Assuming this isn’t the first baseball article you’ve read (thanks for making it mine if it is, though), you’ve likely heard the term small sample size used when talking about early season statistics. While those statistics are obviously flawed in terms of conclusions, that doesn’t mean that people still don’t panic over the poor starts of players—particularly when it comes to surefire prospects who aren’t supposed to struggle before their big-league debuts.
And while it’s entirely too early to set off the fire alarm on anyone just yet, that doesn’t mean that we can’t use these early statistics to help evaluate players, either. With the caveat that a lot can change over the next few weeks—much less an entire season—here’s a look at four well-known prospects who have struggled to start the 2015 season, and the level of concern fans should have about their ongoing development.
The fact that Sano is struggling shouldn’t surprise anyone, as he missed all of 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in spring. What has been surprising though is just how much he’s struggled; as the right-handed hitter has struck out in nearly 30 percent of his at-bats in 2015. He’s also committed five errors in 43 chances at the hot corner; and while fielding percentage is a terrible way to judge defenders in a nutshell, an .884 fielding percentage isn’t going to get the job done.
“[Sano] looks like he’s going through the motions right now,” an AL East scout said. “The bat speed isn’t where it was, the hip rotation isn’t where it was, the arm strength isn’t where it was. He’s still got ridiculous power because he’s still strong and has that natural loft, but everything else looks like it’s gone down at least a grade. It’s early, but I sort of thought Sano was talented enough to be that rare guy who can just pick up the bat with that kind of time off and rake. So far it appears that’s not the case.”
Level of concern: Moderate. The reason this isn’t at a “low” level is that Sano missed a year at a crucial point in a player’s development. But again, let’s keep in mind that Sano clearly had some rust to shake off, as I had as many professional at-bats during the 2014 season as he did. Still, there are serious contact issues here, and Sano has to be lights out with the bat to justify his placing as a top-ranked prospect, as the rest of the tools just aren’t good enough to deserve such lofty recognition. I expect him to rebound, but it’s not the lock people many assume or want it to be.
The PCL is one of the toughest leagues to pitch in, but that doesn’t excuse just how poor Gray has looked in the season’s first month. Opponents are posting a .993 OPS against him and same-side bats have crushed the righty to a tune of .455/.489/.727.
“Coming out of the draft, I had heard that Gray was an 80 fastball, 70 slider, 55 change type of pitcher,” an NL West scout said. “What I’ve seen is more of a 60 fastball, 55 slider, 45 change guy, and the command has been sub-par. I love the body, and the delivery doesn’t have huge effort to it, but he looks more like no. 4 type than a guy that you’d want leading a rotation.”
Level of concern: Moderately High. Gray did pitch better in his last start, giving up just one run over five innings of work, but he struck out only two and did give up five hits. Even though he’s only been in the system for under two years, there have still been too many reports of velocity fluctuations and the slider being closer to an above-average pitch than the plus-plus offering he showed at Oklahoma. This is common for a young pitcher, but at 23 years old, Gray should be close to ready to contributing to the Rockies. Based on what we’ve seen this year—and large chunks of 2014—that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Clint Frazier, OF, Cleveland
2015 Stats (High-A Lynchburg): .256/.320/.300, 0 HR, 7 BB, 26 K in 102 PA
Frazier was one of the more famous prospects of the 2013 draft class—some of it for legit baseball reasons, some of it not—but the right-handed hitting outfielder hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations set by some, and 2015 hasn’t been an exception. He’s had only four doubles in his 102 plate appearances, and despite possessing some of the best bat speed we’ve seen from an amateur prospect, the contact issues that plagued in him in 2014 have carried over into the 2015 campaign.
“Bat speed can only do so much,” the AL West scout said. “He struggles with anything that’s on the outer half of the plate, and while I admire his aggressiveness, some semblance of plate discipline would be nice to see. I also don’t see any chance he ends up at center field and the arm isn’t strong enough for right, so the bat really has to play up to justify him being a starting outfielder. Right now, I’m not sure I see enough to say that’ll happen.”
Level of concern: High. Some of this is due to being low man on the totem pole on Frazier since he was a senior at Loganville High School in Atlanta, but I don’t see enough here to suggest that he’ll be a starting outfielder—much less the middle-of-the-order bat that would justify being a top-five pick in a strong draft class. He’s only 20 years old so it’s obviously too soon to give up on him, but if you look objectively at the skill set—one plus tool and fringe-average to average defensive skills—you should be able to understand why there are legitimate concerns.
Alex Meyer, RHP, Minnesota Twins
2015 Stats (Triple-A Rochester): 5.61 ERA, 28 H, 18 BB, 28 K in 25 2/3 IP
Meyer’s stat line would look even worse if it wasn’t for a six-inning shutout performance against Syracuse that featured elite prospects like Kila Ka’aihue, Ian Stewart, and Cutter Dykstra. The walks have always been an issue, but it’s never been this bad, as Meyer has walked at least three batters in four of his five starts.
“I’d say [Meyer’s command] is about 40 grade right now,” an NL East scout who has seen Meyer twice this year said. “It’s not just the walks, he’s not hitting his spots with any of his pitches, and at times it’s not even close. The stuff is electric when it’s in the strike zone, but right now it’s not good enough to start.”
Level of concern: Moderate. The good news for Meyer is that he’s still missing bats, and 22 of the 28 hits he’s given up have gone for singles. The bad news is that the arm path and struggles to repeat the arm slot make it almost impossible for me to project Meyer having anything more than average command, and since the change is only average at best, it puts a lot of pressure on his fastball and slider. Those pitches are often plus-plus though, so I do give Meyer a chance to be a quality starting pitcher. It just won’t be anytime soon until the control and command are vastly improved.
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