September 7, 2006
Looking back, Bill Hall's minor league career and his initial major league playing time suggest that his success the past two years seemingly came out of nowhere. After all, he was almost completely disregarded during his time in the minors. Of course, this was not necessarily unwarranted, as his performance didn't exactly inspire confidence. Hall was and is a player gifted with athleticism and tools, and as the 2006 season suggests, it took some time for them to ripen into productivity.
Bill Hall was selected in the sixth round--176th overall--out of Nettleton High School in 1998. The Brewers drafted him as a shortstop, the position he's currently playing, although it's expected that he will move back to third base when J.J. Hardy returns from injury. Hall's first two professional seasons came at the Rookie League Level, with mixed results:
Year Level Age AB AVG OBP SLG XBH% ISO BB% K% 2B+3B SB% 1998 Rookie 18 85 .176 .263 .212 20% .036 9.4% 28.1% 3 50% 1999 Rookie 19 280 .289 .329 .421 28% .132 5.0% 20.3% 17 70%
In his first half-season of pro ball, he didn't hit at all, but his walk rate was over 9%. The lofty strikeout rate and poor stolen base numbers were additional let-downs. Upon repeating the level, Hall hit much better, slugging over .400, cutting down on his strikeouts, and increasing his success rate on the basepaths. His walk rate took a nosedive, but his Isolated Power jumped almost 100 points. It's hard to nitpick when you get that sort of spike from a 19-year old with fewer than 400 professional at-bats.
After his fairly average season in 1999, the Brewers promoted Hall to Low-A Beloit in the Midwest League. Although a more productive effort than his 1998 debut, his 2000 season was a step backwards.
Year Level Age AB AVG OBP SLG XBH% ISO BB% K% 2B+3B SB% 2000 A 20 470 .262 .287 .370 32% .108 3.6% 25.1% 36 48%
His walk rate continued to crater, entering what could be called the "Shawon Dunston Zone," and catchers with a bit more experience routinely gunned him down on the basepaths yet again. His strikeout rate actually dropped a few percentage points, and that's basically the only positive of the season. Despite struggling in the Midwest League, the Brewers front office promoted Hall to High Desert, its High-A affiliate. It was seemingly counterintuitive, but something clicked for the young shortstop in 2001, at least until he was quickly promoted yet again to Double-A Huntsville:
Year Level Age AB AVG OBP SLG XBH% ISO BB% K% 2B+3B SB% 2001 A+ 21 346 .303 .348 .529 40% .226 5.8% 20.6% 27 67% 2001 AA 21 160 .256 .279 .375 29% .119 3.0% 27.4% 9 63%
After posting the highest Triple-Crown rate statistics of his pro career--along with somewhat improved BB/PA and K/PA rates and more tolerable work on the basepaths--Milwaukee threw Hall into Double-A, which doesn't jive with his performances. You would have been correct second-guessing (or even first-guessing) this one, considering that High Desert was one of the better hitter's parks in a hitter's league, with a park factor of 1146, so there was reason enough to be cautious about his improvements at the plate. Sure enough, Hall struggled mightily against advanced competition, posting numbers very similar to his poor 2000 at Beloit. Nevertheless, Baseball America named Hall as one of the top ten Brewers prospects after his first and only productive minor league season, but it would be the only time he found himself on such a list.
Baseball Prospectus 2002 requested that caution be exhibited in regards to Hall's lone productive campaign:
While he's athletic, his arm is wildly inaccurate for short, leading to 40 errors in 2000 and 45 more in 2001. Unfortunately, his defense might be his strong suit; the power that appears to be his only hitting skill was a High Desert illusion. Hall was named the Arizona Fall League's top prospect; before you get excited, recall that one year James Mouton was the AFL's star.
As The Fielding Bible and the Davenport Translations attest to, Hall has improved his defense from those Upton-esque figures. He certainly didn't do anything in 2002 that would make you think this comment was incorrect, though; he was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A, and you guessed it, performed poorly. He hit .228/.272/.301, keeping his walk rate at five percent and his strikeouts at 21 percent. The high batting average on balls in play he enjoyed in his previous years in the minors was nowhere to be found, as his BABIP was only .287 after four straight stops in which he'd done better than .342. There was really no reason to give up on Hall yet--unless you count the Brewers front office aggressively promoting him and potentially stunting his development--due to his tools and athleticism. He was still only 22 years old and had performed well in High-A just the year before, although it was somewhat park-aided.
