Saturday, March 27, 2010

2010 All Undervalued Team

Well, time for my annual "picks to click" list. These are guys that strike me as being ready to take a step forward. Guys who are going to be better than their current valuation. It's easy to point to Albert Pujols and Roy Halladay and say that they're going to be studs in 2010. Barring injury, that's a virtual certainty. It's more fun and more valuable to focus on those under the radar guys who could step up in 2010. Guys who could be legitimate breakout candidates.

Daric Barton

Well, I've written on Barton before, but this will likely be his last appearance on here. Either he breaks through in 2010 or not, regardless he'll either graduate from this list or fall off it entirely. So, be it from breakthrough or flop, this is it for Barton.

Still, I can't help but really like his chances for 2010. While it seems like he's been around forever, in actuality he is still only 24 years old. The reason I like Barton is that he has perhaps the best plate approach of anyone in baseball this side of Albert Pujols.

1. Rarely chases pitches outside the strikezone. In 2009, Barton swung at pitches outside the strikezone only 13.5%, which was among the league leaders. Quite obviously, the fewer...

2. Barton makes contact at a 90% clip on pitches in the strikezone.

So, he rarely chases pitches outside the zone and when he swings at pitches inside the zone he makes contact 90% of the time. He doesn't go outside the zone and makes contact on the vast majority of the time on pitches in the zone. Those two factors help explain why Barton has the ability to walk more often than he whiffs, which is a rare combination in this day and age.

3. Barton hits line drives at a ~20% clip.

So, he rarely chases pitches outside the zone, he makes contact at a 90% clip on pitches in the zone, and when he does make contact he hits line drives 20% of the time. When you hit line drives at such a high rate, many of those balls in play will fall in for a hit.

In addition, Barton had Lasik surgery on his eyes this past offseason. If he does breakthrough in 2010, then people will likely point to that as a driving factor. However, through the miracle of modern technology, I watched basically every plate appearance Barton had over the final 5-6 weeks of the 2009 season. And, quite frankly, he looked good. He rarely chased a bad pitch, controlling the strikezone very effectively. When the pitchers worked him outside, he drove the ball with authority through the 5.5 hole on the infield. When he got a pitch on the inner half that he could handle, he did a nice job of dropping the head of the bat on the ball.

In September, Barton hit .310/.406/.488/.894 in 84 ABs. And, his performance could have been even more impressive, as he missed out on two additional homeruns by a grand total of about 4 feet. In a game against the Rangers in the Ballpark in Arlington, Barton hit a double off the top of the right-centerfield fence. If the ball was 2 feet higher, it would have been a homer instead of a double. Back home in Oakland for the next series, Barton was robbed of a homerun when Shin-Soo Choo jumped up against the rightfield fence to bring it back. Instead of 2 homers in September, he could easily have had 4 and maybe a bit more hype heading into the 2010 season.

Overall, I'm bullish on Barton for 2010. I think he's legitimately ready to pop. He controls the zone superbly and seems to have regained confidence in his swing. I'm not sure there is a better hitter in baseball at tilting the probability of success in an at bat in his favor. And, now he seems to have his refined his swing to enable him to better take advantage of those increased odds.

Sean Rodriguez

Rodriguez was acquired by the Tampa Bay Rays in the Scott Kazmir deal. He's flown under the radar a bit, but he's a very interesting prospect due in no small part to the thunder in his bat. He has a nice righthanded swing and serious pop. In 2008, he slugged .645 at triple-A and in 2009 he followed it up by slugging .608. Now, admittedly, some context is required, as he put up those numbers in a very friendly Salt Lake City ballpark. Still, even if you knock 100 points off his slugging percentage, Rodriguez is still doing impressive work. In addition to his power, Rodriguez also does a nice job of controlling the strikezone. He is a disciplined hitter who is more than willing to work the pitcher and draw a walk. For his minor league career, Rodriguez has a slash line of .281/.380/.501.

In addition, Rodriguez is a baseball lifer. His father, Johnny Rodriguez, bounced around various professional baseball levels for decades, raised him as a ballplayer as much as a son. One of the things that gives him so much value is his versatility. He has the skills to play just about any defensive position on the field and is more than willing to do so. Whatever it takes to help the team win, Rodriguez is willing to do.

Personally, I think Rodriguez should get a long look at the starting second base job with Zobrist shifting to rightfield. But, even if he doesn't win the 2b job, Ben Zobrist already blazed a trail in Tampa Bay to great effect for a super-utility type role, so the Rays are likely to be more comfortable using Rodriguez in that manner than other organizations. That may open up more playing time and more opportunities than he might receive in another organization.

Overall, Rodriguez strikes me as potential impact player in the making. He could be a 20 homer player with a .280+ batting average. And, he can hold down second base without difficulty. Whether he wins the 2b job or the Rays elect to use him as a super utility player, the Rays did very well in taking him off Anaheim's hands.

Chris Dickerson

Yes, I'm still a believer.

I'm surprised more people don't see the value in Dickerson. Even if he is never anything more than he was in 2009, he's still a plus defensive player in a premier defensive position who boasts elite on-base skills. That's a pretty rare combination, as finding a true leadoff hitter who can provide plus defense at an up the middle position is of great value. And yet, I do think there's a bit more projection left to his game.

In his MLB career, Dickerson has a slash line of .283/.383/.440 and a career line drive rate of 20.9%. Those are pretty impressive numbers, even if the slugging percentage is driven by his Ruthian performance during his 2008 cup of coffee.

I do think he has more power projection in his game than he showed in 2009. If he manages to crank even a few more homers in 2010, then he'll become a true impact talent. If I was a GM for a different organization, I would most definitely have tried to take Dickerson off Cincinnati's hands last offseason. Fortunately, he's still in the organization and the best should be yet to come.

