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February 15, 2007
In the midst of the offensive breakout that Blue Jays fans and many analysts had waited to see since 2004, Alex Rios developed a staph infection that cut into his playing time and effectiveness, interrupting the most productive season of his career. Rios had always been a valuable defensive player, so the boost in his offense last year made him out to be one of the better players on the Jays. The question to ponder now is whether or not Rios took a legitimate step forward in 2006, and if we can expect more of these offensive contributions in the future.
Alexis Israel Rios was selected by the Blue Jays in the first round of the 1999 amateur draft, pick #19 overall. He quickly signed that same month, and was shuttled off to Medicine Hat of the Rookie League. Rios' first two seasons at the Rookie, short-season A-ball, and Low-A levels didn't go well in almost every respect offensively:
AB AVG/OBP /SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Med.(Rk.) 234 .269/.321/.325 .145 16% .056 10 6.7% 12.3% Hag.(A) 74 .230/.256/.297 .081 24% .067 4 2.6% 17.9% Que.(A-) 206 .267/.314/.345 .131 22% .078 11 5.1% 10.1%
There's really nothing to like here at the plate; the walk rates are terrible and there's no power or high hit rate to compensate. Despite that, he was named the ninth-best prospect in the Pioneer League after his performance at Medicine Hat. In 2000, however, he was sent down to Low-A Queens after a poor 22-game performance at Single-A Hagerstown. Baseball America was somewhat optimistic about Rios heading into 2001, saying that he:
…has the potential to become a power-hitting right fielder with a plus arm…he has good bat speed and is shortening his long swing. The Blue Jays may have to be patient with Rios, but they believe he will eventually be worth a first-round pick.
Rios would move back up to Single-A for the 2001 season, this time with Charleston of the Sally League:
Rios was rushing through his at-bats, as evidenced by his very low walk and strikeout rates. He was making contact, but his BABIP was well below league average at each stop-.310, .283, .295, and .296 respectively, with the league averages much higher than that. With the lack of minor league data available from this time frame, it's tough to tell exactly what Rios' problem was. Was it poor luck, swinging at bad pitches, or his lack of power at this stage? Most likely it was some mishmash of those three items that was causing him to perform poorly. He wasn't a patient hitter, so he most likely wasn't getting the best pitches to hit, and he didn't have the power to drive all of these pitches as of yet.
Baseball America nevertheless jumped Rios up from the #17 to #8 prospect in the Blue Jays system for the 2002 season, with some interesting draft information and some praise thrown in their evaluation:
The Blue Jays took criticism in 1999 for drafting Rios in the first round. He signed for a below-market $845,000, as Toronto bypassed college talents such as Larry Bigbie, Matt Ginter, and Ryan Ludwick…what attracted scouts Tim Wilken and Chris Buckley to Rios was his swing, an easy, short stroke that comes naturally. He also makes consistent contact and is tough to strike out…his strike zone judgment needs to start including some walks…the Jays consider Rios' ceiling the highest in the organization.
It's safe to say Rios has turned out to be a better player than all three of those mentioned above, so a belated 'nice work' to the Jays on that one; not only did they save some cash with the pick, but they ended up getting the most talented player of the group. Rios' 2002 with High-A Dunedin was a step in the right direction-that is, towards Rios becoming a more productive hitter:
He wasn't that much more patient, but it was a start, and his high contact rate finally paid off in the batting average department. He wasn't hitting for any additional power yet, but the fact that his hits were starting to fall in was a positive sign when measured against the previous three campaigns. His BABIP jumped from a below-average .296 at Charleston all the way up to .342 in Dunedin. It wasn't high above the average or anything outlandish though, so chances are good this was legitimate progress for the young Jay prospect. What's more impressive is that he posted the positive campaign despite enduring multiple hand and wrist injuries during the season. The one thing Rios still needed to work on was being a bit more patient at the plate, as he was still not seeing many pitches each time up. That would change in 2003, though, with fantastic results:
His strikeout rates bumped up a bit, but so did his walk rates, the result of waiting on the right pitch to drive. Rios was a slender 6'5", so his power game was still very projectable; it finally started to show up during 2003, with 54 extra-base hits, 11 of them leaving the yard. He still did not walk much, but he would wait on a few more pitches until he found the one he could make solid contact with, which helped raise his BABIP all the way to .407 and add some more thump to his overall game. Walking a lot is helpful, but it's not the only way to be productive. Rios embraces one of those other strategies: see the (right) pitch, drill the pitch.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 was excited with Rios' results, and optimistic about the future:
An important distinction between plate discipline in theory and in practice is that you can get hung up on certain results without actually seeing what has worked out. Rios isn't a big walker, but he took to the organizational philosophy of learning to identify your pitch and whack it, and saw his numbers spike while making the jump to Double-A. Is he walking enough? Perhaps not, perhaps not yet, but the positive reinforcement that success and coaching can provide have to be factored in somehow…Rios was showing considerably more power in winter ball.
His progress helped him land the title of #1 Jays prospect according to Baseball America, which felt that he was turning into a very capable center fielder who "takes good angles to the ball and has a strong arm."
