Zach Neto Shines Brightly in Anaheim as a Standout Player

Zach Neto Is Proving To Be a Bright Spot in Anaheim

Things aren’t particularly bright in Anaheim right now, but even amidst the Angels’ struggles, some of the team’s young players are thriving. One of those players is Zach Neto, who in his sophomore campaign looks like an improved version of himself at the plate. His full-season wRC+ is up to 107, a mark that has been propelled by continued improvement as temperatures have gotten warmer.

In the first month of the season, Neto posted a meager 79 wRC+, but in the two that have followed, he has looked like an All-Star, with a 130 wRC+ in May and a 123 so far in June. Despite not having big raw power, he’s been able to consistently drive the ball.

Last year, Neto was abysmal in the top third of the strike zone. He simply couldn’t handle high heaters, with his .194 wOBA in that area of the zone in the bottom decile of the league. It’s a hole that is too easy to expose. Any pitcher with a decent four-seamer that features at least average ride could live there when facing Neto and not be worried the shortstop would do any damage.

It was a problem that held back his entire offensive profile, and without mitigating it, his prospects as a hitter weren’t promising. But as struggling young players often do, Neto looked to make a change.

At the beginning of the season, I noticed an adjustment Neto had made in his setup that seemed directly targeted at this issue: He raised his hands in his stance so that he could be quicker to the ball. It’s intuitive, really. If your hands are already up there, it’s easier to fire and get your barrel to the ball.

Reducing movement seemed like it could potentially lead to a smoother transition into Neto’s downswing, but it didn’t work. He still struggled in the upper third, and it was clear that the new strategy wasn’t viable; his wOBA on pitches in the upper third was .197 over the first three weeks of the season.

On the surface, the change made sense, but it didn’t work well with the strengths of his swing. Neto doesn’t have a naturally flat swing path. According to SwingGraphs, he had a vertical bat angle (VBA) in the 73rd percentile in 2023 (steeper than average) and an attack angle (AA) in the 89th percentile. This year, his AA hasn’t changed much at all and his VBA sits in the 50th percentile.

The drop in VBA is likely due to him making contact with higher pitches on average. Mechanically speaking, the combination of raising his hands and having a vertically oriented swing likely would have worked better if he didn’t start so flat in his setup. But even then, there are very few hitters who can start their hands high with a vertical barrel and turn the bat over quickly enough to be able to adjust in different parts of the zone.

Unfortunately for Neto, he just isn’t Ronald Acuña Jr. Any change he made to his hand height would likely have to be close to neutral if he wanted to set up his vertically oriented bat path well. Generally, hitters should strive to make reciprocal movements. If your bat is steep at the point of contact, it’s likely you’ll want to set up with a movement that smoothly transitions your body into that position.

Neto might not have specifically thought this way when scrapping his high hands, but his changes have pushed him in the right direction. For such a young player, it’s clear Neto has a knack for adjusting. He adopted a leg kick in the minors that helped propel his success and quick call-up. He uses a toe tap two-strike approach, as his leg kick could lead to more whiffs and strikeouts. And finally, he moved away from his high hands when it became apparent it wasn’t the solution to his struggles versus high pitches.

As I mentioned earlier, Neto has hit like a star since the beginning of May, and the adjustment he made to his hand placement seems to be playing a big part. Since Neto uses both a leg kick and a toe tap, I’m going to show you a few of each. This change in swing and mindset has helped him become a killer on pitches in the upper third (.427 wOBA overall).

Toe Tap

Leg Kick

It’s clear this version of Neto’s load and swing is smoother. You’ll often hear baseball folks say that players who look effortless when they swing or throw are moving in a way that is kinetically efficient. When examining Neto’s swings in May and June compared to earlier this season and in 2023, they look effortless. There aren’t any hitches or over-exertions. His neutral hand height and vertical bat set him up for a clean transition into his swing.

In general, when you remove hitches from your swing, your mechanics become more repeatable. Any extra noise can disturb the loading pattern that sets up the swing path. To help illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s zoom in on how Neto’s bat moves last year (left) versus this year (right), paying particular attention to the adjustments in his setup made to his hands and barrel angle:

If a hitter can remove hitches in their load like Neto has, they’ll likely become more familiar with where their bat is in space. There was a lot of bat waggling and hitching before he got to his downswing in 2023. Now, the movement primarily comes from one smooth hand row (the movement of the hands before the downswing) without the extra bat wiggling. These are both two-strike swings.

In 2023, Neto had a .323 xwOBACON in two-strike counts. When he made contact, there was hardly any damage. Even though his two-strike whiff rate this season is nearly identical to last year’s, he’s significantly improved his contact quality, to the tune of a .399 xwOBACON. To me, that indicates an improved bat path. And the fact that he’s done this with two strikes and against high pitches has helped him improve on the areas that were major weak points in his game previously.

Neto may not be in the Bobby Witt Jr./Gunnar Henderson class of young shortstops, but he’s emerging as a potential cornerstone player in Anaheim. His overall game is a work in progress – his defense is still coming around – but with the positive signs in his offensive profile, I think there is legitimate four-win upside here. It’s always exciting to see a young player make tangible improvements this early in his career, and that’s especially true with a guy who has such a distinct style of hitting.

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