On Monday night against the Dodgers, Cardinals reserve outfielder and too-often starter Justin Williams crushed a mammoth home run off starter Trevor Bauer. Bauer left a 92 mph fastball middle-in and Williams turned on it, knocking the ball off the foul pole high in right. The HR was measured at 416 feet with a 30-degree launch angle. Statcast has some issues with HR distance; If the foul pole had not gotten it the way, that was probably a 475-foot blast.
This was also the hardest-hit barreled ball by a Cardinal this season.
In fact, Williams has the two hardest-hit barrels. This 115 mph scorcher moves into the top spot. Back in April, Williams had a low line drive go for 114.1 mph single into center.
As of Tuesday morning, Williams has 8 barreled balls on the year. That’s the same as Dylan Carlson. That kind of power production is difficult to ignore.
It’s also difficult to ignore the terrible overall batting line he’s produced.
That explains the title of this article. By one set of stats, Justin Williams should be pretty good, at least for a bench player and spot starter. By another, he’s really bad; one of the worst players in the majors.
So, what’s the deal? Which Justin Williams is the real Justin Williams?
Let’s start with the good for Williams. I’ve already mentioned his hard-hit balls. His upper-end barrels are not only better than the human weight room, Tyler O’Neill, they top exit velocity monsters like Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Anthony Rizzo, Adolis Garcia, and Edmundo Sosa. (Ha, yes, Sosa has a 114.6 mph ground out off of Lance Lynn.)
Williams’ max exit velocity ranks in the 95th percentile in baseball. And it’s not some one-off, fluky contact that’s shifting everything (see Sosa). His average exit velocity isn’t that far behind – 88th percentile. He ranks in the top quarter of baseball in barrel% and walk rates, too.
That’s an intriguing profile, isn’t it? A 25-year-old who can generate top-of-the-league exit velocity, maintain near-elite average exit velocity, AND draw walks (12.1%)? That’s a guy you want on your bench. Maybe even starting.
The expected stats over at Baseball Savant agree. Based on his batted ball profile, including all those high exit velocity barrels, Williams has a solid expected Statcast slash line of .244/.321/.413 (xBA/xwOBA/xSLUG%). That’s not awesome, but it’s not too bad either.
This high-exit velocity, solid walk profile is exactly how Williams was advertised. In the minors, Williams had the reputation of producing impressive exit velocities. He also had the reputation of driving those hard-hit balls directly into the ground.
Williams routinely had ground ball rates in the low and mid minor leagues approaching 70%. As coaching got better and he matured as a hitter, Williams began to adjust. In 2018 in St Louis, Williams cut that rate to 43.4%. That was a small sample size of 76 PAs but still encouraging. The next year in AAA, he produced just a 41.7% ground ball rate. That was the best rate of his entire pro career.
This season, major league pitchers have exposed some of Williams’ ground ball tendencies but he hasn’t slid completely back into his youthful ways. He’s holding at just over 51%. Not great. Not terrible. Just ok. It’s too bad he doesn’t have more speed to Tommy Edman those ground balls.
That expected stat line and high exit velocity profile generates Statcast comparables like Brad Miller and Gregory Polanco. We got a good look at what Miller can do last season. He can crush a ball. He can generate walks but he’s also going to strike out a bunch. You don’t want him playing the field often but he is a pretty good utility player.
If Justin Williams was playing like Brad Miller right now – even if he was playing RF/LF like Brad Miller – we would be pretty happy with his performance. There would probably be a few people calling for him to stay in the lineup whenever Bader returned from the IL.
So, if Williams is hitting the ball hard and kinda keeping the ball off the ground and drawing walks and has solid expected stats and interesting MLB comps, what’s the bad? And how bad is it?
It’s so bad. So. Very. Bad.
The prospect report on Fangraphs gave Williams a 60 “raw power” score and a 40 “game power” ranking. Take his consistently high average exit velocity and combine it with the high ground ball rates, and that explains the huge difference in power ratings. The power is there. The launch angle isn’t. He’s at just +4.9 degrees on the season.
What is inexplicable to me is the 55-rated hit tool they also give him.
The Williams we have seen in the majors does not a hit tool even remotely close to above average.
Simply put, Williams can’t consistently make contact with major league pitching. His WHIFF% is in the bottom 5% of baseball. He is swinging and missing at 36.4% of the pitches he sees. That is leading to a K-rate in the bottom 4% of the game – 34.1%.
Most of that shows up in his contact rate on balls out of the zone. He just can’t reach them. Pitchers know this and don’t give him many strikes. He’s in the bottom quarter of balls in the zone and he is seeing a high percentage of breaking and offspeed pitches.
