White Sox first baseman Andrew Vaughn is not of the mind to talk about his first 20 home-run season in glowing terms.
“I’m a team-oriented guy,” Vaughn said. “Not winning a lot, it’s tough. Definitely not where we wanted to be.”
Get him going about how the 20-homer barrier represents some of his larger goals from spring training — lifting the ball more to the pull side, curbing rollover grounders — and Vaughn will allow that it represents some of what he aspired to in his third major-league season.
But it does not take pulling up Vaughn’s FanGraphs or Statcast page to know that the gains he has made in these areas are more incremental than breakthroughs. League adjusted stats like OPS+ and wRC+ view Vaughn’s .261/.317/.440 batting line entering Saturday, as that of an above-average hitter but also regard it as a small step back from his 2022 performance.
“Definitely chasing more than I would like,” Vaughn said. “That’s definitely something that’s kind of happened, swinging at those borderline pitches. It’s something to go into the offseason and really hone in on.”
Longtime Vaughn observers can already notice some modifications. He raised his hands in his setup in the offseason to try to remove some of the steepness from his swing path. And the way his front foot slides forward, staying close to the ground all the way through as he loads his swing, also pales in comparison to the much more pronounced leg kick Vaughn touted coming out of college.
It might be a granular detail, but the concept behind it is pretty simple. A smaller movement causes less disruption, hopefully allowing Vaughn to keep a clear sight on the ball and make better swing decisions.
“The biggest reason was to quiet everything down, be more simple, just A to B,” Vaughn said. “More contact. If you hit the ball more, you’ve got more chances of putting the ball in play and doing more damage.”
It’s here where immediate progress is hard to find in the results of this season. While at Cal, Vaughn walked at a rate that would put prime Frank Thomas to shame. Even if a lot of that was college pitchers avoiding the Golden Spikes Winner, Vaughn’s early numbers in the minors also suggested someone who would draw free passes in excess of 10% of his plate appearances.
Instead, Vaughn has fit into an impatient Sox lineup more than anticipated and is on pace to walk less than 6% of the time for the second consecutive season. He’s not Luis Robert Jr.-level aggressive, but per FanGraphs, Vaughn swings out of the zone more than the league average.
This is where Vaughn castigates himself the most for swinging at borderline pitches early in the count. Staying competitive on borderline pitches with two strikes is an attribute. Deploying it too early can erase opportunities to build on the 20-homer total that he has finally reached and keep him from complementing his power with on-base ability.
It has been three consecutive solid major-league seasons for Vaughn, but any notion of an optimistic future for the Sox is predicated on him making a leap toward being a stalwart.
“I predict he’ll play in an All-Star Game one day.” manager Pedro Grifol said. “Vaughn is going to be a really good major-league hitter. I’d be shocked and surprised if he’s not. There’s too much drive. There’s too much understanding of the strike zone. There’s too good of work ethic. Too much of that will to be great and too much talent to not turn into what he wants to be in this game.”
What Vaughn wanted last winter was to train his body to stave off the September slide that had bedeviled his first two seasons. Having largely achieved that, now he’ll work toward another breakthrough.
“Make every offseason the best offseason you’ve ever had,” Vaughn said.