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Minor League Spotlight: Early Returns on Bader and Dejong

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Checking in on two of the Cardinals' more intriguing hitting prospects.

Bader, at least, appears to already have Carlos's blessing.
Bader, at least, appears to already have Carlos's blessing.
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

In last year's Rule IV draft (i.e. the amateur draft, first-year player draft, or just The Draft, whatever you prefer to call it), the Cardinals seemingly made it a priority to pick up some bats. It was a slightly odd approach to a very weak draft, which seemed especially thin on hitting, but looking at the players the Redbirds picked, I tend to think they did very well for themselves, finding some real gems in a class that was probably a bit more maligned than it absolutely deserved to be.

Among the more high-ceilinged hitters picked, high school players like Nick Plummer (who made a handful of appearances in major league spring training at just age nineteen, and didn't look terrible, leading me to hope he makes me look as if I vastly underrated him in my prospect rankings), and Bryce Denton, the batspeed wunderkind third baseman from Tennessee (who also happens to love the Cardinals, which I find quite charming), stand out as being very notable for their upsides, as well as for being fairly unusual specimens in terms of the Redbirds' drafting strategy in recent years. The Cardinals are well known for preferring college performers -- think of the Stephen Piscottys and Kolten Wongs of the world -- over raw upside plays from the high school ranks. Chris Correa's only draft in charge went against that to a certain extent, particularly early. Which is both fascinating and frustrating, since at this point we'll never really know what the Correa regime's draft strategy would have looked like long term.

However, there were also a pair of college bats who fell squarely into both the 'college performer' demographic, and also the more intriguing demographic of 'you know, there might be more in there than we think' players. I speak of Harrison Bader, an outfielder from the University of Florida, and Paul Dejong, a college senior draftee from Illinois State, who began as a catcher, has played multiple positions, and currently looks to most likely be a third baseman long term.

Both Bader and Dejong came into pro ball last year and immediately laid waste to all they saw, with Bader overwhelming Rookie ball pitchers to the tune of a .276 ISO and 209 wRC+, earning himself a very quick (30 PAs quick, to be exact), promotion to Peoria. There, in his first taste of full-season ball, the Bronxville Bomber continued his assault on minor league hurlers, hitting nine homers in 228 plate appearances, stealing fifteen bases, and keeping his strikeout rate under 20% en route to a 152 wRC+. Not bad for a guy fresh out of college, likely a little worn down at the end of a long season, and facing the best competition of his life.

Not to be outdone, Dejong jumped from Illinois State, not nearly the powerhouse Florida is, in terms of baseball (no offense to Illinois State), straight into the pro ranks and just flat-out decimated the competition (actually, considering decimation involves killing only one out of every ten, what Dejong did to Appalachian League pitchers would seem to be significantly worse than the ancient Roman practice), bashing his way to a stunning 309 wRC+, largely on the strength of a .583(!) BABIP and .486(!!) ISO. You can say he was the beneficiary of batted-ball luck, but considering the crazy isolated slugging number as well, it seems more likely he was just too good for the level, and did nothing but hit ropes everywhere for 45 plate appearances, at which point the Cardinal organisation tired of the lamentations of the Appy League women and mercifully moved Dejong up to Peoria, same as Bader. Once in the Midwest League, Dejong continued his very strong first season in the pro ranks, with a 133 wRC+, a walk rate close to 10%, a K rate of just 17.4%, five home runs and thirteen stolen bases in seventeen tries. He did a little bit of everything, and didn't look bad at third base, either, in the very limited viewings I had of him there.

Making these players even more intriguing is the fact that, to begin the 2016 campaign, the Cardinals decided to move both of them to Double A Springfield. The reason this makes both more intriguing is fairly obvious; the fact the organisation felt justified in challenging them with the biggest jump in the minors says a lot about what the Redbirds seem to think they might have in these players. Double A is traditionally the biggest weeding out point in the minor leagues; if the Fermi Paradox and accompanying Great Filter were questions of why 1200 amateur players are drafted and enter the professional ranks each and every year, yet we see clubs routinely struggle to maintain 25 man rosters of quality baseballers, the Double A level would be the point at which we would focus our examinations. If you can make it in Double A, there is a very high chance of you at least making it to the big leagues, and probably in the relatively short term.

In the case of the Cardinals, though, there is also another consideration, which throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the works. Namely, the Cards' High A affiliate (or perhaps just High A club; I'm not sure 'affiliate' applies to a wholly-owned entity), Palm Beach of the Florida State League, happens to play at Roger Dean Stadium, the spring training home of the Redbirds, and also an absolute nightmare of a ballpark for hitters. The FSL has always been a tough place to hit; the air and relatively large parks depress power in general, but Roger Dean in particular has seemingly become a terroristic atmosphere for hitters over the past handful of years. Why that is the case I can't say, but we've seen hitters like Anthony Garcia simply disappear into the ether there, only to take back off once they escaped the event horizon of Roger Dean.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, while the Cardinals are pretty clearly challenging both Bader and Dejong with the aggressive promotion to Double A, there's also reason to believe they may have pushed both past the most extreme environment in the system, and the one which seems to currently be causing some difficulties in terms of evaluations.

