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System Sundays: Two Prospects, Mashing. (And What it Means)

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A tale of two prospects, possibly breaking out, and what each path says about the players, and the organisation for which they play.

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers
Paul DeJong, apparently awesome shortstop.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Let’s face it; there really is something to the idea of Cardinal Devil Magic. No, I’m not saying the Cardinals’ organisation collectively sold their souls to Satan at some point in the past and are able to spin late-round draftees into a constant churn of average-ish players due to the continued blood sacrifices happening in the catacombs deep beneath Clark Street. Now, I’m also not saying that wouldn’t be metal as hell, and probably make me extremely happy; I’m just saying that’s probably not what’s going on here.

However, what I am saying is that the Cardinal organisation has a knack, for whatever reason, for finding contributions from unlikely sources in terms of their minor league pipeline. Once upon a time it was called pixie dust, and it sprinkled the likes of Johnny Rodriguez’s bat; later on it became Devil Magic, and I wish this site had functionality that would allow me to put in a sting of a devil’s triad chord everytime the phrase ‘Devil Magic’ appears on your screen. Sadly, that is not possible, so you’ll simply have to do your own mental drop d tuning in this piece.

Really, as far as the modern idea of Cardinal Devil Magic goes, I’m not really willing to go much further back than, say, a dozen years or so. Yes, there were players like Bo Hart or the aforementioned J-Rod, guys who came streaking out of nowhere, but if you look through the history of every major league franchise you can find weird, temporary success stories, usually the product of a career minor leaguer beating the BABIP calculation for a month or two. And sure, there was that Pujols guy once upon a time, but Albert was such a ridiculous, generational talent that every team simply missed on because he was pudgy and playing for a small little community college that he feels like more of a black swan than a trend line. But from about the time Jeff Luhnow took over the Cardinals’ drafting and development efforts, somewhere in there is the gestation of what I think of as honest to god modern Cardinal Devil Magic. Guys like Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter coming to the big leagues and producing numbers far beyond what their pedigrees would have suggested was possible. Paul DeJong coming to the big leagues and suddenly being a +10 shortstop instead of a -5 third baseman is, well, downright eerie.

So let’s talk about a couple guys who just might be future CDM candidates.

We’ll start off with the player who is more of a long shot, and less likely, ultimately, to succeed. Or, at least, let’s say it will be more surprising if he succeeds, maybe? That player is Justin Toerner, who is currently beating up the pitchers of the Florida State League (that’s High A, in case you don’t which league is which), to the tune of a .365/.512/.492 line, which translates to an absurd 205 wRC+. Now, you don’t see a ton of players whose wRC+ number begins with a 2, even in tiny samples, and while 86 plate appearances is, yes, still a very small sample, it’s also large enough we’re not talking about a guy having a hot week or ten-day stretch to open the season. Justin Toerner is playing some ball this year.

Some backstory with Toerner: he is currently 22 years old. will turn 23 in August, and was a senior draftee out of Cal State Northridge just last year. As much as I hate to admit it, I had never heard nor read the name Justin Toerner as of the moment he was drafted, which is perhaps not super surprising given he was picked in the 28th round (843rd overall), but even so I can usually go a couple hundred players deep in the draft and know at least something about a player. No such luck with Toerner.

Another number to pay attention to with Toerner: 165. That’s his listed weight, as in he’s 5’10” and 165 pounds, and having watched him play a bit (but only a bit), I’m not calling BS on him only weighing a buck sixty five. Justin Toerner is not a big guy, by any standard. Keep that in the back of your mind as we consider what kind of player Toerner might be down the road.

In college, Toerner’s best asset was his plate discipline, as he mostly put up strikeout-walk numbers right around the 1:1 range. His freshman season at Northridge saw him whiffing quite a bit, but that’s nothing uncommon. After that, he regularly posted very solid on-base numbers, which he offset by, unfortunately, hitting for essentially zero power. In his first three seasons playing college ball, Toerner’s isolated slugging percentages were .095, .133, and .076. He has decent speed, largely played centerfield in college, and was successful in just over 75% of his steal attempts. So there was definitely some discipline on display, enough speed to contribute defensively and on the bases, but just no real impact being made on the ball.

