Height 5-9, Weight 195, B/T: R/R, DOB: 1/2/1987
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: NA
Dave Sappelt stands 5-9 inches tall. That fact has worked against him in his baseball career, as scouts were either confused as to how to grade him or held his smaller frame against him. Initial impressions are difficult to shake in professional baseball. As a result, Sappelt is the type of guy who has constantly had to prove his detractors wrong. Fortunately, he packs a lot of talent into his smaller frame, because he has continued to climb the ladder towards the major leagues and looks poised to arrive on the scene at some point in 2011.
Amateur Career and Draft Position
Sappelt attended Coastal Carolina University where he hit .315/.344/.461/.805 in 178 ABs as a freshman. He posted a 29/8 K/BB ratio, cranked 5 homeruns, and swiped 5 bases in 7 attempts. As a sophomore, he took it up a notch, posting a .359/.410/.580/.990 in 276 ABs. He hit 10 homeruns, swiped 7 bases in 13 attempts, and put up a 40/26 K/BB ratio. As a draft eligible junior, he found yet another gear, kicking it up to .349/.415/.636/1.051 in 275 ABs with 18 homers, a 27/33 K/BB ratio, and 7 steals in 10 attempts. Sappelt's diminutive stature inspired his teammates to nickname him "Gary Coleman."
Even in the collegiate ranks he was already establishing his offensive profile as a player who swings early-and-often, struggles to effectively harness his speed on the bases, and yet features a bit of electricity to his game. In his three seasons at Coastal Carolina, Sappelt's game continued to progress and develop until he emerged on the radar of MLB baseball scouts.
The Reds ultimately reeled him in with the 269th overall pick in the 9th round of the 2008 draft and signed him to a contract with a $75,000 signing bonus.
Sappelt made three stops in 2010, rocketing up the minor league system and prospect rankings in equal measure.
His first stop was high-A Lynchburg, which holds the unusual distinction as being both the lowest level of competition faced by Sappelt and also his worst level of performance. For the Hillcats, Sappelt hit .282/.338/.352/.690 in 19 games and 71 ABs. He hit line drives at the rate of 19% and had a BABIP of .357. While his overall performance is somewhat uninspiring, his component stats are strong. On the bases, he only swiped 6 bases in 10 attempts. Nevertheless, he was a short-timer in high-A, as he was quickly bumped up the ladder to double-A Carolina.
For the Mudcats, Sappelt quickly caught fire. In 89 games and 330 ABs, he posted a robust .361/.416/.548/.964 slash line. He added a more than respectable 46/31 K/BB ratio, but continued to struggle on the bases where he was caught stealing (13) almost as many times as he was successful (15). So, his struggles to turn his good speed into offensive production obviously continue. Once again, Sappelt hit line drives at a very good clip (22%), which helps justify his extreme .400 BABIP. His performance was stellar and earned him a finally promotion to triple-A Louisville.
Sappelt finished up the season at triple-A Louisville where he hit to the tune of .324/.365/.481/.847 in 25 games and 108 ABs. He swiped 4 bases in 5 attempts and posted a 13/6 K/BB ratio. His power numbers dipped, but his line drive rate improved to 24%. In light of such a high line drive rate, Sappelt's BABIP was a reasonable .351.
When I first saw Sappelt at the plate, I was admittedly less than impressed. His swing was unconventional and flawed to an extent unlikely to play at the MLB level. He spun off the ball by stepping in the bucket and opening up his shoulders too soon, which resulted in a very flat swing plane and a very low finishing position for his hands. That swing limited his ability to cover the outer half and his ability to generate loft and playable power.
Fortunately, Sappelt has made a few changes to improve the effectiveness of his swing. The changes have made him a better hitter and a more intriguing prospect. Even now, he still seems to be evolving at the plate, as his spring training swing seems different from his end-of-2010 swing which seems different from his 2009-swing. So, I'll dive into his swing mechanics, but they probably still aren't set in stone.
At the plate, Sappelt stands tall, roughly shoulder-width stance. He holds his hands up high by his right ear, which results in a bat position that is almost parallel to the ground. He also uses a bat waggle in his pre-pitch routine. Sappelt uses a slight hitch to drop his hands down into proper hitting position.
In the video below, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube, Sappelt's stride entails two parts. He begins with a toe-tap that includes a slight move forward, which is followed by a stride that basically lands in the bucket. As a result, he still opens up a bit too early, but it's less extreme than when I first saw him and so far it's been effective for him. Obviously, by using an open stride, he should have little trouble handling pitches on the inner half, as his hips and shoulders are already opening to the thirdbase side. But, despite the fact that he hits a double off the rightfield wall in this clip, Sappelt may struggle to drive the ball with power to the opposite field against more advanced pitching. By opening up early, he leaves himself susceptible to offspeed pitches on the outer half. If pitchers can get out on the front foot, then he will be in a poor position to cover the outside corner, as his swing path cuts across the inner half of the plate.
The early opening of his body and stride into the bucket results in a flatter swing path, as evidenced by the lower finishing position of the hands. At times, his hands almost seem to finish just above belt high, which means that his swing is rotational and flat.
