Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2010 Giants Prospect of Note: Thomas Neal

I normally do a Big 6 listing around the start of the season of our top prospects, but there is one guy who I think Giants fans need to hear more about, so I'm covering him now: Thomas Neal. The top prospects most Giants fans know, and probably some of the more in-tune fans are aware of Neal, so I'm doing this for the more casual Giants fans who rely on bloggers to bring guys like these to your attention.

As regular readers from past seasons know, I love the book Minor League Baseball Analyst and get it every year. They rate Neal the Giants 7th best prospect and see him becoming a starting LF if he can continue to develop, which is not a great ranking, showing a lot of doubt about either his potential or likelihood of amounting to anything in the majors. His main skill is his plus power, though he is OK with the average and with defense. They note that he possesses excellent bat speed and power, showing improved power and plate discipline, walking a lot while keeping his strikeouts OK.

Now, fans will look at his 22 HR and 90 RBI and think that is something good, but there are many players who do that in Advanced A and never do anything in the majors. Those are not the key stats to be aware of. Data that you should be are that he walks over 50% of the time he strikes outs, which is good, though he still needs to cut out some strikeouts.

But one thing I like to account for is age and relative accomplishments because that sets a standard that anyone can understand. If other ballplayers his age in that league can perform that well, that gives a standard of how good his skills are for the league he is in and you can see how others like him eventually did in advancing up the minors and maybe making the majors.

Neal in the California League

He was in the California League with San Jose in 2009. The average age for hitters was 22.8 YO and for pitchers was 23.0 YO. Thomas Neal was officially 21 years old for his league in 2009, so the pitchers have 2 more years of experience on him plus he missed the 2007 season with injuries, so that is more like 3 years, which makes his accomplishments that much more significant.

In 2009, the average batting line was .270/.341/.417/.758. Neal hit .337/.431/.579/1.010, 4th best in the league, which is already good in an overall context, but out of hitters younger than the average age, he was second in the league to Koby Clemens, who was 22, who hit .345/.419/.636/1.055. Of note, he hit better than Buster Posey in the league, and he hit the best of hitters 21 and younger, though just beating out Alex Liddi, who was 20. The next one that old is Tyson Gillies, 20, 19th best OPS with .916 OPS.

OK, "so what" about all that? Well, if we look at similar leaders in seasons past, we can see the players who have made it up to the majors with that type of accomplishment from the California League.
  • In 2008, the leader of hitters 21 and younger was Pablo Sandoval, 21, who hit .359/.412/.597/1.009 with 12 HR, and BOS Josh Reddick, 21, was close. Others include the A's Sean Doolittle and Chris Carter, then Lars Anderson, all hitters considered much better prospects than Neal in previous seasons, but he hit better than they did.
  • In 2007, the leader was SD's Kyle Blanks, 20, followed closely by Texas's Chris Davis. Blanks "only" hit .301/.380/.540/.920 with 24 HR.
  • In 2006, the leader was TB's Reid Brignac who hit .326/.382/.557/.939 with 21 HR, LAA's Sean Rodriguez was 2nd and COL (ARI back then) Carlos Gonzalez hit .300/.356/.563/.919. And, for context, the league average was not all that different: .275/.350/.414/.763.
  • In 2005, the leader was LAA's Howie Kendrick, 21, who hit .384/.421/.638/1.059 with 12 HR. There were a lot of good hitters that year, KC's Billy Butler, 19, was a close second, tied with LAA's Brandon Wood, and just ahead of ARI's Miguel Montero
Showing how a high OPS in the low minors don't always mean much, in 2005, our prospect, Eddy Martinez-Esteve, 21, considered one of the better pure hitters in the minors back then, hit .313/.427/.524/.951 with 17 HR. That was only good for 13th overall in the league and 5th among those 21 and younger. It don't have to go down far for the numbers to still look good but not necessary mean anything about them making the majors. 13th in 2006 was Luke Appert; 5th was Casey Craig. 13th in 2007 was Kyle Blanks; 5th was Travis Denker, but that was a very poor year for 21 and younger to hit well in the league, Denker only had a .300/.378/.455/.833 batting line. 13th in 2008 was Yamaico Navarro; 5th was Lars Anderson, who was just ahead of Navarro, lots of young guys among the leaders that year.

As now you hopefully see, though Neal was not a highly considered prospect going into the 2009 season, his accomplishment at his age for that league is similar to or better than those for prospects whose prospect star were very high, like Kendrick, Brignac, Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Blanks, Davis, Doolittle, Carter, Anderson, and similar to someone near and dear to our hearts, Pablo Sandoval. Of course, not all of them have panned out yet, Brignac is still finding his way, Davis got to the majors then lost his way, but Gonzalez and Blanks are battling for starting positions and Kendrick is still projected to be a league batting champion some day.

