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System Sundays 13th June 2021: A Tale of Two Hitters

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Two of the most intriguing breakouts in the minors this year are profiled, and then worried over.

MiLB: JUN 23 Florida State League - Cardinals at Blue Jays Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Good morning, everyone. As the Cardinals themselves continue to scuffle (‘scuffle’ is probably too gentle a word, actually; ‘shuffle’ might better, as in shuffling forward slowly, like a prisoner in leg irons being led to the firing squad), we can always try and take our solace in the percolating talent which bubbles away just below the surface. Rather than a whirlwind tour around the system, hitting half a dozen bright spots, today I’m going to focus in on just two players, both of which could have something to say about both the near- and long-term future of the franchise. I had planned initially for this post to cover only the first of our subjects today, but considering how the past few days have gone for the other, I simply could not pretend it wasn’t happening.

The first player we’re talking about today is one who really deserved a deep dive a couple weeks ago, both because he was lighting the Pacific Coast League on fire and because he was, you know, actually playing. See, Lars Nootbaar, Triple A outfielder and left-handed hitter extraordinaire, is currently on the injured list, having injured his right hand on a swing at the end of May. Which is a real shame, both because the current outfield situation at the big league level would suggest that a lefty-swinging outfielder would have a better than average chance of getting a callup, even with 40-man roster complications, and because Lars Nootbaar was putting together one of the more remarkable campaigns you’re likely to see from anyone this year.

Nootbaar (it’s pronounced how you think it is, like a Dutch guy telling you he wants a Payday), was drafted in 2018 out of the University of Southern California, where he had played primarily outfield, but also a little first base, I believe, over the course of a three-year career. He was unusually young for his draft demographic, not turning 21 until that September. That’s a pattern we’ve seen multiple times over the years with the Cardinals; they definitely seem to be an organisation that values relative youth in their draft picks, at least at the top of the draft. Dylan Carlson was extremely young for his class. Jordan Walker and Nolan Gorman were both May birthdays, barely eighteen on draft day. Delvin Perez didn’t turn eighteen until four or five months after the draft if I remember correctly. (Note: if you’re looking for a draft pick this year who should be available to the Cards and is really young for his class, Michael McGreevy is a college junior who will turn 21 just a few days before the draft...)

I was a big fan of the Cards taking Nootbaar when they did; he ended up an eighth-round selection, which felt to me like a real steal. This was a guy with average or better tools pretty much across the board, including really excellent plate discipline, and who had played three years of college ball in one of the toughest conferences in the country. The reason why he was still available that late was simple: Lars Nootbaar did not play well his junior season. He had been a part-time player his freshman year with the Trojans, and unsurprisingly put up a fairly weak batting line while just trying to keep his head above water. That’s pretty much the best you can expect from a true freshman in the Pac-12. His sophomore season, Nootbaar really broke out. He played nearly every game, collected 227 plate appearances, and pushed his OPS for the season up to .889. He wasn’t a huge slugger — more on that in a minute — but he did flip the walks and strikeouts, posting a higher walk rate than strikeout rate, and he hit for enough power to be a real force in the USC lineup.

His junior season, though, saw nearly everything regress for Nootbaar. He didn’t collapse, but everything got worse. His strikeout rate rose a couple percentage points, and his walk rate slipped a similar amount, flipping his ratio back to the negative. His already-modest power ticked down, and his batting average on balls in play fell by over 60 points. That could suggest bad luck, but it could just as easily be he simply didn’t make as productive contact that year. Add up all of the slightly-worse performances, and you end up with a result of Nootbaar’s OPS falling from .889 his sophomore season to just .730 his junior year. Corner outfielders who post OPSes in the 700s do not, generally speaking, do well in the draft.

Still, I thought Nootbaar had a lot of talent, and just had a rough season at the worst possible time for himself. It seems the Cardinals agreed, and they selected him 243rd overall. That could, I believe, end up looking like a brilliant decision.

After he was draft, Nootbaar was sent to short-season State College, where he basically looked like the same player he had been his junior year at USC. He walked almost 10% of the time, struck out just over 19% of the time, which is not a bad ratio at all, but not particularly impressive for either Nootbaar himself or a hypothetical player whose power production is not that notable. And Nootbaar’s power production, to say the least, was not notable. He posted just a .056 isolated slugging percentage and .279 BABIP en route to a .227/.309/.283 line that translated to an 82 wRC+. He didn’t hit the ball all that hard, and definitely hit it on the ground too much, with a GB% of nearly 50%. He was still just 20 years old, though, and his six-foot-three, 210 pound frame suggested there should be more oomph in the bat at some point.

