With just a few weeks remaining in the season, it’s about time to start taking stock of 2012’s biggest surprises and disappointments. Sure, there’s enough baseball left for a September callup to make a big impact, or for a major slump to derail a once-promising rookie campaign. But for the most part, players have made their statements and given us plenty of information to work with as we look ahead to next year. I’d like to begin this series with a close look at a prospect who, to say the least, has struggled to meet expectations. In fact, it’s safe to say that the opening of this player’s career has been nothing short of catastrophic. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who follows baseball that I’m referring to Nate Spears.
Spears, a “scrappy, David Eckstein-type” infielder with ten minor-league seasons under his belt, was a fifth-round pick by the Orioles back in ’03. He climbed as high as tenth in Baltimore’s prospect rankings, and after joining the Red Sox farm he quickly built some modest buzz, thanks in large part to a Double-A campaign featuring 20 home runs and reportedly stellar glovework. Though he hasn’t gotten near the attention of fellow prospects like Will Middlebrooks or Jose Iglesias, he always projected as a decent utility guy who might provide Boston with some valuable infield depth. All of which is to say that, while few were expecting Spears to light up the league, no one could have anticipated a failure of such epic — even historic — proportions. Now, while some might be reluctant to pigeonhole a guy based on what is admittedly a limited sample size (4 PA’s), we have enough data at our disposal to identify some very troubling patterns, both on offense and defense. Let’s lift the hood on Spears’ major league career thus far, and examine the mechanics of what has been arguably 2012’s biggest disappointment.
First, some harsh numbers: Nate Spears ranks dead last among 931 major-league position players in normalized wins above replacement, with a WAR/650 of a staggering -32.5. In other words, had the Sox played Spears all year, given a constant rate of production, their record would currently sit at about 30-108. How, you ask, can a single player detract so much value from a team? Let’s look a little closer, starting with his performance at the plate. To put things mildly, Spears has had trouble getting on base consistently. His triple-slash line this season stands at .000/.000/.000, for a wRC+ of -100. The underlying problems are not hard to spot: with a strikeout rate of 75%, he’s not putting the ball in play a whole lot, and given a GB% of 100%, he’s not giving himself great chances when he does.
If we dig a little deeper and look at a few pitch type and plate-discipline metrics, we can start to piece together a picture of Spears’ hitting approach and better understand his lack of success. Thus far the league has treated him to a healthy diet of off-speed pitches — his FA% is only 40 — and Spears has yet to demonstrate that he can rise to the challenge. He’s been especially woeful against the curve, with a wCB of -0.4 against the four such pitches he’s encountered. If there’s a bright spot, it’s in how Spears has handled changeups. Though he’s only seen one so far, he did manage to put it in play, and his wCH/C of 6.10 would be good enough for third in the majors if Spears had enough PAs to qualify.
As for plate discipline, Spears is by no means a free swinger, as his Swing% of 46.7 lands him right in the middle of the pack among major league hitters. However, he’s swinging at too many pitches outside the zone (half of them, to be exact — even more than Josh Hamilton), and he’s made contact on exactly zero of them thus far. It comes as little surprise that Spears has struggled to draw walks, or a walk, this season, and as it stands there’s little incentive for pitchers to throw him strikes. Of course, there’s also little incentive for pitchers not to throw him strikes. As long as they’re not throwing changeups, which Nate Spears crushes, relatively speaking. Thanks to baseballheatmaps.com for the below heat map of Spears’ swings, which makes painfully vivid his weakness for the low outside ball in particular:
Spears’ issues at the plate are troubling enough, but he’s actually been just as much of a hindrance to the Sox on the field. Again, with only ten innings logged at three positions, the conclusions we can draw about his defense are arguably shaky — especially since Spears has yet to have a ball hit to him in left field, where he’s been stationed for four of those innings. But few major league clubs are likely to put up with a UZR/150 of -64 for very long, and that staggering figure is what Spears has posted in his five innings at third base, his primary position. (For comparison, that UZR is roughly five times as negative as that of Chris Johnson, the worst qualifying third baseman in the league.) As we pick apart his fielding, we quickly see that Spears’ range is the big issue. Of three balls hit to his zone (BIZ) at third, he’s made a play on zero of them, which leaves him with an RZR of .000 and a Defensive Runs Saved of -1. It doesn’t take a stats whiz to see that giving up a run, on average, every five innings is not a great way to hold down a job in a major league infield.
What does the future hold for Nate Spears? So far in his career, he hasn’t yet demonstrated the ability to hit the ball consistently, or at all, or to catch a ball in his glove consistently, or at all — significant red flags for any player at this level. Although it’s very difficult to extract positives from the numbers he’s put up to this point, the Sox may have gotten enough encouragement from his performance in the minors to warrant taking a slightly longer look. Based on what we’ve seen today, we might advise that Boston abandon its vision of Spears as a utility infielder and keep him in left field where he’ll be less of a liability on defense. We might also advise his hitting coaches to work with Spears on laying off pitches outside the zone, making good contact on strikes, and learning how to hit a fastball and a breaking ball. Given an unreasonably low BABIP of .000, we can certainly expect some positive regression next season, although a line drive percentage of 0.0% does not bode well for Spears’ future with the bat. Down the road, it’s possible that Spears might find a niche as a pinch-hitter against changeup-heavy right-handers, late in extra-inning games when no one else is available. He also hasn’t yet cost the Sox any value on the basepaths, so the occasional pinch-running gig might suit him. Whatever the case may be, this one-time promising prospect has his work cut out for him as he tries to carve out a living in the big leagues.