Fresh off his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2022, a season in which the Reds finished just outside the playoffs (83-79), Jonathan India was surely hoping to build off that success in his sophomore season.
Then, the bomb dropped. After making several other cost-cutting moves during the offseason, the Reds traded Eugenio Suárez and Jesse Winker almost immediately after the owner lockout was lifted last March. Fans were shocked, and so were the players. In the aftermath, India provided insight into the damage the moves did to clubhouse morale.
Per the Enquirer’s Bobby Nightengale and Charlie Goldsmith:
“I think most of the guys in here are frustrated, but hey, it’s a business. Now I’m seeing stuff like this, it’s really sad.”
That spiraled into a 3-22 start and the second 100-loss season in franchise history. Making matters worse, the few franchise cornerstones left behind all had disappointing years, including India. He dealt with a nagging hamstring injury for much of the season, although he still managed to play in 103 games. When he was on the field, he looked like a shell of his 2021 self — the one who got on base at will and tapped into some surprising power down the stretch to run away with the NL Rookie of the Year award.
In 2022, India’s wRC+ cratered from 120 to 95. His walk rate dropped from 11.3% to 7.2%. His batting average fell by 20 points, his on-base percentage by nearly 50 points, his slugging percentage by 80 points, and his wOBA by nearly 60 points. His batted-ball data — exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xwOBA, and more — also decreased dramatically. His sprint speed fell by nearly a foot per second. His defense at second base worsened. There were few areas where India didn’t decline.
Injuries played a major role. India strained his right hamstring on April 14, just a week into the season. He returned to the field 10 days later and promptly reinjured his hamstring. After missing more than a month, India returned in June and played the rest of the season, but he was never fully healthy. Making matters worse, he was hit in the leg during the Field of Dreams game on August and later hospitalized due to extreme swelling.
As he showed signs of returning to his Rookie of the Year form late in the year, India admitted to feeling pressure to perform after the 2021 roster was dismantled. From MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon:
“To be honest with you, I was trying to make up for a lot of guys that we lost. We lost a lot of big-time bats in our lineup. I started thinking the spotlight was on me to do the damage and do more of it. We’re missing Castellanos, Winker, Suárez, all these guys that do damage in the lineup. They weren’t there, so I was like, ‘I’ve got to pick up the slack a little, hit for more power.’ It got me in trouble. Now I’m just getting back to my game, hitting the ball hard wherever it’s pitched.”
A perfect storm of events conspired to create a forgettable follow-up to a fantastic first year. Early in 2023, though, India’s rookie form has reappeared.
Revisiting India’s rookie year and sophomore slump
India’s rookie campaign can be neatly divided into three segments, as Steve Mancuso pointed out a year-and-a-half ago.
The early part of 2021 was a struggle as India found his footing at the big-league level after never playing at Triple-A. Most of his offensive value came from his patience at the plate and drawing walks.
When he was moved to the leadoff spot in June, his production began to take off. The walks ticked up even more, and he started to hit the ball with authority. A mid-July adjustment helped him lift and pull the ball more, resulting in 15 home runs (but a dip in walk rate) after the All-Star break.
Here’s the breakdown in production from India’s rookie season:
India believed he could hit for even more power in 2022 and added weight during the offseason. As outlined earlier in the post, it didn’t work and his production fell across the board.
The ingredients that went into India’s breakout simply weren’t there in his second season.
India mostly maintained the increase in launch angle, but not in pull rate. When he was putting the ball in the air, it was often weak contact.
More concerning, his batted-ball data also fell off a cliff:
- 2021: 87.6 mph EV, 38.6% hard-hit rate, 9.6% barrel rate, .254 xBA, .436 xSLG, .352 xwOBA
- 2022: 85.1 mph EV, 28.8% hard-hit rate, 4.8% barrel rate, .238 xBA, .353 xSLG, .301 xwOBA
All of those 2022 metrics were in the bottom 32% of the league or worse. The average exit velocity and hard-hit rate were in the bottom 5%.
Most concerning was that his patience at the plate dissipated, too. Through August, he had a dismal 5.8% walk rate that ranked in the 10th percentile in baseball — perhaps the starkest contrast from 2021, when he ranked in the 81st percentile. His chase rate also increased (26.4%) from his rookie year (21.9%), although it was still above average.
As the season moved along, though, India did show gradual signs of getting back toward his patient approach from 2021.
Not only was he swinging less and less as the year went by, but by September — as the Reds season was coming to a merciful end and most Cincinnati fans turned their attention to football — India was back to drawing walks at an above-average rate.
The lack of power from India could be explained by not having his legs underneath him. But his plate discipline, not his power, was always his calling card. As he limped to the finish line (literally), it was a ray of hope for India heading into the 2023 season.
