Under-the-Radar Rookie Hitters on Contending Teams

The crux of my duties here at FanGraphs is to project prospects who happen to be in the news. In most cases, this involves writing about highly touted minor league players as they’re called up to the big leagues for the first time. There’s certainly been no shortage of players from that phylum in 2015. This year has often been labeled the “The Year of the Prospect,” and rightly so. From Kris Bryant to Carlos Correa to Noah Syndergaard to Lance McCullers, we’ve experienced a historic wave of young talent matriculating to the big leagues. Top prospects often turn into productive big leaguers, so nobody would be surprised if several of this year’s crop of rookies went on to be perennial All-Stars.

But not all impact major leaguers come out of this mold. As Jeff Sullivan uncovered this past February, about one-third of the players who produce three wins in any given season never even cracked a Baseball America’s Top 100 list. The purpose of this post is to analyze, or at least call attention to, a few rookie hitters on contending teams who weren’t ballyhooed as prospects, but have still acquitted themselves well in the big leagues. The four hitters below came to the big leagues with little fanfare, but have already made an impact on the division races this year, and more importantly, stand a good chance of remaining productive.

Randal Grichuk, OF, St. Louis

Although he was a first round pick, Randal Grichuk underwhelmed throughout his minor league career. His 113 wRC+ as a minor leaguer was more good than great, especially for a future corner outfielder. And up until this season, he was best known as the guy the Angels selected before Mike Trout. Grichuk’s put together an excellent performance for the Cardinals this year, however, belting 16 home runs in 92 games on his way to a 142 wRC+. Grichuk’s had some trouble making contact, but has made up for it by being extremely productive in those plate appearances that haven’t resulted in a strikeout.

Grichuk didn’t crack any top-100 lists heading into the year, but KATOH still thought he was an interesting prospect based on his minor league numbers. Although his overall .259/.311/.493 batting line was nothing special, especially for the Pacific Coast League, KATOH was still impressed by the power he demonstrated as a 22-year-old in Triple-A. My system projected him for 4.4 WAR through age 28, making him the 81st highest-ranked prospect. It’s no secret the Cardinals have a good team this year, and Grichuk has been a big part of that success. The one obstacle for the 23-year-old is an elbow injury, which has limited him to pinch-hitting duties of late. If healthy, though, Grichuk’s pop should continue to power the Cardinals lineup this October, even if his batting average comes back to earth a bit.

Enrique (Kiké) Hernandez, UT, Los Angeles NL

If I were writing for FanGraphs last summer, when the Astros dealt Enrique Hernandez to the Marlins — or last winter, when the Marlins flipped him to the Dodgers — I would have written glowing things in my trade write-ups. As I noted in my preseason FanGraphs+ piece, Hernandez’s 2014 campaign between Double-A and Triple-A was sneaky good, especially coming from a 22-year-old. In fewer than 100 minor league games, he belted double-digit homers, and struck out in fewer than 10% of his trips to the plate. As a result, KATOH forecasted him for a robust 8.7 WAR through age 28, making him the 15th-ranked prospect in baseball.

Hernandez was buried beneath the Dodgers’ sea of position players for much of the first half, but his hot hitting and defensive flexibility earned him regular playing time later in the year. He’s hit .308/.350/.492 overall this season, including a .353/.397/.529 showing in August before he went down with a hamstring injury. Hernandez should return to action any day now, and given his track record, there’s little reason to think the 23-year-old won’t pick up where he left off a few weeks ago.

Delino DeShields Jr., OF, Texas

Delino DeShields Jr. got some run in prospect circles a few years ago when he swiped 101 bases as a 19-year-old in A-Ball. But as is the case with many speedy prospects with middling power, his performance stalled out a bit at the Double-A level. Although DeShields hit just .236/.346/.360, KATOH was intrigued by his combination of power, speed and on-base ability. My system pegged him for 6.4 WAR through age 28 in the preseason, which placed him 41st among prospects. Deshields’ numbers in Double-A last year weren’t overly impressive, particularly compared to what he did in the low minors. But he was still just 21, and 21-year-olds who can post a league-average line in Double-A don’t grow on trees — particularly if those 21-year-old also offer defensive value.

The Rangers snagged Deshields in the Rule 5 draft last December, and have been rewarded handsomely thus far. He’s hit a perfectly acceptable .255/.339/.371 in 108 games, while playing primarily center field. By no means is Deshields a star, but he does enough things well to be a useful piece. He runs very well, plays a premium defensive position, and has enough power and on-base ability to hold his own offensively. He’s been a nice little pickup for the Rangers so far, and nothing about his minor league track record suggests he won’t continue to produce for the Rangers, both this year and for years to come.

John Ryan Murphy, C, New York AL

John Ryan Murphy isn’t technically a rookie, as he exceeded the service time limits in 2014. But he did not accrue more than 130 at-bats prior to this year, and has done some interesting things this season, so I’m lumping him in with this group. It’s very rare that a young, productive Yankees player manages to fly under the radar, but Murphy — the Yankees backup catcher — has done just that. The 24-year-old has produced a line of .281/.322/.417 in 60 games as Brian McCann’s caddy, including a .323/.368/.532 run since mid-June. In addition to his offensive exploits, he’s also added value with his defense. Not only does he play the most premium position on the field, but he’s also an above-average framer according to Baseball Prospectus pitch-framing model.

The last time Murphy spent a significant amount of time in the minor leagues was in 2013, when he hit .269/.347/.426 between Double-A and Triple-A. Based on that performance, KATOH pegged him for 4.3 WAR through age 28, making him a back-end top 100 guy. So his strong 2015 numbers haven’t come completely out of nowhere. Barring an injury to Brian McCann, Murphy figures to play sparingly these next few weeks. He’s the backup catcher, after all. But he can be a real difference-maker in the one or two games a week when McCann needs a rest, and represents a solid fallback option should McCann go down.

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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7 years ago

It too bad Devon Travis was injured soo much. He might’ve been in contention for RoY if he didn’t go down.