In other words, the book is out. Don’t throw Williams fastballs. Don’t throw him strikes. Throw junk out of the zone and he’ll either top the ball or whiff entirely. Sure, he’ll get a few walks, but the defense will be able to get to any ball he puts into play because he can’t consistently get the ball into the air.
That’s the main reason why his expected stats belie his actual stats.
(Belie… yup, just used that word in a baseball article. No, I don’t know if I used it correctly.)
That leads me to William’s actual Statcast slash line (BA/wOBA/Slug%) – .165/.238/.270.
That .238 wOBA is in the bottom 2% of the league. His batting average is the 7th worst of any player with over 130 PAs. His slugging% is 6th worst despite all those hard-hit barrels. Even with the really good walk rate, his OBP is the 23rd worst in the game.
That brings me back to that “55” hit tool that Fangraphs gave him. Just as a point of comparison, Tommy Edman also has a 50/55 hit tool. So does Dylan Carlson. These are players who have shown a noticeable ability to adapt their swing to get their bat onto the ball and challenge the defense. Those two are different types of hitters, but you can see the above average hit tool at work for both of them.
So far, Justin Williams’ hit tool looks more like a Tyler O’Neill (30/40 in ‘18) or Harrison Bader (40/45 in ‘18).
What’s changed? Unfortunately, we don’t have much swing data for the minor leagues. What we do have, though, points to a pretty dramatic shift in offensive profile over a short sample size when Williams arrived in St. Louis.
In the low-to-mid minors, Williams consistently had K%s in the mid teens. Yes, he was a contact hitter! He also swung at everything – generating a lot of poor contact (high GB rates) and low walk rates (3.2% BB rate in 406 A-ball PAs, for example.)
The Cardinals, though, noticed the high exit velocity and wondered what he would be like if he learned to hit the ball in the air. Could they make that happen? So, they traded for him and started experimenting with him.
Immediate results were sketchy. After the mid-season trade in 2018, Williams went to Memphis. His K rate rose to 22.4% – the highest of a career that started at age 17. His walk rate held steady at 6.6%. His ISO rose. But his contact ability plummeted. He had a .217 batting average and just a .293 wOBA.
StL coaches got to work with him throughout 2019 and Williams returned to Memphis fully embracing the kind of hitter they wanted him to be. His K rate rose again, this time to 25.2%. His ground ball rate fell. He had 7 home runs in just 119 PAs. He walked 13.4% of the time. He hit .353.
The Cardinals got everything they wanted and the contact ability even came back.
The problem is that pretty much nothing that happened in 2019 in the Pacific Coast League was real. That one season in that one league, with crazy stats and juiced balls, has thrown prospect evaluators and team front offices into uncharted territory.
In 2019 at Memphis, Williams had a .439 BABIP. While Randy Arozarena, Tommy Edman, Dylan Carlson, and (apparently) Adolis Garcia have successfully translated ’19 PCL explosions into real MLB success (over limited samples) that wasn’t going to prove universally true.
We’re seeing just how fragile Williams’ new batting profile was.
Some of the changes have stuck. He’s walking more. He’s generating high exit velocity. He’s driving some home runs out of the park.
But his K rate has spiked. His contact ability is completely gone from his game. And while he’s not hitting the ball on the ground as often as when he was young, he’s not hitting it in the air often enough either.
That’s the catch-22 that I see for Justin Williams the Major Leaguer and it’s what MLB pitchers are exploiting.
If he tried to correct his WHIFF% and K rates by swinging for more contact, it’s likely his ground ball percentage would soar, his walks would plummet, and his already low launch angle would drop. Justin Williams the “55” contact hitter is not a major league player.
The experimental version of Williams is probably better but he has some fatal flaws.If he leaves things along, he might see a bump in his low BABIP, but that doesn’t seem too likely with his terrible K and whiff rates. BABIP luck won’t mean much if he rarely puts balls into play. Maybe that’s a player who could hold down a bench role, depending on where his BABIP normalizes. A Brad Miller if everything goes right. Well, every thing doesn’t go right very often.
For now, if you or the Cardinals want to look for anything positive to project, there is the low BABIP, which could normalize, and the expected stats, plus that contact ability that’s buried in his distant past. Maybe something will click and he can put it all together in just the right rates to survive while Bader is out.
Maybe these past two months have continued to show that 2019 Memphis giveth and taketh away. Maybe Williams had just enough talent to adapt at AAA and impress in an absurd offensive environment but maybe he never had the talent he needed to stick as a major league.