Rule-5 Pick Joey Rickard Might Be for Real

The Orioles have turned some heads with their excellent start to the year. Although they’ve lost their last two games, they’re still 7-2 and have one of the best records in baseball. Naturally, a team projected to finish last in their division doesn’t open the year with seven straight wins without help from some unlikely contributors. Perhaps none of those contributors has been more unlikely than their new outfielder, Joey Rickard. Rickard’s started all nine of Baltimore’s games thus far, and has gotten on base in every one of them. He’s slashing a smooth .306/.325/.472. With a strong spring, Rickard pried playing time away from Korean import Hyun-soo Kim, and he doesn’t appear to be looking back.

The O’s nabbed Rickard from the Rays with the eighth pick in last winter’s Rule 5 draft. The 25-year-old was coming off of a breakout campaign that saw him slash an absurd .321/.427/.447 between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A, while also adding 23 steals. His 2014 was substantially less impressive, however. He hit just .243/.337/.296 in a half-season at the Double-A level with just one homer.

Despite Rickard’s strong 2015 campaign, Baseball America excluded him from their Rays top-30 list last winter, just as they did every year since he was drafted in 2012. It appears that scouts have never viewed him as a future impact big leaguer. Instead, they saw an outfielder whose lack of power renders him a backup at best. KATOH, however, sees something more. Headed into the year, my system projected him for 2.7 WAR over the next six seasons. At first glance, that doesn’t seem very impressive at all. But compared to other non-prospects, it’s actually pretty decent. Rickard’s projection made him roughly the 200th-ranked prospect among players with at least 300 PA/BF last year according to KATOH. Every team has a prospect like Rickard, but few have more than a handful. That’s a prospect who could very easily stick around a few years as a bench player.

As I recently noted in an interview with Ryan Pollack of Camden Chat (which got me thinking about Rickard this week), Rickard’s calling card is his ability to control the strike zone. He walked nearly as much as he struck out last year, and both his strikeout and walk rates were better than average. This definitely helps explain how he’s flown under the radar thus far: scouts don’t exactly drool over players with excellent plate discipline. Rickard is one of those outfield tweeners who doesn’t get much attention from the scouting community, but whom KATOH loves. He doesn’t hit many homers or possess top-notch speed. Instead, he gets it done be controlling the strike zone, lacing doubles and triples and possessing a respectable amount of speed. Statistically, he kind of looks like a poor man’s Max Kepler, which isn’t a bad thing by any means.

To put some faces to Rickard’s statistical profile, let’s go ahead and generate some statistical comps for the undertooled outfielder. I calculated a weighted Mahalanobis Distance between Rickard’s 2015 season and every High-A, Double-A and Triple-A season since 1990 in which an outfielder recorded at least 400 plate appearances. In the table below, you’ll find the 10 most similar seasons, ranked from most to least similar. I went 20 deep with Rickard’s comp list (instead of my usual 10), since there were plenty of similar players. Unlike with most top prospects, the players at the back end of this list don’t feel like stretches.

Joey Rickard’s Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Name Proj. WAR Actual WAR
1 Noochie Varner 0.5 0.0
2 Ted Wood 1.4 0.0
3 Fred Lewis 1.3 4.9
4 Jacob Cruz 2.1 0.9
5 Endy Chavez 3.1 5.3
6 Scott Meadows 2.7 0.0
7 Brent Brede 1.8 0.2
8 Troy O’Leary 0.9 8.1
9 Gabe Gross 0.8 6.2
10 Zach Daeges 1.1 0.0
11 Tony Longmire 0.6 1.3
12 Cory Sullivan 1.5 0.9
13 Cole Gillespie 3.7 0.1
14 Reggie Willits 1.1 2.5
15 Rob Ducey 0.9 0.6
16 Terrell Lowery 3.9 0.7
17 David Miller 1.7 0.0
18 Gregor Blanco 3.3 7.4
19 Dan Peltier 1.2 0.0
20 Allen Battle 0.6 0.4

A few names from this group stand out as best-case-scenario outcomes for Rickard: Fred Lewis, Endy Chavez, Troy O’Leary, Gabe Gross, Reggie Willits and Gregor Blanco. None of those players were stars, or anything close to it, really, but they were all useful players. All told, 14 of the top 20 had seasons in the big leagues during which they recorded a positive WAR figure, and six of them accumulated more than 2 WAR. In the world of prospects, where nothing is guaranteed, those are pretty good odds. They look especially good when you consider the Orioles got Rickard for basically nothing.

When the Orioles selected Rickard in the Rule 5, they were a team that didn’t look great on paper, and were kind of desperate for outfielders. Now, they’re a team that looks like they’ll be more competitive than we all thought. That’s partly due to Rickard, who — at least for now — is playing everyday in Baltimore’s outfield. And most importantly, he’s producing.

It’s far too early to say that Rickard will be an everyday outfielder long-term, or even a quality fourth outfielder in the near term. But it’s looking more and more like he belongs in the big leagues. Prior to hitting up a storm in his first week-plus in the majors, he hit .397/.472/.571 in spring training. Before that, he hit .321/.427/.447 in the minors last year. The most recent data on Rickard suggest his excellent control of the strike zone and high OBPs are for real, and those data are mounting. Regardless of what Rickard does from here on out, the Orioles have already gotten a very good return from the eighth pick in the Rule 5 draft. And they just might have found their everyday left fielder.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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6 years ago

In a 15 year career Endy Chavez had 4 total War. 75% of that came from 2006.