The Baseballist: 10 Hitting Prospects Who Might Be Better Than You Think

Kyle Schwarber (Photo by Danny Parker)

Kyle Schwarber (Photo by Danny Parker)

 

The ratio of strikeouts to walks in the major leagues reached an all-time record high of 2.67-to-1 in 2014, and research indicates that offenses with poor SO/BB ratios tend to score fewer runs than those with more balanced ratios. Furthermore, because this trend of increasing strikeout rates and decreasing walk rates has continued unabated in recent seasons, it follows that players who can balance the two outcomes will have a higher probability of finding success in the majors.

When we ran the numbers last June, we singled out prospects with fine BB/SO ratios such as Mookie Betts, Jorge Polanco, Rangel Ravelo, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa. (All five have subsequently reached the majors.) We’re going to take the same approach this year by highlighting 10 prospects with fine walk-to-strikeout ratios. Keep in mind that the major league average this year is 0.38.

The ranking that results includes only players who strike out 20 percent of the time or less (because they can theoretically weather a bit of attrition in this category as they face better pitchers) and those with an isolated slugging percentage of .100 or greater (because hitters who show no power see almost exclusively strikes from opposing pitchers and, therefore, draw fewer walks).

Rates stats included are measured through games of June 15.


1. Kyle Schwarber, c, Cubs

Team: Double-A Tennessee (Southern). Age: 22.

BB/SO: 0.86. BB: 17.3%. SO: 20.2%. ISO: .264.

Hours after the the Cubs selected Schwarber with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft, vice president of scouting Jason McLeod said that the Indiana catcher was the “best hitter, hands down, in this year's draft.” Little more than a year later, Schwarber validated McLeod’s assertion when he received a callup to Chicago after demolishing Double-A competition for two and a half months. Prior to his promotion, Schwarber led the Southern League with 42 walks and a .438 on-base percentage while ranking second (to the Twins’ Adam Brett Walker) with 13 homers and a .579 slugging percentage. The Cubs say publicly that Schwarber, who played catcher in nearly two-thirds of his appearances for Tennessee, will serve as DH in upcoming interleague action and then head to Triple-A Iowa afterward to finish his development.


New York Mets2. Michael Conforto, lf, Mets

Team: Double-A Binghamton (Eastern). Age: 22.

BB/SO: 0.77. BB: 11.3%. SO: 14.7%. ISO: .203.

Not every team placed Kyle Schwarber atop its list of college bats in the 2014 draft. The Mets, for one, preferred Oregon State’s Conforto and selected him 10th overall. “This was our No. 1 hitter since last spring,” scouting director Tommy Tanous said at the time. Schwarber has produced more with the bat to this point, but Conforto makes more contact, hits for similar power—he led the high Class A Florida State League with a .462 slugging percentage before his promotion—and faces no question about his future defensive position. Like the Cubs, the Mets might be eying their 2014 first-rounder for a summer callup to fuel a surprise run at the playoffs.


3. Josh Bell, 1b, Pirates

Team: Double-A Altoona (Eastern). Age: 22.

BB/SO: 1.17. BB: 10.7%. SO: 9.2%. ISO: .160.

Fresh off winning the batting title and MVP award in the high Class A Florida State League in 2014, Bell has showcased his offensive potential in Double-A this season by walking more often than he whiffs and batting .319/.392/.450 through 58 games. Altoona plays as a tough park for hitters—particularly in the home run department—but Bell had compensated to some extend by slugging .496 on the road. He must keep the power coming, especially now that the switch-hitter is a first baseman only.


4. Billy McKinney, rf, Cubs

Team: Double-A Tennessee (Southern). Age: 20.

BB/SO: 0.83. BB: 10.2%. SO: 12.3%. ISO: .182.

McKinney’s sharp batting eye and quiet hitting approach helped him dominate the high Class A Carolina League, then weather a rough transition this spring to Double-A, where he had hit just .250/.294/.380 through his first 30 games. How he performs in the second half will tell evaluators a lot about how his game will translate to higher levels, but as of now he tends to bar his swing and might not develop profile power for a corner. Patience is warranted, however, because McKinney is young for the Double-A level and has no tool that grades worse than his fringy arm.


Tampa Bay Rays5. Jake Bauers, 1b, Rays

Team: high Class A Charlotte (Florida State). Age: 19.

BB/SO: 0.88. BB: 11.9%. SO: 13.6%. ISO: .180.

Bauers burst on the prospect scene in the first half of 2014 when he hit .362 through 44 games at low Class A Fort Wayne in the Padres system. Traded to the Rays in December as part of the triangular deal centered around Wil Myers, Steven Souza and Trea Turner, Bauers continues to exercise fine discipline at the plate at Charlotte, using a direct-to-the-ball lefty stroke to hit .271/.364/.443 through 57 games. Enhanced power production this year has been perhaps the biggest positive development, for he already had nearly matched his extra-base hit total from last year in roughly half the number of games.


6. Stephen Piscotty, rf, Cardinals

Team: Triple-A Memphis (Pacific Coast). Age: 24.

BB/SO: 0.76. BB: 12.0%. SO: 15.9%. ISO: .189.

Piscotty said he sought input from the coaching staff at his alma mater last offseason to help him with his swing. The Stanford product wanted to better extend his arms and thus create more catapult action and impart more backspin and lift on the ball. The early returns are positive as Piscotty repeats the Pacific Coast League. He has maintained the same on-base percentage as last year while posting a stronger walk-to-strikeout ratio and adding extra bases to his bottom line.


