Cubs young prospects learning to walk before they can soar

Cubs young prospects learning to walk before they can soar
Arismendy Alcantara

I would have to say that two of my favorite Cubs teams were the 1984 Cubs and the 2008 Cubs  -- and the one common thread with each team is that they were willing to work counts and take walks.

Unfortunately for Cubs fans, that skill and approach has been frustratingly scarce overall.  Part of this skill is innate -- some players naturally just have better pitch recognition and patience.  But according to one front office person I've spoken with, it can also be a learned skill -- though it's best to get this instilled in players early.  It's not as easy to teach at the MLB level, or even at the AAA level for that matter.

As you already know, I like to observe baseball closely, sometimes obsessively -- at times to the point where I have to remind myself to enjoy the game and not analyze every at-bat, delivery, approach, etc.  One thing I've observed is a change in the minors over the last two years as far as many players' approach at the plate.  Some have picked up on it early and there are others who are starting to show good signs more recently -- and although in some cases, the sample size is too short for an accurate statistical analysis, it's not too early to see that there is a trend developing as far as the general approach with some young prospects.  I'm going to list 12 of those players, in no particular order. Age is in parenthesis.

  1. Arismendy Alcantara, SS, AA (21):  Alcantara defined the word "hacktastic" early last season.  From April through June, he walked just 12 times in 313 PAs, a 3.8% walk rate.  Since July 1st of last year, he has increased that walk rate to 11.8% (136 PAs).  It's a short sample size, but it's not hard to see that Alcantara is taking pitches and working the count in many of his ABs this season.  It's been a gradual trend and it's starting to show in his numbers.  With Alcantara, the improvement has allowed him to get on base more (.361 OBP) and giving him a chance to utilize his speed more.  He has 10 SBs already on the season, 8 in the last 6 games -- a time span in which his OBP has been at .571.  As a reminder, plate discipline and a solid approach isn't just about walking more, it's also about waiting for your pitch and getting yourself into more favorable hitting situations. Not coincidentally, we are also seeing an increase in Alcantara's power numbers.  He has hit 4 HRs already (he hit 7 all year and has just 12 in his professional career) and his ISO has gone up from .145 to .178 so far this season.
  2. Jeimer Candelario, 3B, A (19):  We know Candelario put up great walk rates in the DSL two years ago, but that's the DSL.  The Cubs challenged him and skipped AZ, sending him straight to Boise.  After some struggles early with more advanced pitching, Candelario seemed to find his batting eye again and finished with a respectable 8.4% walk rate.  So far this year, now that he has had time to catch up to the competition, his walk rate has jumped to 14.9%.  Candelario hasn't hit for much power, but I expect that, like Alcantara, that will come soon because he will get better pitches to hit.  I think the cold affects players like Candelario more than a few others because he relies on his hand strength to generate power.  For now, he is contributing with a .290 average and a .392 OBP.
  3. Jorge Soler, RF, A+ (21):  Soler's approach was a bit of a mystery since he spent much of his formative years in Cuba.  There were good signs there, but nothing so definitive that you could say he had good discipline at the plate.  His early numbers at AZ didn't bolster confidence either, but Soler was a case where you can see a trend developing before the numbers caught up.  Watch Soler play, it immediately struck you that he did take a lot of pitches and worked deep into counts, but made uncanny contact last year and didn't give himself a chance to actually draw walks.  This year has been a different story.  Soler has gotten better at working counts and more and more are resulting in walks.
  4. Matt Szczur, CF, AA (23): The transformation with Szczur began last year in his age 22 season.  Szczur has always been adept at making contact, but didn't have the right approach for the type of player he is.  Szczur is the kind of player who can best help by getting on base.  Last year that clicked for him and his walk rate jumped to 13.4% at Daytona after posting a 2.7% rate in the same league the prior season.  He has leveled off a bit at AA (8.8%), but that is still a respectable number, especially is Szcaur can hit .280-.290 like some believe he can.
  5. Jae-Hoon Ha, CF, AA (22):  Like Szczur, Ha began to improve his walk rate last season.  He always had good pitch recognition skills but now he's playing for an organization that values that skill.  Ha has adjusted easily from an organization that valued batting average one to one that emphasizes OBP.  Ha's walk rate went from 4.5% to 9.5% last year, raising his OBP from .320 to .352.  This year Ha is showing it's no fluke and has an even better walk rate early on at AA (13%).
  6. John Andreoli, OF, A+ (22): Lovie Smith was fond of saying the Bears got off the bus running.  Andreoli gets off the bus walking.  He's a smart player who knows his role.  He has above average speed and superb instincts on the bases, so he knows his job is to get on base any way he can.  Andreoli had the best walk rate in the Cubs system last year (15.1%) as well as the best OBP for a full season player (.402).  This year so far in his return to Daytona, Andreoli has topped that (18.4% walk rate, .451 OBP).
  7. Zeke DeVoss, CF, A+ (22):  Like Andreoli, DeVoss is a smart player who knows his role and he does it extremely well.  DeVoss was right on Andreoli's heels as far as walk rate (14.1%) and OBP (.383).  This year DeVoss has shown signs of hitting the ball better, especially in terms of power.  His ISO has increased from .120 to .180 so far this season.  Being an extra base threat is going to help DeVoss maintain those walk levels as he progresses.  He has enough wiry strength and pop in his bat to punish pitchers for laying one in the middle of the strike zone.
  8. Rock Shoulders, 1B, A (21):  Sometimes players have less plate discipline than their goodr walk rates imply.  That was the case with Shoulders last year.  He has always had great walk rates but seems to have gotten better at being selective and waiting for his pitch.  In other words, there seems to be more of a purpose to Shoulders' patient approach this season.  His walk rate is roughly the same as last season (12.9% from 11.8% last year) but he isn't chasing as many bad pitches and his strikeout rate has dropped to 18.6% from 29.1% last year.
  9. Ronald Torreyes, 2B, AA (20):  Torreyes has an uncanny abilityto make contact and it seems this year he is learning that he doesn't have to swing early in the count every time.  Like Ha, he always seemed to show good pitch recognition, but now is adding the patience to work counts.  Torreyes had a 6.8% walk rate and this year in a very small sample has raised that rate to 14.3%.  As with all of these players, however, it's not just about the numbers -- it's the observable change in their approach that bodes well.  The early numbers are just reflecting that.
  10. Daniel Vogelbach, 1B, A (20): We get excited about Vogelbach's power and we forget sometimes that he's a smart hitter with a very good idea up at the plate.  He had a 13.7% walk rate last season and so far this year it's down to 8.1%, but Vogelbach seems to have settled down after appearing more anxious than usual early in the season.  He seems to be slowing things down now.  He's been working counts, getting ahead, and there are signs that the power is coming back. When it does we know pitchers are going to be very careful again and we'll see them pitch around Vogelbach, so the walk rates should rise again.
  11. Gioskar Amaya 2B, A (20):  We saw Amaya become a more well-rounded hitter last year, raising his walk rate from 5.7% to 10.4%, resulting in a .381 OBP.  Amaya has struggled this year early and hasn't shown the same patience early on so far, but Amaya is an intelligent, instintcual player.  I expect him to adjust to pitchers and return to the solid approach he showed last season.
  12. Wilson Contreras, catcher, A (20):  Now this is really, really early but I've had quite a few chances already to observe Contreras and was struck immediately as to how he is consciously trying to take more pitches and get better pitches to hit.  The result has been an early jump from a 4.1% walk rate to 11.1% so far this season.  I've learned a lot about Contreras since last fall and one of these things is that he is as hard a worker and as fierce a competitor as you'll find in the organization.  If he knows the organization is going to value him more for working counts and raising his OBP, then I imagine that Contreras will do whatever he needs to do to improve in that area.  So far, so good.

I want to also note that there are players I did not include because I wanted to focus on AA and below as well as new trends.  Brett Jackson and Logan Watkins are excellent examples of more advanced players with a good approach.  We have also seen Junior Lake make some improvement in this area as well.

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    I love the sound of this. I wish the Cubs would promote Chadd Krist both so Krist could play against more age appropriate competition and Contreras could get more starts.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I do too. I think he'll get promoted early but right now it's nice to have him around Contreras. He's not as naturally gifted, but he's so much more advanced at the art of catching. And you know Contreras will soak it in. Right now, Kane has my favorite minor league catching tandem, but I think you're right and Krist won't be long for Kane County.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I remember a story last year about Krist being the coach on the field for the Hawks, so you're probably on to something with that.