John Bowker

Bowker is a guy I've seen more than a few times and every time I see him at the plate I just can't help but like him. Part of it exists on a gut level. I read John Sickels' Minor League Blog and he talks from time to time about subconscious pattern recognition, basically how, when he sees a prospect, he forms an opinion on some aspect of his skills without really knowing why. Basically, watching so much baseball over the years you start to subconsciously pick up on patterns and tendencies that you can't really explain. It's an attempt to explain away why we like certain players and not others, but one that may hold some merit.

As for Bowker, he's got a unique swing. It's fairly short and compact, almost to the point where it makes him look like he's swinging with shorter arms, but is likely more the result of a somewhat abbreviated follow through. Despite the somewhat compact swing, Bowker still manages to generate substantial power. So, his swing path is quick to the ball, but the lack of length *should* make him a bit less susceptible to strikeouts. It's really an interesting combination.

To top it off, his swing generates line drives at a very good clip, as evidenced by Bowker regularly being up over 20% in his minor league days. So, his swing gives him a very good chance of popping the ball out of the park, but if it doesn't leave the park it still has a good chance of falling in for a hit. Overall, Bowker strikes me as being a good, well rounded hitter who needs an opportunity to show what he can do.

Another reason for optimism was his 2009 performance in the minors. For triple-A Fresno, Bowker posted a ridiculous slash line of .342/.451/.596/1.047. It certainly wasn't a sample size fluke, as he did it in 450 plate appearances, but the thing that really jumps out is his on base percentage. His OBP was over 100 points higher than his batting average, which is not the norm for Bowker. He's always been a good, intriguing hitter, but never an on-base maven. Still, it'll be interesting to see if he sustains it to any real degree. I suspect he was hitting the ball so well that pitchers worked him very carefully, issuing a lot of walks of the unintentional intentional variety. So, it remains to be seen whether his performance represents a breakthrough to a new level of discipline and controlling the zone. I am typically skeptical of the ability of players to make substantial improvement in plate discipline, as I tend to view it as a tool rather than an improvable skill.

Bowker's defensive skills relegate him to leftfield and first base, but his bat is rather intriguing and should be more than enough to carry him in an offense-first position. Unfortunately, the Giants brought in so many mediocre veterans that they may have blocked Bowker for 2010, which is unfortunate because he deserves a look. Even so, he's ripping the ball in spring training and on the verge of forcing his way into the Giants plans.

Ricky Nolasco

This one may be the most obvious one of the bunch. He was actually performing at a high level in 2009, but his overall stats are not reflective of it. Last year, he had a 5.06 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 2.14 BB/9, and a 9.49 K/9. The 5.06 ERA is appalling, but his component stats were very impressive. In fact, his Fielding Independent Pitching was a stellar 3.35. He was undone by his Strand Rate (61.0%) and his BABIP of .336, both of which should normalize in 2010.

The Marlin defense did him no favors, but 2010 should be a breakout season for Nolasco.

Sean Gallagher

Gallagher has long been a favorite of mine. He features good velocity and life on his fastball and a plus curveball that is a real swing and miss pitch. During both his Chicago and Oakland days, Gallagher was plagued by a lack of opportunity and a lack of health. However, now that he has landed in San Diego, it could be the perfect situation for him. He now resides in the ultimate pitcher's park and should be completely healthy.

When healthy Gallagher strikes out roughly 7.5 per nine and walks roughly 3.5. He may not break camp as a member of the rotation, but may not be long for the bullpen as San Diego doesn't have many better options in the rotation. Early in his professional career, Gallagher failed to take advantage of his opportunities, but could be poised to do just that in 2010.

2010 Top Prospect List: #7 Yorman Rodriguez, of

Yorman Rodriguez
Height 6-3, Weight 180, B/T: R/R, DOB: 08/15/1992
2009 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #17

Yorman Rodriguez runs neck and neck with Billy Hamilton for the title of Best Athlete in the System. His raw athleticism gives him one of the highest ceilings in the entire system, while his raw, unrefined set of baseball specific skills leave him a rather low floor. Hamilton and Yorman are similar in their athleticism, but arrived in the system in different ways.

Rodriguez is a byproduct of the Reds renewed emphasis on international scouting, which has brought in a tremendous amount of talent in the form of Johnny Cueto, Juan Duran, Yorman Rodriguez, Miguel Rojas, and others. In the modern game, the financial structure of Major League Baseball makes international scouting almost a necessity for small/mid-market teams to attain any measure of success. Supplementing the flow of prospects acquired in the Rule IV draft with international free agent signings increases both the quality and quantity of prospects of the farm system. Yorman is the brightest light of the Reds' recent international signings.


Rodriguez split time between the Gulf Coast League Reds and the Billings Mustangs, which is an impressive feat in and of itself for a 16-year old. In fact, one of the most impressive and telling aspects of Yorman's performance is his performance against much older and more advanced competition. A prospect's "age vs. level" provides necessary context for evaluating his performance and Yorman's speaks highly of his overall abilities.

In the Gulf Coast League, Yorman posted a .274/.347/.321/.669 with a 23/10 K/BB ratio over 22 games and 95 plate appearances. He also flashed good wheels, swiping 5 bases in 5 attempts. He collected 23 hits, but only 3 of them went for extra bases (2 2b, 1 3b, 0 HR). He hit line drives at a 14% clip, which makes his hit luck (BABIP of .377) look even more unsustainable.

Surprisingly enough, the 16-year old Yorman was promoted to rookie level Billings. For the Mustangs, Yorman posted a .219/.259/.344/.603 slash line with a 61/9 K/BB ratio, 3 homeruns, and 5 steals in 7 attempts over 46 games and 193 plate appearances. His line drive rate jumped to 22% while his BABIP was perhaps a bit low at .311. His 4.7% walk rate and 31.6% strikeout rate were more than a little unimpressive and would be a significant cause for concern if Yorman wasn't so young and have such a long development curve ahead of him.

The Reds were very aggressive with Yorman's development in 2009, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him return to Billings for 2010.