In 2019, things started to really look up for Lars and his new organisation. He began the year in full season ball, at then-Low A Peoria, and he torched the Midwest League to the tune of a 128 wRC+ in 122 plate appearances. He flipped his walks and strikeouts back to the positive side, running a 13.1% walk rate and striking out just 10.7% of the time. Best of all, he began to hit the ball with more authority when he connected, posting a .198 ISO. His BABIP was actually surprisingly low at .239, but with all the other markers pointing in such a positive direction, it’s hard to see that as anything more than bad luck, rather than an indication he was scuffling. He moved up to Palm Beach and saw his power numbers take a dive, as power numbers are often wont to do in the Florida State League, but in 155 plate appearances he struck out 12.9% of the time, walked in 8.4% of his trips to the plate, and just generally held his own, to the tune of a 104 wRC+. That’s not world beater territory, obviously, but at 21 years old in the FSL? Not bad at all, particularly when the one area where he really didn’t look good was in terms of power, which could very easily be chalked up to the cavernous ballparks and heavy air of the Florida circuit.

To finish up the 2019 campaign, the Cardinals made Nootbaar a rare three-level player, promoting him to Double A Springfield late in the season. In Double A he gave up what little power he had left in High A, posting just an .043 ISO in the quite hitter-friendly Texas League, but he also managed to tread water with an overall 101 wRC+, thanks to a strong walk rate (14.5%), and better than average strikeout rate (20%). His BABIP was on the high side at .349, and his groundball rate was too high again, at 51.4%. This is what it looks like when a very smart 21 year old hitter goes against the toughest competition of his life at the end of his first full professional season. Nootbaar leaned on what he did best, getting on base and avoiding excessive strikeouts, and he survived the biggest jump in the minor leagues. His 2019 season might not look like the most impressive campaign you’ve ever seen by batting lines, but in the context of age relative to level and making multiple jumps within a season just one year out of college, it was a largely underappreciated accomplishment, in my ever so humble opinion.

Then, of course, came 2020, and all the momentum Nootbaar had built in his first pro season basically evaporated. He did not open 2020 as a 22 year old in Double A, ready to beat up Texas League pithing in his second, more mature crack at it, then hopefully move up to Triple A, just a phone call away from the majors. Instead, he did what every player did: he hunkered down, trained in whatever way he could, and hoped he wouldn’t lose his shot because of all this.

Which brings us to today, or rather, a couple weeks ago, when Nootbaar left the field with a hand injury. That injury is, of course, worrisome, as it is any time a hitter suffers some sort of injury to a hand or wrist. Still, at the time he hit the IL, Lars Nootbaar was looking like one of the biggest breakout stars of the system this year.

In 16 games and 69 plate appearances this season, Nootbaar has put up a 166 wRC+ against Triple A pitching, at 23 years old. That age 23 season thing isn’t as exciting as it would have been if he were still just 22, but hey, Covid was tough on everyone. Regardless, Nootbaar will not turn 24 until the end of the minor league season this year (or close to it; I don’t remember the exact dates of milb stuff this year), and is laying waste to the PCL after opening the season in a bench role. His walk rate is elite, at 14.5%, while his strikeout rate is significantly better than average, at 17.4%. Best of all, he has shown major power for the first time in his career, posting a .259 ISO with four homers already. This is a major breakout, and it would seem perfectly timed for a lefty-hitting outfielder in Triple A whose only real competition for a major league roster spot is Justin Williams.

