Andrew Lambo is finally free. The Pirates will call the right fielder up today after watching him hit 31 homers in the minors this year. Lambo became the first Pirates minor leaguer to do that since Steve Pearce in 2007. The story of how Lambo got to this point isn’t a traditional prospect story. He was formerly a top prospect, saw his stock fall, saw that stock stay low for a few years, and finally started to show his potential at the age of 24. Below I will break down Lambo’s path to this point, along with some perspective on his 2013 numbers, and a prediction for what he could become in the future.
Where Did Andrew Lambo Come From?
Normally I save the history of a player for later, but I feel in this case it’s important to revisit Lambo’s history before we can get some perspective on what he is doing now. The Pirates acquired Lambo in a 2010 deadline deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Pirates sent Octavio Dotel and cash to cover part of his salary in exchange for Lambo and James McDonald. It looked like a big win at the time, as Lambo and McDonald were a year removed from being the top prospects in the Dodgers’ system, and either one of them alone had more upside than one more year of Dotel. McDonald has given the Pirates a 4.21 ERA in 435.2 innings since the trade, and now it looks like they might be getting some production from Lambo, who has been forgotten the last few years.
The History as a Top Prospect
Lambo was considered one of the top prospects in the game prior to the 2009 season, ranking 49th overall in the Baseball America top 100. He was also the top prospect in the Dodgers’ system. That followed a year where he hit for a .288/.346/.462 line with 15 homers in 472 at-bats in low-A, then made the jump at the end of the year to Double-A at the age of 19. Baseball America wrote in 2009 that he “has plus raw power and bat speed, with an ideal swing path and mechanics”. They also said he was a gap hitter who could hit homers later, and projected him as a future middle of the order, .285-.300, 25+ homer a year hitter.
That aggressive push to Double-A might not have been a good thing. Lambo remained at the level for the next five years. He had a .256/.311/.407 line in 2009 with the Dodgers, then had a slightly better .271/.325/.420 line in 181 at-bats the following year at the same level. He also was suspended 50 games for marijuana usage, and drew criticism from scouts for a cocky attitude. The Pirates saw it all as immaturity from a 21-year-old kid, and looked past it.
Lambo started off in Triple-A in 2011, but had poor numbers in 185 at-bats and was moved back to Double-A, where he had decent numbers. His 2012 season was a loss due to multiple hand injuries. He tore two ligaments in his Triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC) in his hand, and also had hamate surgery. Over the off-season, Lambo did nothing for the first time. Previously he had played fall leagues, but this time around he worked with his trainer and focused on his hitting mechanics. That led to Spring Training this year, where he had a lot of hits, and showed off some power. That all leads to his breakout 2013 season, which I’ll break down below.
The situation with Lambo is difficult. If he was putting up these 2013 numbers a few years ago, he would probably be seen as realizing his upside of a .285-.300, 25+ home run hitter. But because he struggled for a few years at the Double-A level, there is some doubt on his 2013 season. He also gets some unfair treatment for how long he has been on the radar. He was moved to Double-A at an aggressively young age, and because of that it is easy to forget that he just turned 25 this week.
The biggest thing that has stood out this year about Lambo has been his power. He has 31 homers in 436 at-bats this year, which is a pace for 39 homers in a 550 at-bat season. Those are also the best power numbers that Lambo has ever put up, and beats any two years combined of his minor league career. He was projected as a future 25+ homer a year guy in the majors, so is this power legit?
I think one argument that the power is somewhat legit is that Lambo carried it over to Triple-A. You could argue against his Double-A success because of the age and the amount of time he spent against Double-A pitching. However, he’s not that old for Triple-A, and he only had 185 at-bats at the level prior to the 2013 season. His power numbers actually improved with the jump to the new level. Lambo had a .268 ISO in Double-A, with 14 homers in 220 at-bats. He has a .315 ISO in Triple-A, with 17 homers in 216 at-bats.
Those power numbers are going to draw comparisons to Steve Pearce and Brad Eldred, since Lambo has the most homers in the Pirates’ minor league system since those two. However, it’s more important to look at where the home runs occurred.
Pearce had 31 homers in 2007, but 25 of those homers came in high-A and Double-A at the same age Lambo is at now. His power in Triple-A was good, but Lambo’s has been better. Pearce had a .237 ISO and 6 homers in 122 at-bats in Triple-A that year, putting him behind Lambo’s monster pace.
