Saturday, March 28, 2015

2015 Top Prospect List: #13 Phillip Ervin, of

Courtesy: MILB.com

PHILLIP ERVIN
DOB: 7/15/1992
HEIGHT: 5-10, WEIGHT: 205, B/T: R/R



Phillip Ervin was drafted by the Reds with the 27th overall pick in the first round of the 2013 draft out of Samford University. Coming out of college, he was viewed as a player who could roll out of bed and hit .300. In fact, he rarely fell short of the .300 mark in his amateur career. The Reds were clearly gambling on what they viewed as a plus hit tool from a player who might be able to hold down an up-the-middle defensive position. 


Upon signing, Ervin was shipped out to the rookie Pioneer League, where he acquitted himself well for the Billings Mustangs, before finishing up the season strong with the Dayton Dragons. It was a solid professional debut for Ervin at the tail end of a long baseball season and he appeared poised for success in 2014. 



2014 SEASON

Phillip Ervin's 2014 season was mystifying. He finished up the 2013 season with a quick 43 AB cup of coffee with the low-A Dayton Dragons, during which time he hit .349/.451/.465/.916. The Reds sent him back to Dayton to start the season, but it's easy to imagine the organization thinking it would be a quick stop on the way up the ladder. It was anything but, as Ervin never escaped Dayton.

For the Dragons, he hit .237/.305/.376/.680 with 7 homers and a 110/46 K/BB ratio in 561 PAs. A polished college hitter striking out 19.6% of the time against low-A pitchers is a sizable red flag, especially for a player whose hit tool was supposed to carry him.

A bit of context *might* help Ervin here, as he underwent offseason surgery on his left wrist prior to the 2014 season. So, that might help explain his struggles, as his wrist was reportedly weaker than normal.

Here's what Jeff Graupe had to say about Ervin in an article by Mark Sheldon:

"I think Phillip's wrist bothered him early, more than he let on," Reds player development director Jeff Graupe said. "To his credit, he didn't make any excuses and played. It wasn't hurting, but maybe weak, coming off of the injury. He put himself in a hole, tried to generate and get four hits in every at-bat and chased it. He got away from being the process-oriented hitter he had been. I think he's better for it. I think he will have a good year, coming up. He's still one of the better offensive players in our system."



So, it's very possible that Ervin's season was impacted by his wrist and that may have prevented him from driving the ball or effectively using the entire field. With that in mind, here's a look at Ervin's 2014 spray chart, courtesy of MLBfarm.com:



Courtesy: MLBfarm.com



As for specific impressions, here are a few things that I saw in 2014:


  • There are reports of Ervin being overly pull-conscious during the 2014 season, but that's not something I saw when watching him, nor does his spray chart really reflect it.
  • Ervin seemed to struggle with the high fastball, both in laying off of it and in catching up to it. That may have something to do with his reported wrist issue or maybe it's just a pitch and location that he can't handle and needs to take.  
  • His pitch recognition seemed solid, though somehow he seemed to struggle more with differentiating between fastballs and breaking balls than he did in identifying pitches in the strikezone vs. pitches outside of the strikezone. 
    • On the plus side, he didn't chase pitches out of the strikezone very often. 
    • On the downside, he was susceptible to getting out on the front foot too early when he was fooled on the breaking ball.
  • A bit too often, Ervin was out on the front foot on breaking balls and then late on high fastballs, which is a tough combination for a hitter to overcome. 
  • Ervin runs well, both on defense and on the bases. 



Despite his struggles, Ervin is likely ticketed for high-A Daytona in 2015, where he'll hope for better results. In this particular instance, it's too bad that the Reds moved out of Bakersfield, as Ervin's confidence might actually have benefited from hitting in a very hitter-friendly home park and league. Regardless, if Ervin's wrist was a significant factor in his performance, then his return to health might be all he needs to hit the ground running 2015.


SWING MECHANICS

At the plate, Ervin is conventional and compact, his swing doesn't involve a lot of extraneous movement. While being compact could help with being quick to the point of contact, it's difficult to imagine his swing generating good power. It's a swing that seems to be driven by the upper body much more than the lower body, which robs it of some power generation.

On some level, Ervin's swing reminds me of Indians prospect Clint Frazier. Frazier is renowned for his absurd bat speed, which he generates more with his hands and forearms than his lower body. Ervin settles for merely good bat speed, but his swing also feels like it's more hands and forearms than lower body. Like Clint Frazier, Ervin occasionally uses an abbreviated follow-through, almost cutting off the swing before it can finish more naturally. Clint Frazier's ability to generate plus-plus bat speed with his hands and forearms allows him to generate power, even if he doesn't utilize the lower half as effectively as other hitters. Ervin, on the other hand, doesn't generate that type of bat speed, so his inefficient use of the lower half limits the type of power he can generate.

