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System Sundays: Two Batted-Ball Litmus Tests

Two recent Cardinal acquisitions are doing interesting things in the minors.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Morning, all.

So last night sucked, didn’t it? I really kind of hate Coors Field, if I’m being honest. Not the park itself, mind you; I’ve had the opportunity to take in a couple games there, and it probably places a solid second, right behind PNC Park in Pittsburgh, on my list of favourite ballparks I’ve been to. Beautiful stadium, and beautiful environs. But the brand of baseball played there, and that constant feeling that things could just go completely off the rails at any moment, is not at all fun.

It’s not even the same as a tight, stressful game played in any other ballpark, where the outcome of the game potentially hinges on every pitch of every at-bat. That’s like the script of a beautifully paced thriller; taut and suspenseful, a series of quick exhalations between long periods of held breath. Rather, games at Coors resemble nothing so much as an attempt at suspense written by a hack who never got his head around the idea of a deus ex machina being, in fact, a bad thing, and even worse when you drop in two or three in a given story. The feeling of a game at Coors is not dramatic; it’s arbitrary and capricious.

Anyhow, enough of my complaining about a random eight-run inning that popped up pretty much out of nowhere. We have two players to talk about. Players who appear to be making adjustments on the fly, and might have something to say about what the Cardinals look like as early as 2019.

At the trade deadline this year, the Cardinals made a couple of notable deals. Nothing earth-shattering, mind you; dealing away Tommy Pham would have qualified had he been playing like 2017/April 2018 Pham, but that was not the case. There are enough red flags in Pham’s profile, in fact, that it’s not out of the question to wonder if we’ll ever really see that guy again, sadly. It also helps when you have Harrison Bader waiting in the wings to come out and break the defensive metrics; you don’t feel the loss so acutely when you immediately get a new kitten to replace Mr. Whiskers, who maybe shouldn’t have been so cavalier crossing the street. You just have to bring it up with your therapist years later to explain why you can’t trust your romantic partners, and occasionally cry whenever an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch comes on. (‘Cause she had a talking cat, you see. Okay, I’m forcing it a bit.)

In making those deals that sent Pham to the Rays and Luke Voit to the Yankees in exchange for a pair of relief arms, the Cardinals received some very intriguing talent. We’ve already seen Chasen Shreve have a big positive impact on the bullpen, offering the Cardinals a high-strikeout lefty option they were missing after the disappearance of Tyler Lyons. Genesis Cabrera is one of the most interesting pitching prospects in the Cards’ system now. It’s the other two players, though, that I want to focus on here, because both have been, in admittedly very small samples, quite different players since coming over to the Cardinals.

The first player we should look at here is Justin Williams, the outfield prospect the Cards received from Tampa Bay as part of the Pham return. To reset, in case anyone doesn’t recall, Williams just turned 23 last week, was a second-round selection by the Diamondbacks in the 2013 draft, and hits from the left side. He’s a big guy, 6’2” and 215 pounds, and has plus raw power as one of the calling cards in his offensive profile.

The downside with Williams is that he has just average speed, can’t really play center field, and his bat hasn’t yet ever really come around to the kind of upside scouts saw in him coming out of high school. He’s been an overly aggressive hitter for most of his minor league career, and worse than that his raw power has never really turned into game power, mostly due to the fact he hits a huge percentage of his batted balls on the ground.

And therein lies the update we need to get to. It’s long been fairly common knowledge that the big change needed in Justin Williams’s hitting profile is elevating his launch angle, so that some of those hard-hit ground balls become line drives and fly balls, hopefully also hit hard. The Rays tried to get him to elevate, and it looked like the power was really starting to show up in 2017, when he slugged .489 in Double A. This season, though, his slugging percentage dropped back down to .376, with a .118 ISO and a 52.2% groundball rate. That’s not great.

Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news about Williams since joining the Cards’ organisation. The bad news is this: he’s been pretty terrible. Actually, you might not even need the qualifier; a 70 wRC+ in the minors is...not good. His strikeout rate is up, at just over 23%, while his walk is still a too-aggressive 6.8%. Still, the biggest issue for Williams in Memphis has been a .234 BABIP, which is low enough to make just about anyone’s numbers look bad. I’ve only been able to watch Memphis games sporadically the past few weeks, so I haven’t seen a ton of Williams, but what I have seen doesn’t really impress me any more than what I was when he was a Tampa prospect.

However, there is also that good news that I noted a couple moments ago, and that good news is this: Justin Williams is actually hitting fewer ground balls now than he ever has before. I’ll point out again that we’re dealing with very small samples here — just 73 plate appearances in Williams’s case —but that’s still a few weeks’ worth of playing time, and we have something specific we’re looking for here, so it’s worth at least taking a look.

At no point in his minor league career has Justin Williams ever posted lower than a 50% groundball rate. In fact, for most of his minor league career it’s been up over 60%, but he’s gradually whittled that down to the mid- to low-50s over the past couple stops. So far in Memphis, Williams’s groundball rate is just 42%, a full ten percentage points lower than what he posted in Durham this year. Those missing grounders have turned into some fly balls, as he’s raised his FB% from 28% to 32%, but mostly into line drives, to the tune of a LD% of 26%, up from 19.6% in Durham. I really wish we had public launch angle data for the minors, but we don’t, so we have to rely on these fairly broad categories of classification.

