A different perspective on "MLB ready" prospects Rizzo, Jackson, Castillo, Lake and Vitters

If you read my article on  top position player prospects, you know that it's the strength of the organization right now.  However, of the top 5 prospects three are still at least 3 years away.  Javier Baez is playing his first season at low A ball, Jorge Soler has yet to have an AB, and Albert Almora hasn't even signed yet.

With Rizzo rumored to be ready for a promotion on Tuesday, it got me thinking...What about the guys that are closer to helping now and in the next year or so?  I took a look at 4 top AAA Cubs prospects plus Junior Lake in AA.  If you follow my recaps, you know about their stats, but how do these prospects compare when we look at more of the behind the scenes type numbers?

Let's take a look at 5 categories that look more at process and see how that may affect their results now and in the future...

P/PA (Pitches per plate appearance)

  1. Brett Jackson 4.22
  2. Welington Castillo 3.78
  3. Anthony Rizzo 3.58
  4. Junior Lake 3.45
  5. Josh Vitters 3.13

This is Brett Jackson's strength.  Only Ian Stewart (4.18) and David DeJesus (4.12) even compare at the MLB level.  The surprising thing about this list to me is that Castillo is 2nd over Rizzo, but part of the explanation can be found in that, for whatever reason, Rizzo sees a high percentage of strikes...nearly 60% compared to Castillo seeing strikes on 52% of his pitches.    Perhaps some of that has to do with Castillo's past reputation for a hacktastic approach, but those people need to get with the program.  Castillo is letting those bad pitches go by now and it has resulted in a 15% walk rate, by far the highest on this list.  Rizzo, by comparison, has an 8% walk rate, partially because pitchers inexplicably keep giving him good pitches to hit.  That is going to change at the MLB level.

The other surprise is Lake seeing a fair amount of pitches.  The notorious free-swinger now sees about as many pitches as Darwin Barney.  Now Barney isn't a paragon of patience but you wouldn't call him a free-swinger either, so perhaps we will soon be able to stop tagging Lake with that label.  One can only hope.  It happened with Castillo, so maybe the light is beginning to click for Lake too.

Speaking of lights clicking on, though there are some encouraging signs, it  hasn't quite happened yet for Josh Vitters.  His PPA is the lowest in the Cubs organization for any Cubs regular player between AA and the majors.  An odd thing about Vitters is, like Rizzo, he's seeing a high number of strikes (62%), which seems like an odd strategy considering Vitters' reputation.  We know he won't see that many strikes in the majors. It seems that Vitters is really feasting on some mediocre PCL pitching.  The same could be said of Rizzo, but the difference is that Rizzo's numbers are through the roof and he'll still produce even when those numbers come down somewhat at the MLB level.

Contact Rate

  1. Welington Castillo 80.3%
  2. Anthony Rizzo 79.7%
  3. Josh Vitters  79.4%
  4. Junior Lake 68%
  5. Brett Jackson 67%

Again, Castillo surprises with a quality contact rate that isn't behind Starlin Castro's 82.4% number.  Rizzo and, not surprisingly, Josh Vitters are also making quality contact.

There is some obvious concern here with the contact rates of Lake and Jackson, which are lower than any non-Cubs pitcher from AA on up.  The lowest Cubs regular is Bryan LaHair, who is at 72.7%.

O-Swing% (percentage of swings taken outside the strike zone)

  1. Josh Vitters 7.8%
  2. Anthony Rizzo 11.1%
  3. Brett Jackson 11.5%
  4. Junior Lake 11.8%
  5. Welington Castillo 13.3%

None of these are all that bad, though they will get worse at the MLB level, where pitchers have better command and nastier stuff.  They're going to get fooled a whole lot more often, as Starlin Castro has found out.  Castillo's aggressive approach still shows up a bit in this category.  Surprising here is Lake's improved pitch selection which is on par at this point with both Jackson and Rizzo, but the biggest surprise may be Vitters staying within the strike zone this year, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons for his improvement.  Vitters is still very aggressive as we saw in the PPA category, but he's aggressive in the strike zone and makes regular contact on those pitches. (83%).  The trick for him is to make pitchers throw him strikes at the MLB level, because it's obvious he can hit them.

