Let’s Identify Some Hitter Sleeper Candidates

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Ah yes, you’ve made it through Prospect Week, reading our Top 100 list, interviews with both prospects and team personnel, Picks to Click, and myriad other prospect-focused delights. You might think that nothing could top that huge eruption of prospect coverage. And you’d be right! But as I’ve done for the past two years, I’m going to contribute a small postscript to the week by picking some hitting prospects who intrigue me and who I think stand a better-than-average chance of making noise in the major leagues.

In the past, I’ve done pretty well at this. My hit rate hasn’t been 100% or anything, but let’s put it this way: of the four betting favorites for NL Rookie of the Year for 2023, one is Kodai Senga, one is consensus all-world prospect Corbin Carroll, and the other two have appeared on the previous editions of this list. That’s Miguel Vargas and Ezequiel Tovar, if you’re keeping score at home, and both also feature on our Top 100 list this year. They’ve gone from being interesting guys with promising statistical markers to capital-G guys, which is exactly what I’m trying to do when putting this article together.

That said, it’s getting harder. The 2021 edition of this list featured some carping about Eric Longenhagen ranking Gabriel Moreno in the 100, because he was the exact kind of player who might not have been highly regarded in earlier eras of public prospect evaluation but who had all the markers of future success. This time around, the Top 100 has even more Moreno types, prospects who combine raw tools that might land them just short of the list with statistical markers that scream future big leaguer.

Just to throw some names out there so that I feel better about my process, I wanted to headline this list with one of Evan Carter, Kyle Manzardo, Adael Amador, or Edgar Quero. Heck, I would have settled for Edwin Arroyo if it came down to it. All five of those guys are ineligible for my list, though, thanks to their inclusion on the Top 100 list (I look exclusively outside of the 50 Future Value and above range so that we can reasonably call these players sleepers). In past years, some of these guys might not have made the 100 – they have athleticism questions, or don’t project to hit for enough power, or something along those lines – but these days, you can be a top prospect without prototypical traits if you play baseball really well.

As befits any Ben Clemens project, I used a combination of statistical modeling, careful observation, and semi-rigorous gibberish to synthesize a group of hitters I’m interested in. If you want to ignore the methodology and just get to the sweet, sweet list, I totally understand, but for everyone else, let’s talk about that “statistical modeling” part.

I used a variety of simple models based on historical minor and major league data. I fed whatever I could get into these models: rate statistics, age, position, level, some rough approximation of park factors – anything I could find on the internet and download, essentially. I linked those minor league seasons to eventual major league careers (or lack thereof) to project which traits best forecast future success.

There are all kinds of limitations to this methodology, but the key one is that I’m using the past to predict the future. Baseball isn’t perfectly stable over time; the kinds of hitter profiles that worked out in the early 2000s might not be the same as the ones that work out today. I’ve done my best to pick stable performance metrics, but player development is nothing like it was 20 years ago, so there’s definitely some uncertainty there.

That’s inherent in all forecasts based on historical data, but don’t worry: my methods have many more shortcomings. Minor league contraction and realignment means that historical data is now out of context; the average level of competition in each league has changed, and some of the old levels don’t exist. That messes with park factors as well, and I don’t think my park factors were great to begin with. I didn’t use Statcast or Trackman data, both because I don’t have it for the entire minor leagues and because I don’t have it historically to use as a marker. My estimates of position are based on where a player lined up most frequently, rather than their projected eventual position, and I didn’t use any measure of how good their defense was at that position. I could go on, but the point is that there are undoubted limitations to doing things this way.

With all of that said, I think that there’s still value in this exercise. Sure, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS Top 100 is a more rigorous statistical approach. Sure, Eric and Tess’ Top 100 list can blend in-person looks with data to gain knowledge that my numbers-only method will miss. I still like to take an independent view on things, though, and I think that a combination of data and common sense (one skill I am fairly sure I possess) can still return useful insights. I’ve also added a wrinkle or two this year, largely by refining some of my existing models (I use six methods I find interesting, take a rough average, and then layer in my own opinions after that).

