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Korey Lee’s Loft Woes in Rear View?

2019 first round pick Korey Lee has been known as a very well rounded prospect with the exception of one facet of his profile- which may be rounding into form down the stretch.

MLB: Houston Astros at Los Angeles Angels Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros selection of Korey Lee came as a bit of surprise back on draft day 2019, but the backstop out of Cal had earned himself plenty of fans with his big junior year performance hitting back-to-back with Andrew Vaughn. After hitting just .238/.328/.426 as a sophomore, he erupted for a .337/.416/.618 slash in his draft year, hitting 15 home runs and looking like a legitimate behind-the-plate defender along the way. His track record of hitting was short, but scouts often commented that while he didn’t really have a plus tool in his kit, his game was very solid across the board, offering upside on both sides of the ball.

After losing a season to the pandemic, Lee hit the ground running in the Astros’ system with a .330/.397/.459 slash for High-A Asheville in his full season ball debut, striking out 24 times against 12 walks in 121 PAs and prompting a promotion to Double-A Corpus. His production was more modest in the upper minors, but he held his own with a .254/.320/.443 slash and maintained a strong K% of 17.4%. The defense continued to draw positive reviews- he was a capable receiver and what he lacked in arm strength he made up for in accuracy, so it was hard to view his full season debut in anything but a positive light.

The Astros seemed to agree, sending Lee to the Arizona Fall League that offseason, where his performance was mixed. While he did manage a .352 OBP, that figure outpaced his .339 SLG. While he hit for more power during the regular season, even then his slugging numbers didn’t really evidence the solid average raw power that the pure EV data suggested. As you might guess, the driving force behind the disparity was a lack of consistent loft, and that was particularly noticeable out in Arizona. The launch angle issues tempered expectations going forward to a degree, but on the whole evaluators were impressed with Lee’s 2021 and he earned some back end top 100 nods prior to 2022.

Unfortunately, Lee started 2022 out of sorts at the plate, this time with Triple-A Sugar Land, posting a 22/6 K/BB in April before backsliding further to 32/4 in May, lowering his season line to .202/.256/.387 entering play on June 1. While he found his groove when the calendar turned, hitting .271/.340/.482 that month, he managed just 3 home runs in 93 PAs despite plenty of hard contact. It was at this point that he was forced into premature major league action thanks to big league injuries, and he understandably wasn’t able to do too much at the plate. When he returned to the Skeeters, however, he seemed to escape the loft issue. Between his 4th game back in the minors on August 5th and the end of the month, Lee socked 10 round-trippers, nearly matching his 2021 season total of 11 in just 18 games- including a three homer effort on 8/24- while slugging .700 for the month.

It would’ve been awfully difficult for Lee to maintain that kind of pace, but he has managed a very strong .237 ISO with 5 more bombs this month, raising his season total to 25 in just 446 PAs. If I had been told that Lee would hit 25 home runs this season coming into the year, I would’ve guessed that he had pushed himself even further up prospect lists and probably positioned himself as the primary big league catcher for 2023, but unfortunately the power surge has come with a tradeoff. After maintaining a strikeout rate under 20% in Double-A last year, that number ballooned to 28.5% in 2022. While the ugly start inflates that figure a bit, he has continued to strikeout at a concerning clip through his huge stretch run. This suggests that if Lee is to consistently catch pitches out in front so that he can loft them, it may mean that he has to eat a good deal more swing and miss.

In my eyes, the profile that he has shown in 2022 is still the preferable one, as his plate approach tends to be on the patient side, preferring to lay off borderline pitches, and consistently punishing the mistakes that come his way is probably his best route to maximizing his offensive production. It would be nice to see him make a bit more contact as he settles into his updated approach and that is certainly not outside the realm of possibility, but there have been plenty of big league catchers with below average on base ability but above average to plus power, which is the look that we’re currently getting from Lee. He projects to return to Triple-A to start 2023, and if he can find a bit more consistency, he could end up as the strong side of a backstop tandem, but failing that the improved power production should at least make him a very strong backup. In short, the season has been a success, but there are some qualifications to note.