7. Elias Diaz, c, Pirates

Team: Triple-A Indianapolis (International). Age: 24.

BB/SO: 0.86. BB: 9.3%. SO: 10.8%. ISO: .122.

The Pirates added Diaz to the 40-man roster last November, and his feel for the strike zone, mid-range power and strong throwing arm could make him more than a backup catcher down the line. Deployed in a time-share with 2009 first-rounder Tony Sanchez at Indianapolis this season, Diaz hit .281/.345/.395 through 54 games this season while gunning down 32 percent of basestealers.


8. Mark Zagunis, rf, Cubs

Team: high Class A Myrtle Beach (Carolina). Age: 22.

BB/SO: 1.13. BB: 16.3%. SO: 14.4%. ISO: .146.

Are you sensing a trend here? The third of three Cubs prospects to appear on this list, Zagunis gave up catching this year, but he sure hasn’t given up hitting or working his way on base via the free pass. The 2014 third-rounder from Virginia Tech hit .304 for Myrtle Beach through 59 games while leading the Carolina League with 44 walks and a .429 on-base percentage. Scouts saddle the righthanded-hitting Zagunis with below-average grades for power, but he recognizes pitches so well and is so selective that a power surge in his mid-20s is entirely possible.


Philadelphia Phillies9. J.P. Crawford, ss, Phillies

Team: Double-A Reading (Eastern). Age: 20.

BB/SO: 1.39. BB: 14.4%. SO: 10.3%. ISO: .102.

Crawford missed all of April with an oblique injury, but he hasn’t shown any rust since his return. He hit .392 in 21 games at high Class A Clearwater to earn a quick bump to Reading, where the 2013 first-rounder continues to swing a hot stick. He’s also one of just 24 minor league batters this season to record more walks than strikeouts in at least 150 plate appearances—and his 1.39 ratio ranks fourth among that group. All told, Crawford has hit .349 (seventh) and reached base at a .444 clip (fifth) to rank among the overall minor league leaders.


10. Phillip Ervin, cf, Reds

Team: high Class A Daytona (Florida State). Age: 22.

BB/SO: 0.68. BB: 10.8%. SO: 15.8%. ISO: .163.

Ervin’s production tapered off in May and June after a scalding start, but his April jolt—.346 with seven homers in 21 games—provides a glimpse of his absolute ceiling, when healthy. The good news for the Reds is that Ervin’s batting eye didn’t disintegrate even when he hit .229 from May 1 onward, and he also continues to make an impact on the bases with 13 steals and a Florida State League-leading 47 runs.


Top 10 Improved Batting Eyes

Players in the minors are not finished products, so expecting prospects to perform like finished products in all facets of the game is unrealistic. With that in mind, we present the 10 prospects who have improved their walk-to-strikeout ratios to the greatest extent in 2015. Players are ranked by their rate of improvement compared to last year. (Though bear in mind this is only a midseason temperature check.) Only those players who appeared in the 2015 Prospect Handbook and who accumulated at least 200 plate appearances in both 2014 and 2015 are considered.

Most notable among the 10 players is No. 1 man Nick Williams of the Rangers, who had one of the worst BB/SO ratios in the minors in both 2013 and 2014. To this point, though, the 2012 second-rounder has improved his standing in this department by more than 200 percent, and he’s enjoying his finest season yet. Through 64 games at Double-A Frisco, the 21-year-old Williams is hitting .291/.354/.462 with eight home runs, and his 116 total bases rank him second in the Texas League.

No Player Pos Org Lvl 2014
2015
Improve
1 Nick Williams LF Rangers AA 0.15 0.50 233%
2 Albert Almora CF Cubs AA 0.19 0.60 218%
3 Javier Betancourt 2B Tigers HiA 0.32 1.00 212%
4 Ketel Marte SS Mariners AAA 0.33 0.90 170%
5 Aaron Altherr RF Phillies AA 0.25 0.65 155%
6 Carlos Tocci CF Phillies LoA 0.26 0.63 143%
7 Charlie Tilson CF Cardinals AA 0.28 0.67 139%
8 Daniel Castro SS Braves AAA 0.39 0.88 124%
9 Daniel Fields CF Tigers AAA 0.25 0.53 114%
10 Yairo Munoz SS Athletics LoA 0.14 0.31 114%

 

Now for the inverse of the table above, in which we present the 10 prospects who have seen their BB/SO ratios deteriorate the most in 2015 compared to 2014.

At the top of the list is Dodgers 2014 second-rounder Alex Verdugo, who led the Rookie-level Arizona League with 14 doubles while hitting .347 last season. The 19-year-old has weathered a two-fold increase in his strikeout rate and a severe diminution of his walk rate at low Class A Great Lakes this season, in which he’s hitting .229/.270/.312 through 54 games.

No Player Pos Org Lvl 2014
2015
Decline
1 Alex Verdugo CF Dodgers LoA 1.11 0.24 -78%
2 Taylor Sparks 3B Reds HiA 0.37 0.12 -69%
3 Richard Urena SS Blue Jays LoA 0.34 0.11 -67%
4 Chad Wallach C Reds HiA 1.30 0.44 -66%
5 Michael Gettys CF Padres LoA 0.23 0.08 -66%
6 Justin Williams RF Rays LoA 0.36 0.13 -65%
7 Raimel Tapia CF Rockies HiA 0.37 0.14 -63%
8 Michael De Leon SS Rangers LoA 0.69 0.28 -59%
9 Dominic Smith 1B Mets HiA 0.64 0.26 -59%
10 Sebastian Elizalde RF Reds HiA 0.65 0.28 -57%

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