Rated Rookies: Week One

One of the great subplots of every Major League season is the rookies that come up and show a glimpse of baseball’s future. It’s what had us enthralled by Jackie Bradley Jr. all spring, what has us dutifully analyzing Julio Teheran appearances, and what has us so eagerly waiting for Jurickson Profar and Wil Myers. This season, we will track rookies, both the prospects and suspects, as they make adjustments to playing in the bigs. This bi-weekly list will highlight rookies who have accomplished the most in 2013, regardless of future projection (though that will always be discussed). These are the players whose week one performances deserve recognition.

1. Dan Straily, RH SP, Athletics

If we’ve learned anything from Yu Darvish this season, it’s that success pitching against the Astros is not exactly analogous to pitching against baseball’s other 29 teams. The Athletics know this, why is probably why just one day after an 11 strikeout, 0 walk performance (a start worth an unofficial 0.6 WAR by our metrics), the A’s were comfortable sending Straily back to Triple-A. As sixth starters go, Straily is an excellent one, with a fastball at 90-93 mph, 83-86 mph slider, and 82-85 mph change (let’s agree to ignore that low 70s curveball, please). He showed great command against the Astros, the best he’s had in all 8 starts at the Major League level.

But, I don’t want to get too wrapped up in Straily’s success. The Astros, as we’re finding out, are a historically swing-and-miss team. All 11 of Straily’s strikeouts were of the swinging variety, and amazingly, nine were against left-handed hitters. Brett Wallace and Rick Ankiel struck out a combined 6 times, all on Straily fastballs. While Baseball America’s scouting report of him, as the A’s #6 prospect, reads “[His] slider and change up are his two best offerings and account for the bulk of his strikeouts,” that wasn’t true against Houston. Eight of the 11 strikeouts were from the fastball, and a remarkable number of them looked like this to Jason Castro — right down the heart of the plate. If you want to see why we simply can’t get too excited about Straily yet, consider the caliber of competition:

Straily Castro

2. Jose Iglesias, SS, Red Sox

The idea of Iglesias being a no-hit shortstop is overstated, as he’s just too good a contact hitter to deserve that title. So far, the shortstop is making contact on 96.3% of the balls he’s swung at in the zone, and even 71.4% on balls out of the zone (versus 2013 big league averages of 86.3% and 61.7%). And this year, he’s making sharper contact, particularly when he can hit the ball to the left side.

When Iglesias has been able to pull the ball this season, good things have happened: three balls down the line, three singles pushing the shortstop too far to his right, one slow infield hit to third. Overall, 7-for-11. On the other hand, the balls where he hasn’t (stripping away the bunts): pop up to 1B, 1-6-3 double play, fly out to right. 0-for-3. This has been true for the entirety of his small sample size big league career: a solid .430 wOBA to left field, but just .121 to CF and .209 to RF. It will be interesting to see how teams pitch Iglesias in the coming weeks, as they surely will look to take his ability to pull the ball away from him.

But even when better-thought-out pitching and simple BABIP regression take hold on Iglesias, we’ll still have his defense. My favorite play so far came on April 5, after he was hit by a Josh Johnson fastball right on the elbow, just one play before he came out of the game. He’s simply one of a half-dozen players alive that can range to his right, and with an injured elbow, still make a good throw to get Jose Reyes at second base. (The video is no longer able to be embedded, instead watch the highlight here.)

3. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LH SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Might the Dodgers mammoth payroll have a bargain, after all? Ryu has looked good, commanding his fastball, living on the outside corner, and showing a real good slider. The part of Ryu’s arsenal that I think needs to worked out of his system is the slow curveball. He’s thrown just 28 this season, so we’re dealing with a small sample size, but it grades out as mediocre as it performs statistically. Per Brooks Baseball, Ryu’s curveball — among his four pitches — has both the highest Ball% and the highest BIP%. It’s a bad offering, and given the solid grades his slider and change up would get, I don’t quite see its point.