Rodriguez utilizes a pretty standard setup, including a slightly wider than shoulder width stance. He holds his hands up by his right ear and uses a slight bat waggle to keep his muscles loose. At times, he also uses a very small pre-pitch elbow movement that somewhat resembles arm flapping. It involves pulling both his elbows in towards his body and is another technique to keep his body loose and tension free while waiting for the pitch. Overall, it's a rather quiet, fundamentally sound setup that should serve him well as he advances up the professional ranks.

Rodriguez uses a two-step stride that contains minimal forward motion. His first move with his front foot is towards the plate and up onto his toes, which helps him cock his hips and load up to generate power for the swing. The second step is a small stride forward to meet the pitch, which involves enough forward movement in his stride to effectively transfer his weight to meet the pitch.

Rodriguez hits with a high back elbow, so before he can fire his swing he first has to drop the back elbow. When he does fire the swing, he takes a big swing at the ball and doesn't get cheated. He has a slight uppercut to his swing path, which should give him the loft on the ball he needs to hit for substantial power when he fills out physically. He has good bat speed and gets good extension out and through the ball, however those attributes also give his swing a bit of length to his swing. Sometimes a longer swing goes hand in glove with contact rate problems, as longer swings typically have more holes. The contact rate problem that frequently comes with a longer swing can be offset by plus hand-eye coordination or from improved selectivity at the plate. For now, however, Yorman still struggles with contact, as evidenced by his strikeout rate (GCL: 24.2%, Billings: 31.6%).

At times, Rodriguez loses his lower body in his swing and ends up with largely an upper body and arm swing. I do wonder if his stride is too minimal to effectively rotate his hips inward to cock them and maximize the load in his swing. Right now, it is simply too early in his physical development to determine whether the lower body action in his swing is robbing him of any power. It bears watching as he begins to add strength, but right now when Yorman loses the lower body in his swing it stems more from pitch recognition problems than any real flaw in his swing mechanics. If he improves his pitch selection, then his swing will necessarily improve.

The biggest problem for Yorman right now is that he swings at just about everything. He utilizes the Vlad Guerrero strikezone, basically everything from "his nose to his toes" is fair game. Not surprisingly, when he chases pitches out of the zone, he ends reaching for the ball which negates the power derived from his leg drive and hip rotation. Additionally, when he gets fooled by breaking pitches, he gets too far out on the front foot, which saps his lower body action and leaves him to flail at the pitch with his arms. It's difficult to let your swing work when you are constantly offering at pitches that make that impossible. Obviously, Yorman is very raw and needs some refinement to both his plate approach and swing mechanics.

Here are a couple of good looks at Yorman in action:

For such a young player, Yorman does a pretty nice job of utilizing the entire field. He's not afraid to take the ball the other way and he can do so with power. In fact, 2 of his 3 homeruns for Billings went to right field, which speaks volume about his ability to drive the ball from foul pole to foul pole.


Rodriguez sports tremendous raw tools. He has plus speed and a plus arm, which should enable him to become an above average defensive outfielder with the potential to develop into a true impact defensive player. Like the rest of his game, Yorman needs to continue refining his defensive play. He needs to get more game experience reading the ball off the bat and also work on improving his routes to the ball.

Rodriguez has the type of electricity to his game that you only see in players with plus speed. He's obviously a fast-twitch guy, as he has a bounce to his stride that makes him look like he's gliding over the turf. As he continues to refine and polish his game, he should be able to improve his ability to effectively utilize and incorporate his speed into his game.


As much excitement as Yorman generates, it's still difficult to get past his age and plate discipline problems. His age against level of competition is a big plus for Yorman, but it also means that he has a long way to go before he reaches the Major League level. And, it's difficult to know how his body will change as he continues to mature and fill out. He stands 6-3 and weighs in at 180 lbs, but he has room on his frame for another 15-20 lbs. When that happens, will it rob him of speed or quickness? Also, will he ever learn to become more selective at the plate? Or, will he forever allow the opposing pitcher to tilt the probability of success in the pitcher's favor?

Yorman's upside is tantalizing, but his downside is substantial. There have been any number of elite international prospects signed out of Latin America who ultimately didn't pan out, as they simply lacked the refined baseball specific skills necessary to translate their impressive athleticism into baseball production. Yorman's raw tools give me reason for optimism, but his poor plate approach gives me reason for concern. I'm a big believer in the importance of getting a good pitch to hit. In baseball, it frequently doesn't matter the quality of the swing mechanics or quality of a players tools if the player is trying to hit a pitch with which he can do very little. Baseball has always been more about refined baseball specific skills than overall athleticism. Kevin Youkilis is a prime example. His overall athleticism is rather poor and, to quote Terry Francona on his physique, "I've seen him in the shower and I can tell you he's not a Greek God of anything." So, Youkilis is short on tools and physicality, but he's long on baseball skills, which is what makes him one of the best, most productive players in the league.

Of course, in a perfect world, you'd have both tools and skills, which is when you have a true star player on your hands. For now, Yorman checks in at #7 on the list based largely on his tools. The future is bright, but there are still many wrong turns on his development path to be avoided before he can emerge as an impact talent at the MLB level.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

2010 Top Prospect List: #8 Zack Cozart, ss

Zack Cozart
Height 6-0, Weight 195, B/T: R/R, DOB: 08/12/1985
2009 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #20

Zack Cozart is the best shortstop prospect in a system that is becoming flush with quality shortstop prospects. Cozart has long fit the profile of a defense-first shortstop, but he is really beginning to develop his offensive game to the point where he could become an asset at the plate as well. Cozart is a heady player with a good baseball IQ and good instincts between the lines, both of which help his tools play up a notch and allows him to get the most out of his abilities. Jim Bowden loved toolsy athletes, but the current front office is also interested in pure baseball players. Cozart falls into the latter category.


Cozart continued his gradual ascent up the prospect ranks. By and large, the Reds have taken a conservative approach with Cozart, advancing him one level at a time. The only slightly aggressive aspect of his development was the decision to bypass high-A ball and send him to double-A Carolina for the entire 2009 season. After spending back to back seasons in low-A Dayton, he made the big jump up all the way up to double-A and more than held his own. Still, it is somewhat surprising to see Cozart perform so capably after skipping high-A ball.

