Two years ago, Matt McLain was wearing a UCLA uniform, leading the Bruins to the Pac-12 championship. Two months later, he would be drafted in the first round by the Reds, signing for $4.625 million, well over slot value. McLain blitzed through the Reds minor league system, put up gigantic numbers at Louisville this spring, and forced his way onto the Reds sleepy roster.
Two weeks ago, news broke that the Reds were promoting McLain from Triple-A to the major league club. Indeed, the 23-year-old debuted that Monday night at Coors Field. McLain’s first big-league hit came in his second at bat.
It was noteworthy. He lined a Connor Seabold fastball into left center. Instead of settling for a routine single, the young shortstop didn’t stop. Matt McLain beat the throw into second with a head-first slide, announcing his arrival to Major League Baseball and injecting his aggressive style into our veins.
Now, as we bask in the glow of the series sweep in Chicago, let’s pause for a good look at the two weeks that followed McLain’s audacious play.
Playing Time Dynamics
The Reds have played 13 games since they called up Matt McLain. He’s started all but one. So far, McLain has been assigned only shortstop, despite his playing more than a dozen games at second base for Louisville this year.
McLain’s playing time has come at the expense of 25-year-old Jose Barrero and 29-year-old Kevin Newman. Since McLain’s call up, Newman has started six games, four at second base and the rest at third. He’s been used as a pinch hitter or pinch runner three times. Barrero did play shortstop on McLain’s day off, but otherwise started six times in center field.
Another way to describe this category is “hitting for average” so the primary measure is simply a player’s batting average (BA). Matt McLain is batting .380 over 57 plate appearances. He not only leads the Reds in that category, but .380 would have won the Major League batting title — in either league — just about any season since Ted Williams. The league’s BA has been around .245 for a few years. Safe to say, Matt McLain has hit for a great average.
Part of that is talent. McLain has a line drive rate of 32.4%, which would be the highest in the Majors if he had enough at bats to qualify. McLain’s contact rate has been 82%, which is quite a bit above the league average of 76%.
But a healthy part of McLain’s hit-skill success has been due to luck. A quick way to see that is checking his “expected batting average” (xBA) which measures what a player’s batting average would be with typical results of his actual contact quality. McLain’s xBA is .284, about 100 points below his BA, but still 40 points above league average.
Likewise, McLain’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .531. To give you an idea of how astronomical (and unsustainable) that number is, the highest BABIP in baseball in 2022 was .368 by National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt. While there are solid reasons Matt McLain could maintain a BABIP higher than average — he’s been a line-drive machine, hits to the opposite field and has good speed — McLain is almost certainly 150 points over his ultimate level. Even during his scintillating Triple-A stretch this spring, McLain’s BABIP was .387.
The old-school five-tool kit was comprised of (1) hitting for average, (2) hitting for power, (3) speed, (4) defense and (5) arm strength. Thanks to Moneyball, we now understand that the ability to get on base is also a baseball superpower. On-base prowess is more than hitting for average. Walks play a crucial role in run creation, both in putting a runner on base but also advancing runners ahead of him.
The average MLB walk-rate is 8.8%. So far, Matt McLain has walked in 10.5% of his plate appearances. Altogether, that produces an on-base percentage of .456, which is Bryce Harper/Aaron Judge territory.
Let’s look at McLain’s plate discipline numbers. Plate discipline, for the most part, means not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. It’s a big factor in on-base skills but also in hitting for average and power. Players have much better average and power numbers when they hit balls in the strike zone.
The average Major League player swings at 28% of the pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%). Joey Votto, known as one of the best eyes in baseball, has a career O-Swing% of 22%. At the other extreme, Nick Castellanos’ career O-Swing% is 38%. Matt McLain’s O-Swing% is 25.6. His overall swing rate (41%) is a few points below league average (48%). He’s not swing-happy and will take a walk.
Hitting for Power
The stat Isolated Power (ISO) tells us how often a batter hits for extra bases as opposed to singles. ISO is weighted, so home runs count more than doubles. It’s a much better measure of raw power than slugging percentage, which includes singles. League average ISO is .161. Top power hitters have an ISO of .240+. Last season, Aaron Judge had a .375 ISO, which was 69 points higher than second best.
Matt McLain’s ISO so far is .220. McLain sprays line drives all over the field which, combined with his speed, produces more doubles than usual. He’s hit two home runs. One of which was this 358-foot fly ball that got an assist into the stands from Oscar Mercado.
Per Baseball Savant, that ball goes for a hit 29 percent of the time. It’s a homer in three parks.