As you can see in the above video, Sappelt runs well. He's small in stature, but has good quickness and speed and seems like a fast-twitch player. He takes a full cut and his follow-through makes him a bit slow out of the box, but it doesn't take him long to get up to full speed.
In this next video, also courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube, which was taken about a month after the first video, Sappelt has gone with a completely different stride. The toe tap is gone in favor of a single move stride. As the pitch is delivered, he draws his stride foot back towards his back foot to help him load up for the pitch. He then strides forward to transfer his weight to meet the pitch. As you can see, his stride is much higher than the previous incarnation. Additionally, his stride is directed more towards the pitcher rather than opening up towards the third baseman. This stride leads to better balance and more power.
This different stride also brings about a different swing path. Instead of swinging around his body as he did previously, this new stride better enables him to stay down and through the ball, which allows him to drive it with authority. Also, his swing plane is no longer flat, but rather has more uppercut action to it. As a result, he finishes with his hands up above his right shoulder, rather than in the lower position from the above video. This second swing should enable him to generate more loft and better cover the outer half of the plate, as his swing path is no longer flat and won't cut across the inner half of the plate. He also seems to be in better control of his body and the bat head, as his momentum is heading towards the pitcher rather than off to the third base side.
The downside could be that the higher leg kick serves as a timing mechanism in the swing, which is fine until a pitcher is able to upset that timing. When that happens, he'll be out on the front foot too soon, which would leave him with nothing but an arm swing to protect the plate.
This second swing is much preferable and, in my mind at least, better supports the spike in power that Sappelt generated in 2010. In 2010, Sappelt managed to slug over .500 for the first time in his professional career and the second version of his swing makes me more of a believer in that number's legitimacy. However, early in spring training Sappelt seems to have altered his swing once again.
In Spring Training, Sappelt has been ripping the cover off the ball and has been doing it with a slightly different swing than the previous two. In Spring Training, he seems to have abandoned the two-step stride and the higher leg kick stride in favor of a simply lifting of the foot and putting it back down. There is little forward motion, but he opens up the toe of his stride foot early, which again enables him to clear and fire the hips. This swing again opens Sappelt up a bit early, but it has been hard to argue with the results.
Obviously, Sappelt is still refining his mechanics as a hitter and getting comfortable at the plate. However, despite the fluctuations in swing mechanics, he has maintained good success. The key to his success as a hitter is very good hand-eye coordination, which enables him to make consistent, hard contact even on pitches outside the zone. His ability to square up the pitch on the barrel of the bat dovetails nicely with his aggressive, early-count hitting philosophy. It's tough to succeed with a swing-early, swing-often approach if you can't make consistently hard contact.
So far, Sappelt has been crushing the ball in Spring Training, which can only help his cause. However, given that Dusty Baker has already committed to rolling Jonny Gomes out as his full-time leftfielder, Sappelt is likely to head back to the minors and await an opportunity. At the very least, he has seized the opportunity to open a few eyes and improve his standing in the organization.
Defense and Positional Value
While Sappelt has taken his offensive game to the point where it may now be a tick or two above replacement level in the majors, it's still his defensive ability that will ultimately drive his MLB career. If he can play an elite centerfield, then he could lay claim to a starting centerfield gig at the MLB level.
Scouting reports on Sappelt's defense rate him as a tick above average, but his Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average for his 304 minor league games in centerfield is a plus 50. Obviously, the statistics indicate a true plus defensive player, but scouting reports aren't quite as complimentary. The difference between the statistics and the traditional scouting viewpoint on Sappelt may represent the difference between a starting job and 4th outfielder duty. To establish himself as an everyday player, Sappelt will need to be a legitimate impact player with the leather.
Given that Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce are well entrenched in centerfield and rightfield, respectively, a starting gig with the Reds will only happen in leftfield. Obviously, leftfield is traditionally an offense-first position, which works against Sappelt, but his arm will play in any of the three positions, which increases his versatility and makes him a more intriguing 4th outfielder. Jonny Gomes was not impressive in 2010, which when coupled with the lack of a true leadoff hitter may open the door a crack for Sappelt to lay claim to the job in 2011.
It's hard not to be impressed with how effectively the Reds have rebuilt their farm system. Their success in the draft over the past decade undoubtedly rivals its performance at any other time in the draft era. The Reds are not only having success with their top picks, but they are also finding good value with their later round selections, of which Dave Sappelt and Chris Heisey are prime examples. Heisey slipped because he went to a small college, while Sappelt slipped because he himself is small. Ultimately, both players may end up as 4th or 5th outfielders, but if things break right, then they might crack the starting lineup.
In Sappelt's case, his power is likely to be below average, but his batting average should be solid. He is a high contact guy and can drive the ball. His swing should ensure that he'll have solid pull power, but he's unlikely to ever post impressive home run totals, even with Great American Ballpark working in his favor. Regardless, if he can play impact defense and post respectable batting averages at the MLB level, then he might work his way into a starting job. If not, then he is likely to be a valuable and versatile 4th outfielder. That combination of ceiling and floor is enough to land him at #10 on the list.