In 131 games and 541 plate appearances, Cozart posted a slash line of .262/.360/.398/.758 with 10 homeruns, 10 stolen bases in 12 attempts, and a very strong 87/63 K/BB ratio. His control of the strike zone was impressive and represented a significant improvement over his early professional performance. In 2007, he posted a 3.3 K/BB ratio, in 2008 he posted a similar 3.2 mark, but in 2009 he improved it substantially to a mark of 1.4 . Part of the reason for the improvement could be LASIK eye surgery, which Cozart had prior to the 2009 season. Obviously, the better you can see the ball, the better choices you can make on whether to swing or take the pitch. His better control of the strike zone may also have improved the quality of his contact, as his line drive rate jumped up to a stellar 20%. The more disciplined the hitter, the more he tilts the probability of success in his favor. By grinding away at bats, Cozart not only improved his walk rate, but also put himself in more hitter's counts, which allowed him to see better pitches to hit, enabling him to drive the ball with authority with greater frequency. In addition, his production was not aided by hit luck, as evidenced by a very reasonable .307 BABIP.

Cozart was also a rather effective situational hitter, as he hit better with runners on base (.304/.415/.424) and with runners in scoring position (.319/.430/.464) than he did with no one on base (.224/.305/.374). In 2009, the bigger the situation, the better Cozart performed.

On the other hand, Cozart did have a fairly substantial platoon split, fairing much better against lefthanders. He posted a very strong .316/.426/.436 line against southpaws, but only a .243/.336/.384 mark against righties. Obviously, that's less than ideal, as he's stronger on the shorter side of the platoon. There are quite simply far fewer lefties than righties in the pitching ranks, so his production will be driven largely by how he fares against righties.

Cozart is likely to always be a defense first type player, but he answered a lot of lingering questions about his bat by performing well against a very advanced level of pitching. He's unlikely to ever be an impact bat at the MLB level, but his performance revealed that he may ultimately be something more than an offensive liability.


At the plate, Cozart has a solid, fundamentally sound swing. During his pre-pitch setup, Cozart uses a wide spread, open stance. He stands very upright at the plate and holds his hands up high by his right ear, which is even up above the level of his shoulders. He uses a small bat waggle to stay loose while waiting on the pitch. When the pitcher comes to the plate, Cozart uses a high leg kick type stride with his front foot to transfer his weight to meet the pitch. The stride also operates to close up his stance and square up to the plate.

The stride is also typically used to cock the hips to build up potential energy to unleash during the swing. Cozart's swing has evolved to incorporate his lower body more effectively, which gives him solid average power. His swing path is short and quick to the ball, and while his swing is compact, Cozart still gets good extension and plate coverage. Despite his wide spread pre-pitch stance, Cozart can still get out too much on the front foot at times, which can leave him in a rather upright swing position. When that happens, he loses lower body drive and is left with largely an arm swing. When he stays back on the ball, he can stay down and through the swing more effectively, which enables him to drive the ball more authoritatively. Previously, he was largely a pull-hitter, but he has worked to become a more complete hitter who effectively utilizes the entire field. This makes him less susceptible to pitches on the outer half and makes him a more difficult hitter for pitchers to pick apart.

Here are a couple of video clips of Cozart in action:

Overall, Cozart has made some tangible improvement in both his approach and swing mechanics. He had to rework the "metal bat swing" he used at the University of Mississippi and learn how to adjust to professional pitching. Now, he has both a better approach at the plate and a more effective swing, which has made him a much more difficult out at the plate. These improvements took hold in 2009, making him a more complete player and an even more intriguing prospect.

You can see his MLB scouting video here.


In 2009, Cozart was rated as the best defensive infielder in the system by Baseball America. While he lost that informal title for 2010 to Miguel Rojas, he still has the truly impressive defensive skills that will always be his calling card as a baseball player.

Cozart has soft hands and good fielding actions. He has good first step quickness and plus range, which enables him to chew up the ground in the field. When he does get his hands on the ball, he utilizes a lower arm slot than is typical for a shortstop. Most shortstops tend to come over the top on their throws, but Cozart is more three-quarters with his arm slot. Overall, his arm strength is average at best, but he uses a quick release to help offset the weaker arm. Unfortunately, because of his arm strength, Cozart can struggle on longer relays throws from the outfield and on deep groundballs in the hole.

In 2008, he posted a TotalZone Runs/150 mark of +19 and a fielding percentage of .978, which would make him a truly outstanding fielder. In 2009, he posted a Runs/150 mark of +13 and a fielding percentage of .959, which would make him a very strong fielder. Whether outstanding or merely very strong, Cozart is obviously one of the best defensive shortstop prospects in all of the minor leagues.

Overall, Cozart continues to pile up gaudy defensive production season after season. He has the type of defensive skills at a premier defensive position that could make him a true impact player on defense, which is rather rare. If he continues to develop, he could join Drew Stubbs to give the Reds two impact defensive players at premier defensive positions, which could have a tremendous impact on the teams run prevention. Defense still seems somewhat under appreciated, but having an elite team defense tilts the field of play in your favor on every play and lifts the baseline performance of every single pitcher on the staff. Stubbs and Cozart could have a massive impact on the fortunes of the organization in the near future.


Cozart was already an intriguing prospect, but the improvements he made on the offensive side of the game have raised his ceiling and made him a more complete prospect. It remains to be seen whether the improvements he showed in controlling the strikezone were sustainable or not. At times, significant improvements in walk rate or strikeout rate over the course of a single season are not sustainable or even reflective of true improvements in a hitter's approach at the plate. It'll be interesting to see if he can sustain his improved plate approach, as doing so would only make him a more valuable prospect and one with a bit more margin for error at the MLB level.