Now, the iffy thing about the grounders mostly turning into line drives is that, in general, there isn’t a huge difference in launch angle between a liner and a grounder. If you’re looking for a guy to really tap into his power fully, you’d probably prefer to see more of that GB% decrease going toward fly balls, but anything that’s up off the ground is really going to be good news here. That high line drive rate also suggests to me Williams is hitting the ball much better than his results would suggest, so that’s on the up side, but line drives being the noisiest and most variable of batted-ball types goes on the down side of the ledger.

Obviously, the sample is too small to make any hard determinations with, but it’s encouraging all the same. We’ve got a little ways left to go in the minor league season, and what Williams does the rest of the way is going to be of great interest to me, and probably should be to you. I don’t see him as a starter, but his offensive upside and left-handed bat could make him the ideal fourth outfielder in a Bader-O’Neill-Ozuna (or, dare I dream, Harper), outfield alignment.

Oh, one last piece of good news: Williams’s ISO in Memphis is .182, basically in line with his Double A numbers from 2017, rather than his Durham stat line this season. It looks like there’s a lot of bad luck in his line right now, even if I’m still dubious of his ultimate offensive ceiling.

The other player we should take a look at is Giovanny Gallegos, the right-handed relief prospect the Cards received alongside Chasen Shreve in return for Luke Voit’s better-than-Greg-Byrd bat.

Gallegos is old for a prospect, at 27 years and twelve days old, but he followed a somewhat circuitous path to get to the majors as a later signee out of Mexico, rather than the typical 16 year old kid we usually think of when international signings are discussed. Throughout the minors — at least, once he really got rolling in 2015, that is — Gallegos has posted some astounding strikeout numbers. In 2016 he struck out 42.7% of the hitters he faced in Double A. The next year he K’d 40.8% of Triple A hitters he saw. And this year, returning to Triple A to begin the year for the Yankees, he struck out 13.34 batters per nine, or 35.7%. In other words, Giovanny Gallegos knows how to miss bats.

He’s also appeared in the big leagues briefly in each of the past two seasons. Both times, he came up, pitched a limited number of innings, and struck out exactly 25% of the hitters he faced. Not bad, but not epic. The other really encouraging thing about Gallegos’s profile is that he limits walks; his minor league strikeout rate has usually hovered around 6%, so it isn’t as if he’s wild but has such good stuff he can’t be hit. He has outstanding stuff, in a high-spin fastball he puts at the top of the zone and a fantastic curve that hitters just sort of helplessly flail at, if they can even get the bat off their shoulders at all.

The troubling thing about Gallegos has been, at least in the big leagues, a fairly extreme home run rate. I wrote about it at the time the trade was made, postulating that simply moving from Yankee Stadium to somewhere a bit more sane could easily help him get his homeritis under control, but it’s still a concern all the same. The reason for Gallegos’s elevated home run rate is partly due to the parks in which he was pitching, most likely, but it’s also down to the fact he simply doesn’t get many groundball outs. His GB% has mostly been in the low- to mid-30s, which isn’t the end of the world — Seung-Hwan Oh doesn’t get grounders, and he’s been outstanding two of the three years he’s pitched in MLB — but is also probably going to always lead to fairly high home run numbers.

Well, since joining the Cardinals, Gallegos has seen his strikeout rate fall from almost 36% to just over 29%, but he’s also seen a rise in groundball outs, to the tune of a nearly ten percentage point increase, from 35.5% to 44.8%. As I’ve stated multiple times already, we’re dealing with tiny samples — ten games, 13.1 innings for Gallegos in Memphis — but it’s interesting to note that even now, with Dave Duncan far off in the rearview mirror, the Cardinals as an organisation still tend to lean toward pitchers who seek out groundball contact, rather than trying to pile up strikeouts to the exclusion of all else.

The hope, of course, would be that a change in approach, either incorporating a sinker or maybe just a different plan of attack utilising the weapons he already possesses, could help Gallegos swap out some line drive and flyball contact for grounders, while his stuff should still play up to miss bats nearly as well as in the past. Empty swings and contact on the ground is basically the ideal combination for a pitcher, and if Gallegos could learn to go for contact early in the count before going for the kill once he gets a hitter down in the count, he could both hopefully cut his home run rate and be more efficient at the same time.

Now, the question will be whether that can actually happen, or if trying to move Gallegos toward a more grounder-friendly approach would backfire by sapping him of some strikeout punch. Ground balls are great and all, but they turn into hits sometimes. You know what doesn’t? A strikeout. So if a change in approach leads to Gallegos getting less of those swings and misses, the switch could ultimately prove to be a bad thing.

Then again, I’ll point out one more time we’re dealing with super small samples here, so it could just be coincidence that Gallegos has posted a notably higher groundball rate than he has previously right after being traded to an organisation that prioritises groundball contact. No, really, it could be; I’m not just saying all that to be sarcastic and make a point. It really could be just a coincidence. But, if a pitcher were to decide to try and pitch to contact on the ground rather than going for strikeouts at all costs, the numbers would probably look something like what Giovanny Gallegos has done so far as a Memphis Redbird.

Neither of these storylines the rest of the way in the MiLB season are going to make or break Memphis, nor the future of the Cardinals. But make no mistake: these two players are going to have something to say about how the 2019 season unfolds, almost certainly. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is impossible to say right now, but it appears both players, so recently brought into the organisation, are making changes of one sort or another to the way they approach the game of baseball.

It’s worth following the rest of the season, at least. Just so we know what to look for when the future gets here.