The gap between strikeouts and walks in the big leagues has grown wider in each of the past seven seasons. The league-wide 2.51 SO/BB ratio last year set an all-time record, and it had expanded to 2.54 through the first two and a half months of 2014. This gulf between whiffs and walks suggests that young hitters who can balance the two will have the best chance to transition to and succeed in the majors.
Braves rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella, to cite one example, struck out 14 times and drew 25 walks at Triple-A Gwinnett prior to his callup, giving him a 0.56 ratio that ranked among the best in the minors. Sure enough, he hit .302 with nine walks and eight strikeouts through his first 86 at-bats with the Braves.
Here are 10 hitting prospects who control the strike zone well enough to have confidence in their ability to reach—and possibly crash through—their perceived ceilings. Rates stats included are measured on June 15, roughly the midpoint of the season, and batters are ranked in order of lowest strikeout rate.
1. Mookie Betts, 2b/cf, Red Sox
SO/BB: 0.60. SO: 8.5%. BB: 14.1%.
First Half: .340/.431/.525 in 306 PA at Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket.
A sleeper prospect no more, Betts climbed from low Class A Greenville at the outset of 2013 to Triple-A Pawtucket this June, authoring a 66-game on-base streak and ranking as one of the game’s top power/speed prospects along the way. He might not get enough credit for his exemplary bat control and strike-zone judgment, however, and those attributes pair with supreme athleticism to make him an elite prospect. Just five minor league batters (min. 150 plate appearances) had a better SO/BB ratio than Betts in the first half, when he collected 29 extra-base hits and 24 steals in 66 games.
2. Taylor Lindsey, 2b, Angels
SO/BB: 1.04. SO: 11.4%. BB: 11.0%.
First Half: .233/.324/.368 in 255 PA at Triple-A Salt Lake.
Though his batting line doesn’t shine, Lindsey improved his SO/BB ratio to the best mark of his career in the first half. In fact, the only second-base prospects who bested him were the aforementioned Mookie Betts and Tommy La Stella. Lindsey hit just .245 on balls in play, however, which dragged his batting average through the mud. If he maintains his plate awareness and hits into better luck in the second half—and if Triple-A pitchers didn’t find a way to exploit Lindsey’s unconventional swing mechanics—he can get his average up near the .280 of which he’s capable.
3. Jorge Polanco, ss, Twins
SO/BB: 1.13. SO: 12.3%. BB: 10.9%.
First Half: .275/.353/.385 in 284 PA at high Class A Fort Myers.
One of the more unheralded middle-infield prospects in the low minors, Polanco makes tons of contact, takes his walks and hits line drives from both sides of the plate. The 20-year-old collected his share of singles and walks during the first half but did so without manifest power or speed. The Twins believe in his bat, so they’re giving Polanco an extended trial at shortstop this season, setting off a chain reaction that sends former shortstop Niko Goodrum to third base and erstwhile third baseman Travis Harrison to left field.
4. Rangel Ravelo, 1b, White Sox
SO/BB: 1.16. SO: 13.7%. BB: 11.9%.
First Half: .295/.390/.432 in 270 PA at Double-A Birmingham.
Ravelo lacks the present power to profile as a regular first baseman in the majors, and he’s played his way off third base in pro ball, but the man can hit. The righty hitter has a career .298 average thanks to outstanding control of the zone and a willingness to take the ball to right field. With this type of hitter, the possibility exists that he will grow into power as he matures, but for now Ravelo is a 22-year-old at Double-A with an interesting base of skills in the batter’s box.
5. J.P. Crawford, ss, Phillies
SO/BB: 1.00. SO: 13.8%. BB: 13.8%.
First Half: .293/.396/.402 in 269 PA at low Class A Lakewood.
A shining beacon of hope in a Phillies system in the midst of a down year, Crawford received a second-half bump to high Class A Clearwater after hitting for average and brandishing a 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He may not deliver the power, speed or flashy defensive play of current Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins, but Crawford, the 16th pick in the 2013 draft, projects to be a better pure hitter. For a character reference, see his batting title last summer in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he hit .345 compared to the league average of .243 while learning to hit with wood bats.
6. Francisco Lindor, ss, Indians
SO/BB: 1.26. SO: 15.2%. BB: 12.1%.
First Half: .275/.363/.375 in 290 PA at Double-A Akron.
