Oscar Taveras' introduction to the majors has not gone as planned. After a hitless night on Wednesday, Tavares' line for the season dropped to .206/.247/.284 for a wRC+ of 49 in 150 plate appearances. Although plate appearances continue to pile up, Taveras is still very much in the introductory stage of his major league career. One hundred fifty plate appearances is not enough to judge any professional hitter, veteran or rookie, but questions regarding Taveras' future as well as playing time in the present have arisen of late. While his struggles are frustrating to watch, sticking with a player of Taveras' immense talent and minor league track record is the best course of action for the Cardinals.
After omitting Taveras from his annual trade value series, Dave Cameron at Fangraphs wrote about Taveras in depth, titling his post, "Why I'm a bit of an Oscar Taveras skeptic". The title of my post notwithstanding, this post is not intended as a takedown of that post. Cameron's overall points, "projecting future offensive performance is the hardest thing for scouts to do" and "there's a decent chance that Taveras will never have more value to the Cardinals than he does as a trade chip right now" are fair points to make. However, they universally apply to all prospects and are hardly unique to Taveras. He is right that as a corner outfielder, Taveras will have to have an elite bat in the majors to be an elite player.
Cameron makes his argument by trying to identify hitters similar to Taveras based on Triple-A numbers. Leaving aside Taveras' ankle injury that might have depressed his Triple-A statistics, looking at equivalent stat lines does have value. The poster child for Cameron's argument is Jesus Montero, the former top-catching prospect of the Yankees and Mariners who has yet to find his footing in the majors. Here are the Triple-A numbers of both players.
Note: wRC+ is my preferred stat to measure hitters. However, I prefer not to use wRC+ for minor league stats as it is not park adjusted like the major league version. This can be problematic, especially in Triple-A, when some players play in extremely hitter-friendly parks like in Las Vegas.
While both players hit for a high average and decent power without walking a ton, Taveras made significantly more contact than Montero. Montero struck out nearly 70 percent more often than Taveras did at Triple-A. Assuming a .300 BABIP, that eight percent difference between the two players amounts to a 25 point difference in batting average. Most of the other players Cameron mentioned (L.J. Hoes, Jose Tabata, Mike Moustakas) either struck out more often, walked less or simply showed no power in the minors. Cameron admitted his search was not exhaustive, but he did find a lot of players who were highly regarded as prospects who have yet to hit in the big leagues. I decided to do a more exhaustive study.
Fangraphs minor league leaderboards go back to 2006. I looked at every Triple-A season from 2006-2013 for hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. There were roughly 2,000 seasons. Many of those hitters were considerably older than Taveras, who made his major league debut before his 22nd birthday. First, I narrowed the search to players in their Age-23 season or below. To find hitters similar to Taveras, I looked at three factors: BB%, K%, and ISO. I was looking for players with a low walk percentage, low strikeout percentage and decent power. Taveras had a 6.2% walk rate so I looked for players between 4.2% and 8.2%. Taveras' strikeout rate was 11.8% in Triple-A so I looked at players with strikeout rates between 9.8% and 13.8%.
There were twenty players with low walk rates like Taveras to go along with excellent strikeout numbers. Just one percent out of nearly 2,000 seasons matched Taveras initially. An expansion of the search parameters would have resulted in more players to choose from, but going any further on walks would have resulted in a 50% difference from Taveras while going further on the strikeouts would make the numbers no longer elite.
In looking at the resulting players, a vast majority were slap hitters. Not a single player matched or exceeded Taveras' ISO of .172. The closest player was Tony Abreu, who had a Las Vegas-fueled, .402 BABIP-aided line of .355/.399/.517 in just 253 plate appearances. In short, no player since 2005 has had a season closely resembling Oscar Taveras' Triple-A career. Oscar Taveras has displayed a unique blend of free-swinging that has resulted in both low strikeouts and decent power. It is likely that combination, evidenced by his incredibly quick and powerful swing, that has brought Taveras success and tantalized scouts on his way to the majors.
Feeling slightly disappointed, but still intrigued that I could not find a decent comp for Taveras, I decided to expand my search down to Double-A. I ran the same parameters as before over roughly 2,000 Double-A seasons. This time, I found 58 players with the same walk and strikeout numbers. There were even 13 with an ISO greater than .150. There were a few decent major leaguers on the list like Billy Butler and Mitch Moreland. One player's ISO stood high above the rest at .252, more than 50 points higher than the next total. That player was Oscar Taveras, when in 2012 he hit .321/.380/.572 in Springfield as a 19-20 year old.
Hitting like almost nobody else will come with a fair share of skepticism. Before the season started, I looked at players in 2013 who matched up with Oscar Taveras' ZiPS preseason projection and came up with just five players. Whether he succeeds or fails, Taveras is likely to do so in a manner far different from most of those in baseball.
For some perspective on Taveras' short career thus far, Matt Adams has a .291 On-Base percentage in his last 148 plate appearances. Kolten Wong was hitting .228/.282/.304 with a wRC+ of 65 in his first 171 plate appearances this season and has hit .286/.308/.563 since. Mike Trout started .220/.281/.390 in his first 135 plate appearances. These numbers and players are cherry-picked, not because they are any guarantee for Oscar Tavares, but because they are a few of the very many examples of what can happen in such a small amount of plate appearances. Passing judgment at this time on what Taveras will do the rest of the season, let alone his career, based on his time in St. Louis thus far is a mistake.
One more cherry-picked name: Vladimir Guerrero. Both arrived in the majors just shy of their 21st birthdays. Both excelled in the minors against players older than they were. Guerrero's first 129 major league plate appearances resulted in a .250/.310/.353 line in a much-higher offensive environment than today's resulting in a wRC+ of 75. We have been cautioned for years that comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero are unfair to Taveras. Comparing Guerrero to Taveras is unfair if the same results are expected, but it is hard to deny their similair free-swinging approach, their minor league numbers, and their initial forays into the majors. Vladimir Guerrero as a hitter is Taveras' ceiling. It may not be fair to expect the stars, but it is certainly acceptable to dream of them. It is also fair to compare how they were treated when they arrived in the majors:
Montreal's coaching staff held a meeting to discuss how to handle this guy, this once-in-a-generation talent--who who was also the least disciplined player many of them would ever see.
"I'll never forget that meeting as long as I live," said Jim Tracy, who'd been promoted to become Felipe Alou's bench coach. "Felipe called the staff into his office. And with that deep-ass voice of his, I heard this message: 'Leave him alone.' That's what he said. 'There's going to be mistakes. The ball's not going to be thrown to the cut-off man early on. his plate discipline is going to be very raw at best. Leave. Him. Alone.'"Up, Up, & Away by Jonah Keri
A lot has changed in the game in the past twenty years. Prospects are no longer unknowns until they reach the majors. Taveras has been a well-known figure among Cardinals' fans for several years and has come under considerably more scrutiny than he would have had he come up a few decades ago. Coming off ankle surgery in the spring, his health was questioned and he received a quick exit from major league camp. He was finally brought up, and after a bunch of hard hits and bad luck, he was sent back down. The Cardinals offense continued to suffer and he was called back up, but he quickly found himself on the bench in favor of slumping veteran Allen Craig.
Mike Matheny appeared unwilling to play Taveras regularly. The situation became so convoluted, the Cardinals traded Craig to make room for Taveras. A bunch of hits after the trade deadline and all was well, but a few hitless games and calls reappear to send Taveras to the bench. The last year has been full of adversity for Oscar Taveras, but he keeps swinging.
The success of the franchise does not ride on Oscar Taveras' shoulders. The success of the season is not dependent on Oscar Taveras, but the success of Oscar Taveras has the potential to add another decade to the Cardinals' long run of contention. The Cardinals do not have to leave him alone, but let him play. Let him hit and see what happens. A realist might lean towards skepticism, but being optimistic is a lot more fun.