Outfielder Robbie Grossman and shortstop Nolan Fontana have intriguing minor league statistics which bring to mind the "Greek God of Walks" (Kevin Youkilis) made famous by "Moneyball." Coming up through the minors, Youkilis was described as "Barry Bonds without the superhuman power" and "an on-base machine" who lacks "overwhelming power."
The Astros recently called up Grossman to the majors. At the time he was called up, Grossman had posted a 19% BB rate, a 24% K rate, a .452 OBP, and .353 SLG to start the 2013 season. Grossman's career minor league statistics:
(BA/OBP/SLG/OPS) .282, .400, .425, .825
15.4% BB, 19.7% K, .143 ISO
ISO (isolated power) is simply slugging percent minus batting average. Grossman's ISO is almost exactly the same as Youkilis' minor league career ISO of .142. However, Youkilis showed more ability as a contact hitter with a 12% K rate in the minors, while Grossman is somewhat above average in striking out. One of the questions about Grossman's minor league stats is how the combination of above average strike out rate, high walk rate, and relatively low power will translate to the major leagues.
Given the sample size it may be unfair to categorize Fontana, who is only in his second professional season. However, Fontana's amazing career .480 OBP, so far, is consistent with his reputation as a high OBP player in college. But we really don't know where Fontana's power and strike outs will settle. Fontana's stats during his brief minor league career:
(BA/OBP/SLG/OPS) .272, .480, .414, .894
27.2% BB, 18.3 % K, .142 ISO
Although the stats, above, would suggest a very high walk rate accompanied by an above average K rate and below average power, Fontana is early in his professional career. So far in the California League, Fontana has exhibited a below average K rate (16%) and above average power (.198 ISO). However, we have to keep in mind the potential inflating effect of Lancaster on his power. My expectation is that Fontana will be a high walk rate hitter, but defining his strike out and power profile is premature.
Some baseball bloggers question the ability of "high walk rate, high K rate, low power" minor leaguers to sustain their productivity at the major league level. As a first step in examining this question, I will identify major leaguers who fit this profile.
MAJOR LEAGUE CAREERS
I used the Fangraphs' leaderboard filters to identify all major leaguers since 1980 with career hitting stats fitting the following profile: Greater than 10% BB rate, Greater than 20% K rate, and ISO rate less than or equal to .150.
Only 12 players fit this profile. Eight of the players are outfielders, two are catchers, one is a third baseman, and one is a first baseman. Two of the players have an above average career wRC+ : Padres 3b/OF Chase Headley (116) and current Astros' coach Dave Clark (102).
Some averages for this group:
11.6% BB, 22.3% K, .127 ISO, .338 OBP, .373 SLG, .318 wOBA, 93 wRC+
Headley is an attractive comparable player; we probably would be happy if Grossman and Fontana performed similarly in the majors. However, for the most part, players in this group carved out major league careers on the basis of defensive ability, which isn't surprising given the below average offense. With the exception of Todd Pratt and Dave Clark, all of the players exhibited good fielding WAR. The average career runs saved is more than +12.
I think it's reasonable to look at a higher ISO ceiling, given young players' potential for developing more power in the majors. I increased the filter parameters for ISO from .150 to .170 and the size of the group more than doubled, now encompassing 27 players. Besides Headley and Clark, the following players who fit the search criteria also posted above average offense as measured by wRC+: B.J. Upton (105), Austin Kearns (104), Mark Whiten (102), Dexter Fowler (107), Alex Avila (112), Jeremy Giambi (114), and Warren Newson (109). Also, I'm also not surprised to see Mark Bellhorn showing up in the group, since he is often mentioned as a moneyball-style role player on the Red Sox world series championship team. The averages for this group are, in most respects, better than the previous group:
11.9% BB, 22.7% K, .147 ISO, .341 OBP, .395 SLG, .327 wOBA, 96 wRC+
This higher ISO group is composed of six catchers, two third basemen, two first baseman, one 3b/OF, and 15 outfielders. With the criteria allowing a little more power in the group, plus defensive skill is no longer a requirement for most of these hitters to stay in the majors. Nine players in the group are negative fielders, and the average fielding component for the group is slightly below average.
Unless Grossman improves his power somewhat in the majors, my guess is that he will have difficulty securing a starting position in the outfield over his career. (But don't ignore the value of good 4th outfielders.) If Grossman can achieve an average ISO for outfielders (approximately .170), in addition to maintaining a high walk rate, he could be quite productive as a starter in the OF. Even with an ISO around .150, Grossman could develop into a Headley type outfielder if he is capable of maintaining a fairly high BABIP. (Headley's career BABIP: .338.)
Kevin Youkilis provides a good example of a high walk rate player who developed significant power while playing in the majors. Between 2006 and 2007, Youkilis increased his ISO from 149 to 165, and in the next year he posted a .257 ISO. Over his ML career, Youkilis has a .199 ISO. In the 2003 ESPN article linked earlier, Youkilis, the minor leaguer told the writer that his HR power would develop more fully in the major leagues---and he was right.
DO HIGH WALK RATE MINOR LEAGUERS SUSTAIN HIGH WALK RATES IN THE MAJORS?
The second part of my analysis is aimed at this question. You will occasionally hear some skepticism about minor leaguers who excel primarily based on high walk rates. Some people believe that the walk rates are unsustainable in the major leagues if the player has inadequate power or strikes out too much. Naturally, we would expect walk rates to decline somewhat as players move to a higher level. Kevin Youkilis became a high OBP player in the majors--but his walk rate was lower than his 18% BB average in the minors. But can these players sustain above average walk rates in the majors?
To examine this question, for the period 2006 - 2009, I identified the AAA players, 26 year old or less, who had a season with a walk rate higher than 10%, an ISO less than .160, and a strike out rate higher than 19%. Given the limitations of the time period for my data, I am not completely satisfied with this analysis. But we can examine the information, sparse as it may be, knowing that the results are not definitive.
I identified 11 players in the International League and Pacific Coast League who met this criteria. 27% of these hitters never got more than a cup of coffee in the majors. This is roughly similar to the 34% bust rate for AAA high walk rate hitters found in other studies. The remaining hitters in the group have exhibited the following walk rates and offensive performance so far in the majors.
Daric Barton, 105, 14.3%
Brandon Boggs, 81, 12.8%
B.J. Upton, 105, 10.5%
F. Gutierrez, 88, 6.5%
Brett Gardner, 98, 10.9%
Gregor Blanco, 90, 12.2%
Justin Maxwell, 98, 10.7%
Michael Brantley, 95, 7.6%
Average: 95, 10.7%
As shown by the 10.7% average BB rate (compared to the AL average walk rate of 8%), the players largely maintained the ability to produce above average walk rates. Only Gutierrez and Brantley have posted below average ML walk rates. Gutierrez had not exhibited consistently high walk rates in the minors and probably doesn't belong on this list. Brantley's walk rate, though, appears to have regressed in the major leagues. The walk rates for the remaining hitters are similar to their minor league walk rates. It's worth noting that both B.J. Upton and Justin Maxwell developed more power, as measured by ISO, in the majors.
An 11 player sample is too small to draw definitive conclusions. At best, the results should be treated as "suggestive." However, the results seem to support the proposition that high minor league walk rates reflect a skill that translates to the major league level.