There’s a bit of conventional wisdom in the baseball ether that says players with certain body types—namely, short, slight ones—have limited power potential and thus limited ceilings. It appears in scouting prospects already in the minors, and it appears in the scouting of amateur players ahead of the draft. This year’s rumble for the best American amateur talent begins Monday.
Which brings us to the ways this conventional wisdom presents itself in real time: Consider Oregon State middle infielder Nick Madrigal. A few weeks back, MLB.com’s Jim Callis downplayed the chance that Madrigal is taken no. 1 overall—a perfectly valid and apparently correct bit of prognostication—by saying simply that while he “might have the highest floor of anyone in the 2018 draft crop, he’s also a 5-foot-7 second baseman who doesn’t have the power of a Jose Altuve or Dustin Pedroia and doesn’t fit the profile of a typical no. 1 overall pick.”
To the untrained eye, this would appear to be, at best, a precarious guideline to follow in today’s game. Or, at worst, a dogmatic, plug-and-play conclusion formed in an earlier decade. I wasn’t sure, though, whether the exploits of Altuve and Mookie Betts, the career of Dustin Pedroia, or the very early performance of Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, constitute solid reason to doubt the conventional wisdom. So I decided to pose some questions to members of BP’s excellent prospect team. —Zach Crizer
Crizer: Do you feel recent major-league performances form enough of a pattern to generally change how you assess shorter players?
Craig Goldstein: I don’t know that I’d go so far as “generally,” but I’m starting to question myself. I’ve publicly mused about my miss on Albies and his power, but it’s also worth noting that some of these guys (Pedroia, Scott Kingery, maybe Jason Kipnis if you wanna toss him in) were all high picks in general, just not all first-rounders (in fact, all three were second-rounders from Arizona colleges). But Pedroia topped out at 21 homers in a season, Kipnis at 23, and we don’t know what Kingery’s power will translate to at the major-league level. Plus, there’s the ball from the second half of 2015 through 2017, and what role that played. None of that is game-changing, and while Altuve is a different story, he’s more unique than is being implied by lumping him in with some other smaller guys who happen to hit for some power.
This is a lot of words to say … well … I’m still not sure. We should also factor in the number of guys fitting this profile whom we never think about, just because … well, they never made it. Or never even popped up on our registers because they were never going to make it.
Jarrett Seidler: I have a theory that there’s a distinct class of player here making huge, unexpected game-power leaps: athletic, high-contact, bat-speed and barrel-control types with good command of the zone—usually a smaller zone because they’re average-or-smaller players—who have a flat swing plane and “take what the pitcher gives them.” There’s usually an effort to bulk up in the upper body a little, and then they meet up with a hitting coach who tells them to stop trying to poke opposite-field singles and start uppercutting almost everything hard. With their inherent bat speed, surprising strength, and existing ideas of what to swing at, that leads to a lot of extra-base hits. Plus, some of your mishits while doing that fall in the same place you were trying to poke the ball to initially.
That’s not to say we should project every slap-hitting infielder with this profile to gain four grades of game power, because that’s insane. Take Kevin Newman as a counter-example. Newman went in the same draft as Kingery; they had similar profiles as slap-hitting college infielders, but Newman went in the first round instead of the second, because he was projected to have a better hit tool and a higher likelihood to play significant shortstop in the majors. Fast-forward three years and Kingery has signed an eight-figure extension and is in the majors to stay, if not quite performing yet, while Newman hasn’t hit for average above the Florida State League and keeps putting up slugging percentages starting with three.
This isn’t easy. Nobody on the planet had Albies turning into what he’s turning into. If you thought Albies could be a role 7 player a couple years ago, it was batting titles and Gold Gloves, not months where he’d uppercut the crap out of 22 extra-base hits. Should I have a changed expectation for, say, Nick Gordon based on Albies? We’re certainly the high guys on Gordon (and a few others with this profile), and part of it probably is that we’re projecting a wider range of high-side outcomes for him than other folks. At the least it should be a reminder that those high-side outcomes are possible.
Jeffrey Paternostro: There is some survivorship bias here, too. I think of it as akin to fastball velocity. Obviously there are major leaguers with a Kyle Hendricks fastball, but a far larger percentage of dudes who throw as hard as Noah Syndergaard get shots and have major-league success. The minors are littered with 88-90 mph command dudes, and most don’t turn into Hendricks. Most shorter, hit-tool middle infielders end up populating the lineups and benches of your Double-A and Triple-A affiliates. They don’t turn into Albies (who as Jarrett noted, was a top prospect with a high-end upside outcome before this power surge). But, as a class, these are ultimately outlier prospects.
