Thursday, July 07, 2011

Nate is Getting Great

Nate Schierholtz has been a fan favorite for a number of years now.  He's also been one of my favorites too, I recall when he was first drafted (many considered him an overdraft of massive proportions) and when he came in and started hitting for power immediately and captured the imagination of Giants prospect hounds all over.

What I've noticed over his career, as he moved from one level to the next is that there is a period of transition that Nate has to get through before he can do well and advance to the next level.  The way it looked to me was that Nate would feel his way towards success hitting in the new level.  He would apparently purposefully swing to make good contact first, that is, he would hit for average but not for power initially.  Then, once he got comfortable, then he was able to adjust his swing so that he could then tap into his prodigious power.

So, though his numbers didn't always look great, because of this pattern, he's always been one of my top position prospects, even as others looked to Fred Lewis and John Bowker, I was always in Nate's corner.

Another pattern that unfortunately has marked his career is that he would have a great period of hitting, like right now, then go totally cold, usually because of some injury that he was hiding and soon afterward, he would be DLed.  Then he would return too fast and return unproductive, and eventually had to sit again until his next chance.

Nate's Career

There are a number of key metrics for analyzing a minor leaguer. One of the key ones, for me, MLEs adjusted for age and league and level. The only one I'm aware of who does that is Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster. I've compared it with other MLEs (like on the old - now shuttered - minor league splits) and found that adjustment for age makes clear when a lackluster performance by the hitter by his overall numbers is actually good and when a stellar performance by a much older hitter is actually lackluster.

Other's are contact rate (basically whenever you don't strikeout) and batting eye (walk to strikeout ratio). These are Shandler's terms, FYI. The best hitters, whether minors or majors, appear to be able to have a contact rate above 85% and a batting eye of at least 0.50 (the best are over 1.00).

I also like to see ISO and XBH. Power is a key component of any hitter, whether leadoff guy or middle of lineup, that helps generates runs more efficiently, both because now you are beyond firstbase and also because you can then drive in more runs too. XBH is another form of looking at power that I picked up from Steve Shelby, who has analyzed Giants prospects for over a decade now (and posts his observations at MCC). The idea there is that often a hitter might develop homerun power eventually, but early in his career, he can only muscle them for doubles and triples. Lastly, Shandler has a metric he calls Base Performance Value, where a minor leaguer above 50 is considered to be a good prospect and I'll add BABIP too, because that shows where luck might play a hand.

Here are Nate's key metrics from 2006 on (Shandler believes that there is too much noise below AA, so he only provides MLE for AA and AAA stats):

2006 AA .270/.310/.445/.755 | 82.8% contact | 0.33 eye | 185 ISO | 37% XBH | .301 BABIP | 41 BPV
2007 AAA .297/.320/.479/.799 | 88.1% | 0.29 | 182 ISO | 38% XBH | .313 BABIP | 53 BPV
2008 AAA .288/.321/.505/.826 | 86.9% | 0.37 | 217 ISO | 41% XBH | .301 BABIP | 57 BPV
2007 MLB .304/.316/.402/.718 | 83.0% | 0.11 |   98 ISO | 24% XBH | .358 BABIP
2008 MLB .320/.370/.493/.864 | 89.3% | 0.38 | 173 ISO | 42% XBH | .348 BABIP
2009 MLB .267/.302/.400/.702 | 79.6% | 0.28 | 133 ISO | 34% XBH | .311 BABIP
2010 MLB .242/.311/.366/.676 | 83.3% | 0.53 | 124 ISO | 35% XBH | .278 BABIP
2011 MLB .278/.330/.440/.771 | 85.2% | 0.48 | 162 ISO | 36% XBH | .301 BABIP

I should note here that his 2007 and 2008 MLB numbers are skewed by the fact that he did not play that much in either season, and thus his numbers are probably skewed in some way, not just small samples, but an imbalance in facing LHP/RHP, home/road, etc.  In addition, he was young for the league, 23 and 24, which is not young for the best prospects, but young for even good prospects. 

And his 2009-2011 seasons also don't have much ABs either, in the low 200 AB range, so there is noise in the data.  And, as I noted, he would often play injured and come back early from injury, so there is a definite downdraft on his stats due to this.  But at the rate he is going, 2011 should be his highest AB season in the majors, perhaps by as much as double.

Analyzing Nate

As one can see, he's been around the key 85% contact rate, both in MLE and MLB, all through his career, showing a good ability to make contact.  His batting eye, however, has greatly improved last season and continued into this season.  That is probably why the Giants have been giving him more chances this season (not that they haven't given him plenty of chances in prior seasons).  And, unlike Bowker, who just had his one good season, Nate had multiple good seasons of BPV, and rising too, showing development.

His first couple of seasons in the majors were marked by very high BABIP.  He does have some speed, so perhaps he was faster back then, when he was still under 25, than now when he is 27.  He also suffered from bad BABIP in 2010 (probably due to him basically not being 100% after his injury early in the season but continuing to play anyhow).  That has a double whammy on his OPS, because it hurts both your OBP and SLG.

