Will Brandon Wood Strike Out?

He was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Baseball Player of the Year in 2005. Baseball America rated him the third-best prospect in baseball last winter. He launched 101 extra-base hits in 2005 and has been involved in dozens of major league trade rumors since then. If you haven’t heard of Brandon Wood by now, you probably haven’t been paying attention to baseball during the past two years.

Wood was an oft-overlooked prospect in the Angels system before breaking out in the California League in 2005. His .276 / .355 / .552 numbers at double-A Arkansas in 2006 were also strong, and he concluded his summer by launching the go-ahead home run in Team USA’s victory over Cuba in the Olympic qualifying tournament.

The Strikeouts

While the extra-base hit totals remain impressive, Wood’s contact rate emerged as a possible cause for concern this year. Wood struck out 149 times, or about 29% of his plate appearances, during the 2006 season. While he has never been a particularly strong contact hitter (22% strikeout rate in previous two seasons), it is particularly rare to see minor leaguers have long major league careers after striking out in over one quarter of their minor league plate appearances (Ryan Howard is one exception to this rule). Despite increasing his walk rate against better competition in 2006, Wood’s on-base average actually decreased relative to his breakout season in 2005. It would have been worse if he had not been playing half his games in the league’s most hitter-friendly park and benefiting from a .358 batting average of balls in play (BABIP).

Of course, maybe he improved enough within the 2006 season to suggest this won’t be a problem in the future. Wood struck out in over 30% of his plate appearances during the first month of the 2005 season, but he adjusted to the new league and finished with much-improved numbers by the end of the season. I wondered if Wood’s 2006 numbers were the result of an early-season period of adjustment or an exaggerated slump at another point in the season. Here is a plot of Wood’s strikeout rates broken down across five months of this past year:

Team USA general manager Bob Watson once praised Wood’s ability to adjust to what pitchers were throwing him, but this skill did not translate to season-long improvements in strikeout rates this year. He did experience a particularly high strikeout rate in April similar to his 2005 campaign, but things never got much better. In August, Wood was still striking out about as often as he was in May. In any given month, he never struck out in fewer that 26.8% of plate appearances.

Wood’s strikeout tendencies were more or less persistent across the whole season in 2006, but why does this matter? What consequences, if any, does this have for evaluating his future potential?

The Future

To understand Wood’s future, let’s start by looking at other players’ past. In particular, I am interested in knowing whether or not a significant decrease in contact rate at Double-A ball is a strong indicator of future trouble. I looked for young players with significant power production who struck out in over one quarter of their plate appearances at double-A after posting healthier strikeout rates in the minor leagues. The most recent players are as follows:

Joel Guzman
2004  19   A+  .243   22%
2004  19   AA  .242   22%
2005  20   AA  .188   26%
2006  21  AAA  .173   21%

Luis Garcia
2000  21    A  .196   21%
2001  22   A+  .195   21%
2001  22   AA  .280   26%
2002  23   AA  .171   17%
2003  24  AAA  .116   21%

Eric Hinske
1999  21   A+  .218   18%
2000  22   AA  .227   26%
2001  23  AAA  .239   22%
2002  24  MLB  .202   21%

Craig Wilson
1998  21   A+  .238   22%
1999  21   AA  .240   26%
2000  22  AAA  .321   26%
2001  23  MLB  .279   29%

Derrek Lee
1995  20    A  .195   24%
1996  21   AA  .290   30%
1997  22  AAA  .153   22%
1998  23  MLB  .181   23% 

I included a couple seasons after the Double-A performance to provide some representation of the players’ follow-up performances. No player here is a perfect comparison for our player of interest; Brandon Wood is hitting for more power and is a more defensively valuable prospect than most everyone on the list. The group of players is useful for generating a very general understanding of the range of developmental trajectories following a high-strikeout season at this stage of Wood’s career.

The good news is that most of these players made contact more often very soon after the high-strikeout season. Craig Wilson was the only player who did not lower his strikeout rate to 22% or lower despite playing against tougher (triple-A) competition in the following year. This may simply be a case of regression towards the mean. After all, such unusually high strikeout rates in one year are probably not accurate representations of a prospect’s true ability to make contact, especially if the prospect has posted more typical strikeout numbers in the past. Another explanation might acknowledge that player development personnel may quickly help the hitters make the adjustments necessary to put the ball in play more often following a high-strikeout season. These players are all young with power potential, so they are good candidates to receive immediate attention from coaches.

Without fully knowing the reasons behind each of these turnarounds, this small sample of comparison players suggests Brandon Wood is not destined to strikeout more than once per game in the near future. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Wood will travel to hitter-friendly Salt Lake next season. I think this could have negative consequences for two reasons. First, Wood could very well make contact more often without changing his approach at the plate simply because of the effect the thin desert air has on breaking pitches that Wood has been known to chase. Baseball is a game of millimeters; even slightly flatter pitches could push his strikeout rate to more typical levels until his next promotion into a new hitting environment.
Second, I wonder how Wood will be perceived by fans, coaches, and baseball front offices if he posts more gaudy power numbers in a hitter-friendly context while continuing to strike out at an alarming rate. I would hate to see Wood rushed to the big leagues or suffer from high expectations simply because he can hit 30 home runs in the Pacific Coast League even if he doesn’t make proper adjustments in two-strike situations. Remember, Dallas McPherson‘s power displays were enough to distract many people from his problems making contact throughout his minor league career, but those shortcomings were exploited during his stints in the American League.

The buzz surrounding Brandon Wood is understandable. Who wouldn’t like to see a young shortstop with plus power emerge in his favorite organization’s farm system? Wood may be labeled a “top prospect”, but he has some work to do before reaching that potential. I think there is sufficient evidence from Wood’s performance history and others’ history to suggest he can overcome his recent tendency to strikeout, but it may take some years of refining his plate approach before we find out whether or not Wood will develop into a perennial all-star or a useful but less valuable all-or-nothing hitter.

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