Good morning everyone, and welcome to Sabermetric Tuesday – Week 10 style. Today I’d like to try and see if we can find some solid evidence pointing toward sustained breakouts on the offensive side of the ball, and perhaps unearth a few lightly-hyped prospects down in the minors as well.
As a quick and dirty visual search measure, I’ll often just take a quick look through BB:K ratios in the minor leaguers to determine “offensive readiness” for players. That alone isn’t going to be good enough, though, because there are plenty of guys out there like Juan Pierre that put up decent numbers in that category without being able to hit the ball out of the infield just by virtue of not swinging and missing, so we need to narrow any potential search down even further. Let’s combine a well above-average BB:K ratio, say 0.9, with an ISO of .150 or better and see what we come up with, hypothesizing that hitters exhibiting these two statistical earmarks will both understand the strike zone quite well and be able to take advantage of that understanding.
There are 18 hitters that qualify under this search so far this year in the majors. Your top sluggers are well-represented on here, with Albert Pujols (1st, ranked by BB:K), Chipper (3rd), Lance Berkman (7th), Matsui (8th), Aramis Ramirez (9th), Mark Teixeira (14th), Matt Holliday (15th), Adam Dunn (16th), and David Wright (18th) all hanging around. You’ve also got a few guys having terrific comeback seasons in Jason Giambi (5th) and Jason Bay (10th), along with Pat Burrell (6th), who seems to have taken his power stroke up another notch this year. Carlos Beltran (11th) might be the one guy that isn’t actually having a terrific start to the year that’s on the list, and that might be just because he’s hitting about 10% more groundballs than normal when he does make contact. This leaves five names of interest (to me, anyway): Conor Jackson (2nd), Mark Ellis (4th), Casey Kotchman (12th), Brian McCann (13th), and Nate McLouth (17th).
Jackson would have qualified for this list three times as a minor leaguer, which is no small feat as you’ll see when we get to that side of things. At age 26 this year, he also would have made this list last season but the ISO was way down the list. He’s definitely added a bit more power this season, and looking through his minor league campaigns (career .198) the growth doesn’t look out of place. His breakout certainly appears sustainable to me. Mark Ellis is an interesting name on here, because I certainly don’t think of him as a top-tier 2B. In between injuries, he’s really only had one good (2005) and one solid (2007) campaign in his career, and as a late bloomer (he broke in at 25) he was basically fully developed when he arrived. He’s having terrible luck on balls in play this year with a BABIP of .256, and my hunch from going through this data is that he may actually end up with a pretty solid year by October. Kotchman, like Conor Jackson, would have made this list a few times in the minors. He’s one year behind Jackson in age, and although I don’t think he will quite develop the power that Jackson has he might just be one year behind him as far as physical development goes as well. I’m not sure you can call this a breakout for Kotchman, as he really is doing the same thing as last year with a few more singles, but I think it’s just another indicator that he is one small step in power away from becoming an offensive force. McCann is already one of the top young players in the game, let alone catchers, but he’s added even a bit more power this year. There’s no reason to believe that he can’t be a star for quite some time. McLouth has gotten a lot of press this year for his hot start, and while he has shown power off and on for seven years now the control of the strike zone hasn’t been there for him consistently. It certainly has been so far in 2008, and it’s yet another reason why I think his breakout is sustainable as well.
Now that we’ve exhausted the major league list for this year, let’s take a look at the minors. We’ll look at the 2007 data first because it’s a larger sample, and then we’ll go over some of the hotter starts for 2008.
The two players that managed this statistical feat at AAA have both, rightly or wrongly, been pigeonholed as “AAAA” players: Jeff Salazar and Keith Ginter. Ginter is now 32, and after providing above average production for the Brewers for a couple of years has never found the majors again after a disastrous partial season for Oakland in 2005. Salazar has never really gotten a chance for extended time despite hitting adequately at every level. He’s 27 now, so time is running out, but he certainly could be one of the better fourth outfielders around at worst. The three AA players were Jordan Brown, John Jaso, and Jed Lowrie. Brown isn’t really a prospect after having moved from the OF to 1B, although he does have 17 doubles already this year at AAA. He’s 24, so there’s not much there. Jaso has done virtually nothing but hit since being drafted five years ago, but the Rays have been in no hurry with him. He isn’t having a good start repeating AA this year, but after hitting 316/408/484 there last year maybe he’s bored. I think he’s underrated offensively. Lowrie really blossomed last year between two levels, and in my mind he’s already shown that he is major league ready with his cup of coffee last month. He also, to me, is underrated.