Cozart continues to make consistent, incremental improvement in his game, which is what you like to see out of a prospect. When coupled with his plus defensive abilities, Cozart's improvements at the plate are enough to land him at #8 on the list. And, if he continues to hit like he did in 2009, then he could be the answer to the revolving door at shortstop that has plagued the organization since Barry Larkin retired. In an organization with a long history of top flight shortstop play, it would be refreshing to once again have an impact talent holding down the position.

Monday, March 15, 2010

2010 Top Prospect List: #9 Neftali Soto, inf/c

Neftali Soto
Height 6-2, Weight 180, B/T: R/R, DOB: 02/28/1989
2009 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking:#2

After hitting over .300 with good power at three different minor league stops over his first two professional seasons, Neftali Soto experienced his first struggles as as professional in 2009. His struggles were not inconsiderable.

The Reds drafted Neftali Soto with the 109th overall pick in the 3rd round of the 2007 draft. Soto was selected out of Colegio Marista in Puerto Rico where he is the all-time youth homerun champ in Puerto Rico, earning the distinction by breaking former MLB slugger Juan Gonzalez's all-time homerun mark.


After impressive early professional performance, Soto took a step backwards in 2009. The Reds sent him to high-A Sarasota of the Florida State League, which is a notoriously tough ballpark for hitters. On the season, Soto posted a slash line of .248/.282/.362/.645 in 505 ABs with 11 homers and a 95/23 K/BB ratio. That level of production was a sharp decline from 2008, in which he posted a .324/.342/.500/.842 in 216 ABs for low-A Dayton.

In 2009, his walk rate actually improved (3.0% to 4.3%), while his strikeout rate worsened (15.6% to 17.7%). Given that both outcomes (walk and strikeouts) are "late count" outcomes, it's easy to draw the infererence that Soto saw more pitches in his plate appearances than in 2008. In addition, his line drive actually improved substantially (15% to 23%) , but his BABIP tumbled from .364 in 2008 to .286 in 2009. So, despite an increase of 8% in line drive rate, his BABIP declined 78 points. Obviously, he was a bit lucky in 2008 and rather unlucky in 2009, which should lead to some normalization in 2010, as the true Soto likely lies somewhere in between.

So, despite the decline in production, there is still a potential positive or two to be drawn from his performance. While the heightened strikeout rate isn't ideal, it is encouraging to see Soto work his way into more late counts. If in fact it's intentional. To a certain extent, both walks and strikeouts are a necessary byproduct of hitting late in the count. After all, you can't strikeout without seeing at least 3 pitches and can't draw a walk without seeing at least 4 pitches.

Statistical analysis long ago revealed the importance of drawing walks and getting on base, but an increased walk rate is not the sole benefit to be derived from hitting in late count situations. As a general rule, both hitters and pitchers perform substantial better when they are ahead in the count. The pitcher v. hitter confrontation is the defining aspect of the sport. That confrontation is, in essence, a battle between the pitcher and hitter to tilt the probability of success in their direction. If the hitter can work the count to 2-0 or 3-1, then his chances of a earning a positive outcome to the At Bat increase substantially. On the flip side, if a pitcher can work the count to 0-2 or 1-2, then his chances of achieving a positive outcome increase substantially.

A hitter utilizing a disciplined, selective approach at the plate will not only draw more walks, but also generally improve the odds that he will get a hit. Ted Williams once said that getting a good pitch to hit is the most important part of hitting. By seeing more pitches, grinding away At Bats, and tilting the count in your favor the hitter improves his chances for success. Of course, the reason more hitters don't use a disciplined approach is that it isn't easy. Constantly being selective, making the "go" or "no go" decision on pitch after pitch after pitch can lead to mental fatigue. Still, the benefits of the disciplined approach are undeniable, so hopefully Soto is learning how to be a bit more disciplined and selective at the plate.

After his lackluster 2009 season, Soto opted to head to the Puerto Rican Winter League for what turned out to be a very brief stint. He played in a single game going 2-for-3 and scoring a run. Unfortunately, that was the extent of his playing time, which wasn't enough to offset a disappointing performance in Sarasota.

Overall, 2009 was a definite disappointment. Part of the reason for his struggles was the more advanced level of competition, but he was also dropped into a very difficult park for hitters. His isolated power dropped from .176 all the way down to .114, but his struggles weren't all park based. His home slash line was .227/.266/.332/.598, while his road line was .264/.296/.388/.684.


Soto is also one of those rare players that can actually make a right-handed swing look good. He maintains good balance and tempo throughout his swing. He generates easy power and gets good extension out through the ball.

Soto's pre-pitch setup involves a slightly wider than shoulder width stance and a high back elbow. When the pitch is delivered, Soto takes a very small stride towards the pitcher to transfer his weight. After he strides, he fires his hips, which creates substantial rotational energy. That strong hip action drives the swing and creates good bat speed. As he clears his hips out of the way, he brings his long, fluid swing to bear on the ball. His swing has a slight uppercut to it, which imparts good backspin on the ball and helps increase the carry on balls in the air. When a swing generates substantial power, the rotational energy frequently pulls a hitter off-balance, but Soto maintains his balance effectively throughout the swing.

Despite the aggressive and somewhat longer swing, Soto's plus hand-eye coordination allows him to make consistent, hard contact. He seems to maintain good control of the barrel of the bat throughout the hitting zone. He simply doesn't have the same type of problem making contact that typically plagues power hitters, which makes him a more complete hitter and a more compelling prospect. Soto reminds me a bit of Dustin Pedroia in that respect, as he takes a massive hack at the pitch, but consistently gets the barrel of the bat on the ball. Such a long, aggressive swing isn't supposed to produce such consistent contact, but plus hand-eye coordination makes it possible.

Unfortunately, even if Soto is working to become more disciplined, he still battles selectivity problems, as he remains prone to chasing pitches outside the zone. More advanced pitchers took advantage of Soto's free swinging ways by repeatedly enticing him to chase pitches out of the zone, most notably those breaking down and away. In 2009, his struggles were driven more by his flawed plate approach than his swing mechanics. You simply can't make effective use of your swing when you are using it on poor pitches. He needs to continue to work on pitch recognition and then only offer at those pitches he can actually handle. Until he learns to effectively recognize good breaking balls and refine his approach to focus on hitting those pitches in his hot zones, he will continue to struggle.