That changed in Toerner’s senior season of 2018. Still only 21, he posted a .279/.383/.487 line in the Big West Conference and slugged six home runs in 241 plate appearances. No, that’s still not exactly Big Mac circa 1998 or Marcell Ozuna circa right now territory, but it’s the sort of batting line that at least gets you noticed. I have no real idea what sort of ballpark situation Cal State Northridge is dealing with, but I do believe the Big West as a whole features some pretty pitcher-friendly parks, so maybe there’s a bit of behind-the-scenes park stuff going on I’m not aware of, a la Kolten Wong hitting in Hawaii’s cavernous Les Murakami Stadium. Whatever the situation, the Cards popped Toerner in the late rounds, sent him off to State College, and watched him start getting on base immediately.

The numbers in the NY-Penn League were basically what you would expect from a guy with Toerner’s college stats: he got on base at a .390 clip, but posted an .058 ISO. He walked almost 12% of the time, struck out a little less than 17% of the time, and put up a .358 slap-and-run BABIP that made total sense. Anytime a player gets on base closer to 40% of the time it’s worth paying attention to, but Toerner’s overall OPS was still just .741, which is pretty good, but not top prospect material. He moved up to Peoria for seven games, posted a crazy upside-down strikeout to walk ratio (5 BBs to 2 Ks), and was bumped up to the FSL. In the late season cup of High A coffee he posted a 134 wRC+ in 86 trips to the plate, once again buoyed by a high BABIP of .387 and a strong 11% walk rate. The downside? An ISO of .125 and a strikeout rate near 20% suggested that Toerner would struggle when his batted ball luck turned.

Which brings us to the present, and Toerner’s current crazy batting line. Hard as it is to believe, he’s putting up that 200+ wRC+ with just a .127 ISO, which, if you guessed means he’s getting crazy good results in terms of BABIP, congratulations! You understand how baseball stats work. Toerner’s BABIP in this go-round of the FSL is .449, which, yeah, isn’t going to last. However, there’s also the fact he’s currently walking in 21% of his plate appearances, vs a strikeout rate of 17.4%. In other words, yes, Justin Toerner is riding some crazy batted-ball luck to a high on-base number, but he’s also showing some almost-as-crazy plate discipline, particularly in terms of patience.

So let’s talk about the up- and downside with a player like Justin Toerner. The upside is fairly easy to see; he combines two qualities that were or are serious aspects of two recent Cardinal success stories’ careers. His plate discipline, that absolute conviction of getting on base at all costs, is similar to what drove Matt Carpenter to the big leagues initially. Toerner walked 16.5% of the time his sophomore season of college, and now twice in four minor league stops has posted walk numbers of at least 20%. (Yes, the one time was 25 PAs. None of these samples are large, okay?) Having watched him play a bit now in Palm Beach (though not a ton, sadly), I can say I think he also brings a bit of Jon Jay to the plate, as a lefty hitter who just...gets a lot of hits. He’s all low liners and ground balls, goes to all fields, and just generally puts the ball in play in a very hitterish sort of way. Remember that trick Jon Jay used to pull out all the time, where he would take any pitch from the middle of the plate to the outside corner and take that late swipe at it, driving a little grounder between the third baseman and shortstop? Well, Toerner has that same trick in his back pocket.

Here’s the downside with Toerner: Mike O’Neill. Longtime prospect followers will probably remember the name of O’Neill, and even those of you not super into the minor leagues may vaguely recall him. Mike O’Neill was an undersized, non-center field outfielder who had good but not great speed and the most ridiculous plate discipline I’ve ever seen bolted onto a 5’9”, 170 pound frame. O’Neill regularly posted ISOs below .100, walked more than he struck out every season of his minor league career, and was a fixture of the early days of Carson Cistuli’s Fringe Five columns. He moved steadily up the ladder, then stalled out in the upper minors, where he was still able to get on base, but saw even his previously modest ability to do damage disappear completely as better pitchers were able to challenge him without fear. O’Neill last played affiliated ball in 2015, posting an 87 wRC+ at Memphis, still somehow walking 14% of the time but also putting up an .014 ISO.

