The full-season minor leagues all got underway this weekend, and since you are reading this article on a site called Pirates Prospects, we will assume that’s welcome news after a long off-season. We can finally peruse box scores, watch video clips and read stories about prospects who will one day play at PNC Park.
It’s also a good time to remember that prospects can have all the talent in the world, but if they don’t build the baseball skills that allow those talents to flourish, they will struggle to make the majors.
For hitters, that means spitting on pitches that are out of the strike zone, making contact when swinging at strikes, lifting the ball in the air, and generating power. Those skills are natural to some but require development for most, especially if they want to reach the majors.
Last year, we looked at key skills and saw that Endy Rodriguez, Jack Suwinski, and Bligh Madris, among others, had positive markers from the previous year. The exercise also whiffed on several prospects, including Diego Castillo, who went .206/.251/.382 in the majors and was dealt to the Diamondbacks in December.
Nevertheless, let’s look at 2022 skill numbers for top young players (with prospect eligibility and at least 50 plate appearances last year, so no Tony Blanco) as a preview to what they might be in 2023. First, here are the four benchmarks:
Walk Percentage (BB%)
- Calculation: Walks divided by plate appearances
- Goal: Above 10%
- Note: O-Swing% is the preferred metric here, but that’s not available in the minors. O-Swing%, also called Chase Rate, is how often a batter swings at pitches outside the strike zone. But for our purposes, BB% will serve as a fine substitute.
Swing Strike Percentage (SwStr%)
- Calculation: Swing and misses divided by total pitches
- Goal: Below 11%
- Note: We used 10% last year, but will use 11% – the MLB average – this year.
Ground Ball Percentage (GB%)
- Calculation: Ground balls divided by balls in play
- Goal: Below 45%
Isolated Power (ISO)
- Calculation: Slugging percentage minus batting average (which gives you how many extra bases a player averages per at bat)
- Goal: Above .150
There are several young Pirates who fared well in these skills last year, and as you might guess, there are several that did not. While some prospects will get red flagged here, prospect development is not linear, so don’t give up hope. Skills can evolve.
You might have expected one Pirates catcher to make the top of the list, but how about two?
Rodriguez had a fantastic 2022 season, with a 166 wRC+ across three levels. He will almost certainly reach the majors this summer and has the skill set to become an impact hitter.
Gutierrez is a bit unexpected. He had a quietly good 112 wRC+ last year, and the skill numbers back up his slash line of .257/.356/.411 at High-A. He turned 23 in October, so this is a key year in his development.
Get to know Abrahan Gutierrez! pic.twitter.com/bSJLBTu15R
— Young Bucs (@YoungBucsPIT) March 23, 2022
Why is Bubba Chandler not hitting anymore? While he showed a good eye and hit the ball in the air with power, he didn’t make contact nearly enough. That swinging strike rate is a red flag, which is one reason why the Pirates have pushed him exclusively to the mound, where his upside is considerable.
Bubba Chandler brought the 🔥 for @The_Marauders.
The No. 7 @Pirates prospect struck out 5 over 5 hitless frames. pic.twitter.com/SV1i01qQ7p
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 24, 2022
Plaz is another hot name in prospect circles. His ground ball and isolated power numbers were absolutely fantastic. He can mash … when he makes contact. The 24% swinging strike rate is among the worst in the system. That said, it was 86 plate appearances, and he was only 16 last year, so he has some time to make adjustments.
Gonzales’ swing-and-miss issues are well documented, and we see similar challenges for peers like Gorski, Head, and Nolasco.
Nunez and Triolo are the closest to going 4-for-4 in this group. Nunez cut his groundball rate to 41% after being traded to Pittsburgh, and if that adjustment holds, he has a path to the big leagues. Triolo is just shy of the ISO threshold. If he returns from hamate surgery and maintains his top shelf defense (potentially at other positions), then he is a potential contributor in Pittsburgh.
|Ji Hwan Bae||10.1%||8%||49%||0.141|
|Yordany De Los Santos||13.7%||25%||39%||0.105|
There are some key prospects in this section. Bae is in the majors due to his hit tool, speed and newfound defensive versatility. His isolated power was better than expected, but a chunk of that is due to his ability to leg out doubles and triples.
