Quietly, Spencer Steer just keeps raking

In 2023, there were several players deserving of the fictional Reds MVP award. TJ Friedl nearly had a 20-20 season and played a superb center field. Matt McLain was the first of the heralded prospects to arrive and never stopped hitting until an oblique injury cut his season short in September. Andrew Abbott kept the starting rotation afloat in the middle of the season while pitcher after pitcher went down with injury.

But if you took a poll of Reds fans, the most popular answer might have been the quiet, do-it-all Spencer Steer. And he’s making an early case for a repeat in 2024.

Last year, Steer was rarely the star of the show, overshadowed by his rookie peers. McLain was the talk of the town when he was called up in May. Elly De La Cruz took the baseball world by storm in June. Will Benson went nuclear for a couple of months. Christian Encarnacion-Strand arrived in July, and Noelvi Marte was next up in August.

But Steer was the consistent presence in the Reds’ lineup throughout the season, the steadying force on a team that looked much different by the end of the season than it did on Opening Day. Steer led the Reds in games played (156) by a fairly wide margin, bouncing all over the diamond — and doing so willingly — as the prospects got called to the major leagues one by one. He began the season as the starter at third base, had a stint as the starting first baseman from May to mid-June, got bumped to the left field (where he’d never played) when Joey Votto returned from injury, and filled in at second base in September when McLain hurt his oblique.

All the while, Steer didn’t skip a beat offensively. He wasn’t elite at any one thing, but he was above average at pretty much everything — as his .271/.356/.464 slash line demonstrates — and he never seemed to go into any sort of extended slump. By wRC+, Steer’s offensive production was 18% better than league average. Since 1950, only four other Reds with at least 500 plate appearances had a better wRC+ in their rookie seasons: Frank Robinson (1956), Vada Pinson (1959), Joey Votto (2008), and Jonathan India (2021).

Steer is off to a sizzling start in 2024 as well, earning NL Player of the Week honors last week. What makes him such a solid hitter? Let’s take a closer look.


Although he isn’t an exit velocity darling, Steer certainly has power. He smacked 63 extra-base hits last season, including 23 home runs. His .192 isolated power (ISO) was well above league average (.166) and ranked 11th among rookies with at least 300 plate appearances last season.

But Steer’s production is rooted in plate discipline, which is particularly impressive for a young player. Among qualified rookies, he ranked 8th in chase rate at 23.9% (78th percentile overall) and 12th in walk rate at 10.2% (72nd percentile). In fact, Steer generated much of his value by laying off pitches outside the strike zone better than his peers.

Statcast’s swing/take tool assigns a run value for every pitch a batter sees. Run values are based on how each pitch affects a team’s run expectancy, taking into account factors such as the count, number of outs, and bases occupied. Laying off a pitch out of the zone moves a hitter into a more favorable count or gets them to first base, helping a team’s run expectancy. Swinging at such a pitch will usually hurt a team’s run expectancy. You can read more about swing/take run value from sabermetrician Tom Tango, if you’re interested.

Here’s Steer’s swing/take chart from last season:

With his patient approach, Steer added a net total of 26 runs on pitches in the “chase” (yellow) or “waste” (gray) parts of the zone. Steer was particularly skilled at laying off “chase” pitches, which are often thrown deliberately off the plate to elicit whiffs or poor contact. The league swung at these pitches 23% of the time; Steer’s swing rate was just 19%.

Now, you may wonder why Steer had a -7 run value on pitches in the heart of the plate.

Make no mistake, Steer wasn’t a slouch on pitches thrown down the middle. Because he’s selective with the pitches he swings at, he often does damage when he pulls the trigger. When swinging at pitches in the heart of the plate, he produced +6 run value added, slugged 16 of his 23 home runs, and had a healthy .379 xwOBA. “Swinging” is the key word there, however.

Part of the reason for the negative value is that Steer was a little too passive on hittable pitches at times. He swung at 68% of pitches in the heart of the plate, a bit below league average (73%). As a result, he logged -14 run value by taking these pitches — which are always (or at least should be) strikes — more than the average hitter. The other part of the explanation is simple: throwing pitches in the heart of the plate to Steer doesn’t mean certain death the way it does when throwing meatballs to Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, Ronald Acuña Jr., or other elite hitters.

Overall, though, Steer’s patience is indisputably a net positive. He had a +19 batting run value for the season, which ranked in the 82nd percentile.

Few weak spots

Most hitters have some form of kryptonite at the plate. Maybe it’s high velocity or sliders low and away. For some players, trouble with certain types of pitches can limit their production and their ceiling as MLB hitters. Those who can learn to recognize and handle various pitch types are more likely to become successful hitters. Steer falls in the latter category.

Against all three pitch groups — fastballs, breaking balls, and off-speed pitches — Steer was above average last year. Not only did Steer swing and miss less than the average hitter at all types of pitches, but he produced results regardless of what he was thrown.

