January 9, 2008
Sifting through the remaining free agents shows us that the available options are mostly part-time players, guys coming off of disappointing campaigns, or Barry Bonds. It's not clear which non-Bonds classification Corey Patterson belongs to yet, considering some of the seasons he's had in the past are on both the positive and negative ends of the production spectrum. Is Patterson still capable of a few more productive seasons, or is he more likely to be a speedy fourth outfielder from here on out?
Donald Corey Patterson, the son of former NFL defensive back Don Patterson, attended Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia where he was named a Second Team High School All-American outfielder in 1997 and a First Team High School All-American outfielder in 1998. He helped to lead his team to the Georgia state championship in his senior year, hitting .528 in 38 games with 22 homers and 38 steals.
The Chicago Cubs would select him with their first rounder of the 1998 amateur draft, making Patterson the third overall pick. The lefty wouldn't sign until mid-September of that year, so his debut came in 1999 for Single-A Lansing:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 1999 Lansing(A) 475 .320/.358/.592 47% .272 52 4.9% 16.7%
Considering he was only 19 and this was his professional debut, Patterson's season is pretty impressive. He hit for a high average with tons of power while stealing 33 bases at a 79 percent success rate. He led the Midwest League in slugging and took home Prospect of the Year honors and Top Prospect honors from Baseball America after the season. The most glaring issue with Patterson was, of course, his plate discipline. He walked in less than five percent of his plate appearances, which might work out at Low-A but will become problematic as you move up through the system. His .357 BABIP contributed to his lofty batting average as well, though BABIP figures are higher the lower in the minors you play.
Patterson's next stop would be Double-A, where his numbers would take a hit:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 W. Tennessee(AA) 444 .261/.338/.491 46% .230 31 8.9% 22.7%
Patterson took a step forward in plate discipline only to take a few steps back everywhere else in his game. Walking in roughly nine percent of his plate appearances was a positive sign, though his strikeout rate increased by even more. As his ISO reflects, his power still stood out, but his batting average sank as his BABIP did (down to .306), and he only managed to successfully steal 66 percent of the time. His OBP also had the benefit of 10 HBPs, though for some players taking one for the team seems to be a skill. Patterson also had 42 at-bats for the Cubs during his 2000 season, and they went about as well as you would expect for a young player with holes in his approach and only two years of pro experience, as he hit .167/.239/.333.
The 2001 season would be Patterson's last in the minor leagues, despite his struggles there. Baseball America not only ranked Corey Patterson as the top prospect in the Cubs' system, but he was also the top prospect for both Jim Callis and Will Lingo, while coming in as the #3 prospect for Allan Simpson. Patterson also graced the cover of the 2001 prospect book, and BA observed:
Patterson offers the best combination of athleticism and baseball skills of any prospect in the game. He's the best hitter, the faster runner and the top outfield defender in the organization. His other two tools, power and arm strength, are both above-average. His top-of-the-line speed is probably his most impressive physical asset… Patterson has more than held his own while being rushed through the minors… He has batted .195 against left-handers as a pro. He needs to tighten his plate discipline, and his ability to drive pitches that are out of the strike zone actually hampers his ability to draw walks… Scouts believe Patterson can correct all of those flaws with more experience. They're understandable, considering his age and how much he has been pushed.
Baseball Prospectus 2001 also liked Patterson, and had the same warnings about his issues:
Corey Patterson is still one of the best prospects in the game, but not a lock to win the job in center field this spring. He has the arm and range for the position and will be one of the best in the league when he improves his routes to the ball. In 2000, he started spreading his stance, but not quite to a Von Hayes stretch. The Cubs spent a lot of time working on his bunting for base hits and apparently almost none on his selectivity. He kills off-speed stuff, struggles with heat, and adjusts well within at-bats. Without improvement, he'll be a mix of Garret Anderson's and Devon White's better skills. But he's going to improve.
Both of these statements expected the Cubs to give him a bit more time to correct the flaws in his game, but instead they watched him struggle at Triple-A and then called him to the majors:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2001 Iowa(AAA) 367 .253/.308/.387 34% .143 25 7.2% 16.1% 2001 Chicago(MLB) 131 .221/.266/.336 24% .115 3 4.4% 25.2%
Patterson's power dropped significantly with the move to Triple-A, and his batting average (and BABIP) was too low for someone who doesn't walk all that often and isn't hitting for power. He continued to make poor decisions on the basepaths as well, going just 19 for 27 on steal attempts, a 70 percent success. The Cubs brought him up at the end of June anyways, with predictable results. The 21-year old struggled even more with his power, and his plate discipline was shot as he struggled to do something productive. His strikeout rate shot up while his walk rate dropped back down to the subpar levels of his debut year.
Baseball Prospectus 2002 was all over this, hoping the Cubs would leave Patterson alone in the minors to work on his plate discipline so as to keep his top prospect status alive:
Another year, another time to say Corey Patterson is still one of the best prospects in the game, but… Baylor sent Patterson down after spring training to have him work on his plate coverage. The problem is that he's still trying to cover too much of it. Patterson can occasionally paste a bad pitch, but on what level is that skill just negative reinforcement? If he doesn't learn to lay off bad pitches, he's going to continue to struggle to identify the pitches he should wait for and hurt. He's dropping into Steve Finley/Devon White territory in terms of what can be expected of him, which is still very good. The Cubs need to stick him at a level and leave him alone.
