The Matt Carpenters of the Minor Leagues

Matt Carpenter has a very particular set of skills. (Photo: Keith Allison)

Yesterday at the site, managing editor Dave Cameron examined the early major-league success of Philadelphia corner-type Rhys Hoskins. Cameron noted that, while Hoskins’ 50 or so plate appearances were hardly sufficient to proclaim Hoskins a great success, that the process by which Hoskins had produced his strong early returns not only resembled the process with which he’s succeeded in the minors but also the sort utilized by other similarly overlooked players who’d parlayed less-than-scintillating tools into legitimate major-league careers.

Broadly speaking, Hoskins possesses what might be called the Matt Carpenter profile, but it’s also the Ian Kinsler profile and Daniel Murphy profile and Justin Turner profile. In addition to relatively modest pedigrees, this class of player exhibits two other commons traits: both (a) very high contact rates and (b) very low ground-ball rates.

Cameron notes the significance of this combination:

In general, these two metrics move in opposite directions. Guys with flat, level swings usually put the bat on the ball more often, while guys whose swings are designed for loft tend to have to accept some swing-and-miss as part of the deal. The qualified hitter with the lowest ground-ball rate this year? Joey Gallo, whom you might have heard strikes out sometimes. Such is the cost of swinging for elevation.

Players who are able both to elevate frequently and make contact at an elite rate have essentially hacked the system. They’re able to reap the benefits of getting the ball in the air without having to contend with the major cost — i.e. a decline in contact. Carpenter, Kinsler, Murphy? They all do it. Hoskins? He does it, too. Or he did it in the minors, at least. And if he continues to do it in the majors, he should exceed the expectations established by his prospect pedigree.

Hoskins likely isn’t the only prospect who possesses this combination of skills, however. And, if there are others, it might worthwhile to identify them. Which, that’s what I’ve endeavored to do here. The method I’ve utilized is a bit crude, but it nevertheless captures the basic skills for which we’re searching.

For each minor-league level, I endeavored to identify batters with more than 100 plate appearances who’d recorded contact rates and ground-ball rates at least one standard deviation “better” than league average. Because our minor-league leaderboards don’t feature contact rate, I’ve used swinging-strike rate instead. As the graph below indicates, however, the two metrics correlate strongly.

One benefit to this method is that both park and league effects are minimized. While certain environments might invite more or fewer strikeouts, the magnitude isn’t as pronounced as with other metrics. The same is true for ground-ball rates.

Okay, let’s begin by examining Triple-A.

The Matt Carpenters of Triple-A
Name Team Age PA SwStr% GB% zSwStr zGB% zAvg
Rhys Hoskins Phillies 24 475 6.4% 31.5% 1.1 1.7 1.4
Nate Orf Brewers 27 462 6.6% 34.7% 1.0 1.2 1.1
Willians Astudillo D-backs 25 128 6.6% 36.0% 1.0 1.0 1.0
Metrics preceded by -z- denote z-scores, or standard deviations from league average.

The first positive indication for the efficacy of this method is that it identifies Rhys Hoskins as a player who resembles Rhys Hoskins. If nothing else comes of this piece, one can rest assured that no one is more like Rhys Hoskins than Hoskins himself.

As for the other two names here, this probably represents an opportune moment to identify two other variables that inform the likelihood of a minor leaguer’s possible future success in the majors: age and position. Nate Orf actually appeared closer to the top of Dan Farnsworth’s Brewers list last year than many/everyone expected. And, in point of fact, Orf has actually been pretty good in the minors, recording a batting line about 20% better than league average. Orf, though, has also consistently been about two years older than the players in those leagues. That matters. It doesn’t entirely discount his achievement — there’s probably a case to be made that he deserves a major-league plate appearance at some point — but it certainly mutes it.

