Posted: 9:00 a.m. Friday, Aug. 23, 2013
By Anthony Boyer
Back in July, Irish Pete talked about the trend through the minor leagues of finding hitters with high walk-to-strikeout rates. There are two primary reasons that the Astros are so strong in this area throughout the minor leagues: Coaching and player selection.
It stands to reason that acquiring players who fit this "mold" would be paramount for an organization that values this skillset. So it is with this in mind that we look back.
In this article, we'll focus on college hitters. Statistics are harder to come by - and less meaningful - for high school players. For instance, we can see that Jason Martin had a .408 average in fifteen games, walking seven times and striking out only twice. But he played in the Trinity League in Orange County - the same league as juggernauts like Mater Dei and JSerra Catholic. Other players come from smaller programs, where statistics aren't as easily-available.
Later, we may investigate high schoolers a little more closely. But for now, we'll focus on the collegians, whose statistics are a little more telling as to the type of players targeted by individual organizations.
I've focused on identifying and ranking the emphasis that different organizations have put on key statistics among their college players: Batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walk rate, strikeout rate, walk-to-strikeout ratio, and isolated power. I looked first at their college statistics in the year that they were drafted (2012), and then at their professional statistics in 2013. With the minor league season closing down, we now have a pretty good sample size on which to draw these numbers.
I focused on college players that were both drafted and signed by the teams in question. I have several reasons for doing this, but the most compelling one is simply that it was easier. Organizations seek to draft a certain type of player, and to pair that player up with coaches who can best help him realize his potential. To look at someone drafted by the Yankees, who didn't sign and subsequently was drafted and developed by the Brewers, ignores this premise.
Additionally, I wanted to focus on an apples-to-apples comparison. To that end, I wanted to compare 2012 college statistics to 2013 professional statistics (their first full year of professional baseball, after instructionals, spring training, fall ball, or any other effort on the part of the team to teach them baseball skills). I have not adjusted for age, level, or league, and I do not intend to.
Shaun Valeriote was drafted out of Brock University in St. Catharine's, Ontario, a member of Ontario University Athletics. OUA records are not very accessible. They also play a short season, with uneven competition, but this alone wouldn't be fair enough to disqualify Valeriote. While we know that he won the OUA Triple Crown, batting .519 and breaking a record previously held by none other than Blue Jays scouting director Andrew Tinnish, he did so in just 63 at-bats. But the biggest reason he's being excluded is because I could not find his strikeout and walk totals.
Players like Kyle Johnson, who was part of a trade between the Mets and Angels, will be included with the team that drafted them, so long as they began the season with that team.This is also true of a player like Daniel Poma, who has put up the majority of his at-bats in the independent American Association. If a player has played at all in 2013 for the team that drafted him, his numbers are included.
I'm also only including players from four-year colleges, though I do intend to include junior college players in a subsequent study.
Now, then, on to the findings...
The first thing that jumps out at us when comparing the college statistics of draftees is that there are definite groupings. Teams like the Astros, Red Sox, Mets, and Padres obviously look at drafting players who have had superior offensive seasons in their draft-eligible years. Other teams - among them the Royals, Tigers, Twins, and even the Reds (led by Walt Jocketty, Luhnow's former boss) - have turned toward players who may not have done as well in college statistically, probably with the idea of exploiting the players' tools through coaching and development.
Not so for Luhnow's Astros, who seem to have put a definite emphasis on players who do not strike out at the college level. In fact, only three players in our sample - Ryan Dineen, Catfish Elkins, and Michael Martinez - had double-digit strikeout rates in their final college seasons. Elkins' 10.57% led the way. Ricky Gingras, on the other end of the spectrum, struck out in just 2.72% of his plate appearances for Point Loma Nazarene College.
Applying these observations to the 2013 draft, this might give us a clue why Golden Spikes Award winner Kris Bryant and his 14.57% college strikeout rate never really had much chance of going first overall. The Cubs, who come out around average in both K% and BB% for their college draftees, would likely have been much more willing to overlook Bryant's strikeout rates, particularly in favor of his power and his walk rates.
One of the more interesting findings to me is that the Astros' BB:K differential comes largely from limiting strikeouts, rather than from seeking players with high walk rates. Five other teams - the A's, Red Sox, Mariners, Cardinals, and Rays - all seem to covet walk rates at least as much as the Astros. The Phillies, Padres, Blue Jays, and Braves are not far behind. This falls in line with something I've thought for awhile - that looking for OBP guys is old hat for sabermetric teams. But I was surprised by the discrepancies in the strikeout rates.
Here are their rankings:
So we know that in 2012, the Astros targeted college hitters who displayed excellent strikeout rates and good-to-excellent walk rates, sacrificing power, which can develop through coaching and the Astros' policy of "selective aggression." If a player can keep from striking out, he can stay in an at-bat. If a player can stay in an at-bat, he can get his pitch. The Astros seem to be banking on teaching players that if they can get their pitch, they can drive it.
Like their college statistics, professional hitters face a varied number of offensive environments. Side-by-side comparisons, particularly in areas such as SLG and ISO, should be taken with a grain of salt. But we'll do our best to look at them, anyway. I am not adjusting for league, level, or park here, especially given our emphasis here on walks and strikeouts.
Through the 2013 season, the college hitters that the Astros drafted in 2012 have put up very impressive numbers. That's not news. What is news is exactly how impressive their numbers are: They are in the top three in all categories. Third in average and isolated power; second in slugging; and first in on-base percentage, walk rate, strikeout rate, and walk-to-strikeout ratio.
This is a small sample, and the power numbers should probably be ignored completely, as most of these hitters have spent significant time in Lancaster.
Perhaps the most surprising finding is that the Phillies and Red Sox - two teams that seemingly put an emphasis on finding polished college hitters - have not yet seen those players perform well as minor leaguers. But again, these are small samples, and the struggles of one or two players - for instance, Miguel Rodriguez and Keaton Briscoe - can bring the numbers down considerably.
Numbers became worse across the board, which of course is of little surprise. The professional ranks, obviously, are significantly harder than college baseball. They're longer, they involve a higher level of competition, and they come with unique difficulties, including road trips and extended amounts of time away from family.
No real pattern emerges as a result of these numbers. Though the Astros focused on players who didn't strike out, perhaps reasoning that players who make contact are more likely to make solid contact, other teams with low-strikeout college hitters didn't see the same amount of success. The Mets' second-best 8.97% college strikeout rate became the second-best 14.95% professional strikeout rate, but the Red Sox - third-best with a 9.73% college strikeout rate - found themselves dead last in professional strikeout rates with 22.21%.
On the other hand, the Mariners drafted a class with a 13.76% strikeout rate (25th-best) in college, and they've had a 17.56% strikeout rate as professionals (7th-best.)
It seems like what we're looking at here is the three-headed monster: Scouting, coaching, and luck. A scout's job goes beyond looking at statistics, and goes into things like makeup, coachability, and projection. This study suggests that the Astros' combination of scouting and coaching - combined with luck - may be giving them the edge. There has been a tremendous emphasis on hiring good coaches at the minor league level. Further study of this group would be needed before we can make any definitive observations, however.
I would discourage readers from taking the conclusions of this article too far. Not only have personnel changed for many of the teams involved (even the Astros, with Mike Elias replacing Bobby Heck as scouting director), but the sample sizes are very small, in any case. For instance, the Royals had just five college hitters in our sample, and we're only looking at their first year of professional ball. Still, the initial observation that the Astros' 2012 class of college hitters has been very successful so far is encouraging.
What do you think? Is this evidence of systemic success, or just a small sample curiosity?