Hitter Rookie Review — May 18, 2022

I can’t remember the last time three of the top five prospects all debuted at the same time. Has it ever happened? I’m sure at some point in history, but it’s pretty awesome. This season, the #2 overall prospect Bobby Witt Jr., #4 prospect Julio Rodríguez, and #5 prospect Spencer Torkelson all opened the regular season in their teams’ starting lineups. Exciting! With just over a fifth of the season in the books, let’s take a gander at how these potential future stars are performing.

Bobby Witt Jr. | 3B KC

With 70 grade Future Raw Power and 60 grade Speed, Witt is a fantasy owner’s dream. He skyrocketed through the minors and ended up hitting 33 homers and stealing 29 bases combined between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. Yes, we were salivating over his fantasy potential.

Unfortunately, his MLB debut hasn’t gone so well. He has posted just a .274 wOBA and his xwOBA is actually a bit lower, so it hasn’t just been some bad fortune affecting his results.

Bad News:

  • His walk rate has been cut in half and sits well below the league average, as he has swung at pitches outside the strike zone at a well above average rate.
  • He has been thrown first pitch strikes far more often than the league. So more strikes plus more swings at balls means fewer walks. Pretty simply formula.
  • He hasn’t hit enough line drives, which is likely suppressing his BABIP. A low BABIP, plus a low walk rate is going to result in a low OBP, cutting into his runs scored and stolen base opportunities.
  • The power output has been a bit disappointing, though not terrible, as his HR/FB rate sits at just 7.3%.

Good News:

  • His strikeout rate has remained steady with his minor league history, while his SwStk% has actually improved.
  • His FB% is over 40%, so when/if his HR/FB rate rises, he’ll quickly be a strong home run contributor.
  • While his power output, and particularly HR/FB rate, is currently meh, his 113.7 maxEV suggests he still has big power in his bat.
  • He has already attempted seven steals, despite an ugly .254 OBP, putting him on a 600 PA pace of 32 steal attempts.

Overall, I don’t think there are really any signs that he’s not ready for the Majors. A small sample size, combined with leaguewide power being down, is likely playing a role. I would hold tight and if you’re not an owner, it couldn’t hurt to see if you could snipe him from his current disgruntled owner at a discount.

Julio Rodríguez | OF SEA

Though not expected to be quite the stolen base threat as Witt, Rodríguez was also a potential power/speed combo that fantasy owners drool over. Unlike Witt, Rodríguez actually skipped Triple-A, which is something that makes me very cautious when deciding whether to buy into a rookie. While he hasn’t embarrassed himself, I’d imagine that a .302 wOBA/.292 xwOBA so far is a bit of a disappointment. This is especially true as he has posted wOBA marks well above .400 for the majority of his minor league career.

Bad News:

  • His strikeout rate has spiked to a professional high, while his SwStk% has risen to the level he posted back in 2019 at Single-A. The strikeouts could be a sign that he’s overmatched.
  • A .302 wOBA isn’t impressive, but once you learn it’s being propped up by a .378 BABIP, you realize there’s great risk of decline from here. Even if that BABIP is deserved, it’s still extremely difficult to maintain, as the skills required to deserve such an inflated BABIP are hard to sustain all season long.
  • His power hasn’t manifested, as his HR/FB and ISO are both at professional lows.

Good News:

  • Like Witt, his maxEV of 114 suggests far more power output coming.
  • He has already attempted 12 steals, putting him on a 600 PA pace of 51 steal attempts!

He’s a bit tougher of a case than Witt, as he has performed better, but it’s mostly because of the sky-high BABIP. He’s striking out too much and although the maxEV suggests the power will come, it hasn’t yet converted into results. Right now, he’s stealing a ton, so fantasy owners are fine. But it’s clear the Mariners aren’t afraid to demote top prospects that are struggling. If he hits a BABIP slump and doesn’t improve that strikeout rate, it’s possible he could be next after Kelenic.

Spencer Torkelson | 1B DET

The first pick in the 2020 draft, Torkelson also owns 70 grade Raw Power, but doesn’t have the speed potential like the other two names. He ascended quickly through the minors, hitting High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A all last year. Unsurprisingly, his results were worse at each stop, as his wOBA sat at .440 at High-A, then settled at .375 at the highest level. Still solid, but not quite elite. What he has shown is fantastic plate discipline with a high walk rate, and single digit SwStk% marks, along with big power. Sounds like your prototypical first base masher!

Sadly, his 2022 results have been the worst of the three so far, as he owns just a .255 wOBA, which includes a scary .153 batting average.

Bad News:

  • His strikeout rate has spiked above 30% for the first time in his professional career, and while his SwStk% hasn’t jumped nearly as much, it still sits at a professional worst.
  • His current .203 BABIP is frighteningly low, of course, but his BABIP had plummeted since his High-A stint, falling all the way to .233 at Triple-A. So a low BABIP is nothing new for him.
  • A 111.5 maxEV, while definitely solid and above average, is actually lower than the other two rookies, and not quite as impressive as you would expect for someone with his power potential.

Good News:

  • He’s still taking his walks, as his walk rate sits at an excellent 13%.
  • His xwOBA of .312 is significantly above his actual mark, suggesting bad luck plays a role in his poor performance so far.

I love the skill set he’s shown in the minors, which makes him look like almost a lock to be a strong MLB hitter. If given the chance to rebound, I think he clearly will be better than this the rest of the way. But will that give him shallow mixed league value this year? I just picked up Christian Walker from free agency in my 12-team mixed league. Do you expect Torkelson to outperform? It’s certainly possible, but not a given, so I wouldn’t criticize owners if they want to dump him and search for better at the roster slot. Remember, Torkelson doesn’t steal bases and is on an offense that ranks second to last in team wOBA. Even if his batting average and power rebound, he’s going to have a difficult time doing a whole lot in RBI and runs scored because of his team.

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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2 months ago

I know it’s not measured in fantasy, but the (unexpected) ability Julio has shown to play centerfield and the speed he’s demonstrating on both offense and defense probably protect him from sudden demotion. He’s been the M’s best outfielder on both offense and defense.

2 months ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

He also rates out favorably in other defensive metrics, and if you actually looked at numbers beyond a base level, you’d see most of his hitting numbers have settled in at a solid rate past April. But hey, if you think he’s at risk of being sent down, more opportunity for those in your leagues to profit!

2 months ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

The Mariners have a huge CF problem if JRod doesn’t play there so it does give him a lot of job security. Kyle Lewis the full-time OF is no longer a thing and I don’t even have to check Winker’s UZR to know he’s worse. Haniger isn’t good either once he’s back and Kelenic did not look good in CF last year.

2 months ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

His UZR is a little bit below average in center; that means he’s very playable in center. His DRS is 0, meaning a league-average defensive player, which is obviously average. And his OAA is +3, tied for second in baseball among centerfielders (to be fair he has played more innings in center than anyone else). So if we just combine the three metrics together we see a player that has been a little bit above average in centerfield, meaning way above average defensively as an outfielder overall since most centerfielders are better than most corner outfielders. I’m not saying there’s no chance that he hits a slump and gets demoted, but he has looked good enough defensively that his offense would have to fall apart for him to be a bad option as a starting centerfielder, or his OAA would have to be a mirage.