The negative reinforcement part sticks out. Patterson was a young player struggling to hit for power, and he was clearly sacrificing patience in order to make something happen offensively. 2002 wouldn't look all that different for Patterson, as he would manage just a .253/.284/.392 line. 2003 however, was a different story, as things seemed to come together for the young slugger:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2003 Chicago(MLB) 329 .298/.329/.511 38% .213 24 4.4% 23.4%
Patterson hit for average and power, though his walk rate still left a lot to be desired. The major issue with this season, outside of the plate discipline, was that Patterson's average was kept afloat by a fortunate .356 BABIP. This figure came about thanks to a high line-drive rate (over 21 percent) that Patterson has never come close to again in his career, and is something important to remember when forecasting his future performances.
Patterson also tore his ACL during the season, and would miss the rest of the year. Baseball Prospectus 2004 wasn't so sure about the player he would turn into after coming back from injury, saying (again) he could become Devon White if his speed comes back, and that despite working on his plate discipline, he was taking the wrong pitches. Since he missed the last three months of the season, we don't know where he would have ended up production-wise, though his lofty liner rate and BABIP most likely would have fallen and left us with some standard Patterson fare. PECOTA wasn't convinced his production was for real, and forecasted a .272/.321/.441 line for 2004.
Patterson has never again been as productive as that fluky half-season in 2003, though he has managed to be a decent player half the time:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 Chicago(MLB) 631 .266/.320/.452 38% .185 39 6.7% 26.6% 2005 Chicago(MLB) 451 .215/.254/.348 32% .133 18 4.9% 26.2% 2006 Baltimore(MLB) 463 .276/.314/.443 31% .166 24 4.3% 20.3% 2007 Baltimore(MLB) 461 .269/.304/.386 29% .117 28 4.4% 14.1%
These seasons are characterized by low walk rates with relatively high strikeout rates (excepting 2007 on the strikeout side of things) and an inability to keep a decent batting average or consistent power. Patterson has become a much better basestealer during his time in the majors, and has a success rate of 80.3 percent for his career, 82 percent for the past two seasons.
Patterson's problems with strikeouts and inconsistent power mean that if his BABIP bottoms out, he's well below replacement level at the plate. His basestealing helps somewhat, but he's only so useful if he can't get on base. Defense remains Patterson's strong suit; he was the seventh ranked center fielder in John Dewan's Revised Zone Rating in 2007, and finished first in 2006. It's a shame that he never learned to correct any of his other flaws, as he's never been able to really improve on his game since his very early 20s. Baseball Prospectus 2007 sums this up very well:
The idea that the average player improves through his twenties to age 27 is mistaken, as that trend really only applies to the average major leaguer. What distinguishes a typical major leaguer from a typical minor leaguer is the ability to learn and improve. Patterson doesn't have that talent, but his basic skills are good enough to keep him in the majors for years to come.
One thing that hasn't helped Patterson's offense over the years is his tendency to be a pull hitter. He lacks the power to make use of this trend, so his numbers have suffered without the ability to go the other way with a pitch. Taking a look at his 2006-2007 seasons using Dan Fox's BIP charts puts things into perspective:
Patterson rarely goes the other way with a well-hit liner, and his batting averages on grounders anywhere besides up the middle are very poor. In 2007, over two-thirds of his grounders were to the right side of the infield, where he hit just .195. Patterson also has almost no power to the opposite field, with most of his extra-base hits and almost all of his homers coming in right field or right-center. As the BP2K7 quote from earlier stated, Patterson's inability to make changes in his game has kept him from improving from the player he was in his earlier years, and his tendency to pull the ball with the power he doesn't have is part of this discussion.
Year P/PA FB% LINEDR% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2002 3.4 31.9% 20.4% 47.7% 14.2% 9.9% .312 .324 +.012 2003 3.3 34.1% 24.9% 41.0% 17.6% 15.3% .356 .369 +.013 2004 3.5 40.6% 19.4% 40.1% 17.0% 13.6% .328 .314 -.014 2005 3.4 36.2% 17.8% 46.0% 24.1% 11.6% .263 .298 +.035 2006 3.2 40.1% 21.1% 38.9% 17.8% 11.9% .317 .331 +.014 2007 3.2 41.0% 15.2% 43.9% 14.3% 5.2% .299 .272 -.027
As previously mentioned, his 2003 season was the result of a fluke line-drive rate from a half-season's worth of at-bats. His BABIPs have for the most part been around the league average, though he dipped well below that in 2005 before he was dealt to the Orioles. Patterson pops out at an alarming rate, though he's come back down to "only" 14 percent in that category. He struggles more in years with more groundballs-something easily understood when you look at the batting averages on those charts above-and his liner rate and homers per flyball this year cratered, hurting his performance significantly.
Patterson doesn't have much appeal left when it comes to considering him for a starting job. He's a fine defender, one of the best at his position, but every season you run him out in the lineup you chance seeing something like this 2007 campaign. At best, you're going to see another 2006, which is fine for many teams as long as he can steal bases effectively and play well above-average defense in center, but at this stage he's no sure bet to do these things consistently. Teams who still need another outfielder would be served best by locking up Patterson to a one-year deal with incentives and maybe a club option and using him as a fourth outfielder, which is a far fall from the days when he was a top prospect.