If you’ll forgive me an absolutely cliché start to an article, a lake effect is defined as “a meteorological phenomenon in which warm moist air rising from a body of water mixes with cold dry air overhead resulting in precipitation especially downwind—usually hyphenated when used attributively” per Merriam-Webster. Similarly, if you’re a Cubs fan, this article might be raining on your parade, after the rookie put together an impressive debut season. Sure, Lake put together a .284/.332/.428 slash line over 236 at-bats, adding six home runs and four stolen bases. He looks the part, standing 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and displays incredible athleticism in the field. Lake came up through the minors as a shortstop, then as a third baseman, but he’s settled in to the majors as an outfielder, making his starts in left and center field for Chicago.
Ben Carsley mentioned Lake as an option for the hot corner in Chicago in his Hot Corner Conundrums article, and while that would certainly be a boost to his fantasy value, I’m not sure we can bank on that happening. Lake couldn’t crack a third base rotation that included Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom and, wait for it, Donnie Murphy this season. So it might be a tall task to get the requisite numbers of appearances there next season, when there’s a chance that Javier Baez might be playing there. Even if it’s not Baez (that would be an aggressive move), it could be Christian Villanueva, Valbuena again or anyone else who could actually provide defensive value, which Lake can’t. So while it’s not unreasonable to hope for some sweet, sweet infield eligibility, counting on it would be foolish.
So now we’re looking at a 24-year-old outfielder (for 2014 season) with the aforementioned slash line, who was always touted as having loud tools with limited utility. Was 2013 just the beginning of something grand? Could Lake have started putting his considerable talents to use? In short: no and no. Lake finished the year with some shiny statistics, but as always when looking forward and not backward it is about process over product. How did he arrive at that impressive looking slash line? It begins with a strikeout rate a shade under 27 perent, which only reinforces the issues scouts saw all along: a great swing, impressive bat speed, and the inability to refrain from getting himself out by chasing pitches outside the zone. This is also supported by a swing rate at pitches outside the zone three percentage points above league average, coupled with a contact rate on those swings a full TWENTY FIVE percentage points below league average. Some may argue that means he’s due for regression in some respects, and they might not be wrong, but coupled with scouting reports on lack of discipline, he might just be swinging at pitchers pitches too much.
Lake compounds his inability to make contact by swinging at nearly everything, with a swing rate near three percentage points above the league average and a walk rate near three percentage points below. Take a player who is striking out near 27 percent of the time and walking only five percent, and rarely will you find a player as productive as Lake was in his major-league debut. It’s tempting to assign this production to his BABIP, which was an elevated .377, but at the same time, Lake showed a penchant for above-average BABIPs in the minor leagues. Perhaps because when he does make contact, his loud tools show through both in regards to hard contact and speed. Even if that is the case though, we can safely assume at least some regression in BABIP if only because Lake’s 27 percent line-drive rate (six percentage points above league average) is unsustainable.
Don’t get me wrong—Lake is a joy to watch play, and when he connects, it’s a thing of beauty. None of that, however, changes the likelihood that he will continue to make less contact than is necessary for his ongoing success. In the end, he’s more of a utility man/bench player in real life and someone who you end up picking up/dropping based on hot streaks in fantasy. If there’s someone who believes in your league, by all means sell high now because the data backs up the scouting reports here: there’s plenty to like, and plenty more to worry about when it comes to Junior Lake.