Doug Melvin took over as general manager of the Brewers in October of 2002, and he stuck Hall back at Triple-A Indianapolis. Baseball Prospectus 2003 thought that this was the best thing for him:
It was a measure of the club's desperation that they tried to foist Bill Hall off as a prospect...One of the benefits of Melvin's arrival is that there's no reason for him to observe the obligations of the past regime and stick Hall in front of season ticket holders for 120 games any time soon.
John Sickels graded Hall a "C" prospect heading into the 2003 season:
…Scouts like his physicality, and he has decent speed, some power, and good defensive skills. But his strike zone judgment is horrid, and he was overmatched last year in Triple-A. He really had no business being there in the first place, given the very bad strike zone judgment he showed during his Double-A trial in '01…
It seems fairly obvious that Hall's largest downfall was not in his hands, as he wasn't the one promoting himself to higher levels when he wasn't quite ready. After his most productive half-season since early 2001 in A-ball, he was called up to the majors, and surprisingly did very well for himself:
Year Level Age AB AVG OBP SLG XBH% ISO BB% K% 2B+3B SB% 2003 AAA 23 354 .282 .335 .407 32% .125 6.9% 20.2% 27 48% 2003 MLB 23 142 .261 .298 .458 43% .197 4.5% 18.1% 11 50%
Everything looked good for Hall in Triple-A, outside of his sudden drop in power, but once he was promoted to the majors, it reappeared. His extra-base hit percentage and Isolated Power took hefty jumps, but his OBP and BB% were disappointing. Still, for a 23-year old who had rocketed through the minors for no reason other than a lack of legitimate prospects around him, it was an acceptable first effort.
Hall continued his act as a utility player in 2004, but the results were not as promising. He struggled against left-handers, posting an ugly .190/.239/.333 line against them, and only .238/.276/.374 overall on the season. His .223 Equivalent Average was below replacement level, but he did field a handful of runs above average on the season, which was promising in a developmental sense, especially considering he was playing multiple positions.
Baseball Prospectus 2005 noted the pending arrival of J.J. Hardy at shortstop for Milwaukee:
Formerly the shortstop of the future, Hall's offense hasn't really progressed over the last three seasons. He makes highlight reel plays defensively and has a military grade weapon for a right arm, but it is hard to look past the fact that he cannot hit major league pitching. He will likely keep his job as the backup at short until J.J. Hardy pushes him off of the roster.
PECOTA forecasted a .251/.301/.389 season line, well below average and only a smidge above replacement level. Luckily for Hall, he finally started to hit major league pitching at the same time Hardy struggled, hitting .291/.342/.495 with 17 homers and a walk in seven percent of all plate appearances. This line also included a complete reversal of fortune against southpaws, as Hall mashed to the tune of .336/.407/.560 in 125 at-bats against them.
For 2006, PECOTA projected a weighted mean of .268/.324/.439, which is understandable considering that he had only one legitimately good offensive season under his belt. However, he's hit much better than his projected .258 EqA, posting a .286 mark with a line of .265/.340/.555. He's continued to mash lefties, as he's hit .274/.402/.600 for the year, and he's also increased his walk rate to almost ten percent of all PAs.
Year P/PA LD% BA/BIP GB% FB% IF/F HR/F 2004 3.8 20.7% .321 42.5% 36.8% N/A 9.0% 2005 4.2 25.3% .339 42.2% 26.6% 6.0% 15.9% 2006 4.2 19.9% .321 34.7% 38.8% 6.6% 24.4%
The increase in Hall's production has come by being more patient than he was in 2004, as evidenced by the improvement in his P/PA, as well as cutting down on his groundballs while increasing his flyball rate. It seems as if the better parts of his performance from 2004 (the high flyball rate) and 2005 (the patience and power) combined together to create his 2006 campaign, where his HR/F has jumped to a level of a serious power hitter, with line drives and grounders dropped in favor of more flyballs. In 49 fewer at-bats, Hall has hit 18 more flyballs and 60 fewer grounders than he did in 2005.
Hall's improvement seems sustainable in the long run; he's still just 26, has finally adapted to the level of play he is at, and has improved his patience at the same time that he has added considerable power to his skill set. Granted, this does not mean Hall is guaranteed any, let alone many 30+ homer seasons in the future, but he has certainly turned a corner and advanced further than his 2005 season suggested he could. Not every player who is rushed as much as Hall through the minors gets to put together a productive career, especially a player with his initial assortment of weaknesses, but it looks as if the Brewers found themselves a productive player for third base or shortstop. For now, the Brewers can keep their options open, with any decision depending on what happens with Hardy's recovery from his latest injury, and whether or not top 2005 choice Ryan Braun remains at the hot corner as he moves up from Double-A next season.