It’s no secret that the Astros farm system has lacked some strong power hitters in the past several years. Luckily, in the last two years, we have had a few players breakout throughout the minors. Andrew Locke put up some monster numbers last year in Corpus Christi. Jonathan Gaston tied for the lead in the minors for the most home runs after hitting 35 last year in Lancaster. JD Martinez dominated two short-season leagues. And, Koby Clemens made himself relevant again in the Astros minor league system by leading the California League in OPS. Still, both Gaston’s and Clemens’ numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt since half of their games were playing in Lancaster's notorius stadium, The Hangar. This seaosn, Koby Clemens has continued his strong batting performance and marked himself as a legitimate prospect, even though he still struggles with plate discipline.
Koby isn’t the type of guy that is going to eventually lead the league in home runs, or even be in competition for it. He does have a powerful frame and a nice upper cut in his swing that allows him to hit for plus power. OremLK has been commenting consistently on his swing and how it is a really good power swing and that he should start getting recognition for legitimate power from the big publications. Koby received a lot of criticism last year for putting up his numbers in Lancaster, but this year, he’s actually hitting home runs at a faster clip. Last year, he hit a home run in about every twenty at-bats. This year, he’s hitting a home run once out of every 15 1/2 at-bats in a much more pitcher-friendly park. After the jump, we'll dive into his case for a mid-season promotion.
Let’s start with reviewing his plate discipline. He started off with a strikeout rate of 35 percent in April. That rate has steadily gotten better as the season wears on. It was right at 29 percent in May and down to a little under 28 percent for the season. That’s still higher than last year's rate of 25 percent. As far as walk rates are concerned, he’s improving as well. April saw him post a walk rate of 10 percent, 12 percent in May, and this month, he's putting up an outstanding 25 percent. Overall, his season rate is at 15 percent compared to last year's 12 percent. He is definitely improving his plate discipline, which has been the biggest knock on him the past few years (besides the lack of a position). He may still have a high strikeout rate, but I’ll be satisfied if he can post a walk rate close to 20 percent.
One of the things that makes Koby such an attractive prospect (besides that he fills a possible organizational need or his bloodlines or his legitimate power) is that he can post power numbers with a very solid on-base percentage. That is what allows for him to put up such good OPS numbers. He currently has a .374 OBP which isn’t as high as his 2009 numbers. The truth is, he was pretty lucky with an unsustainable BABiP of .419 last year. Compare that to his current .312, and he could actually raise his already solid OBP in the next few months. We’ve already mentioned his home run numbers from this year and last year, but even with the higher home run rate, his slugging percentage is actually 100 points lower. The reason? He isn’t hitting nearly as many doubles this year (just 12 as opposed to 43 in 2009). That could possibly have to do with his low BABiP, but then again, last year is likely a big outlier due to the park factor in Lancaster.
Digging deeper into his statistics, I found one very critical bit about his development from last year to this year. His platoon split isn’t very different this year. He’s put up a few seasons where they were similar but last year had a significant drop in OBP against righties and a significant increase in SLG against lefties. This year, he is five points lower in OBP against righties and 22 points lower in SLG against righties. His numbers against righties are probably right in line with his actual talent level with a BABiP of .326. His numbers against lefties will probably come up a good bit with an unlucky BABiP of .292.
His batted ball numbers are pretty solid. He’s hitting line drives at a rate of 22.9 percent. He’s hit fly balls 44 percent of the time, which isn’t good, but is to be expected with his uppercut swing. The good news is that he doesn’t hit many of them in the infield (just 16.2 percent). He’s also cutting down on those flyballs as he gets deeper into the season. In order of months, he’s hit flyball rates of 50.9 percent, 46.4 percent, and 34 percent. That has helped his line drive rates increase in order of months from 22.6 percent, 15.9 percent to 32.1 percent.
The question that has been surrounding Koby over the last few years is about his position. Where do you play him? He started off as a third baseman, and actually posted some good results in Lexington during 2007 with four defensive runs above average. He is athletic and has a great arm, but he has limited range for third and made him a logical fit at catcher. But, the tools of ignorance are difficult to learn and that experiment ended this season. He has been tried at left field, but has found a home at first base. OremLK has mentioned a few times that he has shown a lot of athleticism at first and can possibly be a plus defender there. The move to first was mostly to let him concentrate on developing his hitting and not distract him with working on a defensive position. I don’t think the Astros have completely ruled out moving him to another position since he is athletic and small for a first baseman, but that won’t happen until his hitting has fully developed. In fact, he played a game at third this year.
Overall, he has proven himself at Double-A. He is second in the Texas League in home runs, fifth in slugging, eleventh in on-base percentage, fourth in OPS, tied for the most walks and is second in strikeouts. He also has stolen six bases. He is still improving at Double-A and will probably get better. But, since he is a little older, he could probably handle another promotion to Triple-A. Why does he need to go to Round Rock? What’s the rush to promote him?
After all, Lance Berkman has a club option for next season. With his knee giving him problems and his current (bad) performance, Berkman wouldn’t warrant the type of contract that the option gives. With the tiny scare we had recently when he stole second base and had to be checked out by the trainer, that knee is getting scarier and scarier. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has off-season surgery. So, if that option isn’t picked up, and he doesn’t re-sign for a lower price, we will need a cheap replacement for Berkman. Chris Shelton has been strong in his injury-plagued season for the Express, but honestly he isn’t much more than a Quad-A guy. The Astros also recently made a small trade for Tommy Everidge. The former Mariners farm hand played 24 games in the majors last year but wasn’t very impressive. He basically seems to be another Quad-A guy as well. My thought is that the Astros could promote Koby and let him adjust to Triple-A before coming into spring training next year with a chance to compete for a starting spot at first. He still could compete for a spot next year without the promotion, much like Jason Castro did this spring. It’s just that I would feel more comfortable with the transition if he had some Triple-A time under his belt.