With that said, it’s easier to sell a scout on a dude who looks like Leody Taveras, or Micker Adolfo, or Jose Pujols. And the truly elite power dudes still look mostly like you’d imagine truly elite power dudes to look like. So then we get into thornier subjects like the composition of the baseball, and how the underlying fly-ball and ground-ball rates across the league aren’t really changing. With Madrigal, he hasn’t struck out in 60 plate appearances while playing in the Pac-12. If you’re going to be a top draft pick as a 5-foot-7 second baseman, there better be no doubt you can hit. And if you think he has an elite hit tool, who cares if the power ever comes? Altuve was an All-Star before he cracked double-digit home runs.
Wilson Karaman: The self-selecting sample is, I think, a key thing here. It’s absolutely a trap that’s easy to fall into for all of us to track players by type and profile. It’s how our brains work—we try to associate patterns to make sense of the world. And especially in situations where you only get maybe a one-series look at a guy, or a handful of ’em over the course of one or two seasons, it’s just a natural inclination to comp a guy’s size, physicality, approach to the game, etc., to guys who display similar traits.
On the other side of things, the stigma is … there for a reason? The history of the minor leagues is wall-to-wall with undersized hitters who aren’t and weren’t Pedroia, Altuve, or Albies. Those guys have absolutely elite physicality, hand-eye coordination, and baseball intelligence. They’re freaks of nature. Certain profiles have a higher degree of success than others. And shorter/smaller dudes don’t tend to be the ones who have long, successful careers in the majors. Or at least haven’t.
Jarrett’s point is well taken on the ongoing adaptation of certain elements with that profile to the current direction of the game. I do think certain profiles probably breed a higher error bar for successful evaluation than others, but I’m not sure smallish middle infielders are chief among them? At least not yet?
Crizer: Sure, that makes a lot of sense. I guess the thing is that some people do seem to really care whether the power comes for Madrigal. Jarrett already touched on this, but what distinguishing features would push you to bump up the power and thus overall projection on one of those already-strong hit/defense prospects? Are there any current prospects who could fit the bill?
Karaman: I’d need to see a strong underlying hit tool, to start, probably coupled with physical projection to add strength without compromising too much of the physicality and flexibility that the middle of the diamond demands. Luis Urias of the Padres is kind of tailor-made for this type of experiment, I think. He’s got lightning-quick hands and out-sized bat speed with sneaky present strength and some projection for more. But he’s been hella young at all stops and at least through last season hasn’t tended to leverage up very often.
Seidler: You’re always looking for the elite athletes, the high-end hand-eye coordination, the ones who can pick up anything. Mookie Betts is the guy I always think of as the godfather of this group of players, which I’ve touched on before—projected as a well-rounded 10-12-homer up-the-middle player at the time of his call-up due to lack of physical projection, even after he’d repeatedly shown power in the minors, and he’s now a superstar corner outfielder creeping into the conversation as one of the game’s best power hitters.
What are some things we know about Betts that might be relevant to that jump? He has always displayed tremendous command of the zone, walked more than he struck out at every minor-league level except Triple-A, while hitting for high averages everywhere. He always displayed great bat speed and control. He moved really fast through the minors for a player with his skills, which caused him to be underrated on lists because he was just improving so fast that he fell through certain cracks. What most of us missed, myself included, was thinking there was a lack of “physicality.” And maybe we pay too much attention to what things look like instead of the underlying nature of what things are.
Willie Mays was listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, and hit 660 homers without modern nutrition, weightlifting, and equipment. Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle were only a touch bigger. Betts is listed at 5-foot-9 and he’s skinny, and therefore was never “projectable” in the Jose Pujols or Micker Adolfo way. But if you can get past that he’s a deceptively jacked dude for his size, in the same way Altuve or Albies is. He’s not Dee Gordon, or at the real extreme, Carlos Tocci. And Betts is a phenomenal all-around athlete, a multi-sport star in high school who gets all these quotes about how quickly he picks everything up and how many sports he could’ve made it in. Isn’t he basically a pro-level bowler in his spare time?
Paternostro: I’m probably better at evaluating bowling mechanics than hitting mechanics, and yeah, Betts has a pro-level physical game, which is impressive given that he essentially took several years off from the sport after high school. If he spent a year or so learning equipment and lane adjustments, he could easily be competitive on tour. Muscles are different of course, but throwing a bowling ball and swinging a bat are both muscle memory and repetition games, so it shouldn’t be shocking he excels at both.
(This is an aside, but he arguably isn’t even the best baseball player/bowler out there right now. Former Giants pitcher John Burkett has cashed in a bunch of Senior Tour events the last few years.)
