When you write about the minor leagues, you develop certain things you look for in the players. You also develop a tendency to categorize players pretty quickly. Do they look like they have a good approach? Do they have a lot of power? Whatever the categories I choose, I tend to think of guys as below or above average in each and split them up accordingly.
So and so seems to have good plate discipline, but he couldn't hit a home run if he was swinging from second base. This guy swings at pitches like he's trying to protect something behind home plate from them, but he can sure hit the ball a mile. You get the picture. It's not exactly revolutionary.
Well, as people look at the different styles of hitters, certain narratives develop as to what their strengths or weaknesses might be as they move toward the majors. One example I hear a lot is the low level, slappy hitter who draws lots of walks. The common knock on this type of player is that once more advanced pitchers know they don't have to worry about anything but singles, they will pump the strike zone, the walks will go away and soon, so will the flawed hitter.
To get to the type of player we're talking about, I cut out all the players with lower than average walk rates (walks divided by plate appearances). This group was further reduced by selecting only the players with an isolated power (slugging minus batting average) that was 80% of the league average or less.
That left us with players who walked more than the league average, but had an isolated power that was twenty percent lower than league average or less. I chose 2006 and 2007 because I figured that gave the players who were in the Midwest League in those years time to let their career paths play out.
Starting with these players, those in the Midwest League in 2006 and 2007, I discovered that most of their careers are just that - played out. The 2006 group consisted of eleven players and only one of them has made it to the major leagues. It just so happens the Tigers are wondering if that player, Will Rhymes, might be their starting second baseman in 2011. The rest of the group has not fared so well, as only four of the others are even playing affiliated ball at this point.
The 2007 group hasn't done too much better. None of the six players who meet our parameters have made it to the majors and only two are still playing affiliated ball. Considering Abel Nieves hit .230/.323/.301 in 382 plate appearances between Double A and Triple A last season, that number may be down to one soon. The other player was Cedric Hunter, who's still just 22 and an outfielder in the Padres' system.
What's interesting about both groups is that it isn't the walks going away that seems to plague these players. Sure, the rates do drop a bit as they climb toward the majors but it's certainly not precipitous. Their problems lie more in their falling batting averages.
In the Midwest League, we're talking about 16 different players (Mike Massaro was in both the 2006 and 2007 groups). Every single one of them had a batting average that was above the league average. Two years after these guys were in the Midwest League, only 12 were still playing affiliated ball and only half of those 12 were still hitting at or above league average. After the 2010 season, only seven of these players were still playing and it's pretty safe to say only two or three still have a shot at playing in the major leagues at all.
These players - as a group - may have been able to maintain their ability to draw walks at an above average rate. But their lack of power means they can't afford to lose too much from their batting averages. It would seem their nemesis isn't so much more advanced pitchers pounding the strike zone. It's more advanced defenses gobbling up their singles and turning them into ground outs.
To be clear, I'm not proposing that this dinky little study is offering us anything conclusive. I do find this information interesting, though. I think it offers us enough evidence to think twice before we sink our teeth into broad stroke assumptions about what certain skillsets mean for a player's future.
When we see slap hitters in the Tigers' system like Jeff Rowland or Jamie Johnson, our assumption might have been that a decrease in their notable walk rates would lead to their topping out in Erie or Toledo (if they make it that far). This suggests, though, that even if they continue to draw walks - the group described above even suggests we can expect it - that doesn't mean they will be successful.
They will need to continue to find holes in the infield and pepper the outfield with well hit line drives. If they're unable to do that, the walks simply won't be enough. What's more, the volatile nature of batting average tells us just how precarious a position this type of player will find themselves. To me, this suggests this type of player will have to be exceptional in other aspects of the game to carry them when their batting average falters.
It's a good thing the position where we've seen this profile most in the Tigers' system is center field. Being placed in center field suggests these players possess speed and defensive instincts. If they put the foot speed to use on the basepaths, they may be able to get their managers to look past the times when their batting average is dropping.