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Thinking Out Loud: Thoughts on some Royals prospects

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2021 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game

It wasn’t that long ago I ranked what I thought was the 80 best prospects in the Royals org, in the days I used to rank things more. There were some on that list I was obviously too high on but there were also some I think I was rightfully low on. That’s kinda the nature of the prospect lists, no one is always right and it’s really just about who gets the least amount wrong. I’d say even the best prospect rankers probably only get 40% of it right, and it’s more identifying who isn’t a prospect rather than which of the good prospects is the better.

On park factors...

A little less longer ago (a few weeks actually), I wrote about how the offensive environment in AA and AAA has exploded. It might have exploded in A/A+ too, but with all the team/division switches that happened, it was too hard to find a baseline whereas AA and AAA stayed mostly the same. I didn’t really get into it much in that article, but after some enlightening discussion on Twitter, I’ve sorta abandoned my favorite hitting metric in wRC+, only for the minors though.

The issue, as explained wonderfully by Jonathan Judge of Baseball Prospectus in this thread on Twitter, dives into more of what wRC+ is maybe missing with this year given that explosion (TL;DR it’s a good bit of how to model things and some fun Bayesian inference in which wRC+ is buying into a small sample without adjusting things enough). Now let’s be clear: Judge and the site he is a part of has a competing product in DRC+, that while modeling things differently, tries to answer roughly the same thing (how a hitter did). But Jonathan isn’t going to shill his product or browbeat wRC+ or FanGraphs because he likes DRC+ more, so I trust him here that he’s coming from a good place (as is everyone at BP).

One big thing that DRC+ has that wRC+ does not - for the minor leagues not the majors - is an adjustment for the park a player plays in (DRC+ considers a lot of factors for an outcome - league, park, pitcher on the mound, etc...). Baseball America has a midseason park factor update for the minors, which aren’t adjusted for year-to-year changes but do show what some MiLB parks run environments are. Since I’ll be talking about the players from this team mostly, I’ll list the home run park factor for teams in AA-Central where the Northwest Arkansas Naturals play.

Amarillo (ARI) 133

Arkansas (SEA) 65

Corpus Christi (HOU) 136

Frisco (TEX) 187

Midland (OAK) 49

NW Arkansas (KC) 111

San Antonio (SD) 58

Springfield (STL) 117

Tulsa (LAD) 97

Wichita (MIN) 100

That’s a low of home run friendly parks! One park (Frisco) has a 187 home run park factor, meaning 87% more home runs than an average park. The Naturals have played at:

Northwest Arkansas - 111 HR PF

Arkansas - 65 HR PF

Tulsa - 97 HR PF

Springfield - 117 HR PF

San Antonio - 58 HR PF

Frisco - 187 HR PF

Wichita - 100 HR PF

A very diverse group of parks, with a Wilmington Blue Rocks-esque death to fly balls park factor in San Antonio to a Mercury like gravitational environment in Frisco (both weirdly Texas located parks).

Here are those same parks and their home run park factors in 2019.

Those are some pretty wild swings, plus the introduction of a new park. All this to say, for 2021 purposes we have to adjust for the park, since wRC+ uses prior years as the baseline and doesn’t adjust for the park. At least while things settle down with the new environment and all the league/team/park changes, I think DRC+ is the metric to use for minor leaguers.

That though leads to some big discrepancies.

This was as of a few weeks ago, so things have changed and players have moved up/down, but it’s more to just outline the large discrepancy in wRC+ and DRC+. By wRC+, Nick Pratto was a 56% above league average hitter. By DRC+, he was still good, but a 16% above league average. Rudy Martin was either a 60% above league average hitter or an 11% above league average hitter if you used wRC+ or DRC+, respectively. The standard deviation of qualified hitters in AA this year by DRC+ is ~17. For wRC+, it is 27.

I like Rudy Martin, by the way.

On prospects...

Okay, with all of that out of the way, here are some thoughts on some of the Royals better prospects (in no order).

Bobby Witt Jr

I used to think the MLB comp on him is Trevor Story, but after watching him this season I’m not sure that fits. I think it was always a lofty comparison for any player (Story has been worthy nearly 20 WAR through his age-28 season so far this year), but it sorta fit Witt Jr’s 80th percentile outcome or so.

I think Witt Jr is going to strike out a little less than Story (who has struck out 30% more than league average for his career) but hit for a bit less power as well. Story probably gets dinged a bit heavier than he deserves in wRC+, as Coors fields has a massive park factor reduction - rightfully so. However, Story away from Coors is top 20 in both average batted ball distance and exit velocity since 2018.