That’s the potential miss for Toerner. He isn’t a big guy, and doesn’t really have the kind of build that points to future power. Matt Carpenter has never exactly been the most intimidating physical specimen (see him shirtless in the Academy Sports ads a couple years ago for proof), but even so Marp is 6’3” and 200 pounds. He’s a big dude, even if he’s still a a fairly skinny dude. Justin Toerner is small. He’s also not Harrison Bader fast, or that kind of defender. It’s a corner profile, with very little power, that relies on getting lots of hits to fall in and waiting out pitchers. It can work, certainly — this is essentially what Brett Butler did, and he was one of the greatest leadoff hitters of his era (though 558 stolen bases probably isn’t in Toerner’s future, which is a big piece of the puzzle with Butler) — but there are a whole lot of pitfalls along the way, and way more failures than successes.

Let’s move on to the other player I wanted to cover here, who shouldn’t take nearly as long to talk about, somewhat paradoxically because he has a better chance of making it to the top level, I believe. The player I’m talking about is the awesomely-named Lars Nootbaar, who answers the question of slugging outfielder or Scandinavian snack food with: why not both?

Nootbaar, like Toener, was selected in the 2018 draft by the Cardinals, and like Toerner came from a West Coast college, but in the case of Nootbaar he was a junior, not a senior, and the program was the somewhat more well-known University of Southern California. Nootbaar was popped in the eighth round, and he was on my radar prior to the draft. In college, Nootbaar was known for very good contact skills and plate discipline, posting basically one to one K:BB ratios in both his sophomore and junior seasons. He played some first base and some outfield for USC, and was fairly undistinguished, though probably a little better in the outfield, where he covers a solid amount of ground.

It was also a well-known bit of strangeness in college baseball that Lars Nootbaar, who is 6’3” and 210 lbs and built a bit like a tank, had basically no power. His highest home run output came in his junior season, when he smacked six dingers in 239 plate appearances. Now, if you have a head for numbers, you may remember that up above, I talked about Justin Toerner’s highest homer output, which was six in 241 PAs. The fact Lars Nootbaar, built the way he is, and Justin Toerner, built the way he is, had the same maximum power output in college is a very, very strange thing.

At USC, Nootbaar walked and struck out in roughly equal measure, right around the 14-15% mark in both stats, and after being drafted was sent to State College, same as Toerner. Interestingly, Nootbaar and Toerner are both extremely young for their draft demographics, both being born in August/September, making each of them roughly a year younger in terms of actual age versus similar junior or senior college draftees. It’s a well-known truism that younger players tend to outperform their draft position, so it’s worth noting both of these guys fall under that rubric. At State College, Nootbaar was...fine. He did not hit nearly as well as Justin Toerner, and did not force a promotion. His wRC+ in 223 trips to the plate was just 82, though he ran a respectable strikeout to walk ratio. Still, respectable is not special, and a 2:1 K to BB won’t get you far if you’re also running an .056 ISO.

But then a funny thing happened to begin this season. Nootbaar was bumped up to Peoria in the Midwest League, getting his first full-season placement, and he’s done nothing but rake so far this year. Now, he isn’t destroying the league like Toerner is the FSL (though the way Toerner is doing it could probably best be described as killing them softly), but he is currently running a 132 wRC+ in 86 plate appearances, and that’s with a sort of amazing .197 BABIP. In other words, Lars Nootbaar is having horrible luck on balls in play, and still putting up a line a third better than league average.

Here’s how he’s doing it: his walk rate is 12.8%, his strikeout rate is 10.5%, and his isolated slugging is .267. In less than 90 trips to the plate, Nootbaar has already hit five home runs, and will likely match his previous season high before he even gets to 100. Well, maybe, anyway. In other words, Lars Nootbaar is making a crazy high amount of contact, is walking a well above average amount, and is crushing the ball. So, yeah. Pretty good all around.