Below you can see a few photos of Soto at the plate.

In the photo on the left, you can see Soto's strong set-up, which gives him a solid foundation for his swing. In the middle photo, you can see Soto's head staying down on the ball and the good extension, as he gets out-and-through the ball. Also, you can see that the rotational energy created by his swing and the impressive bat speed at times cause him to spin out or roll over on his front foot just a bit. In the photo on the right, Soto maintains good balance throughout his swing and he keeps both hands on the bat in his follow through. Again, it's more personal preference than anything, but I've always favored hitters who keep both hands on the bat in the follow through. Keeping both hands on the bat ensures stability throughout the swing and prevents power from bleeding from the swing. Of course, some argue that by taking the top hand off the bat you improve power by increasing extension, but if the top hand comes off too early in the swing, then you risk losing power.

Below, you can see a video clip of Soto in action. Here, he hits a bomb in impressive style for the Dayton Dragons.

And, here is a clip of Soto as an amateur in a homerun contest. You can see his impressive swing and raw power. In addition, there are some very interesting slow motion shots of his swing from different angles at the tail end of the clip, so it's definitely worth your time.

Soto has very impressive swing for a prospect his age and he will go as far as it takes him. Hopefully, he can demonstrate a bit more patience and an improved ability to control the strike zone, as more advanced competition may be able to take advantage of his aggressive approach. While his hitting skills are both advanced and polished, his defensive skills are not.


His substandard performance in 2009 has opened the door to talk of him switching behind the plate. I remain confident in his bat and dubious about an attempt to move him behind the plate. Soto's career was always going to be determined by his bat. His defensive skills and positional value were always going to relegate him to being an offense-first type prospect, so attempting to shift him to the most challenging defensive position on the field seems somewhat dubious. If it works, then his value obviously gets a boost, but there is a significant risk of completely stalling his offensive development. Even so, when I think of prospects who have successfully made the transition to catcher, I think of very good athletes who have strong footwork. Examples that leap to mind are Buster Posey, Brandon Inge, and Russell Martin. I'm just not sure Soto fits that particular profile.

When I first saw Soto on defense, what jumped out at me was his clear lack of quickness, as he was rather plodding. His overall foot speed and agility simply weren't impressive. It was clear that he wouldn't be able to stick at shortstop, but now it seems questionable whether he can even stick at third base. If he can't, then he'll be relegated to leftfield or first base, where he'll have substantial competition within the organization. Outside of that, he'll be left to strap on the "tools of ignorance." The early reports about his catching are positive, but it's a very difficult position to master. I'm just not sure Soto has the agility and quick lateral movement necessary to be an effective catcher. Catching requires strong footwork and I'm just not sure Soto has the footwork to make the transition.


Soto is at a crossroads in his career in more ways than one. He had his first brush with adversity, which could help his development or derail it entirely. He is also facing a potential position switch, which would completely redefine his prospect profile. At this point, it's difficult to know exactly what to make of Soto, but he still has the swing mechanics and power potential that made him one of the more intriguing prospects in the system.

In 2010, the Reds will no longer play in Sarasota, so regardless of where Soto starts he'll be in a better park for hitters. Additionally, he'll have an offseason to contemplate his struggles and learn from his mistakes. The 2010 season will be a big one for Soto, as he could emerge stronger as a result of the adversity or his prospect status could be derailed entirely. For now, his hitting skills are enough to land him at #9 on the list, but he has enough upside to climb back up the list with a strong showing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

2010 Top Prospect List: #10 Matt Maloney, lhp

Matt Maloney
Height 6-4, Weight 220, B/T: L/L, DOB: 01/16/1984
2009 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #14

In some ways, Matt Maloney is representative of just how far the farm system has come. In years past, Maloney would be one of the best pitchers in a system entirely devoid of quality pitching prospects. However, the renewed emphasis on rebuilding the farm system has finally overcome the years of damage done by Marge Schott's scorched earth approach to scouting. Maloney's remains a good prospect, but he is overshadowed by those young pitchers already residing in the MLB rotation and by a handful of impact pitching prospects down on the farm.

Still, Maloney is talented enough to deserve some time in the spotlight.


Maloney was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 3rd round of the 2005 draft out of the University of Mississippi. He acquitted himself well early in his professional career, but his time in the Philly organization was short lived, as on July 30, 2007, the Reds acquired Matt Maloney from the Philadelphia Phillies for Kyle Lohse.

Overall, Kyle Lohse was a very good acquisition for the Reds, as they gave up Zach Ward to acquire him, got one and half years of production out of him, then traded him for a better pitching prospect in Maloney than it took acquire him in the first place. When making player personnel moves, general managers should already have an exit strategy in mind for each player they acquire. In order to maximize the value of each player to the organization, it's important to consider how to extract value from the departure of that player. Kyle Lohse is a prime example of maximizing value to the organization, as by cashing in on his departure the Reds managed to keep that value in the organization in the form of Matt Maloney.


Maloney spent the vast majority of the 2009 season pitching for triple-A Louisville. For the Bats, Maloney continued to roll and put up good numbers. In 143.0 innings Maloney posted a 3.08 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 1.5 BB/9, and a 7.9 K/9. On the season, Maloney walked only 24 batters, while striking out a robust 125. His performance was truly stellar, as evidenced by his ridiculous 5.21 K/BB ratio.

His performance earned him a late season promotion to the majors, where he posted a 4.87 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 1.77 BB/9, and a 6.2 K/9 in 40.2 innings. Unfortunately, his underlying performance wasn't as strong his ERA, as his Fielding Independent Pitching was an unimpressive 5.41. Additionally, he was likely a bit lucky, as his BABIP was a bit low at .282, while his strand rate was a bit too high at 77.3%. So, he gave up fewer baserunners via the base hit than expected and also stranded a few more of those runners who did reach base than expected.

