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Tyler Colvin’s Rookie Year

Tyler Colvin entered spring training as a mid-range prospect looking to land a spot on the Chicago Cubs’ bench. But the 24-year-old has done far more than simply make the roster. Roaming all three outfield spots while spotting for Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd and Kosuke Fukudome, Colvin’s bat has been +4.9 runs above average, and he has jacked 13 HR in 230 plate appearances. Is the Clemson product someone to target in keeper leagues, or his he playing over his head?

The Cubs selected Colvin with the 13th overall pick in the 2006 draft. At the time, the pick was considered a reach by Baseball America. Here’s what BA said about him at the time:

Colvin doesn’t have a tool that stands out, but as he has gained strength he has been able to repeat his smooth lefthanded swing more readily, and he’s added power to be average in that department. He’s an above-average runner and an efficient basestealer who plays a solid left field….some scouts estimated he would go in the first three rounds.

The 6-foot-3 lefty batter made his professional debut in the Short-Season Northwest League in ’06, batting .268/.313/.483 in 288 PA. In a sign of things to come, Colvin showed good power (.215 Isolated Power) and rough strike zone control (5.9 BB%, 20.8 K%). BA noted that he was young for a college draftee (turning 21 at the end of the season) and had projection in his lean 190 pound frame. They did caution that he needed to “tighten his strike zone and lay off high fastballs.”

In 2007, Colvin divided his time between the High-A Florida State League and the Double-A Southern League. In the FSL, he hit .306/.336/.514 in 262 PA. Colvin again hit the ball hard (.208 ISO) and didn’t whiff all that often (19.2 K%), but his plate discipline was a concern — he walked just 3.8% of the time. Upon the promotion to Double-A, the hacking heightened. Colvin drew ball four 1.9% and punched out 21.9%, putting up a .291/.313/.462 triple slash and a .170 ISO. The power was a plus, but the Francouer-sized strike zone scared scouts. “Advanced pitchers,” Baseball America predicted, “will exploit his anxiousness.”

Chicago sent Colvin back to the Smokies in 2008, and he made some modest gains in laying off junk pitches. In 602 PA, he slashed .256/.312/.424, walking 7.3%, striking out 18.7% and posting a .169 ISO. The main reason for the drop in his numbers was his BABIP — after having 34-35 percent of his balls in play fall for hits in ’07, Colvin had a .286 BABIP in ’08. BA commented that he sometimes cut himself off in his swing and “employ[ed] a dead-pull approach.” He seemed to have a timing issue at the dish, as his infield fly rate spiked — according to Minor League Splits, Colvin popped the ball up 14% in 2006 and 12.3% in 2007, but that figure rose to 20.3% during his second tour of the Southern League. A sore left elbow probably didn’t help matters any, either. Colvin underwent Tommy John surgery during the off-season.

Sent back to the FSL to begin the 2009 season, Colvin hit just .250/.326/.357 in 129 PA while testing out his surgically-repaired elbow. He walked 10.1%, with a 24.1 K% and a .107 ISO. Bumped up to Double-A in late May, he resumed his high-power, low patience act — he put up a .300/.334/.524 line with a .225 ISO, while working a walk just 4.8% and striking out 18.6%. Colvin’s pop up rate fell back to 13.7% between to the levels, with BA saying he “did a better job of covering the plate, as it no longer hurt when he torqued his elbow extending his arms to hit pitches on the outer half.” Colvin even got a brief glimpse of the majors in September when the Cubs suspended Milton Bradley.

Colvin’s work in the big leagues this year offers both promise and concern. On the positive side, he’s creaming pitchers — Colvin’s got a .252 ISO, and 24.1% of the fly balls that he has hit have left the yard. All of that thunder has helped him post a .262/.314/.514 line and a .357 wOBA.

However, he’s still greatly expanding his zone. Colvin has chased 39.2% of pitches thrown off the plate, one of the 20 highest rates among batters with 230+ PA and well above the 28.8% MLB average this season. He’s also making contact 70.3% of the time, compared to the 81% MLB average. The hacking and whiffing has led to a 6.5% walk rate and a 29.5% K rate.

Colvin has been an asset at the plate while hitting for gargantuan power, and he has shown the ability to hit for solid pop in the minors. But is it really reasonable to expect a guy with a career .188 ISO on the farm to continue posting a major league ISO on par with elite major league sluggers? While Colvin should continue to drive the ball often, we should expect a good deal of regression — ZiPS projects a .168 ISO for the rest of the season, and CHONE predicts a .186 ISO.

Long-term, Colvin should hit for above-average power. But if he’s going to hold significant value to the Cubs and fantasy owners, he’s going to resist the temptation to lunge at those off-the-plate offerings.