The 2013 Hickory Crawdads were undoubtedly one of the most star-studded low-minors teams of the past decade. The Rangers’ Low-A affiliate, they had Joey Gallo, who became the first teenager in half a century to hit 40 homers in a season…and did it in just 113 games. For much of the season, though, Gallo trailed teammate Ryan Rua in the minor league home run chase (Rua finished with 32, 29 of them coming in 104 games with Hickory). They had Jorge Alfaro, who many consider one of baseball’s top catching prospects. They had Nomar Mazara, who holds the record for the highest signing bonus by a Latin American amateur, at $4.95 million. They had 2012 first-rounder Lewis Brinson, second Dominican bonus baby Ronald Guzman, and for much of the year, had pitcher C.J. Edwards, the headline prospect in July’s Matt Garza trade.
While all of those players (and relievers Alex Claudio and Jose Leclerc) hold considerable intrigue on their own, there was no 2013 Crawdad who left a stronger positive impression on me than outfielder Nick Williams.
Williams didn’t enter the season with as big of a name as the above players, but that’s not to say he was off the map–he was selected with the 93rd pick in the 2012 draft out of a Texas high school and hit .313/.375/.448 in the Arizona League. In the offseason, Baseball America ranked him as the 25th-best prospect in a stacked Rangers system, which came in behind Alfaro (9), Gallo (10), Brinson (12), Edwards (14), Mazara (16) and Guzman (17), but still pegged him as relevant.
Here’s a quick table of some relevant statistics of the Hickory batters in 2013. Just from eyeballing it, who do you think had the best season in prospect terms?
You can certainly make the argument for Williams. Not only did he post the highest batting average of this group by 21 points, he also hit for more power than anyone other than Gallo (who struck out nearly 10% more often) and Rua (who is four years older). He did have the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio (we’ll explore the causes and implications of this in a bit), but still managed the highest OBP of the five teenagers.
What comes out from looking at this chart, though, is that while it was a star-studded lineup, every notable hitter displayed a significant weakness. Williams struggled with the K/BB ratio, as did Alfaro, who was repeating the level. Brinson and Gallo had colossal strikeout issues. Rua was very old for the level. Guzman and Mazara are corner guys who didn’t manage to hit for significant power.
When watching this group in person, many of these flaws readily jump out in a visual sense. I discussed Gallo’s contact problems last month, and they are indeed extensive. Brinson, who I’ll examine later this offseason, has massive trouble with breaking pitches and anything below his waist. Alfaro has a clear tendency to chase a lot of bad pitches. Mazara and Guzman, both being just 18, showed a lot of promise but haven’t quite figured out how to hit Low-A-caliber pitching with authority.
And yet, upon seeing Nick Williams live eleven times this year, I never got the impression that he was some sort of undisciplined hacker who could be easily retired with a steady diet of waste pitches. Indeed, if I didn’t look at the numbers, I would have guessed he probably walked 8-10% of the time this year while striking out 20-25%. And it’s not like I saw an unusually disciplined sample of his plate appearances–in 47 PA, he walked once and struck out 11 times (he did hit .413/.426/.848 in front of me though, which is a nice way to make a positive impression).
So what’s going on here? Let’s start by looking at his swing. This is his batting stance:
He starts with his hands nice and high in a fairly relaxed stance with his knees slightly bent, standing fairly straight-on. It looks perfectly fine, but the big question is where things go from here. My last two analyses of hitting prospects, my opus on Gallo and this piece on Bubba Starling, pointed out major flaws in the loading mechanisms those two players employed. What does Williams’ load look like?
There is a load here that adds length to Williams’ swing. His hands move away from the ball in two dimensions–first, he draws the bat back behind his head, and second, he moves his hands slightly forward, toward the pitcher, with the bat pointing toward first base. This doesn’t give him a particularly short path to the ball, but it doesn’t condemn the resulting swing to the length of Gallo’s cuts or the segmentation of Starling’s. There’s some length in the swing that results from the load, but nothing out of the ordinary for a young power hitter, and not the sort of Galloesque length that projects to cause significant problems.
Here’s the swing itself:
There are a number of positives in the swing here. First, Williams has very quick hands, which further makes the medium-length load less damaging to his ability to make contact. Second, he steps in toward the ball with his right leg, giving him good plate coverage–he has the hand speed to turn on pitches on the inner half, but the direction of his stride also allows him to hit pitches on the outside black, or at least foul them off. His hand speed also allows Williams to let pitches get deep in the hitting zone before he has to cut, an element of his game that he doesn’t always take as much advantage of as he potentially could.