However, Maloney's MLB performance was reflective of both his minor league strengths and weaknesses. His strong K/BB ratio carried over to the majors as evidenced by his 3.5 K/BB mark. However, he also continued to struggle with the long ball, as he gave up 9 homers in just 40 major league innings. Maloney is a fly ball pitcher and with less than overpowering stuff he has little margin for error. He posted an HR/FB mark of 13.2%, which was higher than all but two full time starters in Major League Baseball in 2009. When you factor in just how many more fly balls he gives up than average, having such a high percentage of them leave the yard is a potential problem.


If a lefthanded pitching prospect strikes out almost a batter an inning against advanced competition, then one would think that he would be pretty highly regarded. However, scouts downgrade Maloney on the basis of his repertoire, which consists of four solid pitches.

Maloney throws a fastball that sits in the 87-88 mph range and has good late sink. His best pitch is his plus changeup, which he threw 27.2% of the time and in any and all situations. He also has a big looping 11-5 breaking curveball and a fringy slider. Unfortunately, his velocity lowers his ceiling, but Maloney understands how to pitch and keep hitters off-balance. Both his control and command are strong, as he can consistently hit his spots inside the zone. He certainly gets the most out of his abilities and his understanding of pitching allows his tools to play up a notch.

As for his mechanics, Maloney is fundamentally sound. He holds his hands at chin level and peers over the top of the webbing to look in and get his sign from the catcher. He triggers the windup with a small step towards third base, which allows him to transfer his weight to his plant foot and shift his left foot down onto the rubber. While he's in the process of shifting his weight and his position on the rubber, he is bringing his hands down to belt level. He then brings his leg up into his leg kick and his hands all the way up by his left ear. His leg kick is fairly extreme, as he brings his knee all the way up to his chest, while his lower leg almost reaches parallel to the ground. He doesn't incorporate significant hip rotation, choosing instead to bring his leg kick straight up rather than coil his body. So, instead of their being a rotational differential between his hips and shoulders, they both stay on a line running from second base-to-homeplate which reduces the overall energy he can impart on the baseball.

Maloney has tremendous balance at the apex of his leg kick. He has good body control, which enables him to maintain a strong position over the top of his plant foot. Unfortunately, he doesn't use a strong push off the rubber that would enable him to more effectively incorporate his lower body into the delivery. His move towards the plate isn't very aggressive, seemingly falling naturally towards the plate rather than aggressively driving towards the plate with the lower body. His high leg kick creates substantial potential energy, but by unpacking the leg kick without really driving to the plate, he is inefficient in translating that potential energy into kinetic energy. The limited body coil and the less than impressive push off the rubber prevent him from maximizing the energy generated by his delivery.

Once he does head towards the plate, the defining aspect of his delivery comes into focus. Maloney's plant foot lands closer to the first base side than normal and as a result he has a closed off delivery (which you can somewhat see below in the first photo) which requires him to use a cross-fire arm action. Also, his combination of a closed off delivery and cross-fire arm action often results in his body facing third base on his follow-through. The closed off position of his plant foot forces his momentum to work around his plant leg, rather than heading directly towards home plate. To compensate for the closed off body position and to try to direct his momentum towards the plate, Maloney flexes and locks the knee of his plant leg (almost to the point of hyperextension) when delivering the pitch. When the momentum does work around his closed off lower half, it spins his entire body around to face third base after delivering the pitch. Obviously, facing third base after delivering the pitch leaves him in less than ideal fielding positioning and could cost him a few hits back through the box over the course of the season.

Maloney's height allows him to throw on a downward plane, which he does despite using a three-quarter arm slot. Below, you can clearly see his arm slot in the photo on left, which shows that he doesn't use a pure over-the-top delivery. In the photo on the right, Maloney demonstrates a good arm position, as his elbow isn't too high and it is on pace to be up in throwing position when his plant foot lands, which is what you want to see. As a general rule, the pitching arm should be up in throwing position with the forearm perpendicular to the ground when the plant foot lands. In the photo on the right, Maloney still has his arm parallel to the ground, but his foot hasn't landed yet and he will bring it up into position in time. If the arm isn't up in throwing position when the plant foot lands, then it is lagging behind and it could create problems with consistency and increase the stress on the arm. You can also see that Maloney takes a nice long stride, which helps with his balance and allows him to get good extension despite the closed position of his plant foot.

Overall, Maloney's mechanics are solid, his arm action is clean, and his less than max effort delivery should lower his injury risk. However, his below average body coil, poor leg drive, and closed off lower body work to cost him velocity, as he is relatively inefficient in imparting the energy created by his delivery to the baseball.

You can access Maloney's MLB draft scouting video here. And, you can see his MLB highlights here.


Maloney is a prime example of the type of "free talent" that exists throughout the game. He's a solid pitcher who lacks elite stuff, but knows how to succeed with it and should be a solid option at the back end of an MLB rotation. All he really lacks is an opportunity. Even so, you see General Managers around the league throwing multi-million dollar contracts at pitchers with similar abilities. A prime example is Eric Milton, who the Reds signed to a massive contract despite his marginal skills. A better strategy would have been to promote or target pitchers like Matt Maloney, who provide similar production for a mere fraction of the price.

At this point, Maloney is in the running for the fifth starter spot, but has pitchers like Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman fast on his heels. He may get an opportunity to start, but may ultimately be forced out of the organization. If so, a bargain hunting GM would be wise to acquire his services, especially if he can put Maloney in a ballpark better suited to his pitching profile. At the very least, Maloney should provide very good production for the cost until he accumulates enough service time to hit arbitration.

For now, Maloney's polish and pitchability are impressive enough to land him at #10 on the list.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

2010 Top Prospect List: #3 Mike Leake, rhp

Mike Leake
Height 5-11, Weight 190, B/T: R/R, DOB: 11/12/1987
2009 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: NA

After a stellar career at Arizona State University, Mike Leake overcame the irrational scouting bias against short righthanded pitchers to be selected 8th overall in the 2009 draft.

