Rowdy Tellez Is Absolutely Mashing
It’s been far too long since we celebrated Rowdy Tellez. We ought to be toasting the achievements and the moniker of the Brewers’ burly first baseman on a routine basis, as they testify to the extent to which skilled ballplayers comes in all shapes and sizes, and if anyone wants to convene a parade towards that end, I’m happy to volunteer my services as grand marshal. With the 27-year-old slugger in the midst of a superlative week that’s placed him among more familiar names on the leaderboards, it’s high time to check in on ol’ Rowdy.
In the midst of a six-game onslaught during which the Brewers pounded 20 homers and scored 54 runs against the Cubs and Reds, on Wednesday, Tellez put together the biggest game of a career that’s spanned parts of five seasons, going 4-for-6 with a double, two homers, and eight RBIs. To be fair it came against a Cincinnati squad that took the opportunity to allow a season-high 18 runs while losing their eighth straight game and 19th out of 20, and against pitchers of questionable quality even within that context. After collecting a first-inning single off Vladimir Gutierrez, Tellez crushed a grand slam off him in the third, one with a projected distance of 453 feet; the drubbing helped push the Cincinnati righty’s ERA to 8.86. In the sixth inning, Tellez added a 431-foot two-run homer off rookie reliever Dauri Moreta (ERA: 5.11), and in the eighth, he added a bases-loaded double against position player Matt Reynolds:
Elsewhere in the series with the Reds, on Tuesday Tellez shook off a trio of strikeouts with an eighth-inning solo homer off Phillip Diehl (ERA: 9.00), and on Thursday, he collected a pair of doubles off Hunter Greene (ERA: 8.71). During the preceding series with the Cubs last weekend, Tellez added a double off Kyle Hendricks (ERA: 4.77) on Friday, and then an RBI single off Justin Steele (ERA: 5.50) and a two-run homer off Michael Rucker (ERA: 3.60, but a career 6.10 mark) on Saturday:
That’s eight extra-base hits in a six-game span, a run that recalls Tellez’s September 2018 debut with the Blue Jays, when he set a record by collecting seven extra-base hits over his first four major league games. The outburst has helped Tellez turn the page on a 2-for-20 skid against the Phillies, Giants, and Pirates, and lifted him to a .275/.341/.625 line. He’s second in the NL in isolated power (.350), tied for third in homers (seven), fifth in slugging percentage, and eighth in wRC+ (170). As always in May, we’re talking about small samples, though measures such as swing rate, strikeout rate, and exit velocity have reached the point of stabilizing.
This is the latest peak in what’s been something of a rollercoaster career for Tellez, a former 30th-round pick (real name: Ryan John Tellez) out of a Sacramento-area high school who acquired the nickname Rowdy for his thrashing around while still in his mother’s womb. Tellez burst on the scene in late 2018 with his incredible nickname, husky physique (listed as 6-foot-4, 245 pounds at the time), and a tear-jerking back story, as his mother died of brain cancer just two weeks before he reached the majors. Taking advantage of the Blue Jays’ controversial decision not to promote Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in September, he hit for a 151 wRC+ with four homers in 73 PA.
Amid the youth movement that brought Guerrero, Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio to the majors, Tellez saw regular duty in 2019, but scuffled, hitting just .227/.293/.449 (91 wRC+) in 409 PA. He shuffled off to Triple-A Buffalo for a month in mid-July, and finished the year with -0.3 WAR. He later admitted that his difficulty in processing his emotions in the wake of his mother’s death affected his play, and sought counseling.
Tellez rebounded in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, hitting .283/.346/.540 (132 wRC+) with eight homers in 127 PA for the nomadic Blue Jays. Notably, he nearly cut his strikeout rate in half; after fanning 28.4% of the time in 2018-19, he dropped that to 15.7%. He didn’t play a regular season game after September 8 due to a right knee strain, though he did collect a pinch-hit single in his lone plate appearance in the Wild Card Series against the Rays.
Tellez struggled again in the first half of 2021, hitting .209/.272/.338 (62 wRC+) before being optioned to Buffalo in late June. On July 6, he was traded to the Brewers for righties Bowden Francis and Trevor Richards, and he soon turned his season around, hitting .272/.333/.481 (112 wRC+) with seven homers in 174 PA the rest of the way, though again he missed about three weeks in September, this time due to a right patellar strain. Back in action for the postseason, he homered twice in four games in the Division Series against the Braves; his two-run shot off Charlie Morton in Game 1 carried the Brewers to victory, but his team was ultimately eliminated.
