Image credit: Ezequiel Tovar (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
It’s easy to get lost in the immediate in-game production of our favorite prospects. We like to see good players do well. When a first-round pick hits or pitches well in rookie ball it’s hardly a surprise, but the performance provides affirmation of a given pick, signing bonus or ranking. What gets lost with this mindset is the larger picture and the goal of minor league baseball at its core, skill development. It’s a cliche but as the saying goes prospect development is not linear.
While simply acknowledging improvement in production is valuable, knowing the reason for improvement is more valuable. This allows us to properly identify what changes were made, if any, and what is driving the improved production. To aid in this quest a variety of metrics will be discussed including average exit velocity, 90th percentile exit velocity, contact rate, chase rate and in-zone contact year over year. Through this exercise we’ll be able to identify how certain players have found a new level of success.
With nearly three full months of the season from which to work with, there is a solid sample size from which to assess potential breakouts and enough of a sample to look year over year at a variety of metrics to spot improvement standouts. Below is a group of players that improved year over year in weighted on-base average or wOBA.
The sample for all players is set at 100 plate appearances minimum for both 2022 and 2021, giving us at least a decent sample size from which to compare changes in output.
Ezequiel Tovar, SS, Rockies: When it comes to breakout players in the first half of the season Tovar is a name that jumps off the page—not only for his improvement in wOBA and OPS year over year but also for his ability to do so while handling an aggressive assignment. Tovar’s biggest gains in 2022 have been in the way of power and approach. The shortstop has added nearly two mph onto the exit velocity of the top 10% of his balls in play. In turn he’s traded some contact, as his whiffs in-zone and overall have jumped. He’s been able to offset this by cutting his chase rate by 4% year over year. These are good signs, as Tovar’s strength as a hitter coming into the season was his ability to make a lot of contact. Tovar’s aggressive tendencies and ability to get to his power were his biggest question marks entering 2022. While he’s still an aggressive contact-first hitter, Tovar has shown noticeable gains in areas where he previously struggled.
Jackson Chourio, OF, Brewers: Dating back to the early days of his assignment to Low-A Carolina, Chourio has been a player worthy of discussion. He’s among the Carolina League leaders for a variety of categories including OPS, average and home runs. Chourio debuted in the Dominican Summer League in 2021 and showcased contact, approach and power, hitting .296/.386/.447. This year Chourio’s power has kicked into hyperdrive. He’s seen gains year over year on his average exit velocity, 90th percentile exit velocity and barrel rate. While he’s seen his contact rate shrink in the jump to full-season ball, that should be expected when considering the quality of competition. Chourio shows the ability to create high-level power with ease at an extremely early period in his professional career.
Masyn Winn, SS, Cardinals: As far back as spring training we were reporting on Winn’s improvements at the plate. He’s deftly managed a promotion to Double-A Springfield on the back of noticeable improvements to his contact skills. He’s seen a 5% improvement in his contact rate, while seeing a nearly 10% jump in zone contact. While hitting the ball with greater frequency is important, Winn has maintained solid swing decisions, hit more strikes and hit everything harder across the board. He’s seen gains to his average exit velocity as well as the top 10% of his balls put into play. Already blessed with one of the best infield arms in baseball, Winn now has the offensive profile to project as a strong all-around major leaguer.
Logan O’Hoppe, C, Phillies: Added to the Top 100 Prospects list earlier this month, O’Hoppe has taken an unusual path to improvement at Reading. Often credited for mirage-like power gains, O’Hoppe has instead traded power for contact and approach, as he’s improved across his contact, zone contact and chase rate metrics. He’s taken a step forward from an above-average hit tool and approach player to a plus contact and approach hitter. O’Hoppe now displays a strong balance of bat-to-ball skills, advanced swing decisions and enough power to punish mistakes in the zone. These incremental improvements across a variety of already sharp skills give O’Hoppe a strong foundation as a future big league regular.
Emmanuel Rodriguez, OF, Twins: Power will always get the attention of the masses, and without question Rodriguez’s plus game power is the primary attraction in the outfielder’s profile. His sizable improvements in swing decision quality were steering the ship for Rodriguez’s 2022 breakout—a season that was likely cut short, at least temporarily, due to injury. His ability to go from average swing decisions to elite swing decisions in 2022 has made up for some of the natural swing and miss that comes with his launch heavy swing. His ability to swing at strikes nearly 90% of the time allowed him to hit more pitches he could drive. This led to Rodriguez blossoming in the Florida State League over the first half of the season. He is a potential center fielder with plus power and on-base ability.
Colt Keith, 3B, Tigers: Added to the injured list in early June, Keith was enjoying an excellent season at High-A West Michigan prior to sustaining a shoulder injury. Despite being nearly two and a half years younger than the average age of competition in the Midwest League, Keith was among its best hitters. Prior to the injury Keith was hitting .301/.370/.544 with 26 extra-base hits over 48 games. The most noticeable improvement for Keith was in the way of power production. He saw gains to his average exit velocity, 90th percentile exit velocity and barrel rate. This backs up reports from opposing teams’ scouts that Keith seemed noticeably stronger this season, showing bigger power both in batting practice and in games. By simply watching the tape of Keith from year to year it’s easy to spot both the physical transformation and the swing adjustments. Keith made a conscious effort to improve his in-game power. He achieved that, and his overall success as a hitter improved as well.
Spencer Steer, 2B, Twins: Over the first half of 2022 Steer has been one of the best hitters in the minor leagues while splitting the season between Double-A and Triple-A. Steer has seen incremental improvements to an already above-average skill set made up of bat-to-ball skills, approach and in-game power. Steer was a well-balanced hitter in 2021, but has made small gains that have yielded big results in 2022. He’s taken already strong average exit velocity, contact, chase and zone whiff rate metrics and improved them. His 100-plus point jump in OPS is a testament to his all-around improvements paying big dividends.
Lenyn Sosa, SS, White Sox: Recently promoted to the major leagues, Sosa has been one of the White Sox’s biggest development wins over the last few seasons. He played well over 82 games with High-A Winston-Salem in 2021 before struggling upon promotion to Double-A Birmingham. In 2022 Sosa showed major improvements in the way of bat-to-ball skills and swing decisions. While he was prone to chasing, it was often against pitches on the fringes of the strike zone. Year over year Sosa made nearly a 6% jump in contact rate while showing a moderate increase in power. His game production jumped significantly in 2022 as he hit .331/.384/.549 in 62 Double-A games prior to his big league promotion.
Milan Tolentino, SS, Guardians: Following an early June promotion Tolentino has struggled to find his footing with High-A Lake County. Prior to the jump up in level Tolentino was among the best hitters in the Carolina League. At the time of his promotion Tolentino ranked second in the Carolina League in batting average and on-base percentage. A greater than 11% jump in both Tolentino’s contact rate and whiff rate have seen the infielder’s in-game production blossom in 2022. How he fares in the coming months will be worth monitoring, but it’s important to keep in mind that Tolentino’s first half shows his ability to make tangible improvements year over year. A contact-driven profile suits Tolentino well as a potential super-utility type.
Other Names Considered: Luisangel Acuna, SS, Rangers, Austin Wells, C, Yankees, Dominic Fletcher, OF, D-Backs, Moises Gomez, OF, Cardinals, Matt Gorski, OF, Pirates, Daniel Montano, OF, Rockies, Quincy Hamilton, OF, Astros, Cam Devanney, IF, Brewers, Jonathan Ornelas, SS Rangers, Brandon Parker, OF, Braves