Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Curious Case of Devin Mesoraco

One of the best things about baseball is its inherent uncertainty. While statistical analysis has gone a long way to changing how we view and value the events that make up the game of baseball, there is still a measure of uncertainty. And, a bit of uncertainty makes the game fun. It's a bit ironic that as statistical analysis improves our understanding and valuation of the game, it also threatens to eliminate the mystery that helps make it special. Fortunately, the human element of the game will never be completely understood or predicted, because it would be pretty boring if all the organizations had perfect knowledge of players and their future career arcs. There are definite trends around which events gravitate and cluster, but the outliers and unexpected happenings that make baseball fun remain.

For example, position player prospects typically follow a rather standard linear development curve. It almost seems as if trend line has its own gravity, pulling any potential outliers back into conformance. Typically, either position prospects conform to the develop trend line or they cease to be prospects. Typically, they gradually progress up the ladder making incremental improvements in their game along the way to perform up to the level of the competition. However, every once in a while, a player completely defies the trend, seemingly coming out of nowhere.

A prime example is Devin Mesoraco, whose 2010 story is truly remarkable. Most, if not all, of the professional pundits were writing Mesoraco off, which isn't all that surprising considering his professional production prior to this year:

2007: .219/.310/.270/.580
2008: .261/.311/.399/.710
2009: .228/.311/.381/.692

Now, he's absolutely crushing the ball to the tune of .316/.387/.603/.989. Mesoraco has unlocked his true potential with the help of good health and the wisdom that comes from struggle and experience. Additionally, he may have finally caught up to the aggressive, fast-track development program that the Reds have placed him on. Right now, Mesoraco is proving that the Reds were right to select him in the first round.

In my 2010 prospect rankings, I had Mesoraco at #16. While his pre-2010 production was never impressive, the peripherals were always relatively strong and gave reason for optimism. Additionally, Mesoraco was always going to need a longer development curve, as he was a cold weather high school prospect who missed time due to Tommy John surgery. He was at a position that required more development time than most and yet brought less experience with him to the professional ranks than normal. In short, even the best case scenario was going to involve a lot of games and at bats in the minors.

In the write-up, I stated that for me the statute of limitations on the opinion of Mesoraco as a potential impact talent was one more year. If he didn't put it together in 2010, he was going to slide off my rankings entirely. Fortunately, he is putting it all together and his 20 homeruns have put to rest my question of whether his swing would enable him to generate significant power. At this point, the power seems to be legit.

It's not a stretch to say that Mesoraco is probably the biggest surprise in all of the minor leagues, as he's gone from afterthought/irrelevant to elite/impact in a matter of mere months. And, he's bucked conventional player development ideas and trends to do it, which makes it all the more satisfying for its unexpectedness.

Additionally, Mesoraco's emergence also highlights an interesting and important organizational trend. Take a look:

2010 - Yasmani Grandal, c
2009 - Mike Leake, rhp
2008 - Yonder Alonso, 1b
2007 - Devin Mesoraco, c
2006 - Drew Stubbs, cf
2005 - Jay Bruce, of
2004 - Homer Bailey, rhp

What's missing from this list?

Looking back all the way to 2004, it's rather difficult to consider any of the Reds' first round draft picks a mistake. There's simply no bust on the list. Sure, you can quibble about the massive opportunity cost that came along with the Drew Stubbs selection, but it seems unlikely that any of the these picks are going to flame out and be a huge bust. Mesoraco was the question mark, but as his performance continues over a larger and larger sample size, it's getting more and more difficult to forecast significant regression. Neither Yonder nor Grandal have proven enough to consider them locks, but they are polished college prospects who have much shorter development curves than other prospects, which makes them much lower risk.

All in all, it's been a very strong 7 years for the Reds, who are entitled to take a bow for their strong work. The first round is obviously the best opportunity to land impact talent, but the flame out rate is also higher than might be expected. For the Reds to land a likely impact talent in 7 straight drafts is a pretty extraordinary achievement, especially for a team that previously struggled so mightily in the draft, to say the least:

2003 - Ryan Wagner, rhp
2002 - Chris Gruler, rhp
2001 - Jeremy Sowers, lhp
2000 - David Espinosa, inf
1999 - Ty Howington, lhp
1998 - Austin Kearns, of
1997 - Brandon Larson, inf
1996 - John Oliver, of
1995 - --none--
1994 - C.J. Nitkowski, lhp
1993 - Pat Watkins, of
1992 - Chad Mottola, of

It has taken an absurdly long time to undue the damage done to the scouting department by the frugal and tightfisted Marge Schott, who famously gutted the scouting budget after stating that she wasn't willing to pay people simply to watch games. She decided that the better option was to plow all the money into the MLB roster, which enabled the team to find short-term success. However, this short-term success was actually accomplished by shifting a massive cost onto the back of future Reds teams. By neglecting the farm system, more resources could be poured into the 25-man roster, but it came at the expense of the future as the flow of cost effective, homegrown talent inevitably dried up.