As I noted while writing for our positional power rankings series in March, Tellez actually hit the ball hard during the first half of last season — harder than in the second half. Separating things out by his stints with his old team and his new one:
During the final leg of his time with Toronto, Tellez’s actual numbers lagged well behind his expected ones, a problem that may owe something to the extent to which he was pulling the ball. Not that a 40.6% rate is outrageous — it’s somewhere in the middle of the pack — but Tellez, with his 18th-percentile sprint speed, was particularly vulnerable to shifted infields:
|Year||Team||PA||Pull%||PA vs. Shift||Shift PA%||BABIP||wRC+|
I should be careful not to overstate the case too much. Tellez had even higher pull rates earlier in his career than in the first half of 2021; he got better results in those times, but was putting the ball in play against the shift less often than in the final leg of his Blue Jays career. The relatively slight increase in his Shift PA% is probably not an adequate explanation for last year’s brutal results; some of it likely owed to randomness or chance. Look at the splits via Statcast, which include all pitches for which he faced a shift, and include home runs:
|Year||Team||Shift% by Pitch||PA||HR||EV||LA||AVG||xBA||SLG||xSLG||wOBA||xwOBA|
On a per-pitch basis, for the Toronto portion of his 2021, Tellez wasn’t facing a shift more often than before. He wasn’t elevating the ball as much, but his actual numbers still lagged behind his expected ones, and, digging deeper, his 42.6% groundball rate against the shift over that stretch was only a few points ahead of his previous career rate in that context (38.6%). What has changed since the trade is that he’s being shifted against far more often on a per-pitch basis but is down to a 30.1% groundball rate in that context. He’s countering the shift by hitting the living crap out of the ball.
Going back to the first table, Tellez is doing that not just against the shift but in other contexts as well. His 92.1 mph average exit velocity and 50% hard-hit rate place him in the 87th and 88th percentiles, respectively, while his 21.7% barrel rate is in the 98th percentile, behind only Aaron Judge (30.6%), Mike Trout (26.8%), and, uh, Patrick Wisdom (22.7%). His .797 xSLG is tops:
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||TOR||74||93.7||13.5%||55.4%||.559||.645||.395||.422|
Boom! That’s obviously not a clip that can be maintained, and it’s miles ahead of anything Tellez has done even fleetingly at the major league level:
Even if you reduce the rolling PA amount to 10 (the smallest increment for which his Statcast page will display) the highest xSLG Tellez previously reached was 1.447 on April 24, 2019; he was at 1.631 through his two doubles in Thursday’s game. Having said all of that, exit velocity stabilizes around the point of 40-45 batted ball events, and Tellez is at 60, so it’s not like his hard hitting is an illusion.
Beyond that, it’s worth making a couple other points about Tellez’s performance so far. First, he’s getting more selective and more efficient. He’s chasing fewer pitches outside the zone than ever (33.2%), and while that figure is still on the high side (the major league average is 31.8%), he’s knocked a neat two percentage points a year off of that since 2019, when he was chasing 39.3%. Meanwhile, his overall 45.5% swing rate is a career low, about three points below his career mark, while his 10.2% swinging strike rate matches last year’s mark and is two points below his career mark, and his strikeout and walk rates (8.0% and 22.7%) are each one point better than his career marks. He’s been very good with two strikes, hitting .204/.278/.449 with a 37% strikeout rate in 54 PA; the major league average this year is .164/.240/.249 with a 41.9% strikeout rate.
Second, back in December The Athletic’s Eno Sarris pointed to Tellez as a prime bounce-back candidate based on his underperformance against fastballs. We don’t have enough data to compare his Statcast heat maps, but here’s a quick Pitch Info-based look, limiting the pitch selection to four-seamers and sinkers:
Uh, yeah, that’s an improvement. By Statcast’s numbers, Tellez hit .245 and slugged .397 against fastballs of all types last year, though to be fair his .483 xSLG suggested he was getting robbed. This year, he’s hitting .375 and slugging 1.000, still short of his 1.212 xSLG. His xwOBA on those pitches has nearly doubled, from .352 to .670. You might do better throwing pork chops past a wolf.
As Tellez’s performance against the Reds should remind us, he’s doing a lot of this against inferior pitching; in fact, he’s made just 14 plate appearances against teams with records of .500 or better, 13 against the Cardinals and one against the Giants. His DRC+ — Baseball Prospectus‘ production measure, which controls for the quality of his opponents as well as ballpark, is 120, but that still places him in a tie for 11th in the NL — which is impressive, just not Judge-like. Given the frequency with which the Brewers will play the Cubs, Pirates and Reds, crummy pitching will be a significant part of Tellez’s diet all season long.
For as strong as the Brewers have been thus far — and at .692 (18-8), they have the NL’s second-highest winning percentage behind only the Dodgers (.696, 16-7) — they’re leading the NL in scoring despite just three regulars producing a 100 wRC+ or better, with Willy Adames (148) and Christian Yelich (127) the other two. While the Brewers are the clear favorites in the division, I wouldn’t expect that imbalance to continue, but for as long as Rowdy Tellez is leading the parade, I’m all for joining in the fun.