On July 11 of this year, the Royals executed a transaction that demonstrated an unusual level of creativity for the organization, trading a comp pick to Atlanta for a trio of prospects. The centerpiece of the deal was outfielder Drew Waters, whom Fangraphs ranked as Atlanta’s 10th-best prospect in June.
A second-round pick out of a Georgia high school in 2017, Waters cruised through the lower levels of minor league ball and made his AAA debut shortly before his 21st birthday. This earned him prospect attention and he found himself on most publications’ top 100 lists. However, he seemed to stall at AAA. In parts of three seasons at Gwinnett, Waters failed to produce a league-average batting line and struck out around 30% of the time, more than triple his walk rate.
In 2022, his prospect status dwindled. Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs has long been concerned about Waters’ swing-happy approach. While he got away with it in the lower levels thanks to his strong tools, it seemed to get exposed in AAA. He described Waters as “an abnormally dangerous fifth outfielder.”
Perhaps the change of scenery was just what he needed as Waters raked in Omaha to the tune of a .940 OPS in 31 games. He hit seven homers and stole 13 bases without being caught. Both totals eclipsed what he managed in 49 games in Gwinnett. On August 22, he was called up to Kansas City and stayed there the rest of the season. That night, Waters made his debut and walked in the winning run. He was a mainstay in the lineup down the stretch, playing 32 games and getting regular reps in all three outfield spots. Waters took advantage and posted a strong batting line of .240/.324/.479, good for a 125 wRC+.
Waters has always had above-average raw power, but it seems like Kansas City’s hitting staff may have done something to help unlock it. After hitting six home runs in 52 games in the minors for Atlanta in 2022, he clobbered seven in 31 games at Omaha before smacking another five in 32 games in Kansas City. His 18 homers across all levels was easily a career-high. He posted a .246 ISO in Omaha and a .240 in Kansas City, which both represent a career-high for Waters (disregarding his three-game stint in A+ earlier this year).
Part of that power improvement may have come from a change to his approach. Waters has always been an aggressive hitter and typically only walked about 6% of the time in the lower minors. He bumped that up to 10.2% in AAA in 2021 before it dropped back to 7.6% in Gwinnett this year. After being traded, his walk rate jumped to 14.0% in Omaha and stayed strong at 11.0% in the majors.
Although it was a small sample, Waters was one of the best hitters on the team this year. There were 18 Royals that accrued at least 100 plate appearances this year. Waters ranked highly in several key categories:
- Walk rate: 4th (11.0%)
- Isolated slugging: 1st (.240)
- wRC+: 3rd (125)
- Barrel rate: 3rd (12.5%)
- Chase rate: 4th lowest (28.3%)
- Swing rate: 6th lowest (46.7%)
Waters demonstrated a very patient approach with the Royals. He showed both the willingness to take pitches and the ability to do damage when he did swing. It’s very difficult to be disappointed by what Waters produced in his rookie season.
While the numbers on the surface look good, further digging into his profile reveals red flags. You may have looked at the numbers I listed above and thought to yourself “that seems like cherry-picking.” If so, you’d be correct! Let’s now cherry-pick the numbers that paint a far less rosy picture:
- Strikeout rate: 1st (36.7%)
- Swinging strike rate: 6th (13.4%)
- Contact rate: 16th (71.3%)
- Hard-hit rate: 16th (28.1%)
- Groundball rate: 2nd (48.2%)
Waters has had strikeout issues for almost his entire professional career and those didn’t disappear after arriving to the midwest. He was striking out 28.7% of the time in Omaha and that number jumped upon promotion to what would have been the highest K-rate among qualified hitters. While he’s pretty good at taking pitches for balls, Waters has major problems making contact when he does swing. This includes pitches both in and out of the zone. He also simply didn’t the ball hard consistently, posting a hard-hit rate below that of Whit Merrifield.
So how did he manage a 125 wRC+ despite these red flags? A 26.3% HR/FB rate explains some of it. Even if Waters can maintain that strong barrel rate, it’s unrealistic to expect over a quarter of his flyballs to go over the fence if he doesn’t hit the ball hard more consistently. He also posted a .353 BABIP. While that’s well above the league average, Waters consistently posted high BABIPs in the minors as well, which signals this is more of something to monitor going forward as opposed to a warning sign.
Additionally, defensive metrics did not approve of Waters’s work in the outfield with a DRS of -2, a UZR of -2.5, and an OAA of -2. Most of that damage came in center field as all three metrics agree he was at least average in the corners. This is also a sample size of 253 innings, and he was generally viewed as a plus center fielder in the minors, so it’s way too early to write him off with the glove. He has plus speed and the ninth-strongest arm in the game, so the tools are there, but he’ll have to polish his below-average jumps.
In summary, it’s difficult to believe that Waters’s 2022 performance is sustainable given the underlying data. It is very challenging to hit well while striking out as often as Waters did in 2022. Since 2010, there have been only five qualified player seasons with a strikeout rate of at least 36.7%. Just two of those produced an above-average wRC+ and just one was worth at least 1.0 fWAR. That one was Joey Gallo in 2017. It’s not just the strikeouts that are problematic though. Gallo made up for the strikeouts by having almost double the hard-hit rate (52.2%) that Waters did in 2022. Strikeouts can be overcome to some extent, but it is extremely difficult to be successful offensively without hitting the ball hard.
While there are many red flags, it’s still worth noting that we’re talking about a 32-game sample. It’s not yet time to write off Waters. If he can play center field defense as well as minor league evaluators expected, his floor is essentially Brett Phillips with more raw power. Whether or not he can reach his offensive ceiling comes down to what adjustments Waters makes over the offseason to hit the ball harder and cut down on whiffs in the zone. If he cannot improve in those areas, Longehagen’s prognosis of “an abnormally dangerous fifth outfielder” seems apt. Given how quickly batted ball and plate discipline metrics can stabilize, we’ll probably have a good idea of this by the 2023 All-Star break.
What grade would you give Drew Waters for his 2022 season?
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