It does feel that with two starts of information, we can better forecast Ryu’s season. I agree with Dan’s ZiPS projection where home runs are concerned; I think Ryu will give up a lot. I don’t see a ton of movement in that fastball, so he’ll be living on the edge with every mistake. The strikeouts in that ZiPS forecast feel high — he’s tough against lefties, and will continue to be, but I must wonder if RHB’s will strike out at a high rate. His six strikeouts in the Pittsburgh game: two to pitcher Jeff Locke, one to back-up catcher Mike McKenry, two to Pedro Alvarez (a real victim to LHP), and one to Gaby Sanchez on a good change-up. It feels that Ryu will really struggle when opposing managers realize the necessity of stacking their lineup with right-handed hitters. We’ll see who adjusts quickest.

4. Jose Fernandez, RH SP, Miami Marlins

For fear of our readership getting Fernandez overload, I’ll defer you to read Paul Swydan’s breakdown of Fernandez debut, and I’ll simply add 3 more GIFs to those already offered by Carson Cistulli and Eno Sarris. Here are the final three pitches from my favorite at-bat during the Fernandez outing, Ike Davis in the second inning. In three consecutive pitches, we see the whole arsenal, we see command, and we see plus-plus raw stuff. Fernandez is a good bet to frequent this space all year:

JF ID 2
JF ID 3
JF ID 4

Earning Consideration: T.J. McFarland, Jim Henderson, Evan Gattis, Rob Brantly, Jackie Bradley Jr, Matt Adams, Shelby Miller, Justin Wilson.

Slumped out of the Rankings: Aaron Hicks, CF, Minnesota Twins

The Twins have had a very deliberate, conservative path for Hicks since drafting him in the first round in 2008, allowing him to repeat Low-A, and never giving him an in-season promotion. But good Spring Trainings will occasionally force rash decisions, and in this instance, it does appear that a .370/.407/.644 line in 22 games in March was enough for the Twins to throw caution to the wind and make their #3 prospect a leadoff hitter.

One of the reasons that Hicks finds himself atop the lineup, besides his plus speed, is a good batting eye. Hicks is patient, but this season, it’s been to a fault. In going through Hicks plate appearances, it’s clear that Hicks is too often leaving the bat on the shoulder when he shouldn’t. This season, per Baseball-Reference, the average Major League hitter sees 2.1 balls for every called strike against him. Hicks, by contrast, has seen 41 balls versus 27 called strikes, a ratio of just 1.52, or nearly 30% below league average. In 32 plate appearances, I have at least six instances in which Hicks watched a pitch go down the middle in the first or second pitch of an at-bat. Jack Moore recently wrote about Andrew McCutchen‘s “controlled aggression”, Jack’s term for McCutchen’s increased ability to recognize and swing at easy strikes. This is a clear area that Hicks could use improvement, as he can’t let his ability to work the count interfere with the best opportunities he’ll have at a hit.

The other area where I’d like to see improvement from Hicks is his ability to hit the change up. As a switch-hitter, Hicks is going to see a lot of change ups, and he’ll have to show better proficiency with the pitch. By my count, he’s seen 19 this year: 7 for balls, 2 for called strikes, 6 swinging strikes, 3 for outs, and one he reached base on a Chris Davis error. That is not good, and in fact, those 6 swinging strikes make up 37.5% of his swinging strikes for the season, despite seeing change ups in only 15.2% of all pitches. These issues seem more likely to be fixed developmentally than by adjusting on the fly; the Twins would be best served, in the short- and long-term, to let Hicks work on them in AAA.

Statistics for this piece were thru April 8. I’d like to thank Carson Cistulli for his help with this post. I’d also like to thank Sebastian Pruiti, whose work on Grantland I miss very much, for inspiration for this series. It’s a delight to be back at FanGraphs. You can find me @bsmithwtny.




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20 Responses to “Rated Rookies: Week One”

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  1. Nelson Santovenia says:

    Whoa, is this Bryan Smith, the same “Jered Weaver/Bert Blyleven” Bryan Smith from back in the day? If so welcome back!

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  2. Timb says:

    While that Straily fastball is definitely not preferred location, it does appear to have decent tailing action. I know we shouldn’t put a ton of stock into 1 start, but I’d much rather have him in the rotation at this point than Bartolo Colon.
    I’m much more comfortable with his development at the ML level leading to its bumps and bruises than hoping Colon can find the fountain of youth for another year, and one that’s not PED-aided too.

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  3. BStu185 says:

    On top of the fact that Fernandez throws three straight unhittable filth-balls, his step-back shimmy on strike three is a delight.