One other major positive that Williams has that hitters like Gallo and Starling struggle with is the ability to adjust to different pitch types in different locations. Check out how he’s able to square up these two pitches:
Williams’ ability to adjust to pitches in different locations and square them up provides a big boost to his potential to hit for average. Here, he hits both an up-and-in fastball from lefthander Daniel Stumpf and a heater off the plate away from righty Brett Gerritse. He’s not limited to one-plane contact, and thus can do damage to more than just mistake pitches. This ability to hit all sorts of stuff, of course, in some ways reinforces the bad habits that cause the strikeout-to-walk issues, but we’ll examine that in a moment.
One thing that goes along with the ability to hit all sorts of pitches is the ability to use the whole field, and indeed, not only does Williams show the ability to line the ball from foul line to foul line, he also can clear the fence in all parts of the park. He can launch impressive pull homers, like so:
That’s a 78-mph slider middle-in from Geoff Broussard, and Williams waits back on it just enough and then absolutely launches it. Again, the hands are extremely quick through the ball, and his swing here has big leverage that sends this particular pitch into orbit. But again, he can also take pitches on the outside half and drive them the other way:
In sum, Williams’ bat speed, leveraged swing, and ability to drive the ball to all fields helped him achieve the lofty power heights of 2013, and with room left to fill out his athletic frame, he projects as a well-above-average power bat capable of 25-35 homer seasons, particularly if he ends up playing his home games in Arlington.
So he’s got the ability to hit for average and power. Williams also has solid speed and plays a good left field–were it not for Brinson’s presence, he would likely have spent the year in center–so he’s not entirely a bat-only player. He hit .293 this year with homers in 4.2% of his plate appearances, which over 600 plate appearances translates to 25 bombs. Obviously, it’s pretty difficult to be anything less than a solid regular if one can hit .293 with 25 homers and be something more than a liability defensively. Williams has the tools to carry those levels of performance to the big leagues, and seeing as he has more room to fill out his frame and plenty of time to make adjustments, his upside is even higher than that–a 30+ homer guy with the ability to surpass .300 batting averages if BABIP breaks his way.
BABIP has broken his way thus far in his career (.404 in 2012, .371 in 2013) which is both a positive and a negative. On one hand, it reflects Williams’ ability to sting the ball for hard contact. StatCorner listed Williams as having a 20.8% line-drive rate this year, as opposed to a 17.0% league average. Clearly, he hits the ball with authority, and he projects to sustain above-average BABIPs. However, what “sustaining an above-average BABIP” means in MLB is usually something like sustaining a .320 mark, not a .370 one. Even the Ichiros of the world can’t break .350 consistently. So if Williams is going to still hit in the high .200s, let alone the .300s, as he advances, he’s going to have to find ways to make up for the hits on balls in play he’ll inevitably lose.
And this is where we turn to that pesky K/BB ratio. As I said earlier, the striking thing about Williams’ K/BB ratio was that, in my live viewings, he didn’t strike me as the same breed of overaggressive hacker that Jorge Alfaro and Jordan Akins are. He didn’t seem like a passive hitter either, but there was a disconnect between the visual and the statistical. All the other high-strikeout hitters on the team had readily obvious issues that explained their strikeouts, except Williams. About the biggest issue I noticed was a tendency for him to pull off of outside breaking pitches from righthanders, which sounds like quite a minimal issue when juxtaposed with the “longest swing in the SAL” and “worst breaking ball hitter in the SAL” and “least disciplined hitter in the SAL” and other more dire diagnoses of some of his teammates.
So, in an effort to explain the horrendous plate discipline numbers, I went back to my video database and charted every pitch to Williams I had on video, across 36 plate appearances. That’s 127 pitches, which is hardly a great sample, but it’s probably as good of a sample as anyone has on him. Here’s what I found for his plate discipline statistics.