The first home run of Ji Hwan Bae's big league career. 👏 pic.twitter.com/p3sCaQfN9B
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) April 4, 2023
Davis was close to being a 3-category prospect here, just missing on the swinging strike rate and not too far off in his walk rate. In his last college season at Louisville, he had a 14% walk rate, so there is a chance that his swing decision stats could improve in pro ball. The Pirates would be thrilled if he puts together a 4-category season.
Johnson’s walk rate was superb. His swinging strike rate was below average, but his hit tool is renowned, so this 2022 sample size of 82 plate appearances may not be indicative of his future numbers. These are worth watching closely in 2023.
Smith-Njigba has a good eye and a good hit tool, and his exit velocities have been historically good. But he has to get more loft on the ball to maximize his power.
Canaan Smith-Njigba is here. pic.twitter.com/NdXnvrqypz
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) March 28, 2023
As a 20-year-old at Low-A, Cheng had a .270/.376/.418 slash line, good for a 129 wRC+. He’s a small shortstop, but has reportedly worked on his strength, which is apparent in his .148 isolated power in 2022.
De Los Santos is getting some buzz among evaluators. His .105 isolated power conflicts with scouting reports saying that he had some of the highest exit velocities in the DSL. What can’t be disputed is that he showed a good eye, got the ball in the air, and whiffed at an alarming rate. He just turned 18 and will be one to watch.
This is where hope fades for some prospects, like Escotto, Fraizer, Scott and Siani. Swaggerty was a homer or two shy of being a 2-category guy, so he’s at the top of this tier. Peguero’s walk rate is downright bad, which is why he had an 88 wRC+ in 521 plate appearances in Double-A last year. Polanco’s 42% swinging strike rate (in 148 plate appearances) is either a typo on FanGraphs or his death knell as a prospect.
Juan Jerez gets this tier all to himself. Perhaps that’s not fair, because a few adjustments could improve his walk rate, ground ball rate and isolated power to acceptable levels. His age 21 season will be telling.
Bradenton extends their winning streak to 9 games after Juan Jerez walks it off in the 10th. It was his 3rd hit of the game #LetsGoBucs pic.twitter.com/CxQE2qFkno
— Anthony Murphy (@__Murphy88) July 13, 2022
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Jason Gindele spent the summer of 1993 as an intern in the Pirates PR department, where a gruff Jim Leyland graciously invited him into his office to talk for half an hour. Jason later covered sports for the Akron Beacon Journal, The Gazette Newspapers (a Washingon Post subsidiary) and other media outlets. After moving to the tech startup sector for 20 years, he transitioned to nonprofit work in 2017, helping at-risk children and families in Austin, TX, where he lives with his family. Jason has contributed occasional articles to Pirates Prospects and the Pittsburgh Baseball Network since 2021.
You have to wonder if Davis is a 3-4 if you add his HBPs (to walk rate); arguably not the same but a skill nonetheless with the same result.
How would Swaggerty rate for this year based on limited ABs?
It’s too small a 2023 sample size (31 plate appearances) to really know. For example, he has a 3.2% walk rate, which is poor, but not in line with his previous numbers. In 458 plate appearances in Triple-A last year, Swaggerty had a 12.4% walk rate, and 18.4% swinging strike rate, a 50.2% ground ball rate and a .146 ISO. That’s 1-for-4, with only the walk rate meeting the desired level.
Nunez is close enough to be a 4/4 in my book. Considering the 41% GB as a pirate, sure, but the over .200 ISO with an above average swinging strike rate we have a rare power/contact guy here.
I don’t think we need to nitpick the 2 point GB detail. I have maintained for a while that FanGraphs (and other outlets) is underrating his defense. The suwinski miss shows they aren’t infallible. And the 45 hit tool is ludicrous. I think he’s a 45+ FV full time player and potentially a 55 bat.
Polanco…yikes! Starting to have very real concerns with Peguero. Much as I like Martin, he is looking like a KBO star
Very informative, concise and a perfect glimpse at how tough this game really is. Thank you for the great read!
This is great stuff. It’s interesting to see players who with just some slight changes could move from 1/4 to 3/4 and others who have a long way to go in some key metrics. Of course the opposite could also occur.