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  4. MustBunique says:

    Outrage in Boston as Iglesias is sent down to AAA to make room for little Stephie Drew. Another Drew coming to grab some free Boston bucks, wait for a S. Drew injury update in a couple weeks.

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    • NBarnes says:

      Oh, hey, J.D. Drew bashing. Rock it 2009, buddy!

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      • MustBunique says:

        Sorry if that is too dated for you Barnsey. I really just want you to be comfortable with yourself and who you are. It’s not your fault son. Whatever happened in 2009, it’s not your fault.

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  5. mike wants wins says:

    Hicks is just emulating Mauer in watching pitches go by that he should swing at. The difference is that Mauer can do that, and hit the next pitches. Hicks swings and misses a lot.

    How does Hicks being in AAA help him hit changeups? I mean, it might be true. Will it really help him, or just hurt the MLB team less? Because who cares (the FO doesn’t) how the Twins do this year in terms of win loss record?

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Well, I have a couple answers there. One, I think the Twins decision to forego service time issues for a player that’s clearly not Major League ready is short-sighted. There’s one thing for, say, the Red Sox to keep up Jackie Bradley, because they fancy themselves contenders, and believed him to be their best option in Ortiz’ absence. It’s totally different for a team that, like you say, doesn’t care about their win-loss record to not be valuing 2019 Aaron Hicks. And the fact that they are a small payroll team only serves to emphasize that point. So when I say that I would send Hicks down, I’m thinking first about that issue.

      But second, I do think at some point, you need to let the guy succeed. And if he’s in the minor leagues, where the changeups aren’t going to be as good, he’ll have an opportunity to develop confidence at hitting that pitch. That’s a psychological answer that might have no business on a statistically minded website, but I know plenty of teams think in those terms, it just doesn’t seem like Minnesota is one of them right now.

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  6. TK says:

    Hey, welcome back to the prospect game! I knew you couldn’t stay away!

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  7. DowntownChico says:

    Good Article Bryan, and I look forward to more in the future.

    I know you’re avoiding the rookie ladder type of list with these, but it would be nice to have a sortable list for the top rookies at the end of these segments. It may be useless in the early weeks, but could be quite amusing to the readers(read:me) as more stats compile.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      That’s a good suggestion. When we get deeper into the season, I’ll look at implementing something like that. Thanks.

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  8. Ben Hall says:

    Welcome back, Bryan! I really enjoyed your writing for Fangraphs back a few years ago, and was disappointed when you disappeared.

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  9. Danny says:

    Good breakdown and good to see TJ McFarland get some love. He did not look like an out of place rule 5 pick and the O’s can probably keep him sheltered in the pen and allow him do get some work in mop up duty. Could be a good bit of personnel management by Duquette.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      You know, in an earlier version of this list, McFarland was actually number five, but got cut because of space concerns, and because ranking a reliever after one appearance seemed pretty silly. But I was fascinated by that McFarland appearance: a horrible first at-bat against Morneau, who really should have clobbered that hung slider, but then McFarland settled down and was great. His sinker showed arm-side run, he showed very good command of a sweeping 76-80 mph slider, and he even has a show-me change-up to throw at right-handed batters.

      The Orioles aren’t exactly a team credited with thinking sabermetrically, but we should certainly appreciate their approach to free talent at the 25th roster spot, what with Flaherty last year and McFarland this season.

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  10. Jeff says:

    Was surprised not to see Gyrko’s name show up anywhere, not even the honorable mentions. I live in Europe so it’s difficult for me to keep up with baseball outside of the boxscores. What kind of impression has he made on you? From what I can glean, he seems to show flashes of being a great doubles hitter punctuated with looking like a rookie at times.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Jeff, Gyorko not being mentioned is to say nothing of his long term future, he just has had a pretty boring first 8 games. I do personally want to send some time checking out his defense across the two positions, and need to go back and research how he’s done against this onslaught of offspeed stuff he’s been thrown. I have no doubt he’ll be on this list at some points this year, but this wasn’t his week.

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  11. Ross says:

    Jose Fernandez is a beast! Those pitches were amazing

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  12. tahititaco says:

    I think some rookies are too used to AAA pitchers not throwing strikes. Taking a walk in the majors isn’t the same game.

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