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September 4, 2008
When you hear Ryan Ludwick's name nowadays, you think about a player who skipped from organization to organization and came seemingly out of nowhere to earn an All-Star appearance this season with the St. Louis Cardinals. What many people forget is that during the early part of the decade, Ludwick was a highly-touted prospect as a center fielder in the Athletics organization, but between a hip injury that threw his minor league career off track and his moving from team to team, he got a bit lost in the mix. Now the question on everyone's mind is whether or not the Ludwick we see today—the one hitting .303/.379/.599 on the season through Tuesday—is something we can expect to see in the future, or if this production is a mirage.
Ryan Andrew Ludwick, brother of former big-league pitcher Eric Ludwick, was drafted by the A's in the second round of the 1999 amateur draft out of UNLV. He fell to the second round because he failed to show the power that was expected out of him during his last year in college ball, but once the A's had him in their system, his power reappeared. Ludwick hit just .275/.348/.444 during his first (partial) post-draft season at High-A Modesto, a nice debut for a 20-year-old with college experience, and during his second year there he built on that by hitting .264/.359/.505 with 29 homers and 58 total extra-base hits.
On the basis of that production, Baseball America rated Ludwick as the third-best prospect in the A's organization heading into the 2001 season, though expectations based on what he could accomplish with more seasoning played a part in that rating. Ludwick had issues with off-speed stuff, due to his limited experience in the pros, and though he was at that time lauded for his defensive skills in center, scouts felt that right field would be his eventual home. Ludwick did not disappoint during his first year at Double-A Midland, hitting .269/.356/.503; though he was not showing the batting average people expected based on his college numbers, he had plenty of power, with 25 homers and 51 extra-base hits this time around. Ludwick wrapped up the year struggling during a 57 at-bat stint with Triple-A Sacramento.
That would be the end of his career as an Athletic. He was a piece in the deal between the A's and divisional rival Texas Rangers that brought Carlos Pena and Mike Venafro to Oakland, while Ludwick, Gerald Laird, Jason Hart, and Mario Ramos all ended up in the Lone Star state. Baseball America initially rated him the fifth-best prospect in the Ranger organization, but made sure to mention that Ludwick had been slow to make adjustments. That wasn't an issue opening the year in the high-offense PCL, where Ludwick would hit .285/.370/.548, but that success wouldn't translate to the majors, as he hit a poor .235/.295/.346 while striking out nearly 30 percent of the time. His season would end early when a stress fracture in his left hip needed to be treated.
Though Ludwick was then rated the seventh-best prospect in the Rangers organization, Baseball America had plenty of words of caution: he had holes in his swing, didn't use his lower half to generate power, and he needed to work on his two-strike approach. His injury raised questions about whether or not he would be able to fix those issues, or if he was a lost cause; as Baseball Prospectus 2003 put it, "Now the guy who looked like a fair bet to solve the Rangers’ long-standing center field problem may never be heard from again. Or he could be OK. This kind of injury is unusual enough that no one will have much idea until spring." Ludwick would come back, would eventually be traded to the Indians after a solid showing in Triple-A again, and he would hit .265/.306/.485; he obviously needed to work on his plate discipline still, but he had shown some quality power despite the low batting average.
This is where the issues began to set in for Ludwick: between the hip injury and a knee injury he battled for most of the 2004 season, he lost much of the time he should have spent refining his game in Triple-A or working on sticking in the majors. Instead, he tried to stay healthy, and produced poorly when he did make it to the majors for brief stints. In 2004 and 2005 combined, Ludwick had 91 big-league at-bats, and then would spend the entirety of the 2006 campaign playing for Triple-A Toledo at age 27. The .266/.342/.506 line that was impressive back at the beginning of the decade was far from it now, given Ludwick's advancing age for a prospect. Baseball Prospectus 2007 felt that Ludwick's season had gone well, but that he was slated to be a fourth outfielder with some pop in the majors.
Let go by the Tigers, Ludwick was invited to spring training by the Cardinals for the 2007 campaign. Though he didn't make the team out of camp, a .340/.380/.642 showing at Memphis—the kind of thing you can expect from a 28-year-old in the high minors—earned him a spot on the team when Preston Wilson went on the DL. Though his production dropped significantly after his promotion, he had a generally solid campaign, hitting .267/.339/.479 for the Cards with an EqA that was a tick above both the right and left field averages.
Then came this season, which has been the best of Ludwick's career, and it isn't close. He was projected for a useful .256/.331/.475 weighted mean, and he's instead hitting .303/.379/.599 into September, higher than even his most optimistic PECOTA forecast of .287/.364/.544. Although it looked like Ludwick was falling back to earth in June (.228/.298/.406 in 114 plate appearances) after a blistering first two months of the season, his bat came to life yet again in July, and he's hit .325/.400/.631 since. Part of the reason for this transformation in performance is due to Ludwick's power combined with his lack of ground-balls; his G/F ratio is 0.6, not far off from his career rate of 0.7, but instead of hitting lazy fly balls and popups, Ludwick hits fly balls with authority (20.5 percent of flies have been homers) and he hits tons of liners to boot. His 28 percent liner rate is much higher than what's normal for a big-league hitter, and he leads the league by more than two percentage points among players with 450 plate appearances, roughly the distance between second place (Bobby Abreu) and 14th (Garrett Atkins). Though there are always a few players who reach that level with their line-drive percentages, very rarely do you see the same names dominating the peaks of the list. Since 2005, there have been 12 instances of players with liner rates of 25 percent or more (min. 450 PA), and not one of those has been a player performing the feat a second time.