Should you care about this list? Obviously, I think so. In addition to hitting on Vargas and Tovar, I think I’ve done a good job of highlighting interesting prospects who are clearly not top 100 types; Juan Yepez and Cooper Hummel both made last year’s list and then looked like interesting big leaguers, though Hummel will need to pick it up offensively to climb back to the majors in 2023. Jonathan Aranda was no slouch either. I’m not guaranteeing this list will be only studs – I’m not guaranteeing anything at all, to be clear – but I do think I do a good job of pointing out intriguing hitters.

With that said, let’s get to my list of six. As I mentioned, this is limited to players who didn’t appear on the Top 100 list, which means prospects assigned a Future Value below 50. That doesn’t mean hitters on that list aren’t better bets to succeed in the majors than hitters on this list – the top two prospects by my methodology were Gunnar Henderson and Corbin Carroll, who happen to be the top two prospects in baseball – it’s just a limitation of the exercise. Let’s begin.

Angel Martinez, SS, Cleveland Guardians

Relevant Stats: Martinez turned 21 a month ago. He tore through the minors last year, splitting time between High- and Double-A and excelling at both levels. He struck out 17.5% of the time, ran a double-digit walk rate, and hit for power while getting on base at an above-average clip. He did so while playing a solid shortstop.

What I Like: An up-the-middle defender with bat-to-ball skills and at least acceptable extra-base pop? It’s the profile that this series loves most, and doing it at Double-A at age 20 only makes it better. He was far better than league average at both levels without running an aberrant BABIP, and he did it while playing a premium defensive position at a young age. If he weren’t on the Guardians, a team with so many promising young middle infielders that they blot out the sun, he might be on a fast track to the major leagues or at least to an up-and-down role. He even draws walks!

Warning Signs: It’s the power, basically. His on-paper power production is better than his raw thump, and he could easily end up getting the bat knocked out of his hands at higher levels. He just turned 21, and he’s a switch hitter, so there’s plenty of time for him to develop, but it’s a risk worth keeping an eye on. There’s a reason he’s not a premium prospect despite his track record; if he had true plus power, he wouldn’t be eligible for this list. I still think he’s too good at too many things to miss out on a meaningful major league career, but if I’m wrong, I think it will come down to not enough balls leaving the park.

Osleivis Basabe, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays

Relevant Stats: Basabe turned 22 in September and spent the 2022 season split between High- and Double-A. He combined gap-to-gap power (39 doubles in roughly 500 PA) with excellent bat-to-ball skills en route to a combined .324/.385/.462 batting line. He played second, third, and short, with his defense at second and third grading out above average.

What I Like: For better or worse, my methodology loves hitters who look exactly like Martinez and Basabe. He rarely strikes out, which eliminates one easy way a hitter can fail to make the majors. He has value as a fielder, which gives him more margin for error and time to work through any rough patches. He hits a ton of doubles and triples, which most of my models like, both because extra base hits are good and because power development can turn them into homers. He even draws some walks, which is a pleasant surprise for a bat control type.

Warning Signs: Doubles and triples frequently turn into homers as players mature, but that might not be the case with Basabe. He has almost no over-the-fence pop to speak of; he only hit four homers in 2022, which doubled his total as a professional. He hits too many grounders. He doesn’t have a clear defensive home. Take away his phenomenal bat-to-ball skills, or even moderate them slightly, and he’d be a utility infielder. For him to be a true difference-maker, he’ll need to develop some power, which is possible but isn’t a given. I really do like him, but I recognize that players like Basabe are a blind spot for this method of evaluating prospects.

Gabriel Martinez, LF, Toronto Blue Jays

Relevant Stats: Martinez isn’t old enough to purchase alcohol in the United States yet (he’ll turn 21 this July). Despite his young age, he shredded A-ball and High-A last year, to the tune of an aggregate .299/.358/.485 line. He did so despite missing a month with injury, and in his first extended playing time as a professional to boot. Defensively, he’s corners-only in the outfield.

