Hitter Rookie Review — May 13, 2024

We’re about a quarter of the way through the season (sheesh, that went fast!), so now is as good a time as any to review the performances of the rookie hitters. Today we’ll start with about half the crop I ultimately want to discuss, and we’ll do the rest of the freshmen tomorrow.

Rookie Hitters
Jung Hoo Lee 이정후 158 0.262 2 15 8 2 0.288
Michael Busch 149 0.250 7 21 20 1 0.343
Ceddanne Rafaela 143 0.211 3 17 20 4 0.260
Evan Carter 142 0.216 5 23 15 2 0.317
Nolan Schanuel 140 0.221 3 11 13 0 0.278
Jackson Merrill 139 0.268 2 16 16 4 0.301
Wyatt Langford 129 0.224 1 13 11 1 0.266

I simply sorted the rookies by plate appearances so we’re evaluating stats over a slightly less microscopic sample size.

Jung Hoo Lee came over from South Korea after seven seasons in the KBO. He’s still only 25 years old, which means he actually made his debut at the tender age of 18! With a career total of just 65 home runs, which paced him for about 11 home runs in a 600 at-bat season, he wasn’t exactly expected to deliver a whole lot of power here. Unfortunately, he hasn’t pleasantly surprised us, as he sports just a .069 ISO with two home runs. That’s around an eight-homer pace, which matches his stolen base output as well.

He figured to be a better real-life player than fantasy contributor, but he has disappointed offensively. While he has remained an elite contact hitter, posting a tiny SwStk% of just 3.7%, resulting in a sublime 8.2% strikeout rate, his walk rate has been cut in half compared to his last season overseas. A 6.3% walk rate might be acceptable if his BABIP was well above .300, but at just .273, he just hasn’t gotten on base enough to offset the complete lack of power.

The optimist might point to a meaningfully higher .324 wOBA versus his .288 actual mark and think his results will improve. His HardHit% and maxEV do suggest he deserves better power results than he has shown, and I’d think he would be due for a better BABIP given his GB% and low IFFB%. Overall, I think his results do improve, but that won’t make him startable in shallow mixed leagues.

I, and perhaps others, originally expected that the Cubs first base job would be Matt Mervis‘ to lose. Instead, it has been Michael Busch finding himself as the strong side platoon starter at the position. With some hefty HR/FB rates in the minors and a much improved sub-20% strikeout rate last year at Triple-A, his new starting role made him a strong speculation. So far, he’s performed exactly as expected, except for perhaps the strikeouts.

While his maxEV has been unimpressive (it’s actually almost identical to Lee’s), he has posted a fantastic 14.5% Barrel%, which has allowed him to post a high teen HR/FB rate. I usually prefer to see a higher maxEV paired with the double digit Barrel%, so I think he’s at risk of suffering declines in both Barrel% and HR/FB rate, but there’s also a chance his maxEV increases and better supports those marks.

The real problem has been the strikeouts. He’s up in the mid-30% range like last year, which is well above what he had done in the minors. That improved Triple-A mark last year provided optimism after three straight marks just over 26%, but perhaps MLB pitchers have been better able to take advantage of holes in his swing. I also question his ability to maintain a .342 BABIP while posting a 45.1% FB%. You don’t typically see such high BABIP marks paired with so many fly balls, as the batted ball type is least likely to fall for a hit. I think there are enough questions here, but he looks like a prototypical low end corner guy, knocking you mid-20 homers, slightly above average in RBI and runs scored, all the while hurting your batting average.

The Prospects TLDR on Ceddanne Rafaela is the following:

Rafaela is a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder with a very immature approach.

And yet, because Trevor Story is out for the year, he has now become the team’s starting shortstop, but also rotating to center field when a lefty is starting! Seriously, you have to be quite the magnificent athlete to be Gold Glove-caliber in center field, and yet still get moved to shortstop. What’s actually kind of crazy is that he currently sports a -38.9 UZR/150 at shortstop, suggesting that perhaps he’s actually pretty bad at the position! He was a big negative at center field last year too, so either he has been overrated defensively or these metrics are simply flawed.

Anyhow, Rafaela was tagged with just 35/50 Game Power and 45/55 Raw Power, despite posting a 25.9% HR/FB rate and .307 ISO in Triple-A last year, with multiple double digit marks historically. So he has certainly shown good power, even if the scouts don’t expect him to hit for much of it. Perhaps the low 106.4 MPH maxEV at Triple-A last year is the clue that the HR/FB rate wasn’t real. I’ve never seen such a mismatch before between those two marks!

So far this season, he has continued to show little plate patience, rarely taking a walk, while also swinging and missing often. He has also been a fly ball hitter, which is weird for someone whose maxEV confirms he doesn’t actually own a whole lot of power. It’s overall a pretty weird skill set, but he’s on pace for double digit home runs and steals, which makes him fantasy worthy. I don’t see much changing here, expect maybe some more grounders instead of flies, and a higher BABIP. That would help his batting average and stolen base opportunities and not affect his home run total dramatically since he isn’t expect to hit that many to begin with.