At this point, the future is clearly bright for both Mesoraco and the Reds, as each has managed to make a complete 180 degree turn from their established performance level to get back on track. Mesoraco has stepped forward to give the Reds another potential impact prospect in their system and could easily be playing his way into the Reds major league plans for 2011.

The emergence of Devin Mesoraco when coupled with the selection of Yasmani Grandal gives the Reds two potential "catchers of the future" where a few short months earlier there had been none. The Reds system continues to get deeper and more productive, which makes the team's strong performance at the MLB this year look more and more sustainable.


  1. What are your thoughts of Dave Sappelt's season? His numbers are ridiculous with Carolina: .356/.404/.943.

  2. Good stuff as always Lark!

    I am proud of the fact that I never gave up on the kid myself and even more proud that I actually have learned over the last few years on RZ how to read such a thing. 5 years ago I would have called the kid a bust by now and would have been calling this season a fluke. So props to those guys over there who helped me understand sabermetrics (at least some of the ones I have found to be the core numbers to look at). Combined with some scouting info I picked up on him here and there it's been easy for me to see coming. Ya never know the human element as you pointed out Lark and that was really the only mystery for me as to whether this kid would break thru or not.

    Now to stop patting myself on the back. Devin now has a new challenge. That is refining his defense and offense and understanding that he will have to make adjustments as he gets higher up the ladder. I hope he is allowed to refine his game before he gets rushed up to the next level. AA is the place where you really learn alot of big league nuances at his position, it's the new learning grounds. AAA will be just to test his then newly developed skills.

    All that said I think this seasons numbers are a little bit of a mirage. I mean he hasn't been at either level long enough for opponents to make their adjustments to him. So I will take that into consideration when I place him on my top 10 list for next season. I think I will drop his numbers down some in my own estimation if for no other reason to temper my own expectations going forward. I say that because not so sure his talent level is quite this high (offensively speaking of course). I always expected a solid all around offensive game but if he finishes strong his numbers are gonna be astronomical. Translating that forward people are gonna expect a juggernaut to show up to Cincy in a year or year and a half. I could be wrong on that but I don't want to be too quick to judge one way or the other.

    As an example I have always seen him as a potential .260-.270 hitter with an OBP% of about .340 and a Slg% of somewhere in the .450-.480 area. That's an All-Star catcher if he has the defensive game to go with it. But right now his slugging is ridiculously high.

    Oh and FYI heard it thru the grapevine (RZ) that Alonso + Mesoraco + more was the offer for Cliff Lee, count me as someone ok with the fact it didn't go thru. I have a feeling the Mariners are gonna kick themselves hard down the road for not taking that deal. IMO would have been the 2nd worst trade the Reds have ever made (2nd only to Frank Robinson to the O's and easily displacing O'Neill to the Yankees).

    LTR Will

  3. Sorry about the double post guys, it looked like it didn't go thru the 1st time.

    I will reserve my comments on Sappelt until after Lark answers I'll be interested in how he views him. But I'll say this I wouldn't get too terribly excited about him.

  4. Also, what's going on with Cozart? 25 steals, caught stealing a mere 3 times? That's an insane success rate.

  5. Votto and Will,

    My opinion on Sappelt isn't all that favorable. That said, I'm trying to keep an open mind on him. Unfortunately, I was a bit behind the curve on Chris Heisey, who was a 17th rounder that made gradual improvement as he climbed the ranks. So, I'm willing to be open minded on the possibility.

    Currently, he's rocking a slash line of .350/.405/.532 with 14 steals in 27 attempts. He also has 8 triples and 8 homeruns. On the offensive side, I have questions.

    The Negatives:
    1. His slugging percentage is driven by a lot of triples. Is that sustainable? I'm not sure.
    2. His BABIP is unsustainable at .392.
    3. Despite his speed, his SB success rate is hovering near 50%, which to me is indicative of a player who is really raw.
    4. Size. He's only 5-9, so I'm not sure I see much room for much physical projection.

    The Positives:
    1. His raw athleticism. He has some of the best speed in the system.
    2. His outfield defense is the best in the system. His Runs/150 in centerfield are as follows: +37 in 2008, +55 in 2009 with Sarasota, and +24 in 2009 with Dayton. Those numbers are truly ridiculous.
    3. The line drive rate is solid at 20% in 2010.

    Additionally, I'm really not a fan of his swing mechanics. He's a rotational style hitter. Instead of stepping towards the pitcher, firing the hips, and keeping the front shoulder in on the pitch, he uses a lot of upper body rotation to pull the bat through the hitting zone. His swing involves his front shoulder flying open and his plant foot stepping in the bucket. I'm not sure how he effectively covers the outside corner of the plate with such an approach. Also, I wonder how he generates significant power with such a swing, as it doesn't seem to incorporate the lower body all that effectively.

