Identifying Hit Tool Standouts Through Statistical Analysis
Where have all the hit tools gone? Nobody hits .300 anymore! We need more balls in play! These are common complaints and questions you’ll hear in any conversation pertaining to the current state of the modern game. This has often left me to ask, is contact the new market inefficiency? Not just contact, but the ability to work tough at-bats and grind out hits. In line with my earlier post identifying OBP and power prospects, today I look to identify the best hit tools in the minors.
In order to do this I wanted to identify a few skills using different metrics. First, bat-to-ball skills, contact rate and strikeout rate give me a fairly good idea of bat-to-ball ability. Second, I chose approach and pitch recognition. While walk rate might make some sense here, it could cut off a number of players that have good approaches that skew toward contact. This is why I chose to use chase rate. It gave me a good idea of how frequently a player identified pitches outside the zone, which obviously correlates to on-base ability. Finally, I mixed in batting average to further parse down this group to those that performed above a certain level in 2021.
The sample below is all prospect-eligible position players with over 200 plate appearances, a 20% strikeout rate or lower, a 77% contact rate or higher, a 23% chase rate or lower and a batting average of .270 or higher. All players are listed in order of 2021 wRC+.
Leonardo Jimenez, SS, Blue Jays
Our 10th-ranked prospect in the Toronto system, Jimenez had a standout season in 2021. After five games in the Florida Complex League, Jimenez was promoted to Low-A Dunedin, where he hit an eye-popping .315/.517/.381. Obviously his Bondsian OBP stands out, but so does his paltry power output. Jimenez looks to work walks and put the ball in play, and rarely has hit for impact. A dislocated shoulder prior to the 2021 season certainly didn’t help matters in the power department, either. After the conclusion of the minor league season, Jimenez headed to Arizona, where he made up lost reps in the Arizona Fall League. The Blue Jays infielder has plus bat-to-ball skills and a discerning eye, making his hit tool stand out among a strong group below.
Anthony Volpe, SS, Yankees
The 2021 season was truly a banner one for the Yankees top prospect. Volpe burst onto the radar as a high school teammate of Jack Leiter at Delbarton (N.J.) High, but made a name for himself with his work during the 2020 shutdown and the subsequent 2021 season. Volpe combines the best quality of contact on this list with all of the baseline characteristics used to identify the best hit tools in the minors last season. In addition to displaying strong bat-to-ball skills, on-base ability and pitch recognition skills, Volpe’s swing is already fully optimized for power with the steepest average launch angle on this list.
Josh Smith, SS, Rangers
Acquired by Texas in the Joey Gallo trade, Smith is an under-appreciated middle infield prospect with serious chops at the plate. He rarely chases, works deep into counts and destroys pitches in the zone, showing a knack for the barrel and the ability to drive the ball gap to gap. He has advanced pitch recognition skills paired with plus barrel control. Beyond his contact and approach skills, Smith displays average game power with the ability to hit 15-18 home runs with lots of doubles. A versatile defender, Smith could be a part of the wave of prospects to reach the big leagues from a good Texas system.
Justin Yurchak, 1B, Dodgers
Left unprotected for the delayed 2021 Rule 5 Draft, Yurchak had a shot to be selected coming off a great season in 2021. A hit-over-power first base prospect, Yurchak led the minor leagues in batting average in 2021, splitting his season between High-A and Double-A. He’s the embodiment of a professional hitter, making contact with pitches all over the zone, working deep into counts and consistently proving to be a difficult out. He’s a unique profile in that he’s a first base-only defender that can hit, but lacks the power to project as an everyday player at the position.
Steven Kwan, OF, Guardians
Added to the 40-man roster in November, Kwan is arguably the best bat-to-ball hitter in the minors with a contact rate above 90% in 2021. He had a breakout 2021 campaign and is the owner of the best contact rate and chase rate on this list. His innate barrel control came to the surface in 2021 as he showed increased home run power despite below-average raw power metrics. Kwan has a knack for identifying pitches and taking optimized attack angles to generate his best contact quality. An above-average runner with the ability to play all three outfield positions, Kwan could be a factor in Cleveland as soon as 2022.
Abrahan Gutierrez, C, Pirates
Gutierrez was originally signed by the Braves for $3.5 million back in 2017, but the deal was voided in the wake of the Braves international signing scandal. He eventually signed with the Phillies for a substantially lower figure of $550,000 and toiled in the lower levels of the minor leagues, showing good bat-to-ball skills but a lack of impact. While Gutierrez did not add a tremendous amount of power between 2019 and 2021, he did impress with Low-A Clearwater for 50 games, hitting .288/.420/.429. He was acquired by Pittsburgh at the trade deadline and finished out his season with 22 games at Low-A Bradenton. An extremely advanced approach and plus bat-to-ball skills allow Gutierrez to walk more than he strikes out without being overly passive. Gutierrez was left unprotected for the 2021 Rule 5 Draft, but was unlikely to be selected as a Class A catcher.
Adley Rutschman, C, Orioles
It was a little surprising that Rutschman didn’t qualify for our OBP and power prospects list, as he just missed a few thresholds by percentage points. That said, Rutschman’s inclusion here speaks volumes about his well-rounded skill set as a hitter—though I hear his defensive abilities are not too shabby—as he pairs an advanced approach and pitch recognition with plus bat-to-ball skills and switch-hitting power. Reading that back it sounds like a fictional player from a video game. Outside of the power and defensive chops, Rutschman is one of the minors' best pure hitters, rarely chasing and doing damage on pitches in the zone at a high rate. He’s the No. 1 prospect on our 2022 Top 100 Prospects list for several reasons, including his standout hit tool.