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    Great article John. As you said once you get to AAA/MLB it's unlikely to see it when an organizational philosophy change occurs so you want to see it down in the lower levels and so far we have. It's very encouraging.

    I think Alcantara could be a beast if he locks in this approach. Same for Contreras.

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    In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    I agree with everything that's been said about Alcantara the last couple days. That combination of speed and power would be a very nice addition at the top of the lineup. He could be working himself into long term second base plans.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Thanks Marcel. Alcantara is starting to scratch the surface and it's really enticing. We saw him start to break out last year and this year he has revved it up a notch.

    Contreras is not nearly as far along, but I like the potential for him to keep improving.

  • John, as always great article. It's exciting to think that if even half of those 12 make it to the big leagues, we've got something to feel good about. Any word on a Vitters return to the Iowa lineup? Do you think he's got a future with the organization or is his time up?

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    In reply to cubsfan:

    Vitters is probably a tweener at this point. Could still have a future here because he's so young but time is starting to run out.

  • In reply to cubsfan:

    I don't think the Cubs will ever say it, but Vitters' time is running out quickly. I think they're disappointed he didn't play winter ball. Even though it was the team that released him, he did nothing to make them want to keep him. He then got hurt in the spring and didn't get a chance to redeem himself.

    I think he is going to need to get off to a good start and carry it all season long to get back in the plans.

  • In reply to cubsfan:

    And thanks Cubsfan!

  • Great article John!

    I love hearing about Contreras. Given our lack of legit Catcher prospects after Beef, I'm rooting for him.

    Where does Alcantara bat in the TEN line-up? Do we have a legit lead-of base-stealing threat type of prospect?

  • Good points about plate discipline... It's not just about drawing walks and working the count, but also about waiting for your pitch, which is what I wish Castro would do... Not try to draw a walk, but wait for a pitch you can drive... If I had to pick a total opposite from Castro, it would be Carlos Pena... While Castro works counts some times, but doesn't necessarily have the discipline (fouling off a lot of bad pitches), Carlos Pena takes too many pitches to the point where he does not swing at good pitches he can drive, especially with RISP.

    At least that's how I see it... I think there should be a balance and Alacantara is learning that... Just watch David DeJesus hit... He's not out there looking for a walk, he will swing in 2-0. 2-1 counts, he's looking to get on base and if he gets a pitch he can drive in the process he'll put a good swing on it.

  • In reply to Caps:

    Thanks. I like the point on the opposites. I think you have to find a balance between the two.

  • Go to be nice to follow these great prospects the next 2-3 years
    until their ready. Don't have to worry about our prospect not being
    managed and developed correctly. Since most our top prospects
    are hispanic/latin we should be glad our scouts did a great job.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    The Cubs could always scout. It's nice to see they know what to do with the talent once they sign it.

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    In addition to taking walks, it's notable that Ronald Torreyes has yet to strikeout this year in 34 PAs. That's pretty remarkable. He's a low strikeout guy, but that's quite a streak.

    I wonder what the record is to start a season? Most players can't make it past opening day with a streak like that......

  • In reply to Zonk:

    He struck out just 6.1% last year but this is still an amazing streak -- especially as he's making the big jump to AA.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I do still love Roni, and it's nice to see his contact rate this year. However, it's kind of interesting that after a red hot start, he's made contact, but has really struggled to make hard contact. He's hitting a lot of pop ups. I'm really intrigued to see how he adjusts and progresses as the year goes on. It would be a great problem to have if both he and Alcantara are ready for the majors in the latter part of next year.

    Now, he's also had sporadic playing time, and the manager has had him bunt a few times. That makes me wonder if something is going on behind the scenes.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Yeah, I'm wondering what the deal is with Torreyes right now. Could be nothing, but the late call up, the sporadic playing time...makes me wonder if he's in the doghouse for some reason. He's not a problem guy as far as I know, so right now I'll say that's not the case.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Yeah, the tweet you got that said Torreyes sitting was a managerial decision seemed odd to me. I can't see a AA manager sitting a real prospect for org guy Jonathan Mota unless the decision was made above him.