What I Like: Hitting. I like hitting, and Martinez does too. Working through two minor league levels at age 19 is impressive, and he did it not with some ludicrous BABIP but by controlling strikeouts and hitting for extra bases. Unlike many of the players on this list, he even hit some homers in a major league park (ish), since he played the majority of the season in Dunedin, the sometimes home of the 2021 Jays. Most players his age playing against advanced competition would be overmatched, which is easiest to see in their strikeout rate, but Martinez only struck out 16.4% of the time. Sure, the offensive bar to clear is higher as a corner outfielder, but he looked phenomenally good for his age and environment, which gives me hope that he can reach that bar.

Warning Signs: He’s another guy whose raw power numbers fall short of what you’d expect based on his production, and he’s on the clock to boot. He was Rule 5 eligible this past offseason, but I think it’s reasonable that no one took a chance on him; he’s just too raw to put on your major league roster without worrying about his long-term development. That does make 2023 a key season, though; he’ll be trying Double-A for the first time while also auditioning for a 40-man spot. That’s a lot of pressure, and might lead the Jays to push him too aggressively, though I think his skills are up to the challenge.

Esteury Ruiz, CF, Oakland Athletics

Relevant Stats: You know who Ruiz is. He headlined the A’s return for Sean Murphy after being the most notable prospect in the Brewers’ return for Josh Hader. He absolutely overpowered the minor leagues in 2022; he played for three different squads and batted over .300 with an OBP over .400 and a slugging percentage over .450 for each of them. It was a breakout season for Ruiz, and it came with sky-high BABIPs, but wow! Relevant slash line: in Double-A, he hit a ludicrous .344/.474/.611. He also played a solid center field thanks to spectacular straight line speed, and stole 85 bases while he was at it.

What I Like: I mean… did you read that part up above? What’s not to like? If the only thing we cared about here was a player’s 2022 statistics, and we didn’t consider any context, Ruiz would be one of the top prospects in baseball. His season was just that good. The only thing he didn’t do was hit for a ton of home run power, but even then, he popped 13 in just over 500 minor league plate appearances, a total that absolutely plays given everything else he brings to the table.

Warning Signs: Ruiz’s season looked better on paper than it did predictively. He benefited from sterling batted ball luck and also walked more often than you’d expect given his approach and contact skills. His power might not be sustainable either; it’s the pull-only type, which gives him less margin for error, though I’m more optimistic about his ability to replicate those numbers than most evaluators seem to be. Finally, it was a huge improvement on his last two minor league seasons, which makes his track record hard to evaluate. It’s hard to call Ruiz a sleeper, and I’m not even sure he fits the spirit of this list, but I wanted to include him anyway because opinions on him have varied so much.

Yeiner Fernandez, C, Los Angeles Dodgers

Relevant Stats: Fernandez played all of 2022 in the Cal League and acquitted himself shockingly well for a 19-year-old catcher in A-ball. He slashed .292/.383./430 and only struck out 13% of the time. He even showed some power, which is surprising given that he’s a compact 5-foot-9, and spent time at second base to give him extra versatility.

What I Like: Young-for-their-level catchers have enough on their plates that merely posting average batting lines can be a struggle. Putting up a superlative line like Fernandez did – nearly as many walks as strikeouts and 28 extra base hits – will always grab my attention. There’s a ceiling on how much power he’ll hit for given his size, but if he gets anywhere near that ceiling, he could hit enough to be a productive major leaguer thanks to the rest of his offensive skill set. Add in the fact that he’s a catcher, and I think there’s something here.

Warning Signs: Higher-level pitching might be tough for Fernandez. I’m skeptical that his 11% walk rate will hold up when he faces pitchers with command and stuff, and he’s going to see a lot of strikes until he proves he can make pitchers pay for it. One tenet of all of the models I’ve built is that contact matters more than power at the lower levels of the minors, but those numbers are based on aggregates across all minor league hitters and might not hold up for players of Fernandez’s stature. Eric compared him to Austin Barnes in his writeup this year. If Fernandez turns in a Barnesian career, I’d count that as a success, but that comp helps temper my enthusiasm somewhat.