O-Con% (contact rate outside the strike zone)

  1. Welington Castillo 44.8%
  2. Anthony Rizzo 22.2%
  3. Josh Vitters 19.2%
  4. Brett Jackson 10.6%
  5. Junior Lake 6.9%

Although I wouldn't consider it a strength, at least not compared to someone like Castro, Castillo's plate coverage shows up here.  He's head and shoulders better at making contact at pitches outside the zone than the rest of this prospects on the list.  While you don't want any hitter swinging at a lot of pitches out of the zone,  Castillo can get away with being aggressive more than Jackson and Lake, who have incredibly low rates at hitting pitching out of the zone.  For Jackson, being patient isn't just an asset -- it's a necessity for his survival as a prospect.  And if you ever want to compare Lake with Castro as free swingers, here's one major difference: Castro is 10 times more likely to make contact with a pitch outside the strike zone than Lake is.


Only Welington Castillo and Anthony Rizzo's numbers are at MLB quality right now.  This isn't going to be popular, but the numbers seem to back up the scout who said that Rizzo feasts on mediocre pitching.  That's not a bad thing, because there is plenty of that to go around in the majors too, but it's unrealistic to think Rizzo will hit anywhere near .355 in the big leagues.  His good pitch selection and solid contact rates should ensure him some success, however, especially considering his big time power and solid defense.  He's ready, and while he may not light the MLB on fire from day one, he should be a solid contributor who continues to get better as he gains experience.

As for Castillo, he's an underrated prospect.  His defense, particularly his arm, is a huge asset, and an improved approach to go with some extra base power makes him a legit starting catcher.

Jackson, Lake, and Vitters, in my opinion, need more seasoning. I don't see them as significant contributors until next season and possible later.



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  • fb_avatar

    John, that stinks about B Jax because lots of us were hoping he'd contribute in Chicago sooner...I'd also like to see Rizzo comeup with other guys so there would be a bit off a buffer with the media...

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    I'm starting to doubt he'll be up soon. The approach is good, however, and he's going to lay off pitches outside the strike zone. There are better conditions, better umpiring in the majors...who knows? Maybe he'll do better in the bigs than he has in AAA. He wouldn't be the first guy.

  • Developing some prospects is a slow process. If 2014 is the
    year for more prospects to be ready then so be it. I really hope
    we can trade some of our veteran players for very good prospects to really improve our farm system with more players for 2014?

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Good post. Leave them down until they are ready.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    I think you take it on a case by case basis with prospects.

  • Thank you for taking the time to put this together. It's very interesting to see this in-depth look at the high-level prospects, especially Lake and Vitters, who have been making a lot of strides over the last two years. The concept behind this article is brilliant, and the analysis is excellent.

    BTW--I don't know if you've seen this, but there's a good two part interview on youtube with Bill Buckner, the Boise hitting coach, in which he is asked about the Cubs' new approach and the daily reporting that he sends up on the hitters and how the organization holds hitters accountable on their hitting approach. Just go to youtube and type in "Bill Buckner Boise interview" and both parts of it should come up.

    I would say that the biggest weakness in the analysis in this article is the fact that Castillo's data is based on only 63 at bats, and his results this year are not really in line with his career up to this point, so I wouldn't put too much stock in those numbers. I think that you may be overrating Castillo a bit. He's on his third go-round in the PCL, and a lot of guys put up impressive numbers in those circumstances, especially in less than a month of plate appearances.

    Just a year or two ago, Castillo looked like a guy who would really struggle to post a 300 OBP in the bigs, so we probably need to take these 63 ABs with a grain of salt. My guess is that Castillo would probably hit about 250/300/430 or so in the bigs if he was given the starting job right now, which is decent but not great.

    Another issue is with Jackson--it's VERY interesting to look at this kind of data with him, because he has such extreme tendencies. But, there are other things to consider. First, he has never had trouble adjusting to higher levels when promoted aggressively. Second, how much would one require him to improve these metrics prior to a promotion? He would certainly benefit from the improvement, but he is also an unusual hitter who may be talented enough to still be productive even when he strikes out a lot.

    My gut feeling tells me that Jackson is the kind of guy who thrives on the tougher competition, and that he won't be fazed by the big leagues. He's the kind of guy who can hit 230 and still be a productive player. The problem with that is more fan perception than reality. A lot of fans, for example think that Soto was horrible last year because of the low BA, but in reality he was a league average starting catcher, when you take everything into consideration.

