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Astros Hitter Profile: Brett Wallace

I stepped on a nail Wednesday at work. It was a short, rusty nail that punctured the sole of my shoe, but it didn’t draw blood or go very deep. Nevertheless, I went to a doctor's office and got my tetanus shot. Why do I bring this up? Brad Mills stepped on his own rusty nail Wednesday in the ninth inning when he pinch hit Pedro Feliz for Brett Wallace. In the short term, this probably doesn’t hurt the team, but if this strategy continues, you may begin to experience spasms.

I first saw that Brad Mills had pinch hit for Wallace while, heading to my car, keeping tabs on the game via Gameday through the MLB At Bat app. I stopped in my tracks and my jaw hit the floor. I felt the rage building inside me as Feliz popped out to second base. I stewed over the move on my ride home, listening to the game as it played out in extra innings. I realized, driving home, we had not done a profile Wallace yet and felt now would be a good time to do a profile on our newest first baseman. Hopefully shedding some light on why pinch-hitting for the left-handed hitting Wallace with a left-handed pitcher on the mound is a bad idea.

Since being called up to man first base, Wallace has posted a .333 batting average, a .438 on-base percentage (OBP) and a on-base plus slugging percentage adjusted for Minute MaidPark (OPS+) of 130. Those are some nice numbers but in only 32 plate appearances, that’s a small sample size. To get a better idea of what we can expect of Wallace, let's focus on what he's been able to do in the Minor Leagues.

First, here's a little background. He was select 13th overall in the first round of the 2008 MLB draft by the St. Louis Cardinals as a third baseman out of Arizona State University, just three picks after Jason Castro. A year later, he was traded to the Oakland Athletics in the Matt Holliday deal. That offseason, he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for minor league outfielder Michael Taylor. The Blue Jays, interesting enough, had drafted Wallace in the 42nd round of the 2005 draft, but he decided against signing and instead attended Arizona State.Wallace was then traded to the Astros for minor league outfielder Anthony Gose, who had been acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies for Roy Oswalt.

Wallace has got to have some frequent flier miles built up.

During these transactions, it was determined that Wallace's future position lay at first base. The transition from third base to first began some time in 2009, although a majority of his time was still spent at third base. He eventually made the full transition to first base in Toronto's minor league system last year.

On the offensive side, Wallace looks solid. His career line in the minors is .304/.375/.487 with 46 home runs, 93 walks and 238 strike outs in 287 minor league games. He doesn't walk as much as I'd like and looks to strike out quite a bit, but his bat looks solid and should keep his average above .300.

Wallace signed with the Cardinals on July 1, 2008 and was shipped to Class A ball. He immediately posted a .908 in 41 games there. The Cardinals promoted him to AA, skipping a level, which is common for advanced college hitters. In 13 games at AA, he posted an OPS of 1.109, combined with his numbers at A ball that is an OPS of .957, not bad for his first professional season of pro ball. His numbers dropped a bit in 2009 at AA as he posted an .841 OPS in 32 games. The Cardinals promoted him to AAA anyway, where in 62 games he posted a .769 OPS before being traded to Oakland. In 44 games with Oakland's AAA team, he bounced back a bit and posted an .870 OPS. For 2009 in 138 games, he finished with 20 home runs, 47 walks, 116 strike outs and a .293/.367/.455 slash line in 600 plate appearances.

In 95 games with Toronto’s AAA team the next year, Wallace hit 18 home runs, walked 27 times and struck out 83 times with a .301/.359/.509  line in 423 plate appearances. That’s an .868 OPS, which matches up with his minor league career of .863. Over the course of a Major League season, Wallace would be expected to hit 20-25 home runs, 50-60 walks, 100+ strikeouts with something around a mid .800 OPS. At least that's what I keep hearing.

I’m not so sure that the constant moving hasn’t had some effect on his numbers. His drop from a .957 OPS in A and AA ball to an .822 OPS the next year in AA and AAA seems a bit drastic. This year in AAA he improved his OPS to .868 but I think it’s possible he could improve even more and flirt with being a .900 OPS guy. I know a lot of experts have said his range is mid .800 OPS-wise but he hasn't been in the minors long enough to definitively make that assumption. He’s been in a very unique situation having been in four different organizations already.

For funsies, his itinerary between 2009 and 2010 was; Springfield, MO; Memphis, TN; Sacramento, CA; Las Vegas, NV; and Houston, TX. That’s a pretty crappy deal, and I wouldn’t doubt if that had some kind of effect on his performance.  Oh, and he switched from third base to first base during all this.

It also may have had no effect on him at all.

In 2009, Wallace’s OPS dropped from .841 in AA to .756 when he was promoted to AAA. That could be something you expect as a hitter gets acclimated to his new level. After his trade to Oakland, his OPS jumps to .870 at their AAA level in 203 plate appearances. In 423 plate appearances with Toronto's AAA team, he posted an .868 OPS. From the looks of it, moving around may not have had any effect on him at all. The question then becomes could he have improved with a more stable environment?

For reference, the three-year park factors* for Springfield is 1.1 in runs, 1.01 in hits, 1.32 in home runs. The PF for Memphis is .99 in runs, .97 in hits and .99 in home runs. The PF for Sacramento is .96 in runs, .95 in hits and .88 in home runs. Finally, the PF for Las Vegas is 1.11 for runs, 1.07 for hits and 1.05 for home runs. That means his performance at Sacramento, for the Oakland A's organization, is probably the most impressive of the bunch.

*Above 1 is an advantage for hitters, and below 1 is an advantage for pitchers.

That’s not even the most interesting thing about Wallace.

His splits of right handed pitcher verse left handed pitcher are ridiculous and the reason for my rant at the beginning of this article. Are you ready for this? (Remember he’s a left handed hitter).

In 808 at-bats versus right-handed minor league pitching, he had an OPS of .831. Not bad, but his career OPS in the minors is .863. Baseball common wisdom is that as a left-handed batter you should post a higher OPS against right handed pitching. Nope. In 329 at bats against lefties, he had a .940 OPS. That my friends is absolutely ridiculous!

The most interesting man in the world would say that is amazing.

If you break his OPS down, he has a .438 OBP against lefties as opposed to a .348 against righties. It appears he sees left-handed pitching better than right-handed pitching. The split in slugging percentage isn’t so drastic. Against lefties, it’s .502 and it’s .483 against right-handers. That trend has continued in the majors, albeit in a very small sample size. In 48 plate appearances, Wallace has a .707 OPS against right-handed pitching and a 1.181 OPS against lefties.

What I like about these splits is not that he hits left-handed pitching so well, but the fact that he can hit both types of pitching well. If he can improve his numbers against right-handers, he'll be a very special hitter.

Overall, I’m taking a more optimistic approach to Wallace than most people are. The performance drop from his first professional year to the second seems a little too drastic to me. Another year in the minors could tell us a little more about his expected level, but Brett Wallace is ready for the Major Leagues now. He'll have to settle the difference in our opinions playing at Minute Maid Park. I certainly don’t think he’ll post a mid .900 OPS like he did in Low A ball, but I do think he can be a high .800 to low .900 OPS guy. I think his talent has carried him through the unique situation of having to travel through four different organization in such a short time period. Given time and stability, I think he'll improve and surprise a lot of people.