WTNYApril 15, 2005
True Outcomes and Sample Sizes
By Bryan Smith

At what point in the season do statistics start being complete enough to judge? Maybe after sixteen games (10% of the season), 32 games (20%), or even 40 games (25%)? My guess is that every person will have a different answer to this question, when they will start valuing a player's numbers for what he has become. Today my argument is that while it is too early to look at batting averages or slugging percentages, walks and strikeout totals are fair game.

So with that in mind, I set out to find the minor league players who are becoming sabermetric favorites and enemies in the early going. To qualify for the favorite category, a player had to be somewhat of a prospect and have already drawn more than five walks. Enemies had to have at most one walk, with at least seven strikeouts.

What is surprising is that in both categories combined, only four hitters have batting averages greater than .300. Both of these types are extremes as players, and to see them struggling in the early going is hardly shocking. While we'll surely check back in with this group at season's end, my hypothesis is that the walk-heavy players are more likely to bounce back.

Without further theorizing or hypothesizing, let's get to the players. First, the soon-to-be sabermetric favorites, by order of their current on-base percentages:

  • Ryan Howard (AAA): .500/.621/.700. This guy is like the baseball version of Marvin Williams of the national champion North Carolina basketball team. While Williams has the talent to be a top-three pick should he come out this June, he still could not break the vaunted UNC starting lineup. Howard is as accomplished as any minor leaguer, yet has no chance in an organization who made Jim Thome the face of the franchise. Howard is simply auditioning for a trade, for which he has already requested of Ed Wade. Despite having record-setting power, Howard has not homered yet this season, leaving his TTO total at 13 (eight walks).

  • Reid Brignac (A-): .450/.593/.700. The 45th overall pick in last June's draft, Brignac came as accomplished as any hitter coming out of Louisiana. The Tampa Bay organization started boasting Brignac from the second they drafted him. The Major League Baseball scouting service said Last June that his "long, lean, athletic frame" has "lots of room to fill out and get bigger and stronger." Brignac has already walked seven times this season, a rate few high school players achieve in their first go at full-season ball. This is a guy to really watch, because he could just be that guy whose star begins shining very soon.

  • Carlos Quentin (AAA): .450/.586/1.000. Quentin, like Howard, simply does not have much left to prove in the minors. Since the Dodgers were never impressed much with Shawn Green's right field play, it is likely that Green will move, opening up a spot for Quentin in 2006. The question is whether Green's move will be to first base, effectively blocking Quentin's buddy Conor Jackson, or a move to his fourth organization. As far as Quentin goes, he's been perfect in the Pacific Coast League so far this season. He has just one strikeout to go with his seven walks and nine hits in twenty at-bats. While caveats of the immense hitting parks within the Arizona system apply, I admit to having underrated Quentin in the past. This is a legit top 25 prospect, and will be the first part of the youth overhaul Phoenix fans should be seeing the next few years.

  • Brad Nelson (AAA): .381/.567/.571. Before the name Ryan Sweeney was known by anyone, there was Brad Nelson, the original Iowa farm boy. Nelson became the top Brewer prospect a few seasons ago with a great season in the Midwest League, before Milwaukee futility allowed them to draft the likes of Weeks, Fielder, and others that have made this system so plentiful. An underwhelming 2004, sort of a theme for Brewers in Huntsville, left Nelson at the bottom of the corner outfield chain of Corey Hart, Nelson Cruz and him. This beginning has made Nelson a need-to-know again, especially with his 9/2 walk-to-strikeout ratio. Milwaukee has a big decision as to whether re-sign Carlos Lee when his contract runs up, and the play of Nelson will likely largely shape that decision.

  • David Espinosa (AA): .273/.409/.500. A first-round pick in what was probably the most disappointing draft in the last decade (2000), Espinosa's career is starting to come together in Detroit. David started playing outfield in addition to shortstop last season, and his 10/2 BB/K ratio is another plus on his resume. Espinosa is similar to a few other minor leaguers (Kelly Johnson, Drew Meyer) in the fact that a move from short to outfield has opened the possibility of a Major League career. If Espinosa can continue to prove he can play short, and add a few more positions (LF? 3B?), a career as a bench player is all-but-guaranteed.

  • Justin Huber (AA): .278/.389/.500. If Justin Huber pans out in Kansas City, who traded the rights of journeyman Jose Bautista for him, we are really going to have to make fun of Met fans. Huber was the prized jewel of the Met system a few years ago, but became a bit of a tweener between catcher and first base in recent years. If Rob Neyer is right and Calvin Pickering is not the answer at DH, Huber's path to the Majors will be an easy one. The Royals have a catcher-turned-first baseman mentor in Mike Sweeney that might really help Huber transition to the position. Royal fans should have an ISO watch on Huber, because if that stays over .200, the Australian kid might just be replacing Mr. Sweeney.