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    Thanks. The Castillo data is across 3 levels, so it includes his rehab in AA and his brief time in the minors, so technically it's 121 PAs (Lake has 171, so it's not too different from his situation). I debated on whether to include Castillo, but I think, unlike many prospects, he has his used his extra time in AAA (and the minors in general) pretty well. He's vastly improved what was an overly aggressive approach at the plate.

    He's actually had parts of 4 years in AAA, but still has less than 150 ABs and 600 PAs. You can almost think of it as someone improving over the course of one season.

    I don't think I overrate him though. I think Castillo can be a solid everyday catcher.

    I think the same of Jackson, in that he can be a solid everyday CF.

    You've got two guys who can give you some power and defense up the middle, you have to be pretty happy with that.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Thanks for responding to my comments. You make some excellent points. I agree that both Castillo and Jackson can be solid regulars. If Castillo doesn't have the peaks that Soto has had, hopefully he can at least be more consistent.

    I'm looking forward to Rizzo, Jackson, Castillo and Vitters establishing themselves and seeing what we have and what we can build around. Having that many young/cheap guys (plus Clevenger, Barney, LaHair, Valbuena, etc) should mean that they can spend elsewhere and build something of quality.

    I think the starting pitching is going to be the toughest thing to build, and it makes me wish they had gone harder after Darvish.

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    No problem. You had some valid points..and the Castillo (and Lake) sample size is one that I considered as well.

    Pitching is going to be tough. They'll have to buy and/or trade for it at some point.

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    This was a great article John. Just goes to show that everyone has a weakness or something to work on and being able to pinpoint it with stats like this is why I think if we can be patient with these guys every one them has the ability to improve on at least 1 or 2 of these statistics. Who knows, Some players learn don't improve on these things UNTIL they get to the majors. I was that kind of player. Before college ball I faced a guy who could throw higher than 75 mph maybe once a week so I was very aggressive and swung at anything close and would destroy it but once I got to division 1 level competition I had to be more selective and patient because the pitching was more advanced.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Thanks Marcel. I found it very interesting as well how different players had there different strengths. Was surprised, for example, to see that Vitters is laying off a lot of pitches outside the zone.

    As you noted in your personal example, it does get harder as you move up. You have to keep refining that approach.

  • One other thing--I don't think it's necessarily true that Baez is at least three years away. It's conceivable that he spends this year in Peoria and destroys the MWL, spends next year in AA and destroys that league, and is up for stay with the big league club in 2014.

    IMO, it would be in the best interests of the Cubs to find Baez his permanent position right now and stick him there, if he's not going to stay at SS, because his bat is going to move very fast. If that's 3B, though, they would have to promote him to Daytona.

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    It's conceivable, but I don't think it's something you count on. It can happen, but I think 3 years would still be a pretty quick timetable for Baez. It'll put him in the big leagues by his age 22 year.

    Moving to 3B isn't a huge adjustment from SS. In many ways it's easier. Less ground to cover, less base assignments, less difficult throws. As long as you think he has a chance to stick at SS, you have to ride that out. That's a ton of value there.

  • fb_avatar

    Great analysis John!
    I was comparing the most successful current MLB rookies to the Cubs guys. Certain teams like the Rays & Braves are very patient with prospects and it pays off. They want the player to be 100% ready when they're called up. The Cubs have never practiced this and all the prospect busts is proof. For instance, Will Middlebrooks had almost 1800 plate appearances before his recall, even Trout had 1300. Rizzo already has around 1900, Vitters 1900, & Jackson about 1700.
    Theo stresses AAA at-bats near 500-600.
    John, do you think AAA at-bats are so important or is the overall minor league seasoning what to look at. Just as you mentioned in this article, some leagues are notorious hitters leagues (PCL) while others are more for pitching (So.League). I had always heard that AA was the toughest step for a prospect because most teams stock their best there.

  • In reply to Kevin Twomey:

    Thanks Kevin. I think both are important but the ABs at the upper level are most important for the simple reason that it most closely resembles MLB pitching. It's worked for Tampa and Atlanta (though they did move Simmons quickly and it's worked so far), so hopefully it works for the Cubs. I think it's really about learning approach, going through slumps, making adjustments...you can fly through a couple months of AAA pitching, for example, but that only tells you about a player when things are going well.