Three shortstops ranked ahead of Lindor on our preseason Top 100 Prospects list, but few would be surprised if he surpasses at least one of them in terms of career value based on his tools, instincts and makeup. Though he won’t hit for big-time power, Lindor should do everything expected of a first-division shortstop and top-of-the-order hitter.
7. Carlos Correa, ss, Astros
SO/BB: 1.23. SO: 15.4%. BB: 12.5%.
First Half: .329/.421/.502 in 280 PA at high Class A Lancaster.
The Astros’ top prospect injured his right ankle while sliding into third base on June 21 and had to be carried off the field. (Update: Correa had surgery on a fractured fibula and ligament and is out for the year.) The injury clouds his immediate future, but certainly not his long-term viability. Just five minor league shortstops hit more extra-base hits (26) or drew more walks (35) than Correa in the first half, and his power, patience and feel for contact will make him one of the most dangerous hitters in the majors when he gets there.
8. Clint Coulter, c, Brewers
SO/BB: 1.07. SO: 17.2%. BB: 16.0%.
First Half: .282/.427/.534 in 262 PA at low Class A Wisconsin.
Yes, Coulter spent the first half repeating the Midwest League, but he’s healthy this year and armed with new plate awareness ($) he learned from a tough 2013. Given his reduced strikeout rate, doubled-up walk rate and excellent power output compared with last season, the 2012 first-round pick could be zooming up prospect lists. If his offensive gains are real, however, the Brewers might not want to wait for his defensive tools to catch up, but if he sticks at catcher, he’s a serious sleeper.
9. Jesse Winker, lf, Reds
SO/BB: 1.15. SO: 18.5%. BB: 16.1%.
First Half: .317/.426/.580 in 249 PA at high Class A Bakersfield.
At this point on the list, we begin to find hitters who edge toward a 20-percent strikeout rate, which works in the majors only if the player produces above-average power. Winker, a supplemental pick in 2012 out of high school in Orlando, is one such player. His short, simple stroke from the left side convinces scouts that he will deliver a high average and plus power down the line. The hitter-happy California League presented no problem—Winker won the all-star game home run derby ($) and ranked third in both on-base percentage and slugging—so the Reds bumped him to Double-A Pensacola for the second half.
10. Brandon Nimmo, cf, Mets
SO/BB: 1.06. SO: 18.9%. BB: 17.8%.
First Half: .321/.444/.448 in 270 PA at high Class A St. Lucie.
Nimmo might turn out to be similar to the Reds’ Jesse Winker (above) but with less power and more speed, defense and on-base ability. The 2011 first-rounder ranked seventh in the minors with a .444 on-base percentage at the all-star break, after which he headed to Double-A Binghamton. Though Nimmo has yet to tap into more than fringe power in pro ball, his background as a Wyoming amateur whose high school didn’t offer baseball mitigates some of those concerns. His growth in 2014 is apparent by the dramatic improvement to his strikeout rate.
Five Red Flags
Now for the inverse of the above list. The following five players scuffled to a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio in the first half despite ranking on their organization’s preseason Top 10 Prospects list. Don’t view these as prospect epitaphs—just red flags for now.
1. Tim Anderson, ss, White Sox. Facing an aggressive jump to high Class A Winston-Salem, the 2013 first-rounder showed well-rounded tools—including a .298 average, .469 slugging and 10 steals—but not to be found was refined plate discipline, not with a 59-to-7 (8.4) SO/BB ratio. The silver lining: White Sox 2012 first-rounder Courtney Hawkins faced a similar quandary with the Dash last year before making a big rebound this year.
2. Nick Williams, of, Rangers. He hit .305/.352/.468 in the first half at high Class A Myrtle Beach—a distinct pitcher’s park—but seven hit-by-pitches boosted his on-base percentage, for his 60-to-8 (7.5) SO/BB ratio was among the worst in the minors.
3. Javier Baez, ss, Cubs. A career-worst 80-to-15 (5.3) SO/BB ratio at Triple-A Iowa undercut the elite power prospect’s average (.223) and on-base percentage (.279)—but not his slugging (.431).
4. Albert Almora, cf, Cubs. An uncharacteristically poor 30-to-6 (5.0) SO/BB ratio torpedoed the 2012 first-rounder’s first half at high Class A Daytona, when he hit .245 with two homers and four steals.
5. Ryan Brett, 2b, Rays. He hit .296 with 12 steals and solid pop at Double-A Montgomery in the first half, but a 46-to-10 (4.6) SO/BB ratio cut into his on-base percentage (.332).