Could this change in approach help Alika Williams breakout?

After a rough 2023 season, Pirates infielder Alika Williams is taking a different approach to the plate. But could this improvement help turn the former first rounder around?
Jul 29, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Alika Williams (75)
Jul 29, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Alika Williams (75) / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired former first-round pick Alika Williams from the Tampa Bay Rays for right-handed reliever Robert Stephenson. Williams played a lot in the second half of the season, and while he provided quality defense at shortstop, his hitting left much to be desired, and that’s putting it lightly. Williams slashed just .198/.270/.248 with a .238 wOBA, and 43 wRC+. One of the few silver linings is that he had a respectable 8% walk rate, but that’s about it. His 31.3% strikeout rate did not help things out.

The Pirates included Williams on their Opening Day roster with the expectation he’d mostly be a defensive specialist, playing both second base and shortstop while giving the team a good glove up the middle on occasion or late into games. But Williams already has four hits in 20 plate appearances. He’s drawn just one walk but has struck out only three times. It’s a small sample size, but Williams has made a change to his game, but will that be enough to give him enough offensive upside to keep him in the bigs?

That major change is that he’s decided to be a lot more aggressive on pitches outside the strike zone. He has a chase rate of 32.4%, compared to 26.5% last year. But even though he’s swinging outside the zone more frequently, he’s prioritized making contact as well. Williams’ chase contact rate has risen dramatically from 34.4% to 58.3%. The league average rate is 58%, so Williams is right around average.

Along with more contact, he has prioritized line drives with a 31.3% line drive rate, compared to only 26.9% last year. His ground ball rate has also decreased from 49.3% to 37.5%. While he’s never going to be among the best at making quality contact, his barrel rate has risen by over double from 3% to 6.3%. His exit velocity has also improved from just 83.4 MPH to 88.6 MPH.

Now, is this change going to turn Alika Williams into Luis Arraez 2.0? Probably not, but he is making more contact and more quality contact. That might lead to a higher batting average. The best comparison I could make is 2022 Kevin Newman. In ‘22, Newman batted .274/.316/.374 with a 92 wRC+. Newman had a chase rate as Williams at 32.4% but a much better 15.6% whiff% (Williams currently sits at 26.7%). However, Newman never made contact with the same authority as Williams currently is. His exit velocity was only 85.3 MPH, while his barrel rate was 1.6%, and his sweet spot percentage sat at 31.7% (Williams has a 38.6% sweet spot rate).

If Williams produces something like the Pirates received from 2022 Kevin Newman but with good defense at second base and shortstop, he’ll definitely find a role on this team’s bench.

I think Williams has a better chance at sustaining that sort of production than Newman did in ‘22. A .270 hitter with a 90 wRC+ and plus defense will play as a part-timer/bench infielder.