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May 7, 2014

Painting the Black

Rites of Springer

by R.J. Anderson


The funny thing about prospects these days is how quickly our attention shifts elsewhere after they reach the majors. There are exceptions—Mike Trout, Jose Fernandez, and Yasiel Puig come to mind—but, for the most part, the increased exposure during prospects' minor-league days has caused our collective attention span to waver once the players' feet are submerged in big-league water. For some prospects, this can be a good thing—and for a select few, it's a very good thing.

Anthony Gose is a good example. Back in August 2012, Ben Lindbergh examined Gose's first 70 plate appearances, and concluded the young outfielder was not ready for the big leagues. Gose had 27 strikeouts and a groundball rate exceeding 70 percent at the time of publication. He'd go on to play in 36 more games that season, in which he'd hit .245/.330/.373 and tally seven more strikeouts than hits. Nearly two years later, Gose is still trying to break into the majors as a regular. Score one for the boss.

If Lindbergh wanted, he could re-purpose much of his Gose material for a George Springer article. The Astros' supposed bright spot is now three weeks into his big-league career and has numbers comparable to Gose. Springer has struck out two fewer times than Gose had in four more plate appearances, and has a groundball rate exceeding 50 percent. Springer's batting average is a little better than Gose's was, their on-base percentages are even, and Gose owns the edge in slugging percentage. There's one other area where Gose owns an advantage, and it might be the most important: his poor effort came during his age-21 season; Springer is 24.

Perhaps Springer's early-career struggles should have been expected. The biggest question throughout his developmental days was whether he would make enough contact for his physical gifts to play. Springer has plenty of raw power and speed to burn, yet his max-effort swing—which features some length—and his eagerness to pull the ball, along with some stubbornness to adjust in two-strike counts might limit how usable those tools are over the course of his career. Add it all together and it's not a surprise that the college-tested Springer managed to strike out in more than a quarter of his career minor-league trips to the plate.

The Astros hoped the same hope with Springer that other teams do with their windmill-like prospects: that the damage-to-contact ratio would make it easy to overlook the flaws. So far, Springer's hasn't. He's tallied just two extra-base hits (neither a home run) to date, and has been caught stealing on two of his three stolen-base attempts. Springer's game has been drowned in negatives almost from the get go.

Investigating how the league is attacking a young player who is struggling to this extent is always a worthwhile exercise. Conventional wisdom suggests the league likes to test newbs with hard stuff in and soft stuff away. That has been the case with Springer, though pitchers are throwing him fastballs away, too, likely due to his swing path:

Despite being pitched away, Springer has stayed true to his reputation by pulling more than 40 percent of the balls he's put into play; just one of his hits has gone to the right side of second base:

Of course it's one thing to look at those charts, and it's another to watch some of the at-bats. Unfortunately for Springer, he had to face two of the AL's top pitchers in recent days: Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez. The results (1-for-6 with three strikeouts) were predictably poor, and the processes weren't the finest, either.

Springer's night against Scherzer started well. He worked a 3-0 count against the reigning Cy Young winner, but failed to square up a few fastballs over the plate. Scherzer pushed the count full before yielding a groundball single. The next time around, Springer fell behind 1-2, yet had the chance to do some real damage on a belt-high slider that missed its location. Instead, he swung through the pitch, as the image below shows. Scherzer tripped Springer with some clever sequencing in the third at-bat, coercing an uneventful groundball to end the rookie's night at the plate.

Compared to Scherzer, Hernandez showed no mercy. The King threw Springer 10 pitches in three plate appearances, with two of the three ending in Ks. Hernandez followed the same pattern in each encounter: he'd start the plate appearance with a slider, then turn to his fastball, then his changeup. In the first at-bat, he had to go back inside with the hard stuff to record the strikeout. In the second at-bat, the changeup left Springer with what Tommy Rancel calls Bambi legs:

The third showdown was no kinder to Springer, as Hernandez altered his location, though not his pitch selection. The former Cy Young winner still went slider-fastball-changeup, but each pitch was located in and off the plate. Springer grounded out.

There's no shame in a youngster looking mismatched against two veteran studs. What should worry Astros fans is how easy it is to pluck other examples. To wit:

  • Dominic Leone, a fellow rookie, faced Springer later in the Hernandez start and recorded a punch out on four pitches: cutter well off the plate away (which Springer could not check his swing on), a pair of misplaced pitches up and in, and then a fastball down the middle taken for strike three. Springer had no defense.
  • Same with a sequence against Ryan Cook earlier in the year. Cook is predominantly a fastball pitcher, who uses his heater about two-thirds of the time, but threw Springer three straight sliders. The first two were fouled off, yet the third—located down and away—inspired the UConn product to fish.
While it's too early to hit the eject button on Springer's career, there is reason for concern. He's shown thus far to be someone who likes to swing the bat, even if he misses at a similar rate as teammate Chris Carter. That's a bad combination. Another thing working against Springer is his age. He's not a baby, not even on the bushy-tailed Astros. Both parts of the double-play combination (Jose Altuve and Jonathan Villar) are younger with more big-league experience (and success), and Matt Dominguez is only about a month older.

The good news is Springer has the physical tools and time to get things right, and a bad start doesn't necessarily mean a whole lot. (After all, Mike Schmidt had a sub-.200 average through his first season-plus and he turned out okay.) For now, one has to wonder how long his struggles would need to continue before the Astros ponder sending him back to the minors. And to think, it seemed criminal that Springer wasn't in the majors to start the season.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Prospects,  Houston Astros

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