Not much to draw off of his ISO, which has been up and down this season, so his numbers now could just be a peak of the period.  What I think it is indicative of is what Nate is capable of over a full season if he can ever perform at his level of talent for that length of time.  In any case, his minor league performances suggest that he should be able to put up high 700 OPS regularly, which would be great combined with his good defense in RF. 

And his XBH% has been slowing rising, and in any case, is above average, as the average is roughly 33%.  He has shown that when he is on in the minors, he was one of the best power hitters in the league.  That is potentially what he could be in the majors at some point, as he gains experienced and hones his talents. 



Not that I think that he's comparable or that he will match this other player, but players sometimes take a while to figure it out.  Chase Utley didn't figure it out until he was 26 YO, making a big jump in that season.  Perhaps last year could have been Nate's coming out party had he not played injured most of the season, given his elevated walk rate.  They also had very similar numbers climbing up the minors, at approximately the same level and age too.   Utley's 2003 season had a BPV of 59 (not far from Nate's 57 in 2008)

Giants Thoughts

Looks like this is the year the Giants are giving Nate his chance to start regularly and try to hold the RF position.  He should pass his former high in AB and PA around the end of the month, start of next month.  And he has deserved a chance, given that he appears to have grown in 2010 in terms of working walks, relatively to his ability to make contact (i.e. avoid strikeouts).  

Contrary to how some have characterized his time with the Giants, they have given Nate plenty of extended chances to hold the starting RF position, but injuries basically got in the way of that (that and the resulting poor performances), but that has not stopped the Giants from giving him multiple chances, unlike other prospects who have basically had their one chance and blew it.

Hitters in his contact range averaged around .270-.280 BA in recent seasons.  With that range of BA, his elevated walk rate should put him in the .330-.350 OBP range, which is good.  With some power, his SLG should be in the .420-.480 range, which would put his OPS in the .750-.830 range.  That's very good to have with great defense in RF.  Plus, there is the potential of even more power once he gets established and comfortable, which he showed in his early seasons.  If he can keep this up, he could be our starting RF for the next three seasons, at minimum, 2012-2014. 

I've thought that he could do it for a number of years now, and I would have given him the starting role a few years back, like 2009, in Randy Winn's last season.  It was not like Randy was doing that great.  Still, the Giants did give Nate a number of opportunities that season:  he just couldn't keep it up.  He was white-hot hitting, much like now, then was colder than ice and forced the Giants to put him back on the bench.  I see some similarities between Nate and Rich Aurilia too, where both probably would have started earlier had fans had their way, but who eventually broke into the starting lineup at a later age. If he can avoid injury or at least avoid coming back until he's 100%, I think this will be his breakout season.

The other future OF starters are a bit blurrier.

I was hoping that Gary Brown might fly up the farm system with his early surge, and be the future CF, but regression has kicked in and he had been scuffling until recently.  Hopefully it was just fatigue due to this being his first full season in pro ball, most amateurs stop playing regularly by May/June.  Still, he proved the doubters wrong by being more than capable of taking base on balls, and more importantly, has been pretty good at making contact (i.e. avoiding strikeouts) and combining to generate a very high OBP, which he has parlayed into 34 steals (albeit 14 CS, for a poor 71% success rate in stealing bases).  Unless he suddenly kicks it up another notch on his performance, he's probably ending 2011 in San Jose, then he probably is spending most of 2012 in AA, then make the majors in 2013 sometime.  Torres will have to hold the fort in the meanwhile in CF.

Thomas Neal is looking to be a Schierholtz type player, with some power and ability to steal a few bases.  His BPV for his 2010 season reflects how his youth affects his MLE positively:  he had a 50, which is the minimum they look for in prospects, even though most considered it a down season.  They noted in his brief profile that he was a breakout candidate for 2011 (this was pre-season, before he went on the DL for an extended period of time).  He could be our LF in coming seasons.  However, he's a bigger question mark than Nate because, while he does walk more, he also strikes out too much as well. 

A lot of people focus on how a hitter takes walks in the minors, but there are reasons that has nothing to do with how good the hitter is that results in walks, whether it is IBB, lousier pitchers in the minors (who won't be there for him to take advantage up in the minors), and, related to that, a hitter can't just wait out a pitcher like they can in the minors to throw strikes (in the majors, not only can they throw strikes, they often have speeds where you find it hard to even hit it).  However, if even the lousier pitchers can strike you out, MLB pitchers can have a field day with you.

Francisco Peguero, on the other hand, has been OK at avoiding strikeouts, particularly once he caught up with the age of the league, he was good enough.  He could be in the majors by 2012 and leapfrog Neal if he continues hitting as great as he is in AA right now at age 23 right now.  I see him as being similar to Sandoval when he was coming up the farm system:  some success, but overall poor because of his youth relative to the league, but once he started catching up in age and development, around 21, he started doing well, and had a bust-out year for power when he turned 22. 

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