A key difference, however, about Neal is that while he walks a fair bit, he also strikes out too much, something that Pablo never did in the minors, he was good at avoiding the strikeouts, which is a sign of a good hitter. But Neal is not all that bad overall, about 80% contact rate (or 20% strikeout rate) and thus we should keep a close eye on him as he progresses up the farm system.

One good sign, though, is that his road strikeout rate in 2009 was in the good area, roughly the 85% contact rate or 15% strikeout rate that we want to see out of hitters (he was at 84%). And just as importantly, he walked more times than he struck out.

Why that is important to note is because San Jose's home park, Municipal Stadium, was shown by MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo to be a pitcher's park with environs that causes batters to strike out a lot more. Hitters are handicapped there, and in an interview for that article, John Bowker noted that the background there is horrible for hitters. Also, if you check out Baseball Prospectus's park factors table, San Jose is one of the most extreme pitchers parks around, so even though the California League is considered a hitter's league, San Jose hitters are severely handicapped by playing half their games there, and thus anytime younger players are able to hit well enough there to rank among the Top 3 in the league is a significant accomplishment.

Still, I don't know how much to factor that into the equation, so I only note this as a positive sign going forward that Neal will continue on his upward track in 2010 when he goes to the Richmond Flying Squirrels and their historically neutral ballpark. I am hoping that the Giants can work out a long-term affiliation with Richmond because their park is so neutral, but their new owners who moved the team out of Norwich, Connecticut, is seriously rumored to be wanting to be a Washington Nationals affiliate, and would be willing to go down a level or two, to A-ball, in order to secure that. I have not heard any hard news either way on how that is going other than the usual "we're happy to be working them" corp-speak that both sides have been spouting.

Neal is a Prospect of Note

Overall, Neal had a really nice year, but in the context of how other's with his age and relative experience did, it was clearly a great season for any ballplayer who hit that well in that league and a good sign of his talent level. He is another bat to look forward to coming up the farm system, and with some excitement as he is clearly a power bat and looking ready to contribute in 1-2 seasons.

Baseball America is similarly impressed, including him on their Top 100 list, just released, though just barely, he was 96th (Wheeler was 49th, Bumgarner 14th, and Posey 7th; wow, if he were 98th, all the prospects would have been multiples of 7 :^). They actually rated his hitting as his best tool, rated a 60 (out of 80), not power. Still, in his profile from last year's book, they note that his power grades out better in the Giants system than anyone except Villalona, who was projected to be a 30-40 HR hitter. (though with Tommy Joseph drafted after the book's publication, he could now be third in the system, behind Villalona and Joseph).

They also noted that his power was to the opposite field or CF prior to 2009, and that once he learns to pull the ball consistently, his HR numbers could explode. According to his spray chart on minor league splits (unfortunately, you have to enter his name and click on the spray chart), almost all of his homers were to left or center, so it appears that he learned that technique in 2009. In fact, most of his outs were when he hit them to the opposite field. When he can loft the ball and pull it, he had hits more often than not, it was when he was late on balls that he hit catchable flies to CF and RF.

He played mainly LF in 2009 but has played 1B and RF in previous years. He has been OK overall, but pretty good last season, though that was a home anomaly, his play in the OF in 2010 will give more info on how good he really is. Given that Villalona, should he even be able to return, would probably return to San Jose for more seasoning anyway due to both his injury and his murder trial screwing up his off-season conditioning, Neal could find himself playing 1B a lot for Richmond (Villalona not getting the promotion and Brett Pill probably moving to Fresno for 2010), so that he would be prepared to play either LF or 1B if he makes it up to the majors.

If he has another great season in AA, the Giants could move him up to the majors if anyone is struggling to be productive (like they did with Sandoval), almost anywhere on the field, as he could play LF while DeRosa could play a lot of different positions and take over for someone struggling there, including possibly SS, as he came up as a SS and says he can still be OK there (I would have to see it to believe it, but that is what he said). As a right-handed batter, his power would not be affected as much by AT&T, but there will be some effect. Still, good balance to all the lefty power hitters we have in Ishikawa, Schierholtz, and Bowker, plus Lewis if he ever learns to hit for the power he says he has.

1 comment:

  1. Neal hit himself on my radar sometime early in '09 when his bat was not only keeping up with Posey's, but actually exceeding Buster's. I really like Neal. Actually, after thumbing through the Prospect Handbook I see a few guys that I really like. Baseball America gave the Giants' 06, 07 and 08 drafts a solid A in each of them. It seems to me at least 1-2 of the players taken in that draft will compliment the Bumgarner's and Lincecum's the Giants grabbed.

    I think Runzler is going to be a solid late inning lefty. I think Jason Stoffel may end up in the pen very soon. There's a handful of others that are intriguing at least. Gillaspie, though disappointing, still walked a ton. It's his glove (not his bat) that seems to be his biggest obstacle.



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