At the lower levels of the minors you get a mix of guys who have a few hot months and are never heard from again, guys that are too old for their level, and some legitimate sleepers. Jon Still might be a combination of items two and three in that list, but he’s hitting for even more power this year in the homer-happy Cal League. If he can stay behind the plate he is a definite keeper. Mark Wagner is blocking Still right now one step up the ladder. He wasn’t as big a hitter coming out of college but has performed well (especially for a catcher) in his three years of pro ball. I like Still a bit more, but Wagner deserves watching as well. Matt Antonelli looked great at two levels last year, but he looked awful in 2006 and has looked about as bad this year so far. Since the bulk of his performance was in the Cal League I’d be skeptical. Andrew Lefave was 23 years old in Low-A ball, and all of the power has disappeared in AA as a 24 year old this year. He’s behind Prince Fielder too. Pass. We’ll pick up the pace even more for the short-season guys: Jorge Jimenez was a 22 year old in the NYP league, but he’s hitting .350 in the Cal League this year. Semi-interesting; Damon Sublett was a college player in the NYP league and is striking out a ton this year in Tampa. He isn’t hopeless, but is way off the radar; Mark Hallberg went from Florida St. to the Northwest League, which might be a step down. He has been out since the first week of the year, so he’ll remain a sleeper for a while yet; Ty Wright was 22 in the NYP league and is now hitting an empty .300 in the FSL; Darin Holcomb is a legitimate sleeper, although he is moving very slowly. He was on the list last year in the Northwest League and is on it again this season in the Sally League. As a Rockie OF prospect he merits attention; Jimmy Gallagher went from Duke to the Pioneer League….he’s doing nothing this year in Low-A at age 22; John Fitzpatrick had an ISO of almost .300 as a 1B in the GCL, but he’s got to be almost 23 by now and is playing short-season again this year. I doubt there’s much here; Rene Leveret is an immense (in stature) 1B prospect the Twins plucked from the Dominican five years ago. He just made it to short-season ball last year and put up some nice numbers, but he’s probably a million miles away from the majors right now.
Because of the small sample size the list is fairly long for the minors thus far in 2008, so I’ll highlight some of the more interesting names (to me, anyway). The top rungs of the list are cluttered with “AAAA” players that definitely can hit at AAA but can’t get PT (or can’t hit) in the majors, such as: Erick Almonte, Andy Phillips, Trot Nixon, Timo Perez, Seth Smith, Jeremy Reed, Brad Nelson, Dee Brown, Prentice Redman, and Brandon Myrow. Some of those guys could hit in the majors if given the chance (Nixon, Smith, Reed, Nelson, and Myrow come to mind as possibilities), so if you see one of them luck into a job they might merit some attention. Further down there are some more interesting names: Zach Daeges is yet another Red Sox farmhand that has hit everywhere. Their system is loaded; Chris Gimenez has a ton of power and can catch. He’s 25 already and just at AA, but the Indians might have a sleeper there; Justin Maxwell is a tremendous athlete that has drastically cut his K’s so far this year. The Nationals OF is pretty well stocked, but any further struggles or injuries could certainly result in a call-up; Jeff Corsaletti is a 25 year old AA repeater for, again, the Red Sox. He’s old but has hit pretty well throughout his minor league tenure despite being at the same level now that he was when drafted in 2005. Obviously the team doesn’t have him high on the priority list, which is usually a good sign that you shouldn’t either; The Twins don’t have much in the way of hitting prospects, so Steven Tolleson could certainly get a look at some point, although this is by far the most power he has shown and it still isn’t that much; Nolan Reimold looks almost ready….you may very well see him in Baltimore this year; David Cook is 26 and still not out of AA, but his minor league career ISO is .216. Since reaching AA he is slugging over .610. Maybe he should get a chance?; Kila Kaaihue has passed Kala this year in prospectdom, but the bar is pretty high at 1B; Jordan Czarnecki has been around forever and is still hitting in AA. The minors seem to be littered with guys like this that really should get a shot instead of the same old retreads, but the Angels have plenty of OF depth already; Carlos Santana has been recast as a catcher and looks like a real find for the Dodgers, although the Cal League caveat applies; Anthony Norman is a burner that seems to have developed some (Cal League induced?) power this year in his first full season. Could be interesting; Taylor Green is a lightly-regarded Canadian in his second full season with the Brewers, but he hit last year and he’s hitting, albeit with less power, this year as well. The definition of a deep sleeper I suppose; Matt Cusick was a solid player at USC last year, and he’s hit well in about one full season with the Astros. He needs to move quickly as a college player in Low-A, but seeing as how he just missed the list last year with a .140 ISO he certainly fits the sleeper bill.
Between the minors and the majors, hopefully this trip through power and strike zone control offered up some breakout candidate and sleepers for you to mull over. Opportunity is the biggest issue for most of the minor leaguers, but talent usually finds a way eventually. Thanks for reading, and enjoy the rest of your week.