At the plate, Ervin uses a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance. His pre-pitch stance involves a small bat waggle as he waits on the pitcher. The bat waggle involves bouncing his hands in an up-and-down movement, ideally finishing up in front of his right shoulder just before he strides forward. As the pitcher drives to the plate, Ervin uses a small stride forward to meet the pitch. As he strides, he draws his hands back and up in order to load up for the swing.




Once his stride foot lands, he starts to fire his hips. He's a bit inconsistent in driving his right elbow into his back hip, which is what syncs up the rotation of the hips to the upper body to power the swing. That inconsistency creates inefficiency in force generation and leaves his arms with more work to do in the swing. The farther the arms are away from the body, the slower the rotation of the core. The slower the rotation of the core, the less force imparted to the baseball.

In addition to that inconsistency, he occasionally cuts his follow-through short, which can also limit the force generated by the lower half. All of which means that his swing is driven more by the upper body, which can be problematic unless you have elite hand/bat speed. Inefficiency in generating force can prove even more problematic for a hitter, like Ervin, of smaller stature, as he's already going to have a harder time generating leverage and force in the swing.


Here's a look at Ervin in action during the 2013 season, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube:







One thing I noticed during the 2014 season was that his bat waggle seemed just a bit larger and lower than it was in 2013. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any video to effectively demonstrate that slight change, but that's the impression I got from watching him play in 2014. Maybe it was made in response to his wrist injury. It wasn't apparent in every swing. Still, the slightly larger and lower waggle slightly increased the distance the hands had to be drawn back to load up for the swing. The farther the hands have to be drawn back, the farther they have to travel to reach the point of contact.

In the end, maybe 2014 was a perfect(ly ugly) storm of events for Phil Ervin:

1. A lingering wrist injury,
2. A swing that relies more heavily on the hands and upper body, and
3. The occasional use of a slower and longer movement to load the hands.


All of those factors could explain a lackluster, at best, 2014 season in which his performance declined across the board and he struggled to catch up to high fastballs. Or, maybe he simply wasn't as good as the organization thought he'd be. The sample size from his 2013 season was very, very small and his performance level, while solid on the surface, could have been propped up by batting average hit-luck. Maybe the common evaluation of his 2013 season was clouded by confirmation bias stemming from his high draft position. Maybe he was an overdraft by the organization. Maybe his 2013 professional season was actually more luck than production. Maybe each improper valuation served to prop up the other until the wheels came off in 2014. Or, maybe he just wasn't healthy.

Whatever the reason, his prospect status definitely took a hit last year. Whether his status rebounds depends on Ervin's ability to fix his hitting, as his hit-tool was going to be his carrying tool, without it he's not getting carried anywhere.

The 2015 season will provide a huge data point on Ervin's career trajectory.


DEFENSE, BASERUNNING, AND POSITIONAL VALUE

Ervin has good speed and good athleticism. His arm is solid both in terms of strength and accuracy. He can effectively handle all three outfield positions, but his defensive ceiling in centerfield might be solid/average. Last year, he played 38 games in leftfield, 68 games in centerfield, and 23 games in rightfield.

On the bases, Ervin has the speed and instincts to generate positive value, which is something of a rarity in the Reds organization. Setting aside Billy Hamilton, the Reds farm system simply hasn't produced many legitimate threats on the basepaths. Ervin doesn't have Hamilton speed, but he baserunning could still be a value-driver for him. In 2014, he swiped 25 bases in 30 attempts, a nice total and success rate. If he can reach base at a sufficient clip, then his speed will only add to his overall value.

As it stands, Ervin would likely need to shift to a corner outfield spot in order to factor into the organization's future plans. So, the fact that he's a bit fringy in centerfield isn't a huge problem at this point, as if the organization actually needs him out there then that means that Billy Hamilton didn't pan out. If that happens, then the organization will have bigger problems than Ervin's average or less centerfield defense.



FINAL THOUGHTS

Ervin has the type of profile that can deliver legitimate and diversified value. If he develops, then he could provide positive production at the plate, in the field, and on the bases. However, he only go as far as his hit tool will take him, as he doesn't have enough on-base skill or power to survive a low batting average.

If his wrist injury was the real culprit behind his 2014 struggles, then he should rebound nicely and restart his march towards the big leagues. It wasn't long ago that he was viewed as a polished college product with a pure hit-tool. If he can regain that reputation, then he'll reemerge as a valuable asset for the organization, but there's now significantly more risk to his projection than there was one year ago. That risk includes the possibility that, if his offense doesn't rebound or his defense slips a notch, he's a tweener, not quite enough glove for center and not enough bat for a corner spot.

For now, the hope of a rebound combines with his now heightened risk profile to land Ervin at #13 on the list.