Across all full-season minor league affiliates in 2019, the list of the top three hitters in K%-BB% looked like this:
Madrigal, of course, was the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft out of Oregon State and is currently ranked as the No. 26 prospect in baseball on THE BOARD. Franco, an 18-year-old switch-hitting shortstop, was considered the top prospect in the 2017 July 2 international signing class, signed for $3.85 million, and is currently the game’s top prospect. Both Madrigal and Franco are high-profile minor leaguers who have been projected to make a future impact in the big leagues for some time.
And then there’s John Nogowski.
Nogowski, a Tallahassee, Florida native, had a solid career at Florida State, walking more than he struck out but also hitting just nine career home runs in 171 games. In three years for the Seminoles, he hit .282/.407/.401. Lacking power or a valuable defensive position, the right-handed-hitting first baseman signed with Oakland after being drafted in the 34th round of the 2014 draft.
The A’s pushed him aggressively in his first full season, sending him to High-A Stockton. Nogowski would show good bat-to-ball skills there, striking out less than 12% of the time and walking nearly 9% of the time. Nonetheless, he played 180 games in the hitter-friendly Cal League and hit just 11 home runs while slugging just .385. At the end of spring training in 2017, Nogowski was released by Oakland and, by most rational onlookers at the time, likely seemed to have hit the end of his professional baseball career.
Of course, hindsight is 20-20. Nogowski spent the entirety of 2019 with Triple-A Memphis in the St. Louis organization and hit .295/.403/.476 with 15 home runs, 69 walks, and 54 strikeouts in 117 games. Since his release, he has never had a season in which he has struck out more times than he walked and has set career-high slugging percentage and on-base percentage totals in each of the past three seasons. The once-released afterthought is now knocking on the door of the major leagues and finds himself on leaderboards alongside the game’s most heralded prospects.
After being let go by Oakland, Nogowski knew that clubs were looking to cut down their rosters as the minor league regular seasons started and figured his best chance to continue playing was to join an independent league club. He considers his stint with the Sioux City Explorers of the American Association to be one of the best experiences of his career and attributes much of his success as a Cardinal to the “reset” that experience provided him.
“It was really the first time for me, in pro ball, that the best players were out there regardless of draft status. It was just about putting the best lineup out there every night,” Nogowski said about his time in Sioux City. “We had an amazing group of guys. Guys like Tony Campana and Josh Vitters, ex-big-league guys were there. It was so much fun and so refreshing to me to just go out there and play.”
St. Louis signed Nogowski after 34 games with Sioux City in which he hit .402/.482/.607, sending him to Double-A Springfield in late June. In 59 Texas League games, Nogowski carried a 118 wRC+ and walked more than he struck out. Following that season, he was invited to the Arizona Fall League.
“I went from getting released out of spring training to getting invited to the Fall League. It was wild,” said Nogowski. He considered his time with the Surprise Saguaros to be a great experience. “I think the biggest thing I took away from it was that when we’re all on the same playing field, like we were in the Fall League, it proved I could play with every single guy out there. Acuña was there, Robles was there … these guys were unbelievable, of course. But knowing that I could compete and carve out a spot on a roster with those guys there sort of solidified that I have a good shot. If these guys are the best in the minor leagues and I’m going up there and having great at-bats, I know I’m going to be fine.”
Nogowski’s continued increase in power output and continued improvement on his already-impressive plate discipline has not been an unintentional effort on his part. He’s worked hard to find a good balance between being selective at the plate while trying to generate more power. He says that the improvements have been less about any sort of swing overhaul and more about a more focused approach.
“I’ve been working with [former Memphis hitting coach and current Cardinals assistant hitting coach] Jobel Jiménez basically since I got here. Obviously, we want to get the ball in the air more. I’ve always been a guy that’s been able to make solid contact, and I’m a guy who hates striking out, so it’s been a battle about chasing .300 and getting to 15 or 20 home runs. I’ve tried to meet it somewhere in the middle.”
Nogowski credits the Cardinals organization and coaches like Jiménez for providing him with scouting information about his opponents to help him maximize his ability to do damage. He’s found that, in the upper levels of the minor leagues, he’s been able to find a way to compete against pitchers because they are attempting to beat him knowing what his tendencies are, and he tries to counter their approach by playing the percentages.
“Leverage counts are really important to me,” Nogowski said. “Take a 1-1 count for instance. If I’m hitting, let’s say, .230 when I’m behind in the count but .350 when I’m ahead in the count, I know that the pitcher knows that. My best pitch to hit might be on that flip count – on that 1-1 pitch – because they know they have to get ahead of me, or they’ll be facing me when I’m at an advantage.”
Figuring out what information to use has taken time for Nogowski. He says that a relationship with his hitting coaches is huge for understanding what’s needed. Often times, the most important aspect of player-to-coach communication (or vice versa) is about understanding each other’s needs and abilities. For Nogowski, working cohesively on helping to curate the most advantageous information has been beneficial.
“If I can narrow this down to where, like, I know ‘75% of the time this guy goes 1-1 slider with a runner in scoring position,’ I’m going to look for a slider in and get it pull side in the air,” Nogowski said. “Those types of things all come from me talking to the hitting coach and the hitting coach coming to me with the statistics. That trust with the coach that the information is helpful has helped me do the damage I’ve done.”
Nogowski lightheartedly acknowledged that he might have a tough path ahead of him in St. Louis with a “pretty good first baseman” already there, and he said that he hopes to gain more reps in the outfield this winter as a member of the Águilas Cibaeñas in the Dominican winter league in order to help be more attractive to a big league manager in the future. He is also eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter, although he says that he’s focused on his forthcoming Dominican experience now and not thinking much about anything beyond it.
Nogowski is a back-of-the-draft right-handed-hitting first baseman with below-average power who was released less than three years after being drafted and spent time with an independent league team in Iowa. Just a few months after that, he found himself racking up 35 plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League, and he is currently among the top performers in the upper levels of the minor leagues just two years after that. The 26-year-old is unsure what his future holds, but he’s hopeful that his plate discipline leads him to a chance in the big leagues. His path there, should he make it, will be different than most of his peers. In his mind, he’ll fit right in.
Josh Herzenberg has served as an area scout and a minor league coach for the Dodgers. He can be found on Twitter @JoshHerzenberg.