Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Players who've exceeded my expectations
By Keith Law
Paul Goldschmidt has proven to be a much better player than Keith expected him to be.
I wrote last year about five players on whom I'd been wrong at some point, whether in an initial evaluation or even a second look in pro ball. In that spirit, here's the 2013 edition, looking at six more players who beat my expectations and who I now think will continue to do so.
I saw Goldschmidt only once as a prospect, at the Futures Game in Phoenix in 2011, and saw a strong guy who wasn't a great athlete and showed raw power in BP but didn't have more than average bat speed. I talked to a number of pro scouts and front-office guys after that and heard similar opinions, calling him a fringy regular or a platoon first baseman.
Goldschmidt was an eighth-round pick in 2009 out of Texas State and raked everywhere he played in the low minors, but he didn't have the explosive bat speed or huge loft in his swing that scouts typically want to see in first-base prospects given how high the offensive bar is for a player at that position to be a regular. What I didn't see, or know, about Goldschmidt is that he's one of the highest-aptitude hitters in the game -- boasting an outstanding work ethic, according to several sources I spoke with who know Goldschmidt personally, but also the intelligence to take instruction and make adjustments as needed.
He's among the best in the game at addressing holes or weaknesses, whether in his swing or on defense or on the bases, such as closing the hole he'd showed on the inner half in his first half-season in the majors, where right-handers especially could beat him with velocity. Now, he has become a very patient hitter with power to left and to right-center, an above-average to plus defender at first, and an asset on the bases because of how well he reads pitchers.
I've said I don't believe he's an MVP candidate this year, not with Andrew McCutchen in the same league, but Goldschmidt has become one of the top 10 position players in the NL and could easily end up atop an MVP ballot in the near future.
Corbin always had feel to pitch and good control, but a fringy slider and average fastball caused me to peg him as a back-end starter, probably a solid No. 4. I did see his stuff tick up substantially when he came out of the pen, and I wrote in 2012 that I thought he could be an impact guy in that role, although perhaps not enough to balance out the value of 180-200 innings from him as a starter.
What I did wrong, however, was to violate one of my cardinal rules -- always bet on good athletes. Corbin, a basketball star in high school, is very athletic, and if you believe in the maxim that athletic guys are more likely to experience large improvements ... well, that's what happened here, as Corbin showed up in 2013 with a faster arm, and the better fastball and slider to go along with it.
In fact, that formerly fringy slider ranks 12th in baseball this year in run value according to FanGraphs. So, once again: Always bet on good athletes. Or just don't bet against them.
My error on Carpenter was one of omission, not one of misevaluation -- I don't believe I have ever written about him as a prospect or as a young major leaguer, other than saying before this season that moving him to second base was "a stretch," an improbable but not impossible task for the former first and third baseman.
But in hindsight, I should have talked about him more, about his strong hand-eye coordination and short, simple swing, and the fact that he's at least athletic enough to play a fringy second base, good enough to stay at the position at least. And given how he has hit this year, he's going to end the season as a top-10 position player in the National League for 2013.
When I saw Puig last summer, once in a workout and once in an Arizona League game (rookie ball), he was still sporting some excess weight around his midsection, running average to above average, showing hand strength, but not a lot of pitch recognition. By March of this year, he'd lost every ounce of that extra weight, went from being a 50-55 runner to a 70 runner (on the 20-80 scouting scale), and pitch recognition was immaterial because he could hit everything.
Where I missed here was his preternatural ability to hit -- the quiet approach and crazy hand strength translated immediately to hard contact, even with all the time off from facing live pitching. And while I don't think he's a .400 BABIP guy going forward, he has been a .296/.392/.497 hitter in the second half off a .358 BABIP, and that's a level I could see him holding into next season.
I first saw Desmond in 2008 in the Arizona Fall League, where he showed a decent approach and some pop but looked lost at shortstop, and saw him in another game in late 2009 in the majors at second base where he wasn't any better. Defense is probably the one player skill that's most likely to improve in the majors, in large part because players receive so little defensive instruction as amateurs or in the low minors.
Desmond's improvement into an above-average defensive shortstop beat my expectations, given how poor his instincts were there five years ago, but the bigger miss is that he also developed more power than I foresaw, which has made him a 5-WAR-per-year player between the pop, the defense and the positional adjustment.
Replacement level at shortstop is very low, and I've been guilty of holding prospects at that position to an outdated offensive standard -- Brandon Crawford comes to mind, as a player who five to 10 years ago couldn't have held a major league job, but who can now because replacement level there is so low. I'll change the way I look at prospects in the middle of the field now as a result.
This one is a little different. I hammered the Red Sox for giving Victorino a three-year deal, coming off a down year when his body appeared to be starting to break down, with his defensive and baserunning values plummeting as well, along with increasingly worse platoon splits. He reversed all of that in 2013, staying healthy, playing superb defense in right, running more effectively, and hitting left- and right-handed pitching.
He also has made one material change over the course of the year, as he stopped switch-hitting in early August when some minor injuries made it less comfortable on the left side; he's since hit exclusively from the right side and should perhaps stay there. He never hit for much power as a lefty, and is slugging .515 since the All-Star break after slugging .404 before it, so it's an adjustment that is working out very well for him thus far.
Fangraphs has him at 5.4 WAR this year, and Baseball Reference has him at 5.8, both on the strength of enormous defensive numbers. I don't expect him to retain this value for the next two years, but he won't have to be more than a 2-3 win player in those years to make this contract a huge win for Boston.