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Reports From Instructs: Richie Shaffer

Since I missed Taylor Guerreri in Rays instructs, the biggest name player I saw in camps was recent first round pick Richie Shaffer. The Rays took Shaffer 25th overall out of Clemson and was seemingly the second-highest player on the board for many clubs in the first round, with at least one team in the top 10 picks having Shaffer in their final group. I didn’t see Shaffer as an amateur but got a solid look before he went to the Arizona Fall League and he’ll be an interesting player to monitor in 2013 to see how his tools play in pro ball.

The one thing scouts would mention first about Shaffer when I talked to them before the draft was bat speed. Not his hit or power tools, but bat speed specifically. If you’ve read my other articles you know that I focus on power and fastball velocity and how it is created—if it’s natural arm speed or strength or if the player is cheating mechanically to enhance his tools. Bat speed is to hitters what arm speed is to pitchers. It’s the building block of hitting and power so you don’t have to cheat to get either and have a chance to have both. A player can be raw at the plate but if he has bat speed there will always be a scout willing to overpay the player.

Shaffer doesn’t disappoint in this regard because it’s true plus bat speed, especially rare to find in a college hitter for the aforementioned reasons. Normally bat speed comes from a wiry strong, athletic, skinny-frame player, typically dual sport guys that can run a little bit. Another reason scouts lead with the bat speed on Shaffer is that he doesn’t fit in this box. Shaffer has a pro body, a strong, lean, tapered 6’3, 210 pounds with broad shoulders and an above average arm that could play anywhere on the field. That said, Shaffer isn’t a quick-twitch type athlete, as a below average runner with some stiffness and mechanical movements in his defense at third base. He could move to right field but given the foot speed and a body that should only get bigger, first base seem like his eventual home.

Once you get past the bat speed, now we’re talking about a right/right first baseman that will be 22 before the 2013 season starts and has very little pro experience. The bat speed along with Shaffer’s strength, leverage, lofted bat path and hip torque create plus raw power without selling out and hurting his ability to hit for average. Shaffer’s swing is geared more for power with a wide base, high finish, normally deep-loaded hands and some effort but he has some feel for contact as well.

Shaffer will shorten up with two strikes and has the bat control that normally comes with bat speed. He can stay inside the ball and battle, covering the whole plate and fouling off pitcher’s pitches with a more handsy swing. He’s changed his swing a bit since signing, with a more deliberate leg kick instead of just a simple tap and his swing now resembles that of early Yankees era Alex Rodriguez. This gives Shaffer less margin for error with pitch identification as his body is getting started earlier and he has a little more momentum going toward the pitcher. He is a late-count hitter but is selectively aggressive and will expand the zone and get off-balance against good off-speed stuff. His raw ability allows him to make contact against amateur and low level pitchers (hence the low amateur K rate), but that will be more difficult to do against more advanced arms (high AFL K rate).

As it so often is, the question here seems to be if Shaffer will hit enough since the power is enough to profile at first base and the bat speed is a good start. Going to my three components of the hit tool, Shaffer has plus hitting tools, at least above average bat control and at least average plate discipline. That should add up to an above average hitter but the secret fourth part of the hit tool is the approach or how those tools are used. Being a late-count hitter will get his walk and strikeout totals higher and his flyball and power oriented swing will contribute as well.

Shaffer isn’t a standout athlete on the big league scale and while he shows some feel to hit and can adjust his swing for the situation, his mechanics will waver at times. With a wide base and now with a bigger leg kick, the weight transfer is more important and pronounced. Shaffer can overdo it and be more easily fooled by breaking balls, or underdo do it, lean back, develop more of an uppercut and pop the ball up. Also, with the energy created in his swing, Shaffer’s front foot can come unglued and affect his bat path and head position negatively.

I went into so much detail on Shaffer’s hit tool because there is a graveyard of AAA right-handed hitting mashers that were just short of long big league careers for the little stuff mentioned above. I could still see crafty lefties with a good breaking ball and a below average fastball giving Shaffer fits by messing with his timing and slowing his bat. That said, I think Shaffer will hit in the .260s with a good walk rate, higher than average strikeout rate and 25 homers, which doesn’t blow you away but is a fine everyday first baseman, particularly for those 0-3 years the Rays covet.