Based on this, chances are good that we will see Ludwick taper off some next year. The good news for the Cards' outfielder is that his .349 BABIP is below the expectations set by his soaring line-drive percentage, so if we took away a chunk of that to bring him closer to the league average of 20 percent, he would be around a .310-.320 BABIP. Also, those missing liners have to go somewhere, and as a grounder or a fly ball, they are more likely to become outs; this will also take away from his production somewhat in the future. Moving his rate to the 20 percent mark is a compromise between his recent liner-friendly ways and his previous numbers, which tended to hover a bit below average, between 17-18 percent. Between his strikeout rate (26.1 percent this year, 26.4 for his career) and the liner rate that will eventually drop off, we'll most likely see Ludwick's average drop back down next year. That's not the same thing as saying we're going to see the old, league-average hitter again; his 90th percentile PECOTA forecast was already optimistic, and if you adjust his current line for a 30-point drop in BABIP, that puts him back down there. There is certainly nothing wrong with a corner outfielder who can slug well over the .500 mark.—Marc Normandin
Josh Hamilton may hog the media spotlight in the "great story" department this season, but Ludwick deserves his own fair share of it. After issues with injuries kept him a Quad-A player for several years, the Cardinals outfielder is in the midst of a career year. He finds himself among the best in the senior circuit in several offensive categories, even earning his first All-Star bid this year. As Bill James said in a recent roundtable, it's surprising Ludwick even had a starting job this year, let alone an All-Star berth.
How has he done it? Well, while we might expect a righty to perform better against the opposite-handed lefties, Ludwick has actually hit like-handed righties much better, repeating something he did last season. Against southpaws, he has put together a .264/.351/.556 line, nothing at all to feel bad about, but against righties—and why doesn't anyone ever call them northpaws?—he's hit .324/.395/.621, in just about twice the amount of plate appearances. What gives?
Ludwick has seen an equal amount of fastballs from both lefties and righties, but there are significant discrepancies in his rates of off-speed pitches seen. Lefties favor changeups as their secondary pitch, with the rate sums of curveballs and sliders falling short of the cambios. Righties are much more prone to throw sliders as their chief secondary option, limiting their curveballs and changeups. Despite the discrepancies, it appears that Ludwick, like most power hitters, loves pitches middle or middle-in. Based on the amount of called strikes, swinging strikes, and fouls in this area, he seems to struggle most with pitches down or down-and-away.
Fastballs from lefties have been put in play the most, with changeups from righties finding their way to the field off of Ludwick's bat the least. He has handled fastballs quite well, and happily (from his perspective) he sees them very often. It will be very interesting to see what happens if/when pitchers begin to mix their offerings a bit more. We do not really have an extremely large sample to say that a pitch here or there will benefit or hurt Ludwick, but the patterns this year seem to follow those of most other power hitters: stay away from pitching him down the middle or middle-in, and attack the down-and-away zone with off-speed pitches.—Eric Seidman
Ludwick could always hit; he just couldn't stay healthy earlier in his career. While the Cardinals deserve some credit for taking a chance on him and recognizing that he was a MLB-caliber hitter, several other teams took the same shot and came away with a lost season. Ludwick's history includes a fractured hip, right knee surgery, and a litany of muscle strains, usually in the legs; simply put, Ludwick was an injury-prone player with upside. Since 2005, when Ludwick lost much of the season to a fractured wrist, he's been relatively healthy. By the time the Tigers took a chance on him in 2006, he was finally ready at 27, the prime of his career, and he spent much of 2006 coming back from that wrist injury, rediscovering his former power and adjusting his swing. What the Cardinals recognized is that the worst of Ludwick's injury history was past.
What you'll notice is that all of his injuries (save for the muscular ones) are traumatic. Absent a trauma or some reason that he was having these kinds of traumatic injuries time and again, the way you'll see with so-called "all-out" players, there's the chance that he could stay healthy. It's like crossing a road with light traffic: you're likely to be able to walk across without getting hit most days, but it only takes one car at the right time to ruin your whole year.
The Cardinals have Sig Mejdal, one of the top injury analysts in the game, in their front office, and theirs is precisely the type of team that can understand and adjust for this kind of risk. Ludwick was brought in with an opportunity to show that he could stay healthy at Triple-A and hit his way up to the big club, which is exactly what he did. The idea that Ludwick is still injury-prone is open to debate. Yes, he'll be more risky as he ages and as he's more exposed by full-time play, but again, it appears that early in his career, Ludwick's luck worked against him more than his body. On a health level, there's no reason to think he can't do it again, at least for one more season.—Will Carroll
Ludwick's phenomenal season has generated plenty of attention, and with good reason. Unfortunately, plenty of time has been wasted trying to figure out where other teams failed in their evaluation of him, or in looking for patterns in the sand in order to follow and find "the next Ryan Ludwick." However, Ludwick is not proof that there are a number of players putting up big numbers at Triple-A who could do the same in the big leagues, he's simply proof that players are capable of late-career adjustments, and that sometimes, consistent health and therefore playing time is what a player needs to achieve his potential.
There's one thing about Ludwick that I always remember—the potential was always there, and that is one thing that separates him from most Triple-A mashers. Ludwick was a second-round pick in 1999, and that's only because he had a disappointing junior year at UNLV; he entered the spring as arguably the top power prospect in college baseball. So scouts saw star potential in him a decade ago, and it just took time (and health) to develop. The other difference between Ludwick and your standard Quad-A masher is athleticism. He's hardly a one-dimensional slugger, because Ludwick has always been a well-toned athlete who even had above-average speed early in his career. Those are certainly two building blocks for stardom, but finding every guy in Triple-A two years ago with those things going for them will still only result in one Ryan Ludwick. These things happen, and not being able to predict them is not a cop-out, it's a matter of admitting that there are tons of factors in a player's development that no amount of study can define.—Kevin Goldstein
Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.