And then there’s the case of Willians Astudillo, a man who resembles a plush doll of Willians Astudillo. While his framing numbers are actually positive, the reports on his catcher defense are less so. The D-backs are using Astudillo at third base, too, this year, although that’s quite possibly part of an effort to find a position — any position — for him. As with Orf, it’s certainly possible that he translates his contact/elevation abilities into a major-league career, but there are clear impediments.

Now, on to Double-A.

The Matt Carpenters of Double-A
Name Team Age PA SwStr% GB% zSwStr zGB zAvg
Blake Gailen Dodgers 32 124 5.5% 32.6% 1.5 1.5 1.5
Tzu-Wei Lin Red Sox 23 184 5.5% 33.6% 1.5 1.4 1.5
Joe McCarthy Rays 23 502 5.8% 35.3% 1.5 1.2 1.3
Metrics preceded by -z- denote z-scores, or standard deviations from league average.

This is more promising. Blake Gailen is in his 30s and has bounced back and forth between affiliated and indy-league baseball, so his upside is pretty limited. The other two names here, though, have potential.

In addition to these promising offensive indicators, Tzu-Wei Lin also possesses youth and defensive skill. And he’s actually already recorded 59 plate appearances in the majors this season without embarrassing himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he didn’t retain the elite combination of contact and elevation with the Red Sox, producing swinging-strike and ground-ball rates of 8.2% and 44.4%, respectively, the latter of which figure is almost precisely league average. He’s continued to make elite contact (5.1% SwStk) following an assignment to Triple-A, but the ground-ball rate (43.5%) — as it was in the majors — is more in the average range.

Unlike Hoskins, Rays prospect Joe McCarthy’s capacity to elevate hasn’t translated to markedly above-average power numbers. He’s recorded an isolated-power figure of .150 this year, not significantly higher than the Southern League average of .124. His home park suppresses left-handed homers a bit, it seems, so you can mentally adjust for that a little bit. At a basic level, though, McCarthy possesses the foundations of a Carpenter-type profile. It wouldn’t be surprising to find that, after a small change to his swing, he’s able to take advantage of his uncommon approach.

The Matt Carpenters of High-A
Name Team Age PA SwStr% GB% zSwStr zGB zAvg
Zack Short Cubs 22 221 6.4% 28.7% 1.5 2.1 1.8
Will Smith Dodgers 22 305 8.3% 29.6% 1.0 2.0 1.5
John Bormann Pirates 24 133 7.6% 32.2% 1.2 1.6 1.4
Roy Morales Marlins 22 119 6.2% 36.3% 1.6 1.1 1.3
Patrick Mazeika Mets 23 414 7.5% 35.5% 1.2 1.2 1.2
Logan Ratledge Pirates 24 217 8.2% 36.4% 1.1 1.1 1.1
Metrics preceded by -z- denote z-scores, or standard deviations from league average.

For a number of reasons — the quality of the data at High-A, the distance of these players from the majors — I won’t belabor the reader or myself with an examination of all six names here. Four of them — John Bormann, Patrick Mazeika, Roy Morales, and Will Smith — are catchers. The risk with minor-league catchers is that they might lack the requisite tools to become major-league catchers. In that case, their slide down the defensive spectrum is dramatic — usually to first base, where the offensive bar is quite high. We’ll ignore them.

We’ll ignore Logan Ratledge at the moment, too, because of his age.

Zack Short, however, merits a moment of consideration. Just a 17th-round pick in last year’s draft, Short has nevertheless exhibited a rare combination of contact and elevation while playing in High-A as just a 22-year-old and while recording all of his defensive starts for Myrtle Beach at shortstop. He’s produced an isolated-power figure of .170, about 40 points higher than the Carolina League average. That profile would be encouraging were it to belong to a former first-round selection. From a 17th-round pick — especially one who was selected just last year — it’s rare.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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6 years ago

I think it’d be pretty cool to look at this from past seasons as well. Like you mentioned, Zack Short is someone who’s probably worth keeping an eye on. Seems interesting