And so far, it has carried over in a big way.
India’s sizzling start to 2023
India has started all 24 games for the Reds this season, batting in the leadoff spot in each and every one. The 26-year-old has been a sparkplug atop the Cincinnati lineup — just like he was in his rookie year — hitting .287/.390/.414 with a wRC+ (118) that is 23% higher than last season. India has already tallied 21 runs, which was tied for the MLB lead heading into Tuesday’s games. One in every five runs by the Reds this season have been scored by India. No player in baseball has scored a higher percentage of their team’s runs.
You can’t score runs without getting on base, and India is doing that on a regular basis again. India has reached base in all but three games and gotten on base multiple times in 15 games. Among all MLB hitters, only Ronald Acuña Jr. has had more games with multiple times on base (19) in 2023. India’s 12.4% walk rate is outpacing his 2022 output (11.3%), putting him in the 70th percentile; his chase rate has dropped from 24.5% last year to 21.2% (84th percentile). India has also cut down his strikeout and whiff rates significantly, ranking in the 81st and 89th percentiles, respectively.
Not only is India making more contact, but his renewed selectiveness is translating to pitches inside the zone, too. Last year, India had a poor walk rate despite a low chase rate because he was swinging at more pitches early in counts. He saw 4.03 pitches per plate appearance as opposed to 4.19 in his rookie year. This year, he’s seeing more pitches again (4.23 per PA).
He’s also doing a better job at waiting for pitches to hit up in the zone and laying off low-and-away offerings. Compare his 2022 swing heatmap (left) to 2023 so far (right):
Let’s use the Statcast graphic below to put some numbers behind India’s selectiveness:
Here are India’s swing rates by zone by year:
India is being more aggressive on pitches over the heart of the plate, and he’s swinging less at pitches on the edges and off the plate. By waiting for pitches he can hit, he’s making more authoritative contact than he did a year ago (having healthy legs plays a huge role in that, too). His average exit velocity is 90.5 mph (68th percentile), while his hard-hit rate is 43.1% (64th). Both marks are notably better than his rookie year numbers, even when he starting hitting for more pop. India’s expected metrics, based on exit velocity and launch angle, mostly back up his 2023 production as well.
- .261 xBA (actual BA: .287)
- .401 xSLG (actual SLG: .414)
- .349 xwOBA (actual wOBA: .359)
The one thing missing from India’s offensive game compared to his rookie season is power. The gap-to-gap power is still there, as India already has eight doubles, halfway to his 2022 total before the first month of the season is over. But he’s hit just one home run, and his isolated power (ISO) is slightly lower than it was last season (.126 vs. .130).
India is pulling the ball at a 44.4% clip, well above the average MLB hitter (38.6%), although that’s well below the 56% he put up in the second half of 2021. His swing path has resulted in more low line drives than flyballs so far. He’s dropped his average launch angle from 14.5 to 12.9 degrees, and his line-drive rate has jumped from 23.6% to 30.6%, ranking him in the top 15 of all qualified MLB hitters. That helps explain his low barrel rate (4.2%, 23rd percentile) despite promising batted-ball data overall.
You can hardly blame India for not wanting to force the issue; his goal of hitting for more power last season got him into bad habits, potentially got him hurt, and didn’t produce results. If he continues with a quality approach, though, the homers should come in time. The fact that he’s performed 18% better than the league-average hitter despite not finding his home-run swing yet is a testament to his outstanding plate discipline thus far.
Early in the season, India has re-established himself as the patient table-setter at the top of the Reds’ lineup. If we’re comparing his 2023 start to his rookie year, India is currently in segment two of that 2021 season: he’s getting on base a ton and hitting the ball hard, but he isn’t sending it over the fence — yet. The good news is that he was just as productive in that second segment of his rookie year (.383 wOBA, .371 xwOBA) as he was in the third, power-hitting one (.369 wOBA, .367 xwOBA). Both versions of India are great hitters. Which one will he be in the long run? We should have a better idea as this year unfolds.
Of course, the season is still young and the sample size is small — you know the drill. A few rough games could bring his average exit velocity or walk rate from good to mediocre. But so far, India has shaken off a rough 2022 and shown that 2021 is a better representation of who he is as a hitter. And that is fantastic news for the Reds.
Featured photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire
Only on the Reds could a .287 BA constitute a “sizzling start”. Seriously, I love the fantastic analysis and the deep dive into advanced stats, but this is simply a matter of the best player on one of the worst team 2-3 teams in MLB. India is the only Reds player who could start for a handful of other MLB teams
Thanks for reading.