Witt Jr will hit his share of home runs, but I think his swing and approach is going to end up with some more line drives and grounders ultimately than the elevate and celebrate types. I wouldn’t say he has a bad approach, but I think he chases some stuff he’d be better off laying off. He still makes hard contact, but it’s a bit diminished because of what he is swinging at (the same thing that one of my comparison for Witt does). Again, I want to stress he still makes hard contact, but I expect his hard hit% will always run a good deal higher than his barrel%. The bat speed is real and there is more feel for the bat then I was expecting, so that’s certainly been a good thing.

So I’m going to drop the Story comp and give you a different one: a combination of Tim Anderson and Chris Taylor. Now, I know that isn’t sexy, like comparing someone to Manny Machado, but Anderson and Story are both really good players.

FanGraphs

Both above average hitters, good baserunners, who maybe don’t have a strikeout problem but strikeout at an above league average rate. For their careers, they have been worth ~3.5 WAR/162 games combined while running good max exit velos and barrel rates. Together this year they have combined hit .295/.363/.468 (130 wRC+), 8.7% BB%, 24.5% K%, with a .173 ISO, all for 6.0 combined WAR (or 3 WAR each). Their combined walk rate is 6% below league average and their strikeout rate is 6% above league average (relative to league average, not an absolute difference).

I think that would be a good outcome for Witt Jr if he had a 130 wRC+ with positive baserunning and defense, for a 3 WAR season as the calendar nears August in let’s say, 2023 or 2024.

I’ve certainly come around a bit more on Witt Jr. As I said when I wrote him up in 2020, I’d rather be late to a good prospect now than early to a bad one.

MJ Melendez

I don’t think it is worth looking into Nick Pratto and Witt Jr being promoted to AAA while Melendez stay in AA. It seems like it was just a function of the organizational roster. They likely wanted to keep playing Sebastian Rivero/Meibrys Viloria/Nick Dini, while the MLB roster is full with Salvador Perez and Cam Gallagher and they aren’t going to carry three catchers. I don’t know if he finishes the year in AA or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

I don’t disagree with him cooking a bit more in AA. His stock is higher than it was in 2019, no doubt, but I think there are still some concerns. First, I don’t think his approach against non-fastballs has gotten much better. He took several really bad swings vs left handed pitchers last week against Arkansas. All against changeups, all on pitches outside the zone on the far side. He’s punished fastballs and pitches in the zone, but I still worry about the more difficult stuff or if he’ll have a severe platoon split.

Second, I think there is a good bit of benefit he is getting from the explosive environment and the mystery baseball being used in AA. Currently he is sporting a 22.4% HR/FB%, which would be one of the highest in AA history and up there with Paul Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton. While Melendez, has obviously good power, I don’t think it’s going to end up at with him hitting 30+ home runs a year. It feels a bit Salvador.

I think a comp for him would be Jason Castro at sort of the higher end of the “if he makes enough contact and walks” spectrum or Mike Zunino if he is just muscling balls over the wall and playing good defense but striking out a lot.

FanGraphs

Nick Pratto

I think Pratto is the hardest of the three here to figure out. Keith Law just ranked him as the #46 overall prospect in baseball, Baseball America said he was almost a top 100 guy, and FanGraphs bumped him up to a 45 FV but not much of a threat to make their top 100 and the 10th best prospect in the org. There is clearly a wide range and lack of consensus, with the spectrum he falls on for you dependent upon 1) if you buy the 275 PA in AA as real in combination with the swing change and 2) how valuable 1B defense is.

I’d probably rank him above #10 in the org (FanGraphs has him behind Jeison Guzmán - which seems weird) but I’m just not sure of where he’ll ultimately end up career wise in the majors. He’s used 2021 to prove that he’s earned a shot at some point in the majors, even if he won’t get 1,000 PA to prove himself. But even the best defenders at 1B have to also really hit, and that’s always the question with any position player prospect. Could Pratto put up a 110 wRC+ with good defense? Sure, but that would make him something like Daric Barton/James Loney/Gaby Sanchez rather than Freddie Freeman.

There is a really wide range of outcomes here again...

FanGraphs

There is Brandon Belt: a good defender at 1B who is one of the better hitting 1B in the league the past decade or so.

There is Carlos Pena: a good hitter with power and took some walks but struck out a lot for his era.

There is Russell Branyan: ran a .250 ISO and above average walk rates, power and a good OBP, but also a very higher strikeout rate.

There is Ronald Guzman: Maybe you haven’t heard much about him but he was a top 100 prospect and Futures Game attendee that couldn’t overcome contact issues, even if when he made contact he stung the ball (also played good defense).

There is Michael Chavis: Another top 100 prospect, he started out hot and had a promising debut at age 23, but never saw many pitches he didn’t like.

Would it be surprising if Pratto hits something like .250/.320/.420 (a .170 ISO) for his career with good defense?

