The Curious Case of Junior Lake

Just 23 years old, Junior Lake has made a heart-shaped impression on Cubs fans. Search his name on Twitter, and you will find a nation of Cubs fans eager to see him play in the 2014 All-Star game and receive his due credit in morning talk shows. With the team holding baseball’s version of a mid-season yard sale, Lake’s heroics have come at a time when the club most needed something fun to watch.

Lake has all of 29 big league plate appearances, so of course the sample sizes make the results essentially meaningless. But small sample good results are better than small sample terrible results, at least, and starting hot can’t hurt. Yes, for every slow-starting Chris Davis there is hot-starting Jeff Francoeur, but given the choice between a cold start and a hot start, most scouts, GMs, managers, players, fans and bomb fuse makers will prefer the hot start.

So how has Lake succeeded thus far? Dropping prudent bunts and crushing middle-middle pitches (which is what MLB-level players should do):

Give Lake credit for drawing a walk over the last 6 games. If I were making my MLB debut with a rainstorm of hits, I’d probably not take four pitches in any one at bat.

If we want to identify early warning signs, go ahead and select “Swinging Strikes” in the “des2” box and “All” in the “Event1” box. The pie chart should show a lot of gray; click on that gray and you will see the five sliders, all clustered low in the zone, that Lake has whiffed. And that’s 5 sliders from 4 pitchers. If we can be bold enough to make long prognostications about Lake’s discipline with only a handful of games’ PITCHf/x data, (I’m not so bold, but if I were, I’d say something like…) Lake may be showing the early signs of an Alfonso Soriano-like penchant — a guilty pleasure, even — for low sliders.

Another noticeable red flag about Lake, the kind of red flag I notice only on a whimsical occasion, is his busy, almost conspiratorial, hand movements. Mike Newman had a chance to watch Junior Lake back when Lake was in Double-A, and though he did not refer to the then-shortstop’s hand movements as “conspiratorial,” he did likewise consider Lake’s swing as “messy and in need of significant quieting”:

Busy Hands1

This is from Lake’s first four-hit game. It includes a home run, but I trimmed that hit especially short (I regret this now; it reduces the effectiveness of that little section). I trimmed it, because other than the ball’s trajectory on that homer — basically everything before Lake used the bat — it looks like Lake is about to groundout or strikeout. His fidgety bat movement makes me think utility infielder, not toolsy centerfielder.

But toolsy he is. And frankly, other great hitters have managed success despite failures to aspire to the perfect, Grecian home run swing. And let us credit again Newman, who identified Lake as a runner into of pitches:

In game action, movement in his stance literally changed every at bat and the violent waggle mid-load is a disruptive force, as is the present foot tap to a lesser extent. When a scout mentions, “Player A will occasionally run into a pitch.” Junior Lake is a prime example as his timing mechanism will severely limit his ability to truly square up.

Newman essentially predicted this sexy start for Lake. Making impressive outfield plays, running the bases like a champ and dropping bunt singles like some sort of small ball hip hop artist, Lake has done a lot to endear himself to Chicago fans. But as with all players, the good will come with the bad. Just like how we do not anticipate Yasiel Puig to maintain a .463 BABIP through the remainder of his career, we cannot anticipate Lake hitting 54 homers and BABIPing .600.

But this can still be a coming out party. Lake still has a lot more going for him than just a fourth outfielder. Cue Newman:

On defense, Lake has one of the best arms in all of minor league baseball. At some point, a move to the mound may become an option if the organization were to deem his development as a position player a lost cause. … Lake is a plus runner. With 38 stolen bases in 44 attempts, base running is the most polished aspect of his game. With his physique, his speed should continue to be a weapon for years to come leaving him with the potential for 25+ stolen bases annually should he reach Chicago for good. In many respects, his game resembles that of a poor man’s B.J. Upton without the added value of bases on balls.

Filter again, if you will, to make the preceding graphs show the balls Lake did not swing at (des2: “Balls” and event1: “All”). Here we see about 10 sliders down and away Lake did not swing at. Just as sliders down appear a weakness when he swings the bat, they have also been a strength when he doesn’t swing. I.e.: It’s a mixed bag.

Lake’s PITCHf/x discipline numbers nor his minor league K-rate suggest he will ever be a high-discipline type hitter. This should evently lead to fewer pitches in the zone; right now, both BIS (47.5%) and PITCHf/x (49.5%) have him receiving zone pitches at above their respective league averages. As long as he’s bopping those for doubles and homers yet whiffing elsewhere, we can plan on pitchers adjusting and moving away from the zone.

Lake’s always been more potential than performance, and even before his promotion from Triple-A, he wasn’t exactly killing the ball. However, the Cubs youth movement has given Lake an opportunity to put his tools on display in the big leagues, and his first week could hardly have gone any better. Whether he’ll be able to make the adjustments necessary to turn his tools into long term production remains to be seen, but he’s off to one heck of a start.

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Ed Nelson
10 years ago

At least the physical skills are there. You knew Chris Davis could hit for power if he could adjust his swing and approach and certainly Lake has the physical size and athleticism to be much more than a poor man’s BJ Upton. It will be interesting to see if an offseason with a good hitting coach can turn him into the complete package.