Contact: The Critical Ingredient for Heavy Hitters

In David Gassko’s recent “Does Size Matter?” article, he shared some evidence that big hitters tend to become good hitters. This probably has something to do with physical characteristics and a selection bias. Big people have limited value as fielders, so they only get chances with professional baseball organizations if they can hit.

This week, I am going to look at a sample of young minor league hitters who are 6’3 and weigh more than 205 pounds. A number of big young hitters get opportunities in professional baseball because of their “raw power,” but I suspect the big hitters who have the skills to make contact are the ones who have the best chance of having major league careers. Twins prospects Henry Sanchez and David Winfreeare both big teenagers, but Sanchez strikes out twice as often as Winfree. I think that makes a big difference in assessing the two players’ chances for future success.

Player performances from three to four years ago suggest there is something to this. The following list includes 19- and 20-year-old players with good strikeout rates in Single-A:

2002 Joe Mauer       Min 6-4 220   9%
2002 Casey Kotchman  Ana 6-3 215  11%
2003 Jeff Francoeur  Atl 6-4 220  12%
2003 Chad Chop       Mtl 6-3 215  14%
2002 Scott Thorman   Atl 6-3 235  16%
2003 Brian McCann    Atl 6-3 210  16%

Here is a list of similar players with high strikeout rates:

2002 Jose  Vasquez   Col 6-3 220  34%
2002 Antonio Cancio  Phi 6-3 225  30%
2003 Travis Ishikawa Sf  6-3 210  30%
2003 Elijah Dukes    TB  6-2 225  29%
2002 Sean Swedlow    Cle 6-3 220  28%
2003 Joey Votto      Cin 6-3 220  28%
2002 Jose Salas      Atl 6-3 210  26%

I don’t think the differences between these two groups could be more distinct. Nearly all of the big hitters with low strikeout rates developed into major leaguers within a few years of their performance in Single-A leagues. The second group, on the other hand, is mostly made up of busts. Joey Votto and Elijah Dukes appear to have major league-caliber talent, but most of the players on the second list could be described as disappointments. If you expand the pool of players to include hitters in Double-A leagues, you will also discover that recent busts such as Dallas McPherson were also heavy hitters with high strikeout rates at a young age.

There is limited data on minor leaguers’ physical characteristics and performances beyond this past decade, so a rigorous analysis of large ballplayers is not really possible. This very basic analysis suggests these players tend to become good hitters, but that’s only true if they demonstrate the ability to make contact at a young age. With that in mind, let’s look at large prospects currently in minor leagues:

Large Prospects with Good Contact Skills

Billy Butler isn’t much of a fielder, but that’s his only notable flaw. The 20-year-old Royals prospect rarely strikes out and has demonstrated impressive power at a very young age.

Dodgers third base prospect Andy LaRoche looks like a complete hitter. His on-base skills are exceptional and he’s already capable of hitting 20 home runs or so per season. He has only struck out in about 10% of his plate appearances with Triple-A Las Vegas this year.

Dodgers first base prospect James Loney is a similar hitter to LaRoche, but Loney’s power has not developed the way many hoped it would. He is still a good enough hitter to have a long Sean Casey-like career.

Also: Neil Walker and Ryan Garko.

Large Prospects with Below-Average Contact Skills

Joe Koshansky doesn’t need any more skeptics. The Rockies prospect has already surprised just about everyone by following up on last year’s breakout campaign with another 30 home run/100 RBI performance this year. The 225 lb. first baseman has struck out in about 25% of his plate appearances during his career, so go ahead and continue to temper your enthusiasm.

Cubs prospect Ryan Harvey is only 21 years old and already has over 50 home runs in his minor league career. He also strikes out in over one quarter of his plate appearances, and almost never walks, so don’t be fooled by his power numbers. Some major changes are necessary before he becomes a legitimate major league hitter.

Joel Guzman is probably the biggest player on this list at 6’6 and 250 pounds. He’s having a solid season in Triple-A this year, but it’s worth noting that he has struck out in over 20% of his plate appearances at every stop of his professional career.

Also: Josh Fields, Nolan Reimold, and Kyle Blanks.

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