Rios would spend a little less than one-third of the 2004 season in Triple-A Syracuse before waving goodbye to the minor leagues and making his way to the majors:
AB AVG/OBP /SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Syr.(AAA) 185 .259/.292/.373 .168 29% .114 11 4.6% 15.4% Tor.(MLB) 426 .286/.338/.383 .197 26% .097 31 6.7% 18.3%
After struggling in Syracuse, the Jays called Rios up to the big league club anyways, and he performed fairly well there for a 23-year-old rookie. His power game dipped a bit, but he managed to maintain his Double-A walk rate from 2003. He still managed a very high BABIP as well-.355 is well above the average of .300-which helped keep his average up.
Rios improved his power game in 2005, and took the great leap forward in 2006:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2005 481 .262/.306/.397 .204 31% .135 29 5.4% 19.5% 2006 450 .302/.349/.516 .309 41% .214 39 7.0% 17.9%
In 2005 his BABIP fell to .314, which is around the league average but not high enough for someone like Rios, who continually puts the ball in play and wasn't hitting for power. His pitches-per-plate-appearance dropped to 3.6 from 3.8 that year, which leads me to believe he lost a bit of the patience he had learned from the 2003 season, and he wasn't quite drilling the ball as he should have been. Happily, 2006 was a completely different story, with career highs in every meaningful offensive category and the highest walk rate and XBH percentage of his professional career. What caused the change in Rios' numbers, and is it sustainable?
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Dif. 2004 3.8 22.8% 20.5% 56.7% 3.8% 1.3% .355 .325 -0.30 2005 3.6 31.4% 19.7% 48.8% 5.8% 5.8% .314 .317 -0.03 2006 3.9 41.6% 21.6% 36.8% 4.5% 11.0% .346 .336 -0.10
Let's start with the little things first. Rios brought his pitches-per-plate-appearance back up to a more respectable 3.9, and he increased his BABIP as well as the rate at which his flyballs turn into home runs. To make that jump even better for Rios, his flyball rate has climbed from a very low 22.8 percent in 2004 to a high 41.6 percent in 2006. His line drive rate has remained consistent, and his groundball rate has been the victim of this increase in his power game. He outperformed his expected BABIP in 2004 thanks to the extreme groundball rate, and his luck just didn't work the same in 2005. In 2006 he shed the groundball-hitter tag entirely and hit everything in the air, and his offense improved drastically for it. It looks like he found his projectable power. Part of the reason for this is that he shortened his swing considerably over the offseason, which led to a lot more pulled balls and power in his game. Let's take a look at his hit charts to see just how much of a difference there is:
One thing to be gleaned from these Rogers Centre charts is that the distance Rios hits balls has increased a bit each year, with the bulk of batted-balls in the outfield inching closer to the fence. Another thing you can see is that he started to use centerfield and left field much more often, and the result was 10 homeruns over the left field wall at the Rogers Centre. You can also see that there are fewer and fewer groundouts in these charts as you move from 2004 to 2006, which was certainly a boost to Rios' production.
The shift in his flyball directions is present, but not as severe as the change in his line drives. Shortening his swing to give him more power and enable him to pull the ball more often appears to have been an intelligent coaching move, as Rios has turned into a useful bat. His batted-ball data after his return is very consistent with his pre-staph infection data as well, so Rios did not revert back to pre-2006 form upon return.
Combine Rios' offense with his defensive abilities and you have yourself quite the player. John Dewan ranked Rios-who wasn't an everyday player and only had defensive data for two of the three seasons-seventh among qualifiers at +12 in his Plus/Minus rankings from 2003-2005, and David Pinto's Probabilistic Model of Range ranked him #11 among right fielders in 2006. His Rate in right was 107 last year as well, so there seems to be a consensus among many of the defensive systems that Rios is an excellent defensive right fielder.
Here's where it gets a bit interesting: PECOTA doesn't like Alexis Rios all that much (see comparable players for confirmation of that). Rios' weighted mean for 2007 is .280/.332/.457, and he would have to go all the way to his 90th percentile projection to match last year's batting line. His five-year forecast-his age-26-30 seasons, normally a player's peak-all looks roughly the same, with his EqA figures ranging from .270 to .277 during the period, as compared with his .290 figure from last year. PECOTA doesn't just take the last season into consideration, so Rios' 2004 and 2005 are also weighted into the forecasts. They should be, otherwise it would be very difficult to project anything meaningful. That said, Rios does have quite the situation going for him. His batting lines are not the only things that are completely different: his approach and batted-ball results are in a completely different place as well.
This isn't something limited to PECOTA. In fact, out of all the projection systems you can look at, his PECOTA forecast is one of the more optimistic, and I expect it will prove most accurate when it comes to Rios' 2007, thanks to the range of outcomes. Given that information, Rios is a guy you can probably bank on performing between his 75th and 90th percentile forecasts rather than his weighted mean, which has to make the Blue Jays and their fans happy in their chase for the American League East title.
Thanks to MLB.com and Dan Fox for providing statistical support for this article.