and it’s why he was regarded as more of a No. 10 prospect instead of a No. 1 prospect. It’s why it took him nine years to make it to the major leagues and why the Reds didn’t want to give up on him.

The bottom line: it makes Aquino tough to count on heading into 2020. If he can be half the player he was in August, he’s a difference-maker who helps put the Reds in playoff contention. If the September Aquino shows up for large stretches, he becomes a liability. The Punisher certainly showed enough to deserve a long look. He’s not, however, someone the Reds can heavily depend upon as a staple of their lineup. That’s a significant reason why the front office signed Shogo Akiyama and an argument against trading from the surplus of Winker, Nick Senzel, and Phillip Ervin. Should Aquino falter, the club will need to fall back on its depth. Should Aquino become not even a star but a dependable everyday player, the Reds will have a stew goin’.

Matt Wilkes got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

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Buddy Cushman
9 months ago

Good article. Pretty good puzzle to wonder about.

Mark Moore
Mark Moore
9 months ago

I’d say if he can be coached into playing off more garbage, he’ll produce for us. Only time will tell. He is fun to watch.

Brian P Van Hook
Brian P Van Hook
9 months ago

Great work! It also explains the apparent desire to acquire another outfield bat, so there is only one outfield question mark heading into the season — or none if Shogo is an everyday player. Kinda depends on how serious the Reds are about perhaps trading Senzel.

Jefferson Green
Jefferson Green
9 months ago

Great stuff, Matt. It seems like very few players improve their plate discipline after being such a free swinger, and those heat maps look wild. Do you have a sense of how much change he has to make to become effective? Are there any studies that show how often a player makes the leap?

9 months ago

Interesting points. One change you might want to make: Aquino is heading into his first full season at the major league level NOT “his first full year as a professional”.

9 months ago

Really nice article! I wonder what the chances are that Aquino can improve his plate discipline. With some improvement in that area, he’s really the prototypical RF: arm strength, defense, speed and power. Another plus with Aquino in 2019 was that his splits between LHP and RHP were pretty narrow. I tend to agree, he’s the highest ceiling player in our OF (perhaps of all the hitters), but also the lowest floor. He does have an option remaining if the Reds feel he can improve his plate discipline with additional live reps.

R Smith
R Smith
9 months ago

Great article Matt. It seems Aquino has done too much to not be in RF as a regular part timer and bat bench. Going to Louisville serves no purpose except as a last resort.

With Senzel ‘s shoulder , I’d imagine Bell will rotate early and given Shogo’s versatility.