Evan Carter was the second ranked Rangers prospect and 13th overall heading into the season. Interestingly, it’s all driven by his Hit, Speed, and Field grades, as his power grades are below average. Normally, top prospects, especially those not in the middle infield, have pretty good power. Last year, I think Carter’s perceived power was artificially inflated by his 35.7% HR/FB rate over a small sample cup of coffee. The 107.5 MPH maxEV suggested it was a complete fluke though. This year, the maxEV is even lower, his Barrel% has declined, and his HR/FB rate is down to about where expectations should be — the low teens.

His walk rate, while above average, has taken a hit, as it’s just barely into single digits, after he never posted a mark below 10.3% over any sample size in his professional career. He has also struck out at a worse than league average rate, despite a single digit SwStk%. His big problem is a low 57.5% Z-Swing%, versus a 68.5% league average. That’s the ninth lowest Z-Swing% out of 172 qualified hitters. As your little league coach may have screamed…”SWING THE BAT!”

Aside from a drop in power, his BABIP has plunged, though obviously he wasn’t going to repeat a mark over .400 like last year. Even with declines all around, he has still overperformed his xwOBA, which is discouraging. He has also swiped just two bases after combining for 28 over three levels last year. I kind of love his overall profile, but a lot of it is imagining what could be, rather than what is currently there. I think he needs to be more aggressive in the strike zone and the rest of his performance should follow.

Nolan Schanuel was one of the hitters I was most eager to follow this year. With barely any professional experience, and a fascinating skill set for a first baseman, would he become peak power Sean Casey or more like Scott Hatteberg? Both hitters were pretty solid, but not exactly fantasy targets. So far, if you thought his raw power was weak last year, well, it hasn’t gotten any better! His maxEV is actually down from last year, which sounds impossible given that last year he was at just 103.5 MPH. Sure enough, his maxEV is lowest among 172 qualified hitters. And he’s a first baseman!

That might be acceptable if he was still walking a ton and not striking out. But that hasn’t exactly happened. His walk rate has almost been cut in half (seriously, why would a pitcher ever throw him a ball if the threat of an extra-base hit is so low?!), while his strikeout rate has increased marginally, though his SwStk% remains elite. He has hit a below average rate of line drives and lots of grounders, despite possessing below average speed. This represents the downside for someone with limited power. He’s done nothing to suggest the power is coming, so I’m really curious how long his leash will be.

Jackson Merrill is one of two rookie Jacksons (we’ll discuss the other tomorrow), this one being ranked as the Padres second best prospect and seventh overall. His best scouting grade is a 55/70 Hit tool, which always gives me pause. Generally, a hitter’s ability to hit for average is defined by the combination of his strikeout rate and BABIP, so I’d rather just look at the historical trends on those metrics to give me an idea of how strong a hitter’s batting average could potentially be. From 2021 to 2022 in the low minors, Merill did indeed post huge BABIP marks. However, at High-A and Double-A last year, his BABIP actually fell below .300. He did post excellent strikeout rates though, but he only batted .280 and .273 in his two stints. BABIP does translate pretty well to the Majors, but obviously you need enough of a sample size, so it’s anyone’s guess whether he’s closer to the big BABIP guy from the low minors or the averageish BABIP guy last year.

So far, he has posted a .311 BABIP, so a bit above the league average, while his strikeout rate remains strong, but has increased since last year’s lower minor league stints. It’s all led to a .268 average, which is possibly a positive contribution for your fantasy team, but definitely not significantly so. The power hasn’t been there yet, but with above average maxEV and Barrel% marks, he’s probably deserving of better than a 5.6% HR/FB rate.

Overall, his .301 wOBA is unimpressive, but a .336 xwOBA isn’t too shabby for a 21-year-old who skipped Triple-A. Given his age and lack of upper minors experience, he has definitely held his own and looks to have a bright future. I would expect better power results, but don’t go thinking a 55/70 Hit tool means a .300 batting average is imminent.

Man, oh man, after setting off fireworks during Spring Training with six home runs, Wyatt Langford’s draft day cost shot up like a rocket. Unfortunately, not only has he been a massive disappointment so far, but to add insult to injury (literally), he recently hit the IL. Langford catapulted through the minors, going through every level last year after being drafted fourth overall during the June Amateur Draft. Should it be that surprising that he has struggled out of the gate with such little professional experience? Of course not!

The walk and strikeout rate are solid, and come with an excellent single digit SwStk%. His walk rate is perhaps below expectations, but still good enough for a rookie with his lack of experience. The biggest issue has been his lack of power. Despite a strong 111.4 MPH maxEV, his Barrel% sits at just 6.8% and he has homered only once for a 2.9% HR/FB rate. After the power show during the spring, who expected a weak .069 ISO after 116 at-bats?!

So now that all the bad news is out of the way, I still remain quite bullish on his future. The maxEV confirms the power is still there, the plate discipline metrics and results look excellent, and his Sprint Speed ranks 12th in baseball! So he clearly has the speed to be a big basestealer, so it’s odd he had only attempted two swiped before hitting the IL. His hamstring injury provides the perfect window for keeper leaguers to target him in a trade. I think he has a real shot at being a five-category contributor over the next couple of years.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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15 days ago

Wouldn’t Langford be adding injury to insult, as in his performance thus far is kind of insulting? 🙂

I agree on him though – the underlying skills are solid. I also wonder if the hamstring issue isn’t being viewed as a chance to hit “reset” on his season, give him a couple weeks off and a couple tune-up games in AAA.