The Coors Effect

June 19, 2009 9:37 AM

Plate Discipline, or: Why I'm Not That Excited About Many Rockies Prospects

In evaluating hitting prospects, John Sickels often talks about plate discipline as one of the Seven Skills.  Sickels says that, generally, a hitter should draw walks in at least 10 percent of his plate appearances.  Hitters who have poor plate discipline often have trouble adjusting to more advanced pitching.

10 percent is a nice rule of thumb.  How important is it?  Of the 13 hitters on the Rockies' Opening Day roster in 2009, all but four drew walks in more than 10 percent of their minor league plate appearances.  Of the four who didn't, two are strictly backups: Yorvit Torrealba and Omar Quintanilla; both of them are valued more for their glovework than for their hitting.  That's probably not a coincidence.  Another is Clint Barmes, who drew walks in about six percent of his plate appearances in the minors.  Barmes's lack of patience at the plate could explain his erratic performance in the majors, particularly his .220 batting average in 2006.  The fourth is Seth Smith, who was barely below the benchmark at 9.2 percent -- and Smith's plate discipline improved steadily, to the point that he was drawing walks in better than 15 percent of his plate appearances in Colorado Springs last year.

It's not the be-all, end-all, but it's not a coincidence that most of the successful hitting prospects the Rockies have produced over the past few years have shown good plate discipline in the minors.  A couple of others of fairly recent vintage who didn't walk a lot were Juan Pierre and Juan Uribe.  In the former case, Pierre didn't walk a lot (and still doesn't), but he didn't strike out much, either -- he struck out just 75 times in 1311 minor league at bats, versus 92 walks.  Pierre's low walk totals were less a reflection of his plate discipline than they were a reflection of his complete lack of power.  Uribe has never shown much plate discipline, but then he's a middle infielder with some power; that's earned him a major league job for the last few years.  Much like Barmes -- another middle infielder with some power and not much patience at the plate -- he's been very erratic in his career.

So how does this apply to the current players down on the farm?  The Rockies' two top hitting prospects -- excluding Dexter Fowler, who's already in the bigs (and who, by the way, drew walks in 12 percent of his plate appearances in the minors) -- are Wilin Rosario and Hector Gomez... and neither of them seems to have a lick of plate discipline.  Rosario, in 133 plate appearances this year, has drawn just six walks... that's terrible.  Rosario did show decent plate discipline last season (24 walks in 287 plate appearances), enough that he could conceivably have improved enough to make it to the majors (particularly since he's a catcher.)  But that's completely fallen off this year, and even worse, he's striking out in 30 percent of his plate appearances.  If it wasn't clear that the Rockies had rushed him before the season started, it's pretty clear now, and the Rockies ought to consider moving him down so he can get some confidence back.  Gomez is now hurt, but when he was playing was showing similar plate discipline: 5 walks in 113 plate appearances.  And unlike Rosario, he's never really shown any.  If injuries don't ultimately prove to be Gomez's undoing, his poor plate discipline will.

In fact, just one regular at Modesto makes the cut: outfielder Jay Cox, who has 22 walks in 213 plate appearances.  But Cox is 24, and he's repeating at Modesto after a 2008 season in which he drew 21 walks all season (381 plate appearances.)  Likewise, just one player at Asheville makes the cut, first baseman Kiel Roling (16 walks in 139 plate appearances.)  Roling is a first baseman, though, so he'll have to hit especially well to make the majors.  He was a catcher in college, and I'm not quite sure why the Rockies moved him off the position so quickly.

Five players at Tulsa make the cut: Mike Paulk, Jeff Kindel, Chris Nelson, Michael McKenry, and Ryan Harvey.  Paulk and Kindel, again, are first basemen, and with five homers between them, neither looks to have enough power to play first in the majors.  McKenry is a catcher and has shown excellent plate discipline as long as he's been in the minors; with Yorvit Torrealba likely departing via free agency after the season, I'd expect him to get a shot at being the Rockies' backup catcher next season.  Nelson continues to be a mystery to me.  His plate discipline has progressed enough that I can now see him being at least a competent backup in the majors, but he hasn't hit for much of an average, and he's currently out for the season.  Harvey is a former first-round pick who the Cubs gave up on, largely because he displayed poor discipline.  Some people have already labeled him as a bust, but he's quietly putting together a nice season this year -- he's improved his discipline enough that his average is now at least respectable, and he's hitting for power (.257 ISO power this year.)  It's possible he could still develop into a low-average slugger, and the Rockies may have gotten themselves a steal.

Many of the players at AAA aren't really prospects any more; among those that are, Eric Young Jr. is showing excellent plate discipline (30 walks in 274 plate appearances), and in fact has throughout his career (11.7 percent.)  That likely won't keep up once he makes the majors since he doesn't have a lot of power, but it does indicate that his minor league production should translate well to the majors.

In short -- a lot of people are probably overrating hitters like Gomez and Rosario who are showing poor discipline even in the low minors.  Gomez might turn into a Uribe/Barmes type.  On the other hand, Michael McKenry is a better prospect than most think, while Ryan Harvey could turn around his career and surprise a few people who had already written him off.

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