Preparing for the George Springer Experiment

The Houston Astros have done some unspeakable things to their fans. The primary defense for watching bad baseball is that bad baseball is better than no baseball, but at times the Astros have caused people to question whether what they’re watching is even baseball at all, or some kind of deliberately unwatchable performance art. The good news is that there’s good news. Psychologically, this experience has made Astros fans stronger, more tolerant of adversity and less prone to hysterics. And on the field, the Astros as a ballclub are making forward progress. They’re still not good, but they’re getting closer to good, and they shouldn’t be as dreadful as they have been for a long long time. With a wave of young talent on the way, Astros fans can begin to envision a most majestic, formidable crest.

Among the brightest of potential stars is 24-year-old George Springer. The former first-round pick ought to debut somewhere in 2014, and Springer is nearly the perfect prospect. He has plenty of power, as evidenced by last year’s 37 home runs. He has plenty of discipline, as evidenced by last year’s 83 walks. He has plenty of speed, as evidenced by last year’s 45 stolen bases. Defensively, he’s a center fielder who could stick there. He has range and he has an arm, and though he’s not unusually young for his level, he’s right on track to be a core asset. There’s just one thing that Springer is missing, and he’s missing it in spades.

If you know prospects, even at all, you know about Springer’s strikeouts. This isn’t a new subject, and I’m interested, and I’m not even a prospect guy. Keith Law recently ranked Springer as his No. 19 prospect, and he described the outfielder as a possible “mold-breaker”. This is because, in a way, Springer’s trying to blaze his own path, following only the faintest of footprints. The question with prospects is always: how good can they be? It’s never easy, but answering the question for Springer is uniquely challenging.

Springer really came on last season, splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A. Overall, he posted a four-digit OPS, which is extraordinary. His contact problems haven’t hurt him yet. But those same contact problems make him particularly mysterious. Minor League Central has pitch data for last year’s Southern and Texas Leagues. In those leagues, 169 players batted at least 250 times. Springer ranked 162nd in contact rate, at 65.5%. Meanwhile, 301 players batted at least 250 times in Triple-A. Springer ranked 299th in contact rate, at 65.0%. He was sandwiched between Kyle Skipworth and Cody Decker. Just to drive the point home, that’s third-to-last. In contact rate, top prospect George Springer ranked third-to-last, in the company, mostly, of non-prospects.

If you want, you could try to be encouraged that Springer made more contact in Triple-A as he went along. But all the data counts, and there’s a theory that later in the season, there’s not a lot of pitching talent left in Triple-A, due to promotions and whatnot. It’s not a secret that George Springer swings through a lot of pitches, and he presumably always will.

Now, it’s important to understand that Springer isn’t hyper-aggressive. He doesn’t take himself way out of the strike zone, like a Carlos Peguero or a Randy Ruiz. He posts reasonable swing rates, showing a good idea of the zone, and this allows him to be a better prospect with better odds. It’s not that he misses a bunch of unhittable pitches. He actually misses more hittable pitches.

In short, we have a guy who:

  • doesn’t swing too much
  • but does swing and miss an awful lot

If Springer increases his contact, obviously, that starts to fill his only remaining skillset hole, and he’d be well on his way to being a superstar. But what if he stays this prone to swinging and missing? What might we have in terms of recent big-league precedent?

As you know, FanGraphs has some plate-discipline data going back to 2002. I decided to cover the 2002-2013 window, looking for guys with both a swing rate no higher than 50% and a contact rate no higher than 70%. I was left with 55 players who batted in the majors at least 100 times, excluding pitchers, who are terrible. Of these players, 25 have batted at least 500 times, and 15 have batted at least 1,000 times. Of those 15, 12 have posted a triple-digit wRC+, which makes sense, given that bad players generally won’t be allowed to accrue that much playing time.

All these players were selected for being big-league capable. Or, at least, that was the thought. Presumably, they were promoted despite their contact issues, the thought being they could still be successful. The best hitter in the group is Jim Thome, yet he posted a contact rate of 70%. Next on the list is Giancarlo Stanton, at 68%. Then there’s Ryan Howard, and then Jack Cust, and they’re both at 67%. Richie Sexson‘s at 70%. Sammy Sosa‘s at 68%. Springer is coming off a full-year contact rate just over 65%, and he did that between two levels in the minors.

The pickings are slimmer as you look for lower big-league contact rates. Russell Branyan managed a 113 wRC+ with a contact rate of 63%. We find Mark Reynolds at 108 and 65%. Kelly Shoppach‘s at 96 and 64%. Some hope could be found in potential Springer teammate Chris Carter — Carter, so far, has posted a 109 wRC+ with a 65% contact rate. Yet Carter made more contact in the high minors than Springer has. Not by a ton, and we shouldn’t make too much of little differences, but it has to be emphasized that Springer is statistically extreme in several ways.

You can see some slight parallels between Springer and Justin Maxwell. Maxwell was never considered a true top prospect, but he’s a strikeout-prone, athletic center fielder with an above-average big-league batting line. He’s walked a tenth of the time, he’s struck out three-tenths of the time, he’s hit for power, and he’s been good in the field. Maybe Maxwell is a slightly pessimistic comp, a 40th-percentile comp, so to speak. He’s also been worth 4.5 WAR over 874 plate appearances, or 3.1 per 600. It can work, but again, Maxwell’s made slightly more contact in the majors than Springer has made so far in the high minors.

This is why Springer is so fascinating. It’s not just that he swings and misses a lot — it’s that he swings and misses so much, and he hasn’t even reached the majors yet. It’s hard to compare him to anyone else, because whatever someone else might have, Springer turns it up to 11. So when he does get the call, it’ll be interesting to monitor how he adjusts, and how pitchers adjust back. If Springer makes less contact, he’ll be hard-pressed to be a major contributor. If he makes the same contact, that’ll come with plenty of other skills. If he increases his contact, the sky’s the limit.

Don’t listen to anyone who might suggest the contact struggles are a deal-breaker. A guy with contact problems just has to make up for them in other ways, and Springer has plenty of ways. Almost all of the ways. Speed, base-running, power, defense, whatever you want. Outside of the contact, Springer’s amazing. If you’re forced to start with issues hitting the ball, you couldn’t ask for a better prospect despite that than George Springer. Yet because of the extremity, he still feels kind of experimental. The lab is just about entirely set up. In eager anticipation, we await the results.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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