So how have the two young sluggers done so far in their Double A experiment? Well, the results have been mixed, to say the least.

Harrison Bader is the upside of the challenge promotion idea. He started slowly, striking out too much early (not shocking, considering the jump in level of quality), but then got himself on track, in a big way.

As of this morning, Bader's Double A line stands at .338/.398/.563, good for a .960 OPS and a wRC+ in the 170 neighbourhood. I say in the neighbourhood because Fangraphs isn't quite as up to date as MiLB.com, but has his OPS at .937 with a wRC+ of 168. So, 170ish.

The good news, beyond the simple fact that slash line is awesome, is the five home runs Bader has hit. Even in a fairly hitter-friendly environment (although Springfield doesn't distort right-handed hitters' lines nearly the way it does with lefties), that's a very impressive number. Extrapolated over a full season of ~600 plate appearances, you're talking about something like a 35 homer pace. In other words, Harrison Bader looked like a slugger last year, and he looks like a slugger now. The power is very, very exciting.

The not-so-good, but also not-so-bad, news is the .440 BABIP Bader is carrying currently. The reason it's not so good is obvious; that's not a sustainable number, and that 170 wRC+ would look a whole lot worse if we were to lop off a hundred points of batted-ball fortune. On the other hand, the reason the news is not so bad is a truth which is only beginning to be fully understood in terms of the minor leagues, which is that super-high BABIPs are actually pretty good predictors of future success, rather than a reflection of simple luck. Chris Mitchell's KATOH system puts a pretty high emphasis on BABIP as a predictor, in fact. The reason is this: in the big leagues, the talent level is so consistently high, and so well-established and understood, that big outliers in terms of batted-ball fortune are almost universally doomed to regress. In the minors, however, there are hitters who are capable of simply outplaying the level at which they are stationed, and what looks like batted-ball luck can be a matter of batted-ball quality overwhelming the competition. To be sure, Bader is not going to carry a .440 BABIP going forward, but that number combined with a ~.200 ISO and 35+ homer pace all points toward a player consistently making very hard contact.

The bad news about Bader's line is the same negative we saw in his game last season: a fairly poor approach at the plate. He's walked in only about 5% of his plate appearances this season, while striking out in over 25%. Neither of those numbers is very good, but when you put them together, you have a very worrisome situation. In fact, the situation you have with Bader's plate discipline is almost exactly the same as you have with Randal Grichuk, and points toward Grichuk actually being a remarkably good comp for what Bader could look like going forward. Both are big-time power threats, but a complete lack of patience at the plate, combined with relatively poor contact skills, likely limits the ceiling, since it's very hard to see how a player like Bader will carry any kind of decent on-base percentage. Sadly, Jack Zduriencik isn't still in charge of a major league team, and so the trade market for low-OBP right-handed sluggers would seem to be much thinner nowadays.

Here's Bader hitting a dinger, because dingers are fun.

via MiLB.com:

For Dejong, I don't have to go through the whole rigamarole of good news, not-so-good news, and whatever else there may be. Unfortunately for both the Illinois State alumni and those of us who were excited about his potential, the 2016 season has basically been one long stretch of bad news, at least so far.

Dejong's Double A batting line currently stands at a disastrous .197/.271/.289, and that's actually up from a few days ago, due to a two-hit night last night against Arkansas. He has no home runs. I'm not going to extrapolate that out over a full season the way I did with Bader.

The problem for Dejong is simple: strikeouts. While he limited his Ks in both Rookie ball and Peoria last season, the jump to Double A has seen Dejong whiff in 38% of his plate appearances. His walk rate is not terrible, at 7.4%, but not all that good, either. Huge strikeout rate, a low walk rate, and an ISO of just .083 all would seem to suggest a hitter who is overmatched at his current level. The one bit of good news is five doubles in less than 90 PAs -- oh, and a triple, as well -- but that's not nearly enough good news to make up for all the bad.

I honestly haven't seen enough of Dejong play this year to say whether he is really, truly overmatched, or if he's perhaps starting to adjust; I haven't caught many games on MiLB.tv this year so far. Thus, I can't offer you much of a scouting report, and the numbers paint a picture bleak enough there doesn't seem to be a ton to say about them. Double A is the biggest jump in the minors, and the toughest culling process players go through prior to the big leagues. So far, Paul Dejong looks like he may be on the wrong side of that filter.

It is, however, early, which we should always endeavour to keep in mind. Less than 100 plate appearances is much too small a sampling with which to condemn a player, or to exalt another who comes out and has success. Still, as excited and optimistic as I was about Dejong coming into the season, I have to admit to being rather crestfallen to see his utter lack of success so far.

I would like to offer you a highlight of Pauly D doing something exciting this year. However, there aren't any. Which says quite a lot about his season.

Oh, and so you don't have to go searching for them, here are my preseason scouting reports on Bader and Dejong, respectively.