  • fb_avatar

    White Sox just acquired youkilis for a utility player and relief pitcher. Don't know how this can affects us but its one more right handed bat off the market. May convince other teams in the division to make a counter move? Detroit and Cleveland could be looking to make moves.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    I saw that. I think it might get the ball rolling.

  • I'm glad the Cubs are waiting till probably around the all star game to bring up Anthony Rizzo so that he can get his 600 at bats at triple A over 2 seasons. Putting the bat on the ball consistently at the major league level normally requires a lot of experience plus confidence. As far as Brett Jackson, whether he's in a slump, lost his confidence, or what, it's certainly was a good idea that we did not bring him up this year. The reason that he went later in the 1st round of the draft was because he tends to strike out a lot, even in college. I think that Jackson should remain @ Iowa for the rest of the season and if he doesn't cut down on his strikeouts the 2nd half of the season and hit around .300, then let him come up for his cup of coffee after the season ends for Iowa and then start next year again @ Iowa, as simple as that.

  • fb_avatar

    I'm getting tired of the Cubs looking this putrid agaist left handed pitchers ...If it's not sitting well with us, imagine what it's doing to Theo and Co....@Marcel, I think it may push the Tribe and Tigers to deal as well

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    That offense just looks feeble.

  • As far as trading Barney or Soto, if we don't get quality young players back, don't do it. I'm tired of the Cubs getting fringe players back in trades for good veterans. The Lilly and Theriot trade to the Dodgers seemed like a bad trade from the get go since DeWitt was ok, but the two pitchers the Cubs acquired had no history of success in the minors to suggest that they would be any more than maybe triple A at their very best. If we are not offered one or more very good minor league players for Dempster, let Ryan play out his contract this year with the Cubs since many Cubs fans enjoy watching him pitch. I think that Theo should sign as many free agent, young international players over the next few weeks as possible before we are restricted by the draft.

  • In reply to shalin:

    Agreed. I'd like to get some minor league prospects at the upper levels because they have a better chance of succeeding. I don't mind getting A ball guys with upside, but I don't want them to be the center of the deal...unless it's an elite level guy, of course.

  • As far as trading Starlin Castro, forget it. He's already a superstar and any player(s) we get will probably not be superstars in the future. Why? By definition, superstars are rare.

  • Good stuff John...but I'm not sure how reliable pitch location data is. It's even questionable for the major leagues; the minor league data would only be less reliable. Colin Wyers probably wrote something on it over at Baseball Prospectus.
    The lowest O-Contact % in the major leagues this year is Adam Dunn at 43.8%. He's the only major leaguer under 50%.
    The lowest O-Swing % is 17.4% for Russell Martin. Is it likely accurate that ALL these Cub prospects are swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone the the BEST major leaguer?

  • In reply to Norm:

    Thanks...and probably not. But I think you can at least use it relative to the 5 minor leaguers in the article. Numbers may not be 100% accurate in a pure sense, but we can probably use it comparatively to some degree.

  • Great article, John. Could you break it down a little bit more and tell us what about these numbers tell us Rizzo might be feasting on mediocre pitching? Is it the high contact rate combined with a relatively low P/PA?

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    I was just wondering why, if the data is accurate, why Rizzo should be getting so many strikes to hit. Bad location?

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Hmm, maybe. Or maybe it comes from pitchers trying to exploit the hole in his swing everyone was talking about early on. Or maybe with that contact rate and lowish P/PA, he jumps on firstball fastballs a lot.

  • Jeimer Candelario hit another hr today and is doing amazing. If he keeps this up how long do you think till he gets promoted?

  • In reply to Domnk S:

    I think you have to see what happens the 2nd time around the league. He looks really good so far but it's early. There's no doubt he can hit and he looks like a budding star in their system. There's also really nowhere for him to go. Geiger is a decent prospect as well and he is doing well at 3B in Peoria.

  • John, good statistics. Any typical numbers for when guys do make the leap from AAA to the majors? Or is the pool just too varied to do a fair assessment?

  • In reply to mosconml:

    Thanks...I'm not exactly sure what you mean. Do you mean how their AAA numbers translate to the majors?

  • Today in Iowa fans witnessed a "Brett Jackson hat trick." That's a homer, a walk and a strikeout. All in a day's work for BJax!

  • In reply to Taft:

    He's turning into a 3 outcome guy :) Never thought of him as that kind of player.

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