Stockpiling buy-low players and bounceback candidates seems to have been the modus operandi for David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers this offseason. The front office thus far slashed payroll while amassing a large number of guys who, if you squint at just right, could be useful contributors for the upcoming 2020 campaign. They won’t hit on all of them, to be sure, but if enough of these players come through as hoped, the Brewers should once again have a competitive (and financially efficient) team that will be in the thick of the playoff race throughout the summer.
One of the players that Stearns deemed worth a modest gamble is corner infielder Ryon Healy. The 28 year old was laid up for much of last season with a hip injury that required surgery, while simultaneously dealing with symptoms of spinal stenosis. That led the Mariners to non-tender him rather than pay him a projected $2.5 mil arbitration price tag. But that loss could be Milwaukee’s gain, as he’ll earn a more modest $1 mil on his deal with the Brewers and if he is back to full health in 2020 as the club expects him to be, he has a decently lengthy track record as a legitimate home run threat.
Healy began his professional career as a third round pick by the Oakland A’s in 2013 and ascended relatively quickly through the minor league ranks, climbing the ladder to the big leagues in less than three full years. He didn’t display much patience, earning a free pass in only 5.6% of his minor league plate appearances while posting a .334 on-base percentage. But he showed a knack for putting the bat on the ball, only striking out 15.4% of the time, while also giving a preview of the pop in his bat. He clubbed 16 home runs during his first full professional season in Class A-Advanced in 2014 then smacked another 10 the following year during his first go-round in Double-A.
Healy forced the A’s hand during a breakout 2016 season that began back in Double-A. He posted a 1.036 OPS through his first 34 games, prompting a promotion to the highest level of the minors, where he continued to rake. After another 49 games in Triple-A, his combined slash line at the two stops stood at .326/.382/.558 with 14 home runs across 374 plate appearances. That was enough to convince Oakland to give him the call up to the big leagues, and he did not disappoint during his first taste of extended MLB action.
Ryon made his debut on July 15th, 2016, batting ninth and playing third base. He launched his first big legaue home run the following day, and continued to stay hot for the rest of the summer. By the time the season came to a close, he had produced a sterling .305/.337/.524 batting line for a 132 wRC+. He clubbed 13 home runs and smacked 20 doubles while striking out only 60 times in 72 games for a solid enough 21.2% K-rate. He continued his streak of not walking, drawing a base on balls in just 4.2% of his 283 plate appearances. All-in-all, he was valued at 1.5 fWAR and 2.1 bWAR in fewer than a half-season’s worth of at-bats.
To this point, though, Healy’s rookie season has been his best work at the game’s highest level. His overall line was buoyed by a .352 batting average on balls in play that has since proven unsustainable; it fell down to .319 in 2017, though he still managed to produce an above-average .271/.302/.451 slash (101 wRC+) in 605 plate appearances. He also surpassed the 20+ home run threshold for the first time, slugging 25 balls over the fence. His strikeout (23.5%) and walk (3.8%) rates trended slightly in the wrong directions, but were still in the general vicinity of where they were during his inaugural campaign. His BABIP would only crater further during the two ensuing seasons following a trade to Seattle; it was a palty .257 in 2018 and .262 in 2019, years during which he posted wRC+ marks of 89 and 94, respectively.
Healy’s power remained intact, however. He clubbed 24 dingers in 524 plate appearances during his first year with the Mariners in 2018, then hit seven homers in 47 games during his truncated 2019. His strikeout rate fell back into the range that it was during his rookie year, coming in at 21.5% across the two years in the Pacific Northwest. He also started to make strides with his patience; Ryon walked in 5.2% of his trips to bat in 2018 then at a 7% clip in 2019. Those totals are still below average, of course, but they’re trending in the right direction.
Seattle’s ballpark is one of the more difficult venues for hitters across the league, and there is some reason to believe that there was a bit of misfortune involved during Healy’s run with the Emerald City Nine. His hard contact rates, exit velocities, and barrel rates in those two years came in well above the MLB averages according to Statcast. He hit .235/.277/.412 in 2018, while his expected batting average that season per Statcast was .259 and his expected slugging percentage was .440. His actual wOBA of .296 was 24 points lower than his expected wOBA of .320 when taking into consideration the exit velocities and launch angles of the balls he put in play. The story was similar in 2019; he hit .237/.289/.456 as he dealt with his various maladies for a wOBA of .308, meanwhile his xwOBA was 16 points higher at .324.
For what it’s worth, the recently released ZiPS forecasts seem to believe that Healy is a fairly strong bounceback candidate in 2020. The computer-based projection system sees Ryon’s BABIP rising back to a respectable .293, boosting his batting line to .262/.303/.475 for an even 100 OPS+. If Healy were to receive mostly full-time playing opportunities — the system projects him for 482 PA — he’d be expected to hit 23 home runs while posting a strikeout rate of 21.6% versus a 5.4% walk rate.
Defensively, Healy’s best position might be designated hitter. He has graded out poorly at both first base (-8 Defensive Runs Saved, -4.0 Ultimate Zone Rating in 1,484.1 innings) as well as third base (-8 DRS, -16.0 UZR in 1,266.2 innings) while splitting his time relatively evenly between the two spots. He didn’t have enough innings to qualify in 2019, but the new Infield Outs Above Average metric from Statcast rated him 113th out of 129 qualified defenders in 2018 with -6 OAA.
Now that Jedd Gyorko is in the fold, the pressure is off Healy to try and be ready for a weak-side platoon spot at third base in 2020. He has minor league options remaining and as things stand now, he appears likely to begin the year as depth in Triple-A, working himself back to health and into game shape after missing going on the IL on May 20th last year and missing the final four-plus months of the season. Healy is still relatively young, having just turned 28, and has a pretty well established baseline as a near-league average hitter (102 wRC+ for his career) with plenty of actualized power at the big league level. He has three years of control remaining including 2020, and once he is able to prove that he is fully healthy, it isn’t difficult to foresee him working his way into an oft-used bench role or even taking over regular playing time at one of the infield corners at some point. At the very least, Ryon Healy looks like a useful and relatively inexpensive depth player for the Cream City Nine who could be around through the end of the 2022 season.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant