Trying To Find Hidden Gems With BB/K – 2022-23 Edition

Last offseason, I tried to find under-the-radar minor league prospects by looking at how much a hitter walked and struck out. Sometimes, these stats can indicate a hitter has a keen eye at the plate which will help them succeed as they move up the minor league ladder. I used Mookie Betts and Jose Ramirez as examples of young players who had strong BB/K rates in the minors who then went on to have greater MLB success than many prospect evaluators had projected.

Looking at 2021 stats, I highlighted players who had 300 or more plate appearances at Double-A and/or Triple-A and a BB/K rate of 1.00 or higher. Did this help us find hidden gems? Let’s look at the results before moving on to this year’s crop. The names on the list were Alejo Lopez, Isaac Paredes, Steven Kwan, Tyler White, Cooper Hummel and Jonah Bride.

Two of these players had breakout years in 2022. Kwan made his MLB debut and had a tremendous season on both sides of the ball. He provided excellent outfield defense and continued his great work at the plate, walking more than he struck out at the major league level. He had a season strong enough he could have won Rookie of the Year honors in another year, but he had to settle for third this year due to an incredible batch of rookie campaigns that also included Julio Rodriguez and Adley Rutschman. The other breakout was Paredes, who was traded to the Rays in April as part of the Austin Meadows deal. He hit 20 home runs in 111 games while posting walk and strikeout rates that were both better than league average. Paredes is less of a hidden gem since he snuck onto the back end of Baseball America’s top 100 in 2019 and 2020, though he had fallen off in the two subsequent seasons. Kwan never made it onto the top 100 and only made the top 30 among Cleveland farmhands for the first time going into 2022, coming in at #27. FanGraphs, it’s worth noting, was far more bullish, slotting Kwan third in the Guardians system and 57th overall heading into the year.

Most of the rest of the group is TBD, as they only got limited MLB appearances. Lopez was frequently optioned and got into 61 games in the majors, still proving very tough to strike out but not doing much damage when he did connect. Hummel struggled in his first 66 games but still hit very well in the minors, walking in 15.4% of his plate appearances and slashing .310/.423/.527. The Mariners must be intrigued by him, since they just traded Kyle Lewis to get him from the Diamondbacks. Bride made his MLB debut and scuffled in 58 games but hit .342/.453/.568 in the minors while still walking more than he struck out. As for White, he was 31 last year and only really plays first base, making it hard for him to carve out a role on a major league team. He started the year in the Brewers’ system but was acquired by the Braves in a midseason trade. Between the Triple-A teams of the two organizations, he had another decent season at the plate, walking in 16% of his appearances while striking out just 20.1% of the time.

Out of six guys highlighted last year, two became MLB regulars, two didn’t immediately hit the ground running but still hit well in the minors and another two were sort of mediocre. It’s not a perfect system but not a bad shorthand, in my opinion. A common theme you will see with the players below is their strike zone discipline often comes with a lack of power. In order to turn this profile into a breakout, that usually means the hitter needs to get stronger or change their approach slightly. In the case of Paredes, he seems to have started selling out more in 2022, as his strikeout rate climbed but so did his isolated power. Kwan didn’t add power, only going deep six times, but his on-base skills were combined with speed and defense to help him be an all-around producer.

If we look at the 2022 numbers, can we find next year’s Kwan or Paredes? Even if that’s setting our sights too high, some of these guys are Rule 5 eligible and could be candidates to be nabbed in next month’s draft. Let’s take a look at the players with a BB/K rate at 1.00 or above with 300 or more plate appearances at Double-A and/or Triple-A in 2022.

Michael Stefanic, infielder, Angels, BB/K rate at Triple-A: 2.18

Stefanic got 346 plate appearances in Triple-A this year, walking in 13.9% of them while striking out just 6.4% of the time. He didn’t provide much power, however, hitting only four home runs in that time despite playing in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. His final batting line there was .314/.422/.425 for a wRC+ of 122. He also got into 25 major league games without finding much success. It’s a somewhat similar profile to another Angels infielder in David Fletcher. Stefanic was an undrafted free agent, has never been on BA’s top 100 and only cracked the Angels’ top 30 for the first time a year ago. He’ll turn 27 in February.