Given his 5-11 stature, Leake probably provides more pitching skill-per-inch than any other prospect in the draft. He is so well-rounded that it is much quicker to talk about what he lacks, than what he does well. Essentially, the only thing Leake lacks is plus velocity. He possesses every other skill that you'd want to see in a pitching prospect and that makes him one of the strongest and most intriguing prospects in the system.


Leake throws everything but the kitchen sink. He works with an assortment of different pitches: a four-seam fastball, cutter, curveball, slider, and changeup. And, I'm sure that even as you read this he's tinkering with a new pitch or a new grip to create different movement and give him the advantage over professional hitters.

In 2009, Leake joined Stephen Strasburg as the most dominant pitchers at the collegiate level, leading his Arizona State squad to the College World Series in Omaha. In his first College World Series start against the University of Texas, Leake didn't have his best stuff, but he demonstrated the polished approach that defines his game. It was revealed later that Leake was possibly battling some tendinitis in his pitching arm, which could go a long way towards explaining his struggles. Leake tried to mix his pitches and speeds to attack the hitters, but he just couldn't execute. Simply put, he just didn't have his good command. He wasn't able to hit his spots, which is very uncharacteristic of him.

Leake was willing to throw any pitch in any count. In the first inning, he showed a good tailing fastball and a sharping biting curveball. But, his fastball command was spotty. Even so, he managed to get a strike out and wriggled out of trouble by inducing a double play ball.

In the second inning, Leake demonstrated his comfort with his secondary pitches, as he threw a breaking ball in both a 2-1 count and 0-0 count. He seems very comfortable throwing any pitch in any situation, but he still works off of the fastball. Even Jamie Moyer pitches off of the fastball, because it's what you have to do to set up all the other pitches.

After he was drafted, the Reds let Leake rest his arm for the remainder of the season and then sent him to the Arizona Fall League to get his feet wet at the professional level. Pitching for the Peoria Saguaros, Leake posted a stellar 1.37 ERA with a 1-2 record in 6 games. Not a bad way to start off a career, especially in a notoriously hitter friendly environment like the AFL.

Leake's fastball velocity can touch 94, but sits in the 88-92 range. While his velocity is a tick below what is expected in a top of the rotation starter, what's more impressive than a couple extra miles per hour on the fastball is that Leake already understands that he can succeed working at less than max effort. He understands what pitching is all about and knows that success involves more than just lighting up the radar gun. It's about adding and subtracting velocity, changing the eye level of the hitter, and hitting your spots. As the great Warren Spahn said, "hitting is timing and pitching is upsetting that timing." Possessing that knowledge is what separates the "pitchers" from the mere "throwers." Leake's understanding of pitching is very advanced and belies his experience, as he already resembles a savvy major league veteran on the mound.


As he stands on the mound and looks in for the sign, Leake holds his hands up at chin level and gets the proper grip on the ball for his pitch of choice. He then starts his windup with a small step towards first base with his glove side ("GS") leg to un-weight his pitching arm side ("PAS") leg, which enables him to rotate his body and shift his PAS foot down onto the rubber. As he takes his initial step towards first base, he also brings his hands all the way down below the belt. Next, he brings his hands up near his right ear and his PAS leg up into his leg kick. His leg kick more than exceeds parallel to the ground and involves hip rotation to coil up and create tension and potential energy. When he reaches the apex of his leg kick, he doesn't point his toe to the ground, but rather keeps his foot tense and maintains a 90-degree angle in relation to his shin. It's a minor issue, but one school of thought espouses the belief that little moves such as this gradually increase fatigue over the course of the game, as they require energy to execute pitch after pitch after pitch.

As he begins to unpack his leg kick, he uncoils and drives to the plate with a good push off the rubber to convert potential energy into kinetic energy. His good leg drive helps him "throw with his body" and reduce stress on his arm. Additionally, his ability to succeed while working at less than max effort should cut down on his injury risk. Leake's pitching style and mechanics are about staying within himself and remaining in control, rather than high velocity and effort. This strategy helps Leake stay in balance throughout his delivery, but also prevents him from generating maximum velocity. It's a trade off, but one that works well for Leake.

Leake's stride is appropriate in length and landing position, which enhances the efficiency of his delivery, as he effectively imparts stored energy directly to the baseball. His plant foot position doesn't close off his body in his delivery or hinder his momentum to the plate. In addition, when his plant foot lands his arm is up in the proper position and not lagging behind, which helps his upper body remains in-sync with his lower body throughout his delivery. Leake's combination of plus athleticism and body control gives him a great balance and tempo throughout his delivery.

As for his throwing motion, Leake works from a three-quarter arm slot with a loose arm action. His free-and-easy motion and ability to work at less than max effort should reduce his injury risk and when paired with his plus command should enable him to work deep into games. When you don't have to expend maximum effort on your pitches and are economical with the pitches that you do throw, then you should be able to throw a lot of innings and work deeper into games than max effort type pitchers. On the downside, the lower arm slot will prevent him from working on a downward plane. Overall, Leake is efficient in both his mechanics and pitches, which makes him a low risk, high floor type of pitching prospect.

After releasing the pitch, Leake's follow-through leaves him in good finishing position. His right leg comes around and lands square with his plant foot, which leaves him in strong fielding position. His good fielding position and plus athleticism should enable him to field his position well and when all is said and done could net him a Gold Glove or two.

Here are a couple of different looks at Leake in action:

In sum, Leake has some of the cleanest pitching mechanics in the entire system. His less than max effort delivery and plus athleticism enable him to maintain his body control and tempo and helps him to consistently repeat his delivery.


Leake possesses an interesting blend of athleticism and polish. He lacks plus velocity, which lowers his ceiling in the eyes of some, but makes up for it with efficiency and guile. While some of the riskier pitching prospects that were available in the draft were thought to have higher upside, Leake's polish and pitching IQ work to raise his ceiling.

Overall, Leake should be one of the fastest movers in the 2009 draft. His lower level of risk and substantial ceiling are sufficient to land him at #3 on the list.