  • Verducci wrote an interesting contrarian viewpoint on walk rates today. It's on SI.com

    Basically he notes that while walk rates have gone up the last few years, so have strikeouts, meanwhile hitting for power has declined. He attributes this to batters taking too many good pitches for the sake of high OBP and high P/AB.

  • In reply to Cubswin4harry:

    I agree with that to an extent. I remember everyone getting upset over Welington Castillo for swinging at the first pitch a few games back. Well, that pitch was a fatty right over the heart of the plate. Why wouldn't he swing at it? He happened to get on top of it and hit into a double play, but I didn't question him swinging at it.

    Like a lot of things, you don't want to go too much to one extreme or the other. You don't want to go up to the plate hacking, but you shouldn't necessarily go up there intending to work a 3-1 count. That one strike could be the best pitch that hitter will see.

    I saw the Huntsville (AA) team do this against Cubs LHP Eric Jokisch a couple of starts ago. Jokisch just kept throwing strikes and putting them all behind 0-2 and 1-2. From there he was able to put them away pretty easily.

    There needs to be a balance. I like the Cubs current philosophy of being selective -- but aggressive in the strike zone.

    I think walks should be a consequence of good pitch selection -- not the purpose of the AB.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Very nice post. This sort of thing takes a lot of research and time. Thanks.

  • In reply to Cubswin4harry:

    Thank you Cubswin4harry! It did take a lot of research and a lot of observation.

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    Not sure if this is still the case or not, but Oakland once had a rule in their system, implemented by Sandy Alderson I think, that, if you didn't draw more walks than the season before, you didn't get promoted. I don't think it was a hard rule. I'm sure there were exceptions. Anyways, I wonder if something like that is being implemented as an incentive.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    I remember something about not being able to win organizational awards for any time period unless OBP was at a certain level.

  • I named Alcantara as one of my breakout candidates on a post you ran before the season began, so I'm excited to see him off to a strong start. Do you know if there was any kind of impetus for his change mid-season last year? That's a big jump up in the middle of the summer...

  • In reply to North Side Irish:

    I don't know what changed, but because I do the recaps everyday, I immediately noticed the trend last year, but not having seen it personally ,I just commented on it without adding much to it. Then I noticed it again in his play this spring and early this season - even if he wasn't drawing a ton of walks at first. It just seems to have clicked with him and the results have been very encouraging so far.

  • Im intrested how the latins guys in extended spring training like Frandy de la Rosa and Carlos Penalver do when thier promoted since they are young in play infield

  • In reply to Domnk S:

    DeLaRosa is probably playing in the Dominican complex, so unfortunately I don't know anybody out there. Penalver will probably play in Boise and he's in AZ, so we can try and update him soon. Two interesting players. Far away, but definitely interesting.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    az phil had Frandy de la Rosa playing for the cubs second squad thats why i think he might get a taste of rookie ball

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Frandy de la Rosa was in the box score of squad b posted by az phil, i thought that might meen that he skiped dsl

  • In reply to Domnk S:

    Interesting. He might get some time there, but I'd be surprised if he skipped the DSL, but who knows? Maybe they think he's advanced enough to play in the AZ rookie league.

  • One of my favorite all time favorite Cubs came to mind immediately when reading this. Mark Bellhorn would not swing at anything unless it was right down the middle and his 2002 season led to 27 bombs 14% walk rate and a wRC+ of 135.

    Another bit in this has me excited for some players hopefully coming up to DSM soon that I can watch. Have Ha and Szczur displace guys like McDonald, Bogusevic and Nelson.

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    Interesting lineup for the Smokies tonight: Alcantara starting at second and Torreyes out of the game. (Against a lefty, at that.)

  • This is article is a breath of fresh air isn't it? Thanks John. It really helps as we watch the major league team struggle so much. How do you grade out Alcantara defensively?

  • In reply to Denim Dan:

    Thank you and it certainly is!

    I like Alcantara's physical skills but he just gets sloppy and loses focus. Maybe he grows out of it, but right now I think he'll have to move.

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