It’s not all sunshine and roses for Nootbaar, though, even beyond the injury. He still hits the ball on the ground way, way too much, with a groundball rate this year of 52.2%. That is, frankly, kind of terrible. On the other hand, his line drive rate is the highest of his career, at 28.3%, so his high BABIP is at least mostly earned, it would seem. The problem, of course, is that taken together, the line drive and groundball rates paint the picture of a player who simply hits nearly everything at a low launch angle, which significantly limits his ceiling as far as power production. Now, a hitter can at least partially make up for that if he does a lot of damage on the fly balls he does hit, and Nootbaar has certainly done that so far this season, with a HR/FB% of 44.4%. Now, that number says two things: one, Lars Nootbaar has hit the everloving shit out of some fly balls this year, and two, there is absolutely no way he continues at that pace. Even elite power hitters do not approach anything near that number, so Nootbaar is in for some definite regression when nearly half his fly balls stop leaving the yard.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that if we take the whole package in toto, what Lars Nootbaar’s numbers in 2021 look like is actually something like what Christian Yelich does in the majors. A significantly above-average walk rate, better than average strikeout rate, too many grounders, but overall hard contact that leads to high BABIPs and very good batting lines when you add it all up. The thing that changed for Yelich is that when he got to Milwaukee he suddenly started hitting homers on fully a third of his fly balls, which took him from very solid All-Star candidate to back to back MVP season guy. I don’t think Nootbaar can pull that trick, particularly not in Busch Stadium. And for the record, I’m not suggesting Christian Yelich is a good comp for Lars Nootbaar; Nootbaar does not have the same kind of speed and ancillary skills Yelich possesses, for one thing. But if we’re looking for a batting profile of a good hitter who looks like Nootbaar, that’s your best-case scenario. If Nootbaar can continue to show outstanding on-base skills and plate discipline, even with a less than ideal batted ball profile he could very well be an above-average hitter at the big league level. Of course, we’re also talking about seventy trips to the plate, so it’s not exactly a robust sample. Here’s hoping Nootbaar can get back on the field soon, because he has been one of my favourite stories in the early minor league season here in 2021.

Which brings us, for a much briefer moment than we tarried on Nootbaar, to the very best story of the minors this year in Cardinal Land, which is the great leap forward Nolan Gorman has taken. Gorman struggled his first couple weeks out of the gate, with Double A pitching clearly a new challenge for the then-20 year old. (He turned 21 in mid-May.) He hit just .136 the first week of the season, but did draw a bunch of walks at least, not always a given for a guy trying to adjust to a higher level. For the rest of the month of May, Gorman began to swing the bat better and collect hits, with a reasonable strikeout rate (~21% from the middle of May to the end of the month), and a very high BABIP. The walks were a little down, and he was hitting for surprisingly little power, but it felt like he was really starting to get his feet under him, making improvements in hitting to all fields and making more and more contact as the month went on. We know that Gorman has prodigious raw power; this felt like him learning to actually hit, with the idea that the power will always naturally be there once he dials his swing in.

Well, since the calendar flipped to June, it looks like all that early dialing in and just...improving that Gorman did to open the season has paid off, because in June he has been probably the best hitter in the minor leagues. Since June first, Gorman is hitting .426/.481/.894, good for a 1.374 OPS and a comical 263 wRC+. His strikeout rate over that time is just 13.5%, and his walk rate is 9.6%. Would it be nice to see a few more walks? Sure. But it’s really difficult to ask a hitter not to swing the bat when he’s doing, well, this when he does swing. The more important point is that Gorman has as many home runs, seven, as he does strikeouts this month.

For the season, Gorman’s line is now .328/.401/.588, good for a 167 wRC+. He had the best game of his young career last night, going 3-for-4 with a walk and three home runs in a trouncing of the Arkansas Travelers, the Double A affiliate of the Mariners. In other words, Nolan Gorman appears to have conquered Double A, and it’s only a matter of time — and probably not much time — before he gets moved up to the next challenge, I have to believe.

There is an interesting parallel between these two players beyond just the fact both are having huge seasons. Both of them are guys who could very much force the organisation to make serious decisions about their futures sooner than later. Nootbaar, by dint of being a 2018 draftee, will be Rule V eligible this December, and I can’t imagine the Cardinals would want to lose him just as he’s really beginning to look like a major prospect. There is, of course, plenty of chaff on the 40 man roster right now that I think the Cards could easily make room for him, not to mention the fact there will likely be significant turnover on the major league roster this coming offseason. One of Lane Thomas or Justin Williams could easily be shown the door even sometime this summer, I think, should the needs of the big club demand it, but the fact is the Cardinals are going to have some tough decisions to make about who to protect and who not to as they head into the 2021 offseason. The loss of 2020 is throwing monkey wrenches into every club’s plans, of course, not to mention the looming CBA negotiations and a possible work stoppage, but those are all bigger picture concerns than I wish to speak about here. Lars Nootbaar is not on the 40 man, but he is in Triple A and was making a lot of noise before he got hurt, trying to get the organisation’s attention. If he continues to hit anywhere near what he did through May, the Cards are going to have to decide how soon they need to get a look at him in St. Louis, I would think.