    Still, when you play plus defense at a premier defensive position, you have a solid foundation of value. On that foundation, you can gradually build your offensive value. So, that gives him an edge, but I have significant concerns. I'm not wild about his on-base skills or his power. I'm not sure he gets on-base at a good enough clip to be a table setter and I'm not at all convinced his power translates to the upper levels. He's having a nice season despite still being pretty raw, which is probably a good thing. Even if he is playing over his head, he could offset any expected regression by adding polish to his game. So, it's possible that this level of production is somewhat sustainable, even if it ultimately is made up of a slightly different components.

    Ultimately, I'm not as high on him as some, as there are fans out there who are REALLY starting to value him highly, but there are a few interesting aspects to his game. If he maintains that type of defense, he won't have to bring much to the table on offense to carve out a career at the MLB level, but he will need to improve on offense.

    Anyway, that's where I'm at on Sappelt.

    Thanks to both for the comments!


  6. VottoFan,

    Cozart, in some respects, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Sappelt. Cozart is a polished played with good instincts, but lacks athleticism and plus tools.

    Still, it's encouraging to see him continue to develop different facets of his offensive game. It'll be interesting to see if the Reds hand the starting shortstop gig to Cozart next year.

    Thanks for the comment!


  7. Will,

    Yeah, Mesoraco is one instance where Reds Nation had a better feel for Mesoraco than a lot of the experts. If Mesoraco hadn't taken a significant step forward this year, then I would have pretty much written him off. That said, even if the total production was poor, the peripheral stats were always strong.

    Add in a few other factors, such as the Reds pushing him up the ladder rather aggressively and a lingering injury or two, and he looked like a legitimate prospect even if his total stats did not.

    Personally, I don't expect him to perform at this kind of level in the Majors, but I don't think he's a fluke waiting to be found out by minor league pitching, either. His step forward is both substantial and legitimate.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment!


  8. If Travis Wood keeps on pitching the way he has been pitching, and the Nationals are conservative with Strasburg and don't pitch him much of the rest of the year, can Wood win the NL ROY?

  9. IMO I'm afarid not. The ROY will be either OF Jason Hayward or C Buster Posey. Wood nor Leake nor Strasburg stand a chance of taking it.


  10. Vottofan & JMT,

    Wood is pitching great, but he'll need to get enough innings to get into contention and overcome the lack of hype that came with him.

    Heyward's injuries have slowed him down a bit and it's hard to go against Posey right now. He looks damn good.

    An impressive class of rookies this year and just the fact that Wood is even in the discussion is a good thing for Reds fans.


  11. I'm pretty sure that the reds just killed any chance he had at getting the award. He was sent down in a roster move for the newly aquired OF Jim Edmonds who we got from the Brewers for Chris Dickerson.


  12. On Sappelt: As usual we agree here Lark. I haven't watched any video on him comparing this years Sappelt to Dayton version (the last time I saw him with my own eyes). So he may have made an adjustment I am unaware of which is leading to such a tremendous season. If so please take this into account with my comments as I am basing them off of the Dayton version.

    In a nutshell in order for him to be a starting major leaguer he needs to improve these skillsets. Plate discipline and more importantly selectivity, his contact is pretty good but watching Wily Taveras will tell you that if you swing at pitchers pitches the odds of getting a hit go way down, Orlando Cabrera is similar in this regard. The other thing there is you give away alot of pitches lowering the pitchers count and of course you forfeit alot of potential free passes. You may hit .280 or so but your OBP% will never reach the heights it can and in Sappelts case his best and probably only chance to be a starting major leaguer is ot be a dynamic leadoff man. Good leadoff men don't get on base at less than a .360-.370 clip. Also he needs to really clean up his base stealing %, he has the speed but he has alot to learn there.

    The problem here is so few guys Sappelts age (23) get a whole lot better with plate discipline and/or selectivity and he needs to get a whole lot better at it. Not saying it's impossible but just highly unlikely, especially considering the Reds are in essence telling him he is doing everything right with these rapid promotions (now at AAA since 2-3 days ago).

    Also have questions about his arm but I have heard that what I seen in Dayton was as a result of an injury, so he may have a much better arm than I am aware of. If that is so then his defense should take him a long way.

  13. Lark if you get a chance take a look at Mesoraco's swing this season and previously, plenty of PA's on youtube. Tell me what you see, a hint look at the hands specifically pre-swing both before and after. Your thoughts on that and anything else you might see as well.

  14. Will,

    Yeah, I tend to agree on Sappelt, but his performance this year is eye-opening. And, I'm trying to keep an open mind on players that I might have dismissed out of hand in the past. There are a lot of ways to a be productive offensive player and when you play defense like he does at a premier position, then a flawed offensive game is less detrimental to your value.

    As for Mesoraco's swing, that's a good suggestion. I'll take a look at his swing and see if he has made any appreciable changes. I'll let you know what I think.

    Thanks for the comment!