Felix Valerio, 2B, Brewers
Our No. 21 prospect in the Milwaukee system was acquired from the Mets in January of 2019 in exchange for Keon Broxton. Valerio has always shown advanced plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills dating back to his professional debut with the Mets Dominican Summer League squads. He continued to hit for contact and get on base with the Brewers Rookie-level affiliate in 2019, and across two stops of Class A in his 2021 full-season debut. He’s undersized at 5-foot-7 and uses it to his advantage, covering the strike zone with innate bat-to-ball skills and feel for the barrel. Power is not yet a part of Valerio’s game but he showed increased game power in 2021, and his bat path is optimized for gap-to-gap drives.
Spencer Horwitz, 1B, Blue Jays
The 2019 24th-rounder out of Radford hit right away after the draft against younger competition in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, but was very much an afterthought in the Blue Jays system coming into 2021. The first baseman performed at High-A Vancouver, hitting .291/.401/.445 across 105 games before a late-season promotion to Double-A New Hampshire. An extremely high contact hitter that walked more than he struck out in 2021, Horowitz produces fringe-average underlying power metrics but it’s enough to hit for moderate impact. The upcoming 2022 season will be a true test for Horowitz, as he faces age appropriate competition for the first time over the course of a full campaign.
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Seth Beer, 1B, D-Backs
One of the most decorated freshmen in the history of college baseball, Beer reached the big leagues for the first time in 2021, and is coming off a strong Triple-A campaign. Over 100 games with Reno, Beer hit .287/.398/.511 and showed plus bat-to-ball skills, advanced plate discipline and above-average game power. The question for Beer long term centers around his defensive role, but with the incoming National League DH on the horizon it could open up playing time for Beer. Despite a near-.400 on-base percentage at Triple-A in 2021, Beer’s approach is predicated on making hard contact and putting the ball in play. His underlying contact and approach numbers point to a player who could settle in quickly at the big league level.
Austin Martin, OF, Twins
The Blue Jays selected Martin with the fifth overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft and rewarded him with the second-highest bonus in the class. He was immediately assigned to Double-A New Hampshire out of minor league camp in 2021 and split time between the outfield and infield. Martin showed a knack for discerning between balls and strikes, fastballs and spin, and made a high rate of contact. What was missing was impact, as Martin slugged below .400 over his 56 games with the Fishercats. He was traded to the Twins alongside teammate Simeon Woods Richardson for Jose Berrios. He joined Double-A Wichita, where he finished out his season showing a similar lack of punch over 37 games. What Martin has lacked in power he’s made up for with plus bat-to-ball skills and elite on-base and pitch recognition skills. If Martin can tap into average game power, he could develop into one of the best hitters in the game by his peak. Until then, it’s a leadoff skill set with below-average game power.
Jordan Groshans, SS, Blue Jays
With three current prospects on this list and another player they drafted fifth overall and then traded, it’s safe to say the Blue Jays value contact and approach. Groshans is the most highly touted of the trio of Jays on this list, and possesses both the highest ceiling and greatest power projection of the three. He showed plus bat-to-ball skills and a keen eye at the plate that allowed him to pick up spin remarkably well. It’s all the more impressive when you consider he had never seen more than 200 at-bats in a season prior to 2021, and had just 23 games of experience above the Class A levels.
Jacob Hurtubise, OF, Reds
Drafted in the 39th round of the 2019 draft by the Mariners, Hurtubise returned to West Point for his senior season with Army. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hurtubise played just five games for Army before eventually signing with the Reds as a nondrafted free agent in 2020. He’s an elite speedster that likes to put the ball in play, and has a knack for bunting for base hits. He has bottom-of-the-scale power, however, as Hurtubise never hit a home run as a collegiate or as a professional. Hurtubise is a true throwback hit tool type, but one that’s produced strong results early in his professional career.
Maikel Garcia, SS, Royals
Signed out of Venezuela during the 2016 international free agency period, Garcia had a breakout campaign split between both levels of Class A in 2021. Added to the 40-man roster in November, Garcia ranked 28th on our Royals Top 30. He’s an instinctual player that gets the most of his abilities on both sides of the ball. At the plate he shows plus bat-to-ball skills and mature instincts for pitch identification. He has below-average game power but did make strides in his underlying exit data in 2021. He has the look of a utility infielder that can provide timely hitting and quality at-bats.
Matt Vierling, OF, Phillies
Regardless of how the rest of the offseason plays out for the Phillies, Vierling likely played his way into the picture for everyday at-bats in 2022. He rose from Double-A to the majors before the end of the 2021 season and made starts in important games down the stretch. Vierling added power during the 2020 shutdown and it showed in games during the 2021 campaign. In fact, Vierling posted the best overall exit data of any player on this list. However, it’s not the increased power that earned the outfielder inclusion on this list, but his advanced plate discipline and plus bat-to-ball skills. Without a ton of depth in the outfield at the major league level, Vierling is positioned to contribute in a big way in 2022.