So what’s the difference? Well, it’s pretty simple, and probably exactly what you think: Lars Nootbaar in 2019 is hitting a bunch of fly balls. In 2018, his FB% was 32%; in 2019, it’s 46.2%. Now, admittedly, minor league batted-ball data is less dependable than major league numbers, but still. We can be fairly certain that Nootbaar is hitting the ball on a very different trajectory this year than last season, and it appears to be a deliberate change. Now, the downside here could be that Nootbaar’s new flyballing ways could lead to a depressed BABIP — i.e. a .197ish sort of number — but even for a guy hitting a bunch of balls in the air you don’t expect the number to be all that depressed. Power, contact, and walks will make up for a lot of balls in play finding gloves.

So what are we to make of these two players? These two breakouts. Are they real? Are they early-season illusions? And even if they are real, what do they tell us? Well, I’ll take the question of whether or not these are real breakouts first, because that’s the easy one to answer. I don’t know. They look like real breakouts, in that each player is basically doing what you expect the really good version of each player to do, but we just don’t know yet. Time is really the only answer there. Ask me again in July if Justin Toerner and Lars Nootbaar really broke out in 2019.

As to what it tells us if these are real breakouts, well, it tells us that Cardinal Devil Magic is alive and well, and it works about the same now as it always has.

In the case of Justin Toerner, you have a few factors working in his favour. You have high-end non-contact skills, again similar to what the Cardinals saw in Matt Carpenter multiple years ago now. He also has outstanding bat control, similar to what they saw in Jon Jay even further back. On the downside, he lacks strength, lacks size, and is probably never going to hit for much power, even if you were to retool his swing to try and get the ball in the air more. Yes, there are players in baseball no bigger than Toerner who hit for power — Jose Altuve, after all, is 5’6” and has hit 85 homers the past 5+ seasons — but even the guys listed as smaller than him are generally built in a more powerful way. Altuve and Dustin Pedroia and guys like that are small, but have a compact muscularity that generates more thump than you might think. Toerner is a little taller, but also is built thinner. Put him next to Kolten Wong, and it’s pretty obvious which guy has more strength in his frame.

So what do you do to develop a player like that? You figure out what he’s good at — being patient and spraying line drives — and you get him to push those things. Toerner is actually hitting the ball in the air even less than he did last year, but that’s probably a good thing for him. You want Justin Toerner hitting the kind of low launch angle balls that turn into hits often, and working pitchers for every last drop of energy possible.

With a Lars Nootbaar, on the other hand, you have a similar skill set, in that it’s a player who makes a lot of contact, has a very good batting eye, and doesn’t really provide much in the way of power. The difference is, Nootbaar is five or so inches taller, and roundabout 50 pounds heavier than Justin Toerner. Those two hitters should not be approaching the craft the exact same way, even if they have similar skillsets to begin with. So you take Lars Nootbaar, and you work with him to elevate. You maybe change the swing a bit, maybe just change the focus and the pitch selection, and you try to get him to put the ball in the air with authority, because when 6’3” and 210 hits a fly ball it’s a different thing from when 5’10” and 165 does so.

The traditional model of scouting would dictate you try to find an athletic player with a bunch of tools, and then try to mold those tools into skills. Lars Nootbaar would certainly be an attractive player under than model, but Justin Toerner might very well not be. Even in the case of Nootbaar, though, would a coach or manager in a previous era have the kind of directed data to make the point to each player how they ought to be playing? Maybe. After all, Willie Mays Hayes was doing pushups for hitting fly balls over 30 years ago now. But then again, that was more about his speed, and not so much his talents as a hitter. All the same, maybe a skinny dude with no power would have been castigated in the past for hitting fly balls just as we might Justin Toerner today. But now we have such pointed, smart ways of spotting players, and directing them, and teaching them, that there are so many more opportunities for both a Toener and a Nootbaar to excel, even when they need to do essentially opposite things to do so. You find a way to accentuate the positive, and hide the flaws, the negatives. What does a player do well, and how can we bring more of that out?, is the question being asked now.

And that, in a nutshell, is how Cardinal Devil Magic works. Of course, they no longer have a patent on it, only when the Dodgers or Yankees do it they’re just smart. Still, I’ll take Devil Magic; anything to bring a little more unwholesomeness into my baseball. If I could get a statue of Aleister Crowley down at Busch next to Musial and Hornsby I’d personally be thrilled. And, more importantly, anything to make my favourite team more successful.