That brings up an interesting point more generally, though. It’s harder to find these “premium athletes” in baseball nowadays. The end of two-sport deals, more restricted bonus pools—not to mention the paucity of pay in the minors—and the increasing early specialization across baseball due to the rise of pay-for-play amateur showcases have limited these kind of late-blooming general athletes. Even if Betts is a rare breed of athletic polymath, how many baseball players coming out of high school nowadays even have college opportunities in other sports? I don’t have the data to back up an assertion that they are more likely to break out in this way, but it feels plausible.
This is a different kind of breakout than Zach is asking about, but it feels like a good place to tee up Jarrett about Luis Guillorme.
Seidler: So, Guillorme is an increasingly jacked dude. He has incredible hand-eye coordination, great strike-zone judgment, has consistently hit for average, and will show some raw power every now and then. But he’s also hit for no game power at all: three professional homers in 500 career games. He’s got a very flat swing plane in game situations.
How much of a chance is there that Guillorme goes Albies and starts lifting the ball hard? It’s clearly both “some” and “less than likely,” but it creates an unusually huge gap between, like, his 75th and 90th percentile outcomes. And it might create some extra downside risk if he starts uppercutting the ball and it just leads to lousy contact. This change in approach isn’t going to work for everyone.
Crizer: There’s an obvious matter to address: Not all short players have the same underlying skills. If you are projecting power onto less traditional frames, what traits are you looking for?
Goldstein: Contact ability paired with bat speed, as Jarrett touched on above.
Paternostro: Approach, too, knowing where you can zone for pull-side power. Otherwise you get Dilson Herrera and Daniel Johnson trying to hit pitches at their throats 450 feet. There should also be underlying raw power. Daniel Murphy doesn’t fit the “short player” demo here, but he was a guy that would put on a show in BP and hit incredibly long home runs even when he was hitting just 10 a year in games.
Crizer: Have you noticed this profile changing earlier in the development process? Or are these players evolving closer to or in the majors?
Goldstein: I think there have definitely been players who show up after they’re drafted with some swing changes in place, usually at the behest of the organization. That doesn’t always mean incorporating more loft, although that might be something that’s receiving more attention at the moment—where teams may be looking for guys who could benefit from such changes.
Seidler: I think it’s worth at least pondering whether it’s actually physically beneficial to be a small dude. Your strike zone is smaller. Your bat path is shorter. It’s easier to uppercut the ball while still covering the zone.
Crizer: Do you think the inflated home run environment is or was a make-or-break factor in raising the ceiling of these players?
Goldstein: I hesitate to say make or break, but it’s absolutely an obscuring factor. Some of these guys are going to max out at homer distances with the new ball and fall a bit shorter with the older one. I don’t know how we parse who falls into which category at this point, though.
Karaman: I’m not sure I’d necessarily look at it that way. It’s more like players now have additional information to absorb as they figure out how to grow and mold their games. I talked to some hitting coaches about this last year, and it’s more that the current accessibility of data and video allows players to explore patterning their games in different ways. Obviously adding launch angle and plane has been at the fore of the trend game-wide now for a few years, and that has happened as more and more players have started to ingest that data and evolve their process to integrate its findings.
Crizer: On the topic of ceilings: In your view, do the theoretical gains in power potential actually vault these players ahead of other profiles because they frequently play premium positions? Or are other profiles making strides or gaining value at a similar rate?
Karaman: I tend to skew towards assuming a rising tide lifting all boats in this case, from the standpoint that at the end of the day we’re interested in a player’s overall value, regardless of how he gets to his WARP or whatever other insert-your-favorite-catch-all-metric-here you want use. Utilizing launch-angle training or otherwise tweaking your swing plane and mechanics is one more tool that players now have to try and generate value. It does cut both ways, though, and for a lot of smaller players who lack the physical ability or strength to pull those tweaks off, it’s also one more trap to fall into along the way.
Goldstein: I think we’re evolving toward more of a position-less profile when evaluating player value. Catcher, shortstop, and center field all hold special value, but the defensive gap between second base and third base isn’t what it was, and the offensive bars for playing those positions have all but vanished. First base is also its own thing, with a higher offensive bar rather than lower, but in general the other positions just don’t have substantially different valuations, I think, at least in terms of 2B/3B and then LF/RF.
Seidler: You’re also seeing teams willing to play guys, even elite guys, at different and weird-seeming positions because the positions are more amorphous due to positioning and shifting, and even the “unathletic” guys are now really athletic. Rhys Hoskins is going to be an outfielder for awhile. Nick Senzel might be coming up as a shortstop. Michael Conforto is a long-term regular in center field. Kingery is going to play shortstop for the next little bit to cover injuries. And so on.
Paternostro: We are long overdue as a community to take a further look at WAR positional adjustments. I say “we,” but I am woefully underqualified for the task. It just doesn’t feel like they work anymore. Somebody page Judge and Carleton.