FanGraphs

That’s similar to what Keston Hiura, Austin Riley, Clint Frazier, and Hunter Dozier have done the past few seasons (at various positions mind you but Pratto’s defensive adjustment will be worse).

Pratto is a better hitter than Melendez I think, but he’s not a catcher. Witt Jr is a better hitter than Pratto I think, and Pratto clearly isn’t a shortstop. That’s the main conundrum. We can debate all day whether or not Eric Hosmer lived up to his hype, oscillating between good and bad seasons, but he’s a good example of the bar for 1B being really high from both a hitter and defensive standpoint. Hosmer has been worth 10 WAR his entire career, which I think is a reasonably good success but maybe not for a top 10 prospect like he was. But even in Hosmer’s best fielding years, he was worth negative defense runs after adjusting for 1B.

Quick hitters (and pitchers)...

Asa Lacy - My final Royals prospect list was in the preseason of 2020, so I didn’t do any formal list that included Lacy (I just don’t have the time to do long lists anymore), but I did do sort of a quick/ad hoc ranking in my post-draft thoughts:

  1. Daniel Lynch
  2. Jackson Kowar
  3. Asa Lacy
  4. Kyle Isbel
  5. Brady Singer
  6. Bobby Witt
  7. Khalil Lee
  8. Gabe Cancel
  9. Kris Bubic
  10. Michael Gigliotti

Looking back on that, I think I should been a bit higher on Singer, at least over Lacy (again I feel fine with my Witt Jr ranking given this is a snapshot in time), given Singer’s floor is clearly higher than Lacy’s and I got fooled by the raw stuff a bit too much.

2021 is a lost season for Lacy. When he is in the zone he’s fairly nasty and can bump it, but the problem is he just can’t consistently throw strikes whatsoever. There are pitchers who get too cute around the zone or pitchers who have decent stuff and try to live on the edges but don’t have quite enough command to do that (Brad Keller). Lacy is neither of those, he just has no ability to control where the ball goes when he tries to pitch outside the strike zone box. It’s either a swinging strike or a ball ten feet outside the zone.

He has an absolutely bonkers strikeout and swinging strike rate, only exceeded by a bonkers walk rate. It’s Josh Staumont turned up to 11.

But now Lacy is hurt, exiting the game early on July 20th with an injured that at this moment is undisclosed. Given his poor performance and possibly serious injury, it’s not worth pushing him much harder this season and worth perhaps shutting him down. He can work innings at the complex leagues or do his normal bullpen sessions, but he would probably benefit from a reset.

Vinnie Pasquantino - Feels like he is who everyone wished Chris “Red Hercules” DeVito would be. He hits the ball hard, and far, but he’s a poor defender and runner and it’s hard to see an everyday MLB role for someone like that. You could probably convince yourself there is a Luke Voit outcome somewhere in there, even if it’s only a 5% chance.

Michael Massey - I think if I was still doing Royals top prospect lists, I’d probably have Massey higher than most but to be honest, it wouldn’t happen until he hits in AA instead of just A+, where he is a 23 year old power conference college draftee who is behind the development curve for his demographic. Fun guy to watch and follow, but not quite ready to pencil in a major league lineup for 2023+.

Kyle Isbel - Really liked him in the minors and thought he didn’t get enough of a trial in the majors. That’s becoming a common theme for the Royals this year strangely, in a year where they are going to lose 90+ games, they can’t seem to find time to give prospects a chance. He’s at risk of becoming a bit of a tweener and/or AAAA guy. He needs 200+ consistent PA’s at the major league level so the org can figure out what they have in him.

A random stat board

Not entirely sure what to take away from this yet, but here is a leaderboard with some various stats, particularly hard hit rates, batted ball direction, and contact rates. These numbers are from Sports Info Solution, so they are legit. The color scales are relative to all MiLB players in A+/AA/AAA who had 90+ PA in one of those leagues, with the data representing the highest league that players has played in (again min. 90 PA in that league).

Pratto and Melendez have some of the best hard hit rates in the minors but Pratto has a below average contact rate. Witt Jr is average to slightly above for both.

I added Hard Hit% + Pull% to try to look at guys who are pulling balls a lot and pulling for power. Pratto ranks highly there. Then went Hard Hit% + Opposite Field, as that is a good measure of power (just to be clear this all hard hit balls, not just opposite field ones, so the measure is flawed a lot). Melendez overtakes Pratto there. And then the last column is Hard Hit% + Contact%. To be clear, while you in theory want both those numbers as high as possible, running a high contact rate isn’t necessarily a good thing (remember I mentioned Witt Jr making contact on less than ideal pitches to do so - or even think Sal Perez). But it’s reasonable to think “okay this guy makes a lot of contact and hits the ball hard, so it’s a good sign”.