The Unbreakable Casey Schmitt
In the sea of prospects, Casey Schmitt barely caused a ripple. The only Top 100 list the infielder made before this season was Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101; he just squeezed in near the end at no. 94. The computer projections were no kinder, with ZiPS only projecting him as the fourth-best prospect in a rather weak San Francisco Giants system, just barely in its Top 200. Yet these limited expectations didn’t stop Schmitt from engulfing opposing pitchers in his first three big league games, as he went 8-for-12 with two home runs and two doubles.
Obviously, having three big games isn’t a guarantee of stardom — or even viability — in the majors. For example, Vaughn Eshelman started his major league career by throwing 13 shutout innings over his first two starts. He only had eight quality starts left in him (out of 28) and was out of the majors two years later. He might be best known for going on what was then the DL as a result of burning himself with a candle.
But even with the caveats about just how meaningful three games are, Schmitt has gotten off to the kind of wonderful start that few players have matched:
|Jorge Soler||Chicago Cubs||2014||3||12||11||3||7||3||1||0||3||17|
|Trevor Story||Colorado Rockies||2016||4||14||14||4||4||0||0||0||4||16|
|Casey Schmitt||San Francisco Giants||2023||2||12||12||5||8||4||2||0||2||16|
|Kyle Lewis||Seattle Mariners||2019||3||11||11||4||5||1||1||0||3||15|
|Joe Cunningham||St. Louis Cardinals||1954||3||13||11||5||5||2||0||0||3||14|
|Manny Machado||Baltimore Orioles||2012||2||12||12||4||5||1||1||1||2||14|
|John Bowker||San Francisco Giants||2008||2||11||10||3||6||3||0||1||2||14|
|Mark Quinn||Kansas City Royals||1999||2||11||11||2||6||2||2||0||2||14|
|Javier Báez||Chicago Cubs||2014||3||14||14||3||4||1||0||0||3||13|
|Shelley Duncan||New York Yankees||2007||3||14||12||3||4||1||0||0||3||13|
|Francisco Arcia||Los Angeles Angels||2018||2||10||9||3||5||1||2||0||2||13|
|Gabe Alvarez||Detroit Tigers||1998||2||14||14||2||6||3||1||0||2||13|
|Frank Ernaga||Chicago Cubs||1957||2||9||7||4||4||0||1||1||2||13|
|Yermín Mercedes||Chicago White Sox||2020-2021||1||10||10||2||8||5||2||0||1||13|
As you can see, there are a lot of non-stars on this list. In three games, anybody can do just about anything. But in the case of Schmitt, there’s a lot there that’s of interest even if stardom isn’t the baseline expectation. He didn’t dink and dunk his way to four extra-base hits; six of the 11 balls Schmitt hit into play had an exit velocity of at least 100 mph.
What’s more, Schmitt is one of the more interesting defensive prospects we’ve seen in the last several years. A two-way player in college for the Aztecs, playing third base and closing, Schmitt only played a handful of games at shortstop as an amateur. But given his defensive abilities at third base and his obviously strong arm, the Giants got creative and tried him out at short in the low minors last year, his first full professional season. That ZiPS was skeptical shouldn’t be as a surprise. ZiPS estimates defense by looking at the location of every ball hit in the minors, and that approach is necessarily going to be a lot less accurate than, say, Statcast’s current implementation. ZiPS only had Schmitt as an average third baseman this year, but that’s largely because his initial numbers at short using this methodology were very weak. But while that can be indicative of a player’s ability, it can also indicate a small sample or, in Schmitt’s case, learning to play a harder position at the professional level. Andrew Baggarly wrote a piece at The Athletic about Schmitt before his debut that talked a bit about his defensive move:
As difficult as it is to transition from third base to shortstop, Giants coaches were confident that Schmitt could handle it — partly because of how active he is with his footwork as a third baseman. Arm strength isn’t an issue at any position for Schmitt, who threw in the low 90s for San Diego State while serving as their closer.
“You just move your feet a little bit more (at shortstop),” Schmitt said. “That’s the mental thing for me, to make sure I keep my feet moving. I have less time to get to the ball and get rid of it.”
Notably, those defensive projections improved significantly during his month at Triple-A this year. After being -6 in 40 games last season, he was already at +4 in just 20 games at Sacramento this season. Now, this might reflect the volatility of these numbers, but it’s at least consistent with the view that he’s improved at the position and may already be plus at the major league level. He was good enough that the team’s incumbent shortstop, Brandon Crawford, compared his defense to Nolan Arenado before his debut, which is quite a compliment to give a player before they’ve even played a game in the majors.
So, Schmitt had a great three-game debut. But what’s next for him? His .313/.352/.410 triple-slash for Sacramento was nice for a player who had only played a month of baseball above A-ball prior, though it wasn’t special by the standards of the Pacific Coast League, which is a .269/.371/.452 league so far this year. Luckily, Sutter Health Park, Sacramento’s home, is one of the tamest offensive parks in the league, along with Constellation Field (Sugar Land) and Cheney Stadium (Tacoma). ZiPS translates Schmitt’s month in Sacramento at .307/.337/.391, a line that would certainly play at shortstop in the majors (or at third base if you’re really as good defensively as Nolan Arenado!). With minor league Statcast data included, ZiPS has more to sink its algorithmic teeth into:
While this is far from the projection of a star, it’s in line with a reasonable starter at shortstop and looks rather similar to Crawford’s early seasons in the majors (and better than Crawford’s rest-of-season projection). That’s a convenient development for the Giants, who lack an obvious heir-apparent to the 36-year-old Crawford, who is unsigned past this season. If Schmitt can keep crushing the projections, it creates a bit of an unexpected position controversy. Do you use Schmitt in a utility role, only letting him inherit the crown after Crawford is gone, or do you keep him at shortstop now? Crawford’s offense fell off a cliff in 2022 and he was having a brutal offensive start to the 2023 season before his calf injury.
Demoting Schmitt to the minors if he keeps hitting seems like a non-starter, especially with the Giants floating just below .500. And as long as he’s in the majors, I think he ought to get a lot of time at shortstop. There will be plenty of at-bats for him spelling J.D. Davis and Thairo Estrada, but if he’s going to be the shortstop next year, you want him to get as much playing time there as is practical. What it comes down to, at least for me, is that right now Schmitt is a lot more important to the team’s future than Crawford is.
Positional controversies that involve long-term members of a franchise are tough. But it’s nice to be in a position where you actually have a choice, and Schmitt’s development has given the Giants an interesting one.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.
I think as pitchers realize that he’s something of a free swinger, he’ll get fewer strikes and have to adjust. But he’s definitely an intriguing player. Just last night, his HR had an 111+ EV, his sprint speed was 29.5 mph, and he had a throw to first at 92+ mph. He has the physical tools, just a matter of his plate discipline allowing him to hit enough.
Yeah to me that Statcast data is what makes Schmitt’s debut as noteworthy as anything. Eric’s got his raw power and speed significantly under-graded, and it feels like Schmitt would have been thought of as a completely different prospect if his page read SS with 55 speed and 60 raw power, rather than a 50 raw 3B only glove guy.
Meant 29.5 ft/s, my bad.