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Tempering and Building Expectations

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Thanks to your positive feedback on my last article, I have been led to write another! So thank you! This week, Derek asked, "What has to happen for you to consider 2016 a successful season?"

I can answer this by pointing to the 2015 Phillies. One thing happened last year in Philly that I envy tremendously: the emergence of Odubel Herrera. For those of you who aren't familiar, Herrera was selected by the Phillies from the Rangers organization with the 9th pick of the 2014 Rule 5 Draft. After a good start to the season, Herrera struggled through a lackluster May and June, only to rebound in a big way through the end of September. What resulted was the 8th most valuable season among qualified CF's in 2015 according to fWAR.

In short, for me to consider 2016 a successful season, I would like one of the Brewers many wildcards to emerge in a similar way. If one of Jonathan Villar, Garin Cecchini, Will Middlebrooks, Keon Broxton, Rymer Liriano, or Ramon Flores prove themselves as MLB regulars, I will be very satisfied. That's my answer to Derek's question, but I would like to parlay that answer into a bigger discussion on the last two players listed above- Liriano and Flores. One of these players seems like the surest bet to become the Brewers' Herrera due to a combination of ability and opportunity. So let's take a deeper look into what we should expect from each:

Tempering and Building Expectations

If you are anything like me, you probably expect Liriano to be a much surer bet and more exciting than Flores. I'm just guessing this is the case for most in the BCB community. This is probably the result of Liriano's widely publicized DFA'ing, his standing as a former Top 100 prospect, and his exciting combination of tools. Flores, on the other hand, has less exciting tools and was acquired by the wholly unexciting and disposable Luis Sardinas. Whatever the reason actually is, I think we (mostly probably just me) are building our hopes for Liriano too high and are selling Flores short.

Chris Mitchell wrote an article over at Fangraphs yesterday recapping 2006's Top 10 Prospects. It offered a cautionary tale of overlooking contact deficiencies when evaluating prospects. For instance, four of the top prospects in the game that year were Delmon Young, Brandon Wood, Jeremy Hermida, and Lastings Milledge. They occupied the same exact spots as Corey Seager, Yoan Moncada, Julio Urias, and Trea Turner do in Baseball America's iteration for this season. This just goes to show you how highly those players were thought of as well as the volatility of top prospects. (Disclaimer: The Fangraphs article warns against making sweeping generalizations drawn from the 2006 Top Prospect list, and I will strive to avoid doing so.)

One thing all four of Young, Wood, Hermida and Milledge had in common was their contact issues. Their K%'s sat around 19%, 25%, 19% and 20% respectively. These aren't terribly alarming numbers, but as Mitchell notes, those %'s might be about 3% higher in 2016 (I guess even strikeouts are victims of inflation). Similar high K% prospects in recent years include Joc Pederson, Javier Baez and Jon Singleton. (Kris Bryant also sat in the mid-to-high 20%'s throughout his minor league career, so this is obviously far from an exact science). The reason why many of these prospects with high strikeout rates struggle upon reaching the majors is obvious: If you are striking out a lot against minor league pitching, it means you are getting fooled a lot by minor league pitchers. That doesn't bode well for your chances against major league pitching.

This brings us to Rymer Liriano and tempering expectations. Liriano's K% has sat around 20% for his minor league career, rising to 24% in AAA last year. A high strikeout rate has always been a red flag for Liriano, but it is one that is often overlooked due to his combination of a strong arm, moderate power, and baserunning ability. My hope is that, moving forward, Liriano's tools will outweigh his contact deficiencies, and he will prove as another high K% prospect that succeeded. But as for our expectations, I would not be too surprised if his contact issues led to struggles in the Bigs. And yet, I don't want you to give up on him. Dan Farnsworth of Fangrapsh still wrote glowingly about his potential:

At worst he looks like a fourth outfielder with enough speed to play all three spots in a pinch. Apart from some hip slide and a little tendency to hook around the ball, I like his swing a lot. He can put the ball in the air even when he’s fooled a bit, and has the raw strength to still have potentially above-average to plus power...

It’s surprising [the Padres] would give up on him. It’s not out of the question that he’s a future starting outfielder with even a slight improvement to his game plan and/or discipline.

Now on the reverse side of this issue is the recently acquired Ramon Flores. Flores' K% has regularly fallen in the 13-17% range throughout his minor league career. His BB% has not been much lower as it hovers in the low teens as well. So it appears that Flores has pretty good pitch selection in his favor. But his K% is low not only because he has a good set of eyes, but also because he excels at making contact. Among qualified batters in the International League and the Pacific Coast League, Flores has the 6th highest ZCon% (contact with pitches in the zone). Interestingly enough, Liriano sits at the opposite end of the spectrum, having the lowest ZCon% of all qualified batters, 123rd of 123 qualified batters.

It's a loose correlation rather than a hard and fast rule, but it appears that, generally speaking, higher ZCon%'s in the minors lead to a higher chance of success in the majors. This too makes sense, as the ability to put the bat on the ball generally carries over from level to level (though that does not mean anything will necessarily come from that contact). Chris Mitchell wrote about this last year at Fangraphs. Now, I say this is a loose correlation because there are those who succeed with low ZCon%'s and those who flop with high ones. But a higher rate of contact coupled with a low K% and high BB% is an equation that should lead to relative success at the major league level. His general ineptitude against lefties notwithstanding, Scooter Gennett compares favorably to Flores. Scoot also had a low K% and a very high ZCon% through his minor league career. His BB% wasn't quite as good as Flores, nor was his K%. But all Scooter has done against righties in the majors has hit, and it seems that we might be able to expect similar results from Flores.

Conclusions:

As we build our predictions for Liriano and Flores, I would recommend lowering your expectations for Liriano and raising them for Flores (if you find yourself having similar expectations for both as I do). I'm not saying that Liriano will flop and Flores succeed, I just think it would be safer to lean toward the success of the latter. Liriano has a higher ceiling than Flores, but I think Flores has a better chance of reaching his ceiling. If Liriano is able to make some changes and reach his ceiling, he will have been the hidden gem of the off-season.

Hopefully Liriano's tools overcome his contact deficiencies, and Flores continues his selective ways and effective contact rates in the majors. If both of those things happen, the chances are good that we have stumbled upon two Odubel Herreras, or maybe have a platoon that could be one of the more valuable CFs in the majors. That would make 2016 an extremely successful season, IMO. Here's hoping my expectations can be exceeded.