Nick Dunn, infielder, Cardinals, BB/K rate at Double-A: 1.50

The Cardinals seem to have a knack for turning their lesser draft picks into solid major leaguers, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a couple of them on this list. Dunn was selected in the fifth round in 2018 and has never cracked a BA list of top prospects in the system, though he was mentioned at FanGraphs, where Eric Longenhagen called him “a free-swinging Brendan Donovan — same hair and everything.” In 2022, Dunn got 472 plate appearances and walked 13.3% of the time while striking out at just a 8.9% clip. Similar to Stefanic, it hasn’t resulted in much power, with Dunn only hitting seven long balls on the year, which was a career high. He’ll be 26 in January. He’s eligible to be selected in next month’s Rule 5 draft.

John Nogowski, first base/outfielder, free agent, BB/K rate at Double-A and Triple-A: 1.08

Nogowski got some brief MLB looks in 2020 and 2021 and couldn’t do much with them. He split 2022 between Atlanta’s and Washington’s system, getting 483 plate appearances while walking more than he struck out. Similar to the players above him, it didn’t result in much power, as he went deep eight times and produced a batting line of .248/.366/.362. A 34th-round draft pick from 2014, he’s never been on a team prospect list at BA or FanGraphs. He’ll turn 30 in January.

Willians Astudillo, utility player, free agent, BB/K rate at Triple-A: 1.06

It’s likely that you’re already familiar with “La Tortuga” since he’s appeared in the majors for the past five years and has become a fan favorite. He hardly ever strikes out but also hardly ever walks or goes deep, which is why he’s had trouble sticking in the majors despite incredible bat-to-ball skills. He spent most of this year in Triple-A for the Marlins, hitting very well down there. However, he’s now 31 and hasn’t produced much over 588 career plate appearances in the majors.

Vinnie Pasquantino, first base, Royals, BB/K rate at Triple-A: 1.03

This one is the hardest to call a hidden gem since Pasquantino is already on display. That being said, the 11th round draft pick from 2019 wasn’t a highly-touted prospect until a strong 2021 campaign got him onto the list of top farmhands in the Royals’ system from both BA and FanGraphs going into 2022. He got called up in late June and acclimated to big league pitching immediately. He had already walked more than he struck out at Triple-A in the first half of the year and then did the same in the show. He also went deep 18 times in Triple-A and 10 times in the majors. He only has 298 MLB plate appearances but the signs are pointing to him being the real deal. He just turned 25 last month.

Evan Mendoza, infielder, Cardinals, BB/K rate at Triple-A: 1.00

Another Cardinal, Mendoza was an 11th round draft pick in 2017. In 421 plate appearances this year, his strikeouts and walks came out even at 56. Unfortunately, like some others on this list, his contact wasn’t terribly productive, resulting in a slash line of .247/.348/.325. He did add a speed element to his game recently, though, swiping 15 bags last year and 17 this year. With the new rules coming into play that encourage more baserunning, perhaps his on-base skills will help him prove valuable. He’s never cracked the top 30 prospects in the system at either BA or FanGraphs, though FG did put him at #34 back in 2018. He’s eligible to be selected in the upcoming Rule 5 draft.

Tanner Morris, infielder, Blue Jays, BB/K rate at Double-A and Triple-A: 1.00

Morris began his year in Double-A, getting 186 plate appearances with matching 16.1% walk and strikeout rates. He hit five homers in that sample while slashing an excellent .312/.430/.468. He got bumped to Triple-A but couldn’t keep things rolling, perhaps due to a .233 BABIP, as he hit .173/.352/.173 in 126 plate appearances there. However, he again posted matching walk and strikeout rates of 19.8%, meaning he finished the year with rates of 17.6% over 312 plate appearances between the two levels. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and got into 15 games, walking 15 times against nine Ks for a batting line of .279/.466/.372. A fifth round pick from 2019, he’s been on the back end of Toronto prospect lists over the past few years. He recently turned 25 and is Rule 5 eligible.

Bryce Windham, catcher, Cubs, BB/K rate at Double-A: 1.00

A 32nd round pick of the 2019 draft, Windham got 304 plate appearances at Double-A this year, finishing with walk and strikeout totals of 44, a 14.5% rate for each. It was quite tepid production overall, leading to a batting line of just .202/.322/.289, though his .227 BABIP was well below his previous seasons. He’s never been listed as a top prospect in the system by either BA or FanGraphs. He recently turned 26 and is Rule 5 eligible.

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