Has the Next Zack Cozart Passed Through Waivers?

Zack Cozart is going to be an interesting free agent. I mean, at the major-league level, they’re all interesting free agents, but Cozart’s case is particularly intriguing, given his late-blooming power. Cozart seems like one of those guys who was built to take full advantage of a slightly livelier baseball, and given that he’s also a capable shortstop, he’s a valuable asset as long as his power exists. Cozart might not strike it super rich in the coming months, but he’ll get a healthy guarantee from someone. Teams like shortstops who can hit.

Speaking of which, kind of: Zach Vincej. I admit that this is going out on a limb. Not only was Vincej claimed by the Mariners off waivers from the Reds; the Mariners then outrighted Vincej to Triple-A, meaning he’s not on the 40-man roster. Vincej has been freely available, and I wouldn’t say there’s been a feeding frenzy. You probably haven’t heard of him. I hadn’t heard of him. Vincej is not, and never has been, a top prospect. He’s a 26-year-old with nine major-league at-bats.

But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this. So I felt compelled to put this in writing. Vincej seems like a run-of-the-mill minor-league infielder. Yet he might be just the sort of player who’d most benefit from a promotion.

Vincej has spent most of six years in the minors, and he’s almost exclusively been a shortstop. You and I both know we don’t have any reliable metrics for minor-league defensive performance, but Vincej, at least, has developed a positive reputation. From Mark Sheldon, two months ago:

Vincej, 26, has been known as a defense-first shortstop as a professional. He was a Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove Award winner in 2016 with Double-A Pensacola.
[…]
“He’s very savvy at shortstop, very polished,” [Bryan] Price said. “He’s always in the right spot. He gets the position. He has the skillset for it and the arm for it. He’s a very steady defender.”

I don’t know how much to make of that. I’ll bet against Vincej being defensively elite. I’ll also guess he’s at least an average-level shortstop. At least average, at a premium position. That helps to raise Vincej’s floor.

It’s not the defense, though, that intrigues me most. Maybe this is going to be complicated, and maybe it won’t. Let’s focus on Vincej at the plate. Two years ago in Double-A, 106 wRC+. Last year in Triple-A, 94 wRC+. He just hit three home runs. The year before, also three home runs. Not a lot. Nothing that would ever catch your eye.

Two things Vincej did do, however: put the ball in play, and put the ball in the air. Vincej, over a full season in Triple-A, struck out just under 12% of the time. About 37% of his balls in play were grounders. Here are all of last year’s Triple-A hitters, with at least 250 plate appearances. I’ve highlighted Vincej in yellow.

It’s not the single most extreme data point, but Vincej is out there near the border. Not many high-minors hitters hit so many air balls with so much contact. And, coincidentally, think about some of the major-league breakouts we’ve recently seen. There’s been a push toward hitting the ball in the air, and many players with above-average bat-to-ball skills have been able to make power improvements. I’m reminded, also, of this plot I made in September.

The home-run rate in the majors has taken off. It’s left the rates in the minors in the dust. Part of this is just that the best hitters are in the majors. At the same time, the best pitchers are also in the majors. Another partial explanation would appear to be that the major-league ball has become more lively. This is the same thing people have been talking about for more than two years. The big-league ball seems to fly farther. And that could stand to benefit a contact and fly-ball hitter in possession of what would’ve been middling power just a few seasons ago.

I’ll repeat that Vincej had a strikeout rate of about 12%, and a grounder rate of about 37%. That was in the highest level of the minors. Last year there were 24 major-league hitters who batted at least 250 times and had strikeout rates under 17%, and grounder rates under 40%. Vincej, obviously, isn’t the next Joey Votto, but this group also includes guys like Eric Sogard and Whit Merrifield. Of the 24 players, 20 finished with a wRC+ north of 100. The average wRC+ was 118, with a median of 116. The big-league ball has been rewarding contact and flies. Vincej seems to generate contact and flies. What might an extra 10 feet or so mean?

Now, you can’t just compare Vincej to big-leaguers just like that. Big-leaguers, after all, have been selected to play in the bigs. Vincej has barely gotten his feet wet. Maybe he’s just too terribly weak? I’m not buying that, though. Here’s a screenshot. Vincej has become one of the leg-kick guys.

Here’s video of that home run from last spring training.

Maybe most importantly, here’s a fact from Vincej’s 2016 stint in the Arizona Fall League.

Vincej highlighted the evening with a 388-foot two-run homer to left that also had an exit velocity of 105.66, according to Statcastâ„¢ in the 6th.

We don’t have minor-league Statcast. And Vincej, again, only barely played in the majors. But we can say, if nothing else, that Vincej has recently hit a home run that left the bat at 105.7 miles per hour. That’s not so bad! Andrelton Simmons just hit 14 home runs, the hardest of which was 105.4. Josh Harrison just hit 16 home runs, the hardest of which was 103.2. Alex Bregman just hit 23 home runs, the hardest of which was 105.5. Zack Cozart just hit 24 home runs, the hardest of which was 104.0. And Didi Gregorius just hit 28 home runs, the hardest of which was 105.9. Vincej has shown that power. We only have that sample size of one, but it’s good enough, in this case. It’s proof of concept. Vincej has shown power that plays in the majors. It just hasn’t really played in the minors, because the minor leagues are different.

Matthew Trueblood, over at Baseball Prospectus, wrote about Vincej last March. Vincej was making some significant changes, and he used to be more of a ground-ball hitter. The air balls have come over the last two seasons, with precious few homers to show for them. In the minors, Vincej hasn’t been rewarded. But this is the strange scenario we’re living in today. Vincej can hit the ball and lift it. But he might only have power if he gets promoted that one last step.

Based on the industry response to Vincej, front offices aren’t so enthusiastic. Anyone could’ve had him, and still he’s no longer on a 40-man roster. He’s not nearly as young as a typical prospect, and he was a late-round draft pick to begin with. Vincej’s going to have to prove himself over and over. He’s unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt.

But every team would acknowledge we’ve entered a weird era. An era in which fly balls that used to die on the track are sneaking out in greater quantity. Maybe that’s about to stop happening. It probably won’t. And this is all still so new that industry evaluations might not yet be properly adjusted. In a 2013 or 2014 context, Zach Vincej isn’t very interesting. In a 2017 context and beyond? Jose Ramirez hit three home runs in 2013. Then seven, then seven, then 11, then 29. You can’t always predict who might be the next out-of-nowhere success, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look for the indicators. For Zach Vincej, the stars might be so aligned. All he might need is the chance.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

newest oldest most voted
Finn
Member
Finn

The real question is how the hell do you pronounce Vincej?

Pat
Member
Pat

In the video it sounded like Vencia, like Carlos Mencia?

Doug Gray
Member

Vin-see.

And Jeff beat me to the answer by 30 seconds.