Called Strike%: 8.7%
Swinging Strike%: 14.2%
In Play%: 22.0%
There are some alarming numbers in here. No major league batter had a swing rate above 61% this year (A.J. Pierzynski was highest, at 60.7%). A 14.2% swinging strike rate indicates a lot of whiffing going on–that would be in the ninth percentile of the 316 MLB batters who saw at least 250 PA this year. The only three players in MLB who saw strikes 70% of the time were Pierzynski, Alcides Escobar, and Alexei Ramirez–only Ramirez managed a decent statline of those three.
Those numbers point to issues, but others paint a less damning picture. The most significant of these is the O-Swing/Z-Swing split. If this sample is true, Williams swings at pitches in the zone at a much higher rate than any major league batter did this year (Freddie Freeman led MLB at 85.7%, and only he and Carlos Quentin broke 80%), but on pitches outside of the zone, his swing rate drops to 36.4%, which is lower than about twenty percent of MLB batters, including such notables as Brandon Moss, Justin Morneau, Yoenis Cespedes, Adrian Beltre, Gerardo Parra, Mark Trumbo, Yasiel Puig, Brandon Phillips, Hanley Ramirez, Marlon Byrd, Evan Gattis, Torii Hunter, and Pablo Sandoval. Chasing 36% of pitches out of the zone is hardly optimal (especially with just a 54.2% contact rate, which would be 26th-worst out of 316–though we have a mere sample of 24 out-of-zone swings here, so I would caution against freaking out too much on that), but you don’t have to look far to find hitters who have strung together big seasons in spite of chasing as much or more.
This reflects what my eyes saw with Williams–he swings a lot, but rarely does he swing at 58-foot breaking pitches, or sliders in the other batter’s box, or fastballs at his eyes. He just swings at all the borderline pitches in addition to the mistake pitches, which makes sense, because, well…he can do damage against borderline pitches. Why change one’s approach midseason when it’s producing a .395 wOBA? Williams’ 87% Z-Contact is a fairly middling rate–Joey Votto hit .305/.435/.491 this year with an 86.8% Z-Contact, so again, it’s not a number that is historically difficult to build good production around (like, say, Gallo’s and Brinson’s strikeout rates). As Williams advances and sees better pitching that forces him to adjust, I think he’ll develop a slightly more judicious approach at the plate and push his K/BB ratio in the 3/1 range (21% K/7% BB, or thereabouts).
As for the cause of the swinging strikes, there wasn’t too much of a pattern. Of the eighteen swinging strikes recorded, six came on breaking pitches, three on changeups, and the other nine on fastballs. Half of them were on or off the outside corner, as Williams will sometimes fail to take advantage of his hand speed and pull off outside pitches rather than letting them get deep in the hitting zone. Here’s an example on a Casey Upperman fastball:
And here’s a chase of an Andy Beltre slider:
In both of these instances, Williams isn’t as committed to working the opposite field as he is in the above .gifs of him driving the ball the other way. Against the Upperman fastball, his hips fire a split-second too early, he pulls off the ball, and fails to get the bat extended. Against the Beltre slider, he gets fooled and loops underneath the ball as his back foot flies up, a weak cut that makes no use of the lower body. He clearly has the capability to do damage on outside pitches, but needs to prove he can be consistent in staying on them. Pitchers did tend to work him away in the videos I charted pitches from:
Off Plate Inside: 20
Inner Third: 23
Middle Third: 24
Outer Third: 38
Off Plate Away: 22
Being more consistent against pitches on that outer third obviously would go a long way toward Williams reaching his potential.
Of his eighteen recorded swinging strikes here, seven came on offspeed pitches below the strike zone, like the above one from Beltre. Williams will need to improve his pitch recognition skills to avoid chasing these to help work walks and get him in more favorable counts.
Overall, though, I don’t think Williams’ future is as clouded by the K/BB woes as it may appear on first glance. He has two plus tools and two solid ones, with only his arm being a weak point, and the actual pitch-to-pitch results don’t reveal Williams to be a hitter without a plan. He’ll need to tighten up his strike zone some and get more consistent on both sides of the ball as he advances, but he passed the full-season test with flying colors at age 19 and has a lot of already-present skills, giving him a higher floor than most teenagers but still allowing him a high ceiling. For my money, Williams was the best prospect on the 2013 Hickory squad due to his combination of broad present skills and the lack of a glaring weakness that will require unusual positive development to overcome. He would rank somewhere in my top three position prospects in the league, as well. As such, he’s a very valuable asset for both a prospect-rich Rangers organization and owners of dynasty league fantasy teams.
Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.