    Well, those are all the players on my list to have at least eight walks this season. To quickly hit on the others, I should start with the PCL superstars, Casey Kotchman and Prince Fielder. Kotchman notched his first hit in more than twenty tries on Tuesday, not exactly sparking confidence in the Angels to trade Darin Erstad. Fielder has come out of the blocks a little slow (.217/.419/.478), but Lyle Overbay will allow him to take all the time he needs. As far as vaunted sluggers go, Eric Duncan is walking in the Eastern League, but the problem is existent in his .160 average and zero extra-base hits in 25 at-bats.

    Last season we saw the Texas League eat up Jeff Mathis, and it will surely try to do the same to Mike Napoli this season. Napoli has a low average (.222) to go with a high slugging (.500) so far, making some wonder if he would be better than their favorite team's Major League back-up (he was available in the Rule 5). Russ Martin is a fellow Double-A catcher trying to succeed in the Southern League, fresh off a dazzling performance in Spring Training.

    Tony Giarratano is another that impressed in the Grapefruit League, but has not come off the blocks fantastically in the Eastern League. Detroit fancies Giarratano as future help up the middle, but I'm worried his combination of low power, and moderate speed and defensive skills will hardly land him any full-time job. Eric Patterson is trying to take the same trek Giarratano did last year, and has started to impress in the Midwest League. Walks, power and tons of speed is not a package you always get from your second baseman, so us Cub fans have to keep our fingers crossed on this one. Finally I've also mentioned Kelly Johnson already, who like Espinosa before him, is right on the cusp of becoming a very useful bench player in Atlanta.

    Alright, alright, I'm sick of being positive. Let's get to the players that new-age baseball fans won't be too fond of:

  • In AAA, both Tony Pena Jr. and Sergio Santos are currently sporting 1/10 walk-to-strikeout ratios. Pena is the type of player that old school types love, with his defense and pedigree. He'll need to sustain that .333 average to be anything special, and if the past is any indicator, he won't be. Santos on the other hand has a chance to be something, but has come out of the blocks in quite the funk this season. Santos has little hope of breaking the starting lineup this season, so he'll have every chance to succeed in Tuscon.

  • To continue the middle infielder trend, Delwyn Young in the Southern League has become the antidote to Russ Martin in the Jacksonville lineup. Young is similar to Mets on-again, off-again bench player Victor Diaz, as a player with some pop that could not cut it defensively up the middle. Young is also going to need to walk more than once for every thirty plate appearances to succeed, though his current .231 ISO looks mighty friendly.

  • I talked about the disappointment of Chris Lubanski a bit on Tuesday, so it comes as no surprise that he finds himself here at this point in the season. Lubanski has yet to walk in 32 at-bats, but unlike last season, is showing a few traces of power. It's too early to call Lubanski a complete bust, but if ever there was such a fast disappointment, he is it. Surprisingly joining Lubanski in the zero-walk club is Indian outfielder Brad Snyder, a former first-round pick from Ball State University. Cleveland is going to be a very hard place to break into very soon, and this is not the right start in becoming a Mark Shapiro favorite.

  • Finally, let's close in low-A. If Delwyn Young was balancing Russ Martin walk wise, Ryan Harvey is sure doing the same to Eric Patterson in Peoria. Harvey, one of the players the Royals should have considered drafting, also has yet to walk this season. To make matters worse, he has just one hit in sixteen at-bats. J.C. Holt and Jon Poterson, both chosen in the first two rounds last June aren't doing much better, with just one walk and seven hits in a combined 44 at-bats.

    So, there you have it. My expectation is that unlike the averages of all the players mentioned today, which should greatly fluctuate, their IsoD's (OBP-BA) should remain either strong or weak. For while power and speed are skills, patience is a virtue.

  • Comments

    (Smart) Met fans hated that Huber trade from the get-go. But I wonder if we need to be "made fun of" if Huber pans out as a quality 1B-man (at least in the same "made fun of" sense that we get/deserve for Kazmir). Omar Minaya seems to be building around pitching and defense, and as we learned from Piazza's 1B pseudo-transition last year, it's a shame to have a guy on the corner who can't pick it. Of course, Omar didn't make the trade, but I don't think Huber, as a 1B, would have fit into the Mets plans.

    Now, this doesn't mean that I think Huber will necessarily become a poor-fielding first-basement, but I think his true value to the Mets -- and any other team with a kid like that -- is behind the plate.

    That said, the Mets gave him away. For that, I scoff in the general direction of Shea.

    Has Quentin been hit by a pitch yet? I recall he got plunked 20+ times last year to raise his OBP to ~440.