Amid all of the things that have gone wrong this summer, at least we’re seeing good things out of Anthony Volpe.
At the very least, it’s great that most people seem to have been able to look past some of Volpe’s subpar surface numbers — namely, a .217 batting average, .691 OPS, and propensity to strike out with a rate of one every three-and-a-half trips to the plate — and look mostly elsewhere when assigning blame for this disaster of a campaign. He’s still satisfied the traditional offensive benchmarks, three homers away from joining A-Rod, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Bobby Witt Jr. as the only shortstops to go 20-20 at age 22 or younger. For the more analytically-inclined, a 3.2 rWAR is driven by 12 Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop, third in MLB, a bullish assessment that’s been backed up decisively by the eye test. Outs Above Average (2) and fWAR (1.8) are a little more conservative, but the conclusion isn’t much different: He’s looked perfectly fine for a raw 22-year-old who came into the year with fewer than 300 pro games under his belt.
Even before I went and checked out that 20-20 stat, Witt’s name came up in a couple of different conversations about Volpe I had with PSA writers and others. The comparisons are going to come naturally. Both high school shortstops taken in the first round of the 2019 draft, when Witt went second overall and Volpe was among the youngest in his class, their profiles have a similar outline if you squint, or at least, a similar statistical profile in the minor leagues, where they both fell just short of going 30-30 in 2021. The 20 homers, 30 steals, and .722 OPS that Witt posted as a rookie last year won’t be too far ahead of where Volpe finishes up, and if Volpe can follow a similar developmental curve as Witt, who’s already knocking on the door of 5 fWAR as a sophomore, he’ll be in pretty good shape moving forward.
In some ways, this puts the Yankees in a little bit of an awkward spot when it comes to tempering expectations for their young shortstop. The Yankees lineup needs more juice in 2024, full stop. They’ll be relying on bounce-backs from the veterans already on the roster, but there will still be holes, and beyond a seemingly-unlikely run at Shohei Ohtani, this year’s free agent class is paper-thin on impact hitters. There are always blockbuster trades to be made, but one good hitter probably isn’t fixing this lineup. All that being the case, if there’s a route to substantially improving this offensive anemia in 2024 that doesn’t involve Anthony Rizzo, D.J. LeMahieu, and Giancarlo Stanton finding the Fountain of Youth (or whatever was in the water in San Francisco in 2021), it might require a Witt-esque star turn for Volpe in 2024.
I think there’s a pretty good chance that happens. Volpe is showing all the signs of slow improvement that you want to see out of a rookie, including a 139 wRC+ in this miserable August. But I say that it puts the Yankees in an awkward position because a Volpe star turn might not look like Witt’s, There’s a good chance he’s an impact shortstop as early as next season. The issue is that what the 2024 Yankees might need is an impact hitter. Even if you feel comfortable projecting Volpe for a sizable 25 or 30 percent improvement to a 115 or 120 wRC+ next season, you’d be getting a six-win player with defense and baserunning, but offensive production at the level of a Dansby Swanson or Willy Adames. He might be an elite shortstop, but he still might not quite be the kind of up-the-middle bat that can also carry a lineup in the vein of a Witt or Gunnar Henderson, or younger versions of Carlos Correa or Corey Seager.
Even a more modest improvement would still be a good outcome for a second-year Volpe; I’m inclined to buy the DRS bullishness on his glove, and his baserunning value will only cascade as he learns to get on base more. Even if he winds up somewhere between 5 or 10 percent above average with a stick, he still ought to be good for 4-5 WAR, and you’ll never say no to that from a 23-year-old shortstop. But the distribution of WAR across a roster matters, and I’m inclined to think that a defense-and-baserunning-driven 5 WAR season just might not have the same impact on the team as a similar value quantity produced by a slugging percentage greater than .500.
Of course, a great player is a great player is a great player, and if the Yankees are bad again in spite of another leap forward from Volpe, it won’t be his problem. It’ll be management’s job to find hitters who can provide the consistent thump he might not be able to. We’ll see if they can get it done.