Steer can certainly handle a fastball, but what really stands out is his production against breaking and off-speed pitches relative to the league. He ranked in the top 20 in run value added against breaking pitches last year. Some of the names immediately behind him: Yordan Alvarez (21st), Corbin Carroll (23rd), and Julio Rodriguez (24th). While run value is more descriptive of past performance than predictive of future performance, it’s an indicator of Steer’s skill at the plate.

Because Steer is better than average against breaking and off-speed pitches, it probably doesn’t surprise you that he’s a good low-ball hitter. We’ll use Statcast’s attack zones as a guide:

In zones 7-9 and 17-19, Steer produced +8.7 run value last season, putting him in some impressive company atop the MLB leaderboard.

  1. Mookie Betts (+21.1)
  2. Nolan Jones (+14.9)
  3. Ronald Acuna Jr. (+14.8)
  4. Yandy Diaz (+14.4)
  5. Danny Jansen (+11.8)
  6. Yordan Alvarez (+11.3)
  7. Kyle Tucker (+11.3)
  8. Brandon Marsh (+10.8)
  9. Spencer Steer (+8.7)

While run value leaves room for luck to be involved, expected stats like xwOBA can help isolate true skill by accounting for quality of contact and patience at the plate (walks). Steer also graded well by this measure. He had a strong .346 xwOBA against pitches down in the zone — not quite in elite status but solidly above league average (.304).

Of course, Steer is by no means infallible against every pitch thrown at him. And sure, regression may happen, but he’d still be comfortably above average overall even if his production fell toward his expected metrics. If we want to nitpick on specific pitch types, Steer had some trouble with sinkers last year (-7.2 run value) as well as four-seam fastballs up in the zone (37.5% whiff rate). But to get to the larger point: being able to hold his own, if not excel, against most types of pitches is impressive — and it’s key to Steer’s success.

Keeping the momentum rolling

With Friedl, McLain, and Marte unavailable to begin the 2024 season, the Reds have needed others to step up and carry a bigger load offensively. Steer has answered the call and picked up right where he left off in 2023. Through 12 games, he’s been the Reds’ best hitter and overall player. His 231 wRC+ trails only Tyler O’Neill (274) and Mookie Betts (246) for the MLB lead. Steer has already been worth 0.9 fWAR, per FanGraphs, trailing only Mookie Betts (1.5), Anthony Volpe (1.0), Mike Trout (1.0), and Juan Soto (1.0). The 26-year-old is hitting .372/.471/.721 through his first 51 plate appearances, and while he obviously won’t maintain that pace all season, the same elements that brought him success in 2023 are still on display.

Patience? Check. His chase rate (27.0%) and walk rate (11.8%) are in line with his 2023 marks, and he’s even dropped his strikeout rate (13.7%), too. Although it’s still early and the data hasn’t yet stabilized, it’s worth noting that Steer is also swinging at more pitches he can hit and continuing to lay off those he can’t.

Handling all types of pitches? Check. When he does swing, Steer is smashing practically everything pitchers throw at him — particularly fastballs.

Steer currently has a 55.6% hard-hit rate (37.1% in 2023), placing him in the 92nd percentile. It remains to be seen if he can maintain those improvements in contact quality. We are still firmly in “small sample size” season, less than two weeks removed from Opening Day. But Steer has such a solid skill set that it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think he could tap into another level.

What about the defense?

The only blemish on Steer’s rookie season was his defense. He ranked in the 1st percentile in fielding run value with -17 outs above average (OAA), ranking as a below-average defender at every position he played. It cost him a full win above replacement, per Baseball Reference. Still, it was difficult to fault him too much, given that he didn’t have an established position and played multiple spots (left and right field) where he had no prior experience. If he can be even average in left field in 2024, it only increases his value.

So far, the early results are promising, even if it’s far too early to conduct any meaningful analysis. From the eye test, Steer looks to be more comfortable in left field this year. Per Statcast, the expected catch percentage on balls hit to Steer this season is 91%. His success rate is also 91%. He hasn’t been asked to make a lot of challenging plays yet, but he’s making the plays he should. If that continues, it’s a success for someone who had never played outfield at this time a year ago.

The bottom line

It’s still too early in the 2024 season to tell how things ultimately unfold for Steer. But to begin the year, he’s picking up right where he left off in 2024 and not giving any reason to believe his stellar rookie campaign was a fluke. Even if he isn’t as flashy as De La Cruz, Steer’s well-rounded approach gives him a high floor and allows him to be a steadying presence in the lineup. For a Reds team missing three key contributors and getting little production from two middle-of-the-order bats (Jeimer Candelario and Christian Encarancion-Strand) so far, Steer’s hot start has been especially critical.

Now, if we can just move him up from seventh in the lineup against right-handed pitchers…

Featured Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wilkes

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 Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

1 Response

  1. Asher W says:

    Excellent piece Matt, thank you! Nothing better than when a player’s early success is backed up by the underlying metrics.