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Red Flag: Josh Vitters on Plate Discipline

Matt Swain

Illinois engineering student, way too emotionally invested in the Cubs.

If you are a Cubs fan or a prospect geek (and I expect that you are if you're reading this), you may have read some of Tom Carkeek's recent pieces in the Tribune about Cubs prospects in the AFL. I was reading his newest feature on Josh Vitters, which just went up, and was most of the way through when I read a quote from Vitters that elicited a double-take.

"I'm not going up there looking for a walk," he said. "If I see a good pitch and I can drive it, I'm going to swing. It's not a problem at all because I don't strike out a lot."

I'm sorry Josh, what was that? You don't want to take walks? Was your Little League coach not convincing enough when he told you a walk was as good as a hit?

I actually found myself encouraged in the early part of the article to hear Vitters was working so hard on his defense, one of the weaker parts of his game, and I agree with the notion that his power will come as he grows up.

But if this is his approach, the 20-year old third base prospect is in some serious trouble.

Josh's assertion is that he can be successful as an MLB hitter without drawing walks because he doesn't strike out very much. Let's put that claim under the microscope a bit.
Josh Vitters walked 12 times this season in 483 at-bats. That equates to a walk rate of 2.5%.

Pulling up a list of NL players with more than 300+ plate appearances and sorting by ascending walk rate, we find the following:

walk rates.jpg

That, my friends, is a list of some of the worst full time hitters in the National League in 2009. Only one of them produced a wOBA higher than .340, and that was Miguel Tejada, who's somewhat of an exceptional case.

Another thing you'll notice from the list is the lack of power from almost everybody. At the major league level you have to be selective, or you're not going to get anything to drive. Only two players on the list even managed to post slugging percentages of .450+, and those two are Tejada and Cody Ross, and Ross clearly swings harder than Vitters, as is evidenced by his 20.3% K rate.

How about the hitters who also have low K rates? Obviously none of the K rates are nearly as low as the BB rates, but even those hitters who keep their swings and misses to a minimum aren't successful hitters. For reference, Vitters' K rate sat around 13% this season.

Look Josh Vitters, I know you have a special bat, I've complimented it plenty of times in the past. I know you can make contact with anything in a 5 foot radius of home plate. That doesn't mean you should. If you ever want to develop into the great player you have the potential to become, you need to learn which pitches you can hit a long way, and which ones you can't.

Right now, hitting against single A pitchers, I'm sure Josh feels like he can hit anything, but he's in for a rude awakening when he hits the higher levels (and already did somewhat at Daytona, where he hit .238/.262/.344) and starts facing pitchers who can locate offspeed pitches and get him to chase.

That one little comment has made me very wary of Vitters' future as a hitter. I had always thought, "Oh, his plate discipline will come around. He'll work on being more selective." But his attitude about walks gives me doubt that he'll ever embrace a more patient approach. He'll essentially have to prove to be the exception to the rule if he is to become a great player for the Cubs, and that's never worth betting on.

He still has a chance, and I am by no means writing him off now. Who knows, maybe the bat really is that special and he'll be able to do things most players can't do. After all, some players can carve out successful MLB careers with a free swinging approach (Howie Kendrick is a good comparison), and it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility. But that doesn't mean it's likely.

If he truly wants to maximize his potential and become a force in the middle of the Cubs lineup, he needs to get a better feel of the strike zone and lay off the pitches he can't hit. Again, that's possible, but the fact that he's seemingly averse to walks has to make you wonder if he'll ever get there.

It's amazing how I can read an article entitled "Josh Vitters doesn't disappoint in Arizona League" and come away so disappointed.



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1 Comment

bannor said:

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I agree that Vitters needs to learn which pitches to drive but I dont think his comment about not looking for a walk is a major red flag...Big Albert doesn't go to the plate looking or a walk either. Saying that, Past high pick failures makes me concerned about everything too...

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