Yes, Statcast does calculate xISO — expected ISO based on actual quality of contact — and Matt McLain’s has been .148 so far. That’s just a bit below league average. Maybe there’s more power to come. He did hit 12 homers in 173 plate appearances (.362 ISO!) for Louisville in 2023.
As for average exit velocity (EV), McLain comes in at 87.7 mph with the league average at 88.4 mph.
The two composite run-creation metrics we look at are wRC+ and xwOBA. Both are weighted (hence the shared “w”) so that doubles count more than singles, etc. Both include walks and strikeouts. The difference is that wRC+ uses scorebook outcomes, where xwOBA uses typical outcomes based on quality of contact.
Each measure has value. Just understand the difference. McLain’s fly ball that became a home run is a good example to demonstrate the variance. wRC+ treats it as it shows up in the scorebook, as a home run. For xwOBA, it’s a fly ball out (mostly).
In other words, wRC+ shows what Matt McLain has produced on the field. xwOBA shows what he would have produced basing it on contact quality.
League average wRC+ is always 100 by formula. Matt McLain’s wRC+ is 182. That means he’s produced runs at a rate 82% better than the average big league player. He leads all Reds in that category. Jonathan India is second at 117. For added perspective, when Joey Votto won the MVP in 2010 his wRC+ was 172.
League average xwOBA is .315. Matt McLain’s xwOBA is .356 — about ten percent better than league average.
Many people think of “base running” as just stolen bases. In fact, stolen bases are seldom an important factor in a player’s base running value. The success rate for stolen bases has to be 75% to be net positive. With each caught stealing (CS) the team loses a base runner and gains an out. Even the best base stealers have a success rate close to 75%. Rickey Henderson had an 81% success rate. Billy Hamilton is at 82%. The value added from the stolen base column is marginal.
Base stealing wasn’t a huge part of Matt McLain’s game in college. His senior year, he had nine (one CS) to go along with nine home runs. But with the Red minor league affiliates, he began to steal more often. In 2022, he swiped 27 bases (three CS). In 38 games this year at Triple-A he stole 10 (five CS).
Two weeks into his big league career, McLain has one successful stolen base. He’s been caught once.
But as Matt Wilkes explained in his post here last week, beyond stolen bases, we have other metrics that look more broadly at base running. Matt McLain scores well in most of them.
- 60% extra-base taken (league average 42%)
- 29.1 mph sprint speed (top 7%)
- 0.3 RAA (Ultimate Base Running FanGraphs)
McLain’s speed and aggressiveness should continue to be an asset. He’s already beaten out one routine grounder for an infield hit. We’ve witnessed him stretch singles into doubles. McLain has scored 13 runs in 12 games, a pace that would put him at the top of the league over the course of a season. Jonathan India hitting home runs behind McLain helps that. So does Matt McLain’s speed.
No matter the measure, Matt McLain has been great at shortstop, confirming what our eyes have told us.
- Outs Above Average (StatCast): +2
- Defensive Runs Saved: +1
- UZR/150: +1.8
- Errors: Zero
By comparison, Newman and Barrero were in negative numbers at shortstop, except for errors.
We’re looking at two weeks of data. It doesn’t project McLain’s future. It shows what he’s done. Beyond that, these numbers can fluctuate game-by-game like an EKG and his four hits yesterday provided a big boost. So yes, we’re riding a wave.
Matt McLain won’t keep this up. He isn’t going to hit .380, have a .220 ISO or produce runs 80% more than average. He’s had two exceptional weeks. We hope he keeps the pace up as long as possible. But the challenge with spending time in the stratosphere is holding your breath. Eventually, Matt McLain will exhale.
But that’s OK.
McLain has been thrilling. He’s hit the ball hard all over the field. He’s been rock solid, even flashy when necessary, at shortstop. He’s aggressive and fast on the base paths. He’s sparked the Reds offense. The team’s xwOBA has jumped from .299 to .322 with the young Californian in the clubhouse.
Long term, if Matt McLain can maintain a better than average batting average and on-base percentage, with average power, combined with his other attributes, that’s significant value added.
To be sure, Elly De La Cruz is the guy slugging baseballs that bang around parking lots and echo through the corridors of the Reds front office. But it’s beginning to look like Matt McLain could be an important part of the next good Reds team.
Let’s re-visit McLain’s first big league hit. For hungry and hopeful Reds fans, that daring hustle double represented more than an introduction to the player. It offered a glimpse. A leading edge, perhaps, of an organization poised to enter a new, more successful era.
Image: Reds Facebook