Jhonkensy Noel, RF, Cleveland Guardians

Relevant Stats: Noel turned 21 last July in the midst of a three-level minor league adventure. He started the year in High-A and made it all the way up to Triple-A for a cup of coffee at the end of the season, clubbing his way through Double-A in the interim. He socked 32 homers and 60 extra base hits overall. He played every corner position on defense, though he might be a first baseman in the long run.

What I Like: I’m including Noel here as an example of the kind of unheralded power hitter I can get behind. He has had strikeout issues – he posted an abysmal 31.7% strikeout rate in High-A — but also showed improvement after being promoted to Double-A, where his K rate dipped to 22.7%. Noel’s strikeout rate improvement might make the question moot, but the closer he gets to the majors while still being a plus hitter, the less the strikeouts worry me.

Noel has top-of-the-scale power and gets to it often enough in games to make up for any shortfall in approach and bat-to-ball skills. It’s easy to picture how his skill set could come up short, but staying afloat in the upper minors makes me hopeful that he can make it work. Am I worried that his defense gives him little margin for error offensively? Absolutely. But I’m willing to dream on power here.

Warning Signs: Defense and plate discipline, more or less. That said, uh, those are the two things that this method punishes most severely, so I’m pretty worried about them. It’s easy to imagine what a fail case looks like: enough strikeouts that he hits like down-year Joey Gallo, only minus the excellent defense. Truthfully, I’m highlighting Noel because he bubbled up near the top of my list despite some obvious warning signs. It’s a mark of just how superlative his power is that he’s interesting despite the red flags, which aren’t exactly minor.

Those are my six favorite hitters outside our Top 100 this year, but I’ll throw in some honorable mentions as well. Jose Rodriguez is an exciting up-the-middle defender who might not hit for enough power, but also might make enough contact to overcome that limitation if he can rein in his aggression. Carter Jensen is a catcher who stayed afloat in A-ball at age 18, though I’m skeptical about his hit tool. I would have put Wenceel Perez on the list if I didn’t already have a ton of similar players on there; I think he’ll hit enough to play in the majors. Jordan Diaz was on the list last year, but I’d put him on this year if not for that. I’d also be remiss not to mention Masyn Winn. He’s a slam dunk top 100 prospect, but I thought that was largely because of defense and projectability. He took a big step forward in 2022 production-wise, though, something that delights me as a Cardinals fan.

On a broader note, I’m not sure I will keep doing this exercise without some major changes. It’s getting too hard! Many of the hitters I want to add are popping up in regular top prospect lists these days. That doesn’t surprise me; I’m one guy noodling around with a spreadsheet and a few lines of code for a month every year, while the broader prospect-following community is a huge group that does this year-round. To the extent that I’ve succeeded at all, it’s not because I have some special skill; it’s just because I’m looking at it in ways that other people aren’t. That was never going to last forever, though, and I think it’s almost gone already.

One way I could improve this exercise would be with better data, though that would represent a fairly major change from the way I’m running things now. Batted ball data for minor leaguers isn’t public, but it’s sometimes wrangle-able. Historical batted ball data for minor leaguers? That’s harder, which means I’d need a complete methodological overhaul to interpret the new data. It might be necessary, though; increasingly, I think this method has some negative selection when it comes to raw tools. If I find someone with solid power numbers and a good feel to hit, the odds are high that their power production outstripped their measurables, because looking at that data is now far more commonplace than it was in the past.

I’ve whined about how good everyone else is and how hard my job is long enough. I’m sure I’ll find some way to keep coming up with prospect opinions, even if they don’t take the same form in the future. I still think these six guys are flying under the radar more than they should – I just think it’s worth mentioning that said radar is getting better every year.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago

Um, please look harder at the Nationals system so you can find reasons for me to watch baseball games this September after we lose a 100 games. thank you!

kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago

otherwise, Well done and very cool!