Has George Springer Hit His Peak?

Last offseason, Jeff Sullivan noted the dramatic changes George Springer made to his contact and pull rates and how that transformation appeared to make the Astros’ right fielder a safer bet going forward. He also noted that, given the inconsistency between the results of Springer’s first two years in the majors, it was still hard to know what to expect in Season No. 3.

The suspense is over. The 2016 season is in the books, yet it’s not entirely clear what sort of performer Springer will be in 2017. We can certainly look more confidently to Springer to provide plenty of plate appearances. Not only did he serve ably as the Astros’ leadoff hitter for most of the season, but unlike in his first two seasons, Springer stayed healthy, appearing in all 162 games and starting all but one.

He made further improvements on his contact rate, increasing it from 69.5 to 73.9 percent, but he reverted to being more of a pull hitter. Springer’s 39.0 percent pull rate was well short of his 43.2 percent rate from his 2014 rookie season, but it was still an increase of 4.8 percentage points from 2015. It likely played some role in him losing 15 points on his batting average, despite his climbing contact rate.

Then again, fantasy owners probably don’t care much about Springer batting .261 if he can show the kind of power he put on display just two years ago. Between the power numbers he compiled in the minors, along with the 20 homers he clubbed in 78 games in his rookie campaign, Springer set expectations for some 40-homer seasons once he reached his peak. Springer finished with 29 home runs in 2016, and now that he is 27, it’s reasonable to ask: Is this all there is?

Springer may be viewed as an underachiever, not only because he has yet to come through as an elite slugger, but also because the bar for elite power has been raised dramatically since his rookie year. Yet the bounty of power hasn’t spilled over into the outfield pool. In 2016, 17 players hit at least 35 homers, but only five were outfielders. One of those outfielders, Kris Bryant, is likely to fill a third base slot in many leagues next season. So despite Springer not living up to his promise as a power source, the relative lack of power in the outfield pool is a boon to his value.

The outfield picture, particularly just below the top, is a muddle heading into 2017. Mike Trout and Mookie Betts figure to be consensus early picks, and despite down years, Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton figure to be close to the top. But where should Springer belong? Ahead of the likes of Charlie Blackmon, A.J. Pollock, Nelson Cruz and Ryan Braun, behind them or right in the middle? How much faith we have in a belated power breakout would be an important factor in where we rank him.

To look at Springer’s 2016 season as a whole, there would be little reason to expect him to be the sort of power hitter he was as a rookie. Without that expectation, there is not much of a rationale for elevating him over the others. According to the Rotisserie value rankings on both ESPN and CBSSports.com, Springer ranked behind Blackmon, Cruz and Braun, and that’s even with him scoring 116 runs. He frequently hit ahead of Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, and they respectively hit .388, .372 and .288 with runners in scoring position — marks they may not approach in 2017. Meanwhile, it was the second straight year in which Springer posted an Iso below .200 and a HR/FB ratio below 20 percent. Springer’s .196 Iso and 19.7 percent HR/FB did represent a slight rebound from 2015, but they paled in comparison to the .237 Iso and 27.8 percent HR/FB he posted as a rookie.

If you look for even a single full-season indicator to suggest that Springer hasn’t lost power since his first season, you will come up empty. In both 2015 and 2016, his flyball rate, average flyball distance and hard contact rates were all down considerably.

There is, however, one sign that could point to increased power in the future. Well past the halfway point of this past season, Springer looked as if he was approaching the levels of his 2014 power indicators. As the table below shows, through July 25, Springer was only 17 points below his 2014 Iso, and his HR/FB ratio was slightly closer to his 2014 level than his 2015 level. Furthermore, he sustained these rates over 110 more plate appearances than he had in 2014, and he had compiled a similar Iso despite having a ground ball rate that was more than six percentage points higher.

Power Indicators for George Springer, 2014-16
Time Period PA Iso HR/FB GB%
2014 345 .237 27.8% 45.4%
2015 451 .183 18.8% 45.4%
2016 (through 7/25) 455 .220 23.4% 51.5%
2016 (after 7/25) 289 .157 13.2% 42.4%

The problem with viewing the first portion of 2016 as a precursor to better power numbers in 2016 is that there wasn’t any evidence to suggest that Springer was hitting flyballs substantially harder than he was in 2015. According to Bill Petti’s Interactive Spray Chart Tool, Springer averaged 276.2 feet per flyball in 2015, and though he increased that mark to 286.2 feet through July 25 of this season, that mark was far short of his 2014 average of 304.6 feet. Through July 25, Springer’s hard-hit rate on flyballs was 44.7 percent, as compared to 43.5 percent in 2015 and 51.4 percent in 2014.

If Springer were to decide to re-emphasize hitting for power over making contact and taking an all-fields approach, maybe he could be a 40-homer hitter after all. After two years of applying an approach that has yielded considerably less power, though, it would be ill-advised to draft Springer as if he will make that leap in power in 2017. If you tack on the regression that Springer could experience as a run-scorer and consider his inefficiencies as a base stealer (9 steals in 19 attempts in 2016), it’s hard to count on him making gains in any particular category.

As tempting as it might be to pursue Springer as one of the top 10 players in an outfield pool filled with uncertainty, the chance of him fulfilling his considerable power upside isn’t great enough to justify it. There is even less evidence that Springer could make the jump to 35 or 40 home runs without sacrificing his batting average. Rather than project Springer for a breakout that would make him a solid No. 1 outfielder in mixed leagues, I’d wait to see if he falls far enough to be drafted as a high-end No. 2 outfielder.

Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.

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It’s also worth noting that Springer was caught stealing on ten of his nineteen attempts when he had never had a rate anything remotely that poor previously. Assuming a modest rebound in his conversion percentage would give him an additional five steals.