As for Eldred, he hit 38 homers in 2004, but that came between high-A and Double-A, and he was only a year younger than where Lambo is now. His 2005 season was similar to Lambo’s season. He had 28 homers in a ridiculous 278 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A. In Triple-A he had a .309 ISO and 15 homers in 194 at-bats. Those numbers are almost identical to Lambo’s Triple-A numbers this year at the same level, and at the same age.
So if Lambo compares to anyone from a power standpoint this year, it’s Eldred. That adds some credibility to Lambo’s power going forward. Eldred’s problem in the majors wasn’t a lack of power. He had 15 homers in 276 at-bats in the majors. His problem was a lack of average and on base skills, which brings us to…
The Walks and Strikeouts
Lambo’s walk rate this year has been good, with an 8.8% rate between the two levels, which is raised by his 9.4% walk rate in Triple-A. The problem this year has been strikeouts. Between the two levels, Lambo has a 28.2% strikeout rate, and in Triple-A the numbers are higher at 29.2%. Putting those numbers in perspective, here are some other players in their time at the level at the same age:
Brad Eldred: 29.4% strikeouts, 6.6% walks
Pedro Alvarez: 30.0% strikeouts, 12.7% walks
Steve Pearce: 9.8% strikeouts, 4.6% walks
Brandon Moss: 28.8% strikeouts, 8.8% walks
All of these guys hit for power, and all of these guys struck out a lot. I think the two can go hand in hand, as you don’t find many hitters who hit for power and don’t strike out much. Actually, you do find a lot of those hitters, but only in the Hall of Fame. The one exception here is Steve Pearce, who never had huge strikeout issues, even in the majors (career 23.5% rate). It’s hard to say what happened with Pearce, but I think it’s important to note that he was never on the prospect radar until after that huge 2007 season, and he never matched that performance again. So you could chalk that up more to a career year, which explains why he hasn’t been more than a bench player in the majors.
Eldred, Alvarez, and Moss have all shared similarities in the majors. They all hit for varying degrees of power. They all strike out too much, leading to a lower average. The walks are the reason Alvarez and Moss are still finding time in the majors, while Eldred is out of the majors. The “three true outcomes” hitter isn’t going to be a fan favorite, but it can lead to a major league career. Meanwhile, a “two true outcomes” hitter like Eldred doesn’t exist, except in Triple-A.
Lambo’s strikeouts are a concern, and he’s probably not going to be that “.285-.300 hitter” that he was projected to be prior to the 2009 season. The good thing is that he has the ability to get on base, which means he has a better chance of being Alvarez or Moss than he does of being Eldred.
What is Lambo’s Upside?
I mentioned Brandon Moss above, and I thought about Moss before noticing that his K/BB numbers were almost identical to Lambo’s. I think of Moss when I think of Lambo because they share a certain similarity. They were both guys with power potential, and both guys finally saw that potential after a delay. The delay from Moss was much greater, only putting up that power in the majors at ages 28-29. Lambo has a head start in that area.
They both strike out a lot too, which leads to a lower average. However, they can both draw walks, which gives them additional value beyond the power.
I don’t want to say Lambo is going to be Brandon Moss, because I hate how specific player comps can be. However, I do think that Lambo’s power is legit, although thinking he will be a 31 homer a year guy in the majors is too optimistic. I think his strikeouts are a concern. I think his walks will carry over to the majors. If you combine those three, you’re talking about a guy who could get 20-25 homers a year with a low average and a decent on-base percentage when considering the average.
Lambo isn’t a guy who came out of nowhere. He was one of the top prospects in the game in 2009, and if you said back then that he’d put up these numbers in the future, no one would doubt you. In fact, if you said he would be a three true outcomes guy back then, you would have been predicting low on his upside. The extended time he spent in the minors needs to be put in perspective. He should have a lower upside now than he did in 2009. However, he shouldn’t be viewed as a non-prospect. That would be punishing him for being placed on the radar much earlier than other players, and getting pushed to Double-A way too soon.
It’s easy to forget that Lambo just turned 25. He’s only two months older than Starling Marte. He is three months younger than Tony Sanchez. He’s about a year and a half younger than Pedro Alvarez. He is two years younger than Jordy Mercer, who is just now breaking into the majors as a starter. We see a lot of prospects like Gerrit Cole break into the majors at the age of 22, but someone reaching the majors at the age of 25 isn’t a bad thing. You probably shouldn’t be projecting a huge upside for that player. But I don’t think projecting Lambo to be a three true outcomes player is a huge upside. It’s also not a bad thing to have in the majors, and if Lambo can reach that level right away, he’ll be a big boost to the Pirates offense down the stretch.