The Pittsburgh Pirates recently signed first baseman Rowdy Tellez, but there are many reasons why he could be an underrated pick-up and come back strong in 2024.
The Pittsburgh Pirates recently signed first baseman Rowdy Tellez to a one-year contract. Tellez’s 2023 season was rough. He finished the year with a wRC+ of just 78 while only appearing in 106 games and 351 plate appearances. He missed a good chunk of time because of forearm inflammation and a finger injury that he seemingly never recovered from. But Tellez definitely has potential heading into 2024 to be a decent pick-up, and strong rebound candidate.
Let’s first go back to 2022. Tellez racked up a career-high 599 plate appearances and hit .219/.306/.461 with a .327 wOBA and 110 wRC+. Tellez had struck out only 20.2% of the time, with an above-average 10.4% walk rate. But the really impressive part of his season was the power. He went yard 35 times, tied with Paul Goldschmidt and Mookie Betts for the sixth most in baseball. These aren’t bad numbers, but there were a lot of under-the-hood stats that pointed to a better future.
Tellez had a .349 wOBA, as well as a .252 xBA, and .479 xSLG%. This was because he had a 91.1 MPH exit velocity, 12.9% barrel rate, and 46% hard-hit rate, all of which were in the 80th percentile or better. With the new shift rules, many Brewers fans looked forward to seeing what Tellez could potentially do. Opponents typically shifted their defenders so that there were three infielders on his right side, which the new rules would prevent from happening.
For the first two months of the 2023 season, Tellez definitely was living up to those expectations and then some. He was batting .242/.332/.494 with a .347 wOBA. Not only did he nearly match his expected weighted on-base average and expected batting average from 2022, but he far surpassed his expected slugging percentage. Tellez was on pace for another 30+ homer campaign, and this time, with some batting average with a sizable 27-point uptick. The new shift rules were undoubtedly helping him. His batting average on balls in play rose from .215 the previous season to .255 in the first two months.
But that all came crashing down in June. Tellez’s OPS dropped below .500 during the sixth month of the year, and after only playing two games in July, they would be placed on the IL due to forearm inflammation. It was pretty evident something was up with Tellez. His barrel rate had dropped from 11% in April-May to just 4.5% in June. He was set to return in July but then missed another two weeks because of a broken finger that required 17 stitches. He returned to a part-time role in September but never regained the production he showed off earlier in the year.
You can say it’s just optimism talking, but I think what we saw from Tellez in April and May is the real version of Tellez. In June, Tellez was clearly playing through an injury, and he had less than 100 plate appearances after June. But there’s far more working in Tellez’s favor other than being healthy.
The Pirates are likely going to platoon Connor Joe with Tellez, with Joe receiving the bulk of plate appearances against left-handed pitching, with Tellez mostly facing right-handers. In April-May of this past season, Tellez owned a .854 OPS and 123 wRC+ when facing opposite-handed pitching. In 2022, he had a .801 OPS and 117 wRC+ against righties. It’s a small sample size of just 74 plate appearances, but Tellez has been a PNC Park merchant as well. He has hit .277/.351/.554 when visiting Pittsburgh. With five home runs, Fenway Park is tied for the most dingers Tellez has hit at, not counting Milwaukee or Toronto.
I think a lot of people are sleeping on Tellez’s bat. Recency bias and frustration from a lackluster off-season thus far are clouding fans’ judgment, in my opinion. Again, you can say that may just be the optimism talking. But there are definitely more positives for Tellez’s bat than negatives, if you ask me. He’s healthy, will play the entire season with the new shift rules, and could be a 30+ home run threat, along with being a PNC Park merchant.