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Zach Neto leading off for Angels as a rookie

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It only took Zach Neto 272 days to go from the 13th overall selection in the 2022 MLB Draft to starting at shortstop in the Majors for the Angels in ‘23.

It took even less time for him to establish himself as a legitimate big leaguer and move into the leadoff spot to set the table for Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, two of the game’s premier players.

For the first time since Trout himself was leading off for the team in the early 2010s, the Angels are heavily relying on a young top prospect at the top of the lineup. To the credit of both the Angels and Neto, the 22-year-old has more than held his own in a prominent role for an organization in a pivotal season.

Here is more on Neto’s expedited transition from top Draft pick to leading off for the Angels, producing in the Majors, and even mastering two key skills that have made him a great fit hitting at the top of the lineup.

Setting the table for Trout and Ohtani

Neto spent just 44 games in the Minors before ultimately receiving the call to the big leagues. That was for good reason; he hit a combined .322/.408/.529 in his time at High-A and Double-A ball in 2022 and ’23. Neto posted a 1.374 OPS in seven games to start the ’23 season before he was promoted to the Majors on April 15 while the Angels were in Boston.

Quick promotions of young players are nothing new for the Angels. They’ve been one of the most aggressive teams in terms of fast-tracking their players to the Majors. Chase Silseth was the quickest player from the 2021 Draft to reach the Majors. Neto followed him up a year later by becoming the fastest player from the ’22 Draft to make it to the Majors.

What is new is the Angels entrusting such a young player to hit at the top of the order. Since 1995, Trout and Darin Erstad were the only players 22 or younger who saw more than 10 plate appearances as the Angels’ leadoff hitter in a single season. That is until Neto came along this year. Even Neto himself didn’t think he’d be leading off this quickly in the Majors.

“When I got the call-up, Phil [Nevin] pretty much told me it was going to be me and Logan [O’Hoppe] at the bottom of the lineup,” Neto said. “It was just kind of turning it around to be on base for those guys at the top. I was having some good quality at-bats. Just battling, seeing pitches.”

Neto’s time at the bottom of the lineup didn’t last long. He led off for the Angels in his second and third career games. The combination of Neto producing down in the lineup and Taylor Ward, the Angels’ previous leadoff hitter, struggling at the top, led the Angels to make the decision to slot the 22-year-old in as the de facto leadoff guy just two weeks into his MLB career. Luckily, Neto spent plenty of time in this role in the Minors and was up to the task.

“I was leading off a lot in Double-A. Phil made that change to put me at the top just to see how it went. I’m feeling pretty comfortable. I’m just doing anything I can to get on base for Trout and Ohtani,” Neto said. “It’s one of those things where you want to start the game on the right page, set the right tone by having a good quality at-bat. I’m seeing a lot of pitches and getting on base for those guys. Trying to see as many pitches as I can but be as aggressive as possible. Trying to barrel the ball, and get on base. Let the meat of the order do the rest”

Beyond Neto’s propensity to get hit by pitches at a historic rate, he has shown two key traits that make him an ideal leadoff hitter: not chasing pitches out of the zone and avoiding whiffs.

Neto’s three walks in 82 plate appearances mask the fact that he has shown strong strike zone awareness. Through 21 MLB games, Neto has chased just 17.1% of the pitches he’s seen. That ranks in the 95th percentile and trails only 16 hitters among the 331 position players with at least 50 plate appearances in ’23. It’s even more impressive when you consider that he’s doing it at such a young age.

Lowest chase rate, rookies in age-22 season or younger
Since 2008, minimum 100 pitches seen (239 qualifying hitter seasons)
Zach Neto (LAA): 17.1% in 2023
Triston Casas (BOS): 17.4% in 2022
Alex Avila (DET): 17.8% in 2009
Mookie Betts (BOS): 18.2% in 2014
Michael Brantley (CLE): 18.3% in 2009

Just behind Betts and Brantley on that list are Juan Soto and Kyle Tucker, two of the best current hitters in the Majors in no small part thanks to their elite plate discipline. The sample size is small enough that it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to stick for Neto. However, the fact that he is even comparable to those talented hitters at this young of an age bodes well for Neto’s chase rate being real.

It also helps that Neto has always shown this keen strike zone awareness. In his three years of college, he walked 56 times compared to 49 strikeouts in 475 plate appearances. Even in his short journey in the Minors, he struck out in just 20.4% of his plate appearances while walking 9% of the time.

“I was doing really well in college, especially coming into my draft year,” Neto said about his approach at the plate. “In the first year of pro ball, it was a little different. I was chasing a few more pitches. It just took some getting settled in, taking a good view of the scouting reports. Looking for things like pitcher’s tendencies. It definitely helped me a lot, keeping my approach disciplined up there. When it is a pitch I’m swinging at, I’m trying to make sure it’s a barrel off my bat.”

Getting the ball on the bat is another area where Neto has excelled. While not quite on the level of his elite chase rate, Neto is making tons of contact. His 17.6% whiff rate ranks in the 87th percentile and trails only 39 hitters (min. 50 PA). Wander Franco is the only one of those 39 hitters in their age-22 season or younger. Of those 239 qualifying hitter seasons for players age 22 or younger (since 2008), Neto’s 17.6% whiff rate trails only 29 hitters.

Neto has shown that he belongs in the big leagues. His .236/.329/.292 batting line so far is selling him short; his expected wOBA (.323) has him much closer to a league-average hitter.

Neto’s stellar approach has been akin to a seasoned 10-year veteran. While he’s still searching for his first MLB home run, he has a history of hitting for solid power and has posted roughly league-average exit velocity (88.7 mph) so far in the Majors.

Beyond his productivity, Neto has injected some youth, life, and charisma into the Angels team. His unique leg kick, which some scouts thought might hold him back, is a sight to behold. A self-proclaimed “swaggy player,” Neto has carried himself with uncanny confidence for a player in the Majors less than a year after he was drafted.

Neto’s trajectory to this point has been the ultimate combination of a player producing everywhere he’s been and an Angels team that is desperate to make their first postseason since 2014.

To get back to postseason baseball, the Angels will continue to rely on the 22-year-old Neto, who has found a happy home at the top of the Angels lineup.

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