Meanwhile, Nolan Gorman has accelerated his already-impressive timetable even further this spring, it would seem, and the club is going to have to figure out what they see in his long-term future relatively soon. He began the season playing mostly third base, but has steadily picked up more time at second as time has gone on. I’ve only seen him play a handful of times at second; to my eye he looks stretched but not completely out of his depth at the position. He is not, to put it lightly, going to make you forget about Kolten Wong or Tommy Edman playing second base, but he looks better there than Allen Craig did, better than Skip Schumaker did when he first made the move. It’s not the ideal spot for Gorman to play, is what I’m saying, but when your top prospect is blocked at his natural position, seemingly for the long haul, and is also absolutely destroying Double A pitching, you’re in a bit of an uncomfortable situation.

Gorman’s name has, of course, come up in trade rumours this spring, and with good reason. At this point, he has to be one of the most valuable trade chips in the game. He was ranked 31st overall in the MLB Pipeline prospect rankings coming into the season, and 37th on FanGraphs’ big board. Needless to say, when the midseason re-ranking begin to come out in a few weeks, Gorman will be moving up, both due to graduations and his own breakout season. He’s probably a top 20 overall guy for me right now, and the Cardinals could seemingly name their price if they were to put him on the market.

Which, of course, has not stopped various people from suggesting he would be the main piece in a Max Scherzer trade, which is lunacy. One does not trade this kind of prospect for two months of a 36 year old pitcher, no matter how good he is. Not in 2021, anyway. If the Cardinals were to move Gorman, it would have to be as part of a trade for a young, team-controlled star player at a position of need, or a similar prospect if the teams involved were up for a challenge trade. If the Mariners wanted to move Logan Gilbert or the Royals wanted to trade Jackson Kowar, Nolan Gorman would be the guy going back in all likelihood. That sort of deal. Or, more likely, if Cleveland decided now was the time to cash in Jose Ramirez’s contract, Gorman would be the asking price. That’s the sort of value you’re talking about as Gorman breaks out and moves up the rankings.

It’s possible the universal DH is coming for 2022, which would clear up a lot of the issues here. With an extra slot in the lineup, the Cardinals would not have to worry so much about how to work Gorman into the fold, and they could simply rotate corner infielders and the like into the DH role while getting Gorman playing time at multiple positions until a full-time spot (probably first base), opens up for him. Without that, though, things get more complicated. Second base seems like a real possibility, but you’re definitely losing significant defensive value going from Edman to Gorman. A utility role could work, but it’s questionable whether that’s the best way to get a young player you’re hoping will be a star into the lineup to begin his career by moving him around that much, particularly when he’s almost certainly not going to be comfortable at most of them. I personally hope Gorman is on the very-nearly-untouchable list for the Cardinals, but admittedly, you have to at least consider the possibility that he could be moved if the club could solve a long-term issue with a star level player in the deal. (What I’m saying is, if the Twins called up and offered Byron Buxton for Gorman and Harrison Bader, I wouldn’t hang up the phone.)

It is, undoubtedly, a great thing that Nolan Gorman is having the season he is, and that he has put himself squarely amongst the elite prospects of the game. It does, however, mean that things are slightly more complicated for the Cardinals, and they’re going to have to make some decisions sooner than they might have been anticipating, it would seem. They’re also going to have to figure out what they have in Lars Nootbaar relatively soon as well, I would think, and whether he could be some part of their long-term plans, particularly in light of how weak the Cards’ outfield corps is in terms of hitting right-handed pitching. These are good problems for an organisation to have, good decisions for an organisation to have to make. The only catch is, you have to make the right decision. The Cards’ track record on that front the past couple years has been spotty, though not nearly so bad as the most hyperbolic elements of the fanbase like to paint. The Redbirds have, in 2021, found themselves with a really intriguing wave of young hitters beginning to coalesce in the mid- and upper minors. What they do with that group could go a long way toward determining how quickly the organisation can get their next championship caliber squad in place, or if it ever comes together at all.

In the meantime, let’s watch some dingers.