When it comes to analyzing minor league players, it is certainly important to consider both the statistics they compile and the connection between that performance and the visual/mechanical elements of their process behind the numbers. However, if there’s one group of prospects who can be effectively analyzed (in a shorthanded fashion) from a purely statistical standpoint, it’s probably first base prospects. In general, they’re below-average defenders–none of the 25 qualified first basemen in 2013 posted a positive FanGraphs Defense value, after all–and as a result, they are held to extremely high offensive standards. Evaluating a first base prospect, then, often comes down to a simple method: If he hits, he’s interesting, and if he doesn’t, he’s not.
Applying this crude method to White Sox first base prospect Rangel Ravelo probably would lead many toward the second conclusion. Ravelo’s not entirely off the radar–he hit .312/.393/.455 with High-A Winston-Salem this year as a 21-year-old, enough to slot him into the final slot on Baseball America’s top 30 White Sox prospects. But he’s a first baseman who is a career .298/.359/.402 hitter–that’s a meager .104 Isolated Power and just seven home runs in 1179 plate appearances since being drafted in sixth round in 2010 out of a Florida high school.
The logical conclusion to draw, then, is that Ravelo, while perhaps a talented hitter, is never going to have the power required to make an impact given what’s likely to be little defensive ability. Then again, maybe the visual/mechanical aspect still retains importance for first basemen, because it paints a very different picture of Ravelo than his production does.
First, let’s talk about Ravelo’s career to date. Being a high school draftee, he made his professional debut just a few months past his eighteenth birthday, hitting a weak .254/.291/.335 in the Advanced-Rookie Appalachian League while playing exclusively third base. Even at this early date, he did show advanced bat-to-ball ability, striking out just 13.4% of the time, but he displayed little power or patience, leading to the anemic on-base and slugging percentages.
The following season saw Ravelo’s ability to avoid the strikeout turn into something more than just a curiosity, as he crushed the Appy League at a .384/.410/.507 clip in twenty contests upon repeating the level and kept hitting as a 19-year-old in Low-A Kannapolis, with a .317/.368/.373 line. At the latter level, he actually cut his strikeouts further to 10.9% while raising his walk rate to a more acceptable 6.9%. He still showed no power–after the 2011 season, he had played in 111 career contests and had launched a sole home run–and remained a third baseman. In fact, he fielded .942 at the position in 2011, quite an advanced rate of miscue avoidance for a teenage third sacker.
Since he only got in 43 games with the Intimidators in 2011 and broke camp in 2012 before his twentieth birthday, Ravelo was sent back to Kannapolis for a second campaign. He continued to make contact (11.6% K, .290 average), but the rest of his game continued to lag behind (6.1% walk rate, two homers, .107 ISO in 76 games), before his season ended in early July when he was replaced on the restricted list. He still appeared at third base in 90% of his non-DH appearances, though his fielding percentage declined to .918.
Following that long layoff, Ravelo was sent back to the Intimidators to open 2013 to get his timing back, hitting .226/.364/.302 in a brief seventeen-game stretch to open the season–obviously, that remains an unexceptional triple-slash line, though walking eleven times in 66 plate appearances represented a massive step forward in Ravelo’s walk rate. However, he had been moved to playing first base exclusively after appearing at the position just six previous times in his career (all in 2012). Finally, he was moved to High-A Winston-Salem at the beginning of May, still less than two weeks after his twenty-first birthday despite needing parts of three years to escape the Low-A level. He ripped three hits in his first game with the Dash, started his tenure with the team with an eleven-game hitting streak, and didn’t stop raking en route to the aforementioned .312/.393/.455 line. Notably, his strikeout rate remained low (13.3%), but his walk rate took a huge step forward (11.5%), and his Isolated Power climbed up to a .143 mark that was easily a career high, though still below the standards of a typical first baseman. Ravelo hit four home runs in 84 contests with Winston-Salem, more than doubling his career total, and he also stroked 27 doubles in that timeframe.
So here’s what we know on paper about Ravelo:
1) He’s always made contact–in every stop of more than 20 games, his strikeout rate has been somewhere between 10.9% and 13.4%.
2) His walk rate (4.8% in 2010, 5.6% in 2011, 6.1% in 2012, 12.3% in 2013) and Isolated Power (.079 in 2010, .077 in 2011, .107 in 2012, .133 in 2013) have both generally trended upward, going from well below average in both marks to good discipline and passable power output.
3) He’s been moved from a fairly challenging offensive position (third base) to the most challenging one (first base), though there’s no glaringly obvious statistical evidence that the move was 100% necessary. Still, when one looks at who played third base on Ravelo’s teams in 2013, names like Patrick Palmeiro, Tyler Williams, and Jeremy Farrell–all of whom have absolutely zero prospect credential–pop up, suggesting that Ravelo was playing first because the White Sox wanted him there, not because he was pushed there by others.
The logical conclusion to draw from the above trifecta of facts is that Ravelo has some merits, but is a “tweener”–his bat can play at some positions, but his glove won’t play at the ones his bat will. In order for him to find a major league role, he either has to come into a whole lot more power or find another place to play.
Skeptics of Ravelo may further condemn him by pointing out that Winston-Salem’s BB&T Ballpark, where he broke out this past year, is an easy place to hit, with righthanded park factors of 110 for doubles and triples, 115 for home runs, and 109 for runs, according to StatCorner.
But all of this superficial analysis misses quite a few important things about Rangel Ravelo. For one, the claim that his breakout is all park effects is rather easily debunked–he hit just .245/.326/.374 at the cozy confines of BB&T Ballpark and .382/.463/.544 in the (generally pitcher-friendly) other seven stadiums in the Carolina League. Further…
The first video began to move Ravelo from “interesting sleeper” to “legitimate prospect” in my mind, and the second, the very next day, cemented that transition. Both home runs, obviously, would be far out of even the deepest left-center power alley. I’ve heard from multiple credible sources that blasts like these are not uncommon from Ravelo in batting practice, and it may be that in the second half of 2013, he began to translate that raw power into game power–from June 13 to the end of the season, he hit .315/.401/.483.
Let’s take a closer look at the swings on both of these titanic blasts:
Ravelo is a fairly large, though by no means massive, player at 6’2″ and 210 pounds, but he doesn’t fall into the long-swing trap of a lot of big corner guys. His loading mechanism is, in fact, fairly minimal–even on both of these mammoth home runs, basically all Ravelo is doing is dropping the bat head on the ball. His fairly short stroke allows him to let the ball travel fairly deep in the zone, giving him the ability to adjust well to offspeed pitches and use the whole field, like so:
A look at the swing in the first of these two videos points to another important element of Ravelo’s game and success:
Dude swings hard. It’s not uncommon to see Ravelo end up in the lefthanded batter’s box at the end of one of his cuts, even when he misses or fouls the ball off, thus having no incentive to travel up the baseline–his vicious whole-body cuts leave a whole lot of momentum to be corralled.
Ravelo’s size, raw strength, and swing-hard approach combine to give a very different impression than his statline. If you watched him play for just a couple of games and had no idea of his statistics, you might think he’s the opposite of what he is–a swing-hard-in-case-you-hit-it type. Ravelo looks like he could be a 20-HR player with plenty of doubles (he’s already showed the latter, of course), and his statistics also show that he can work walks and make a lot of contact, putting him in a position to be a very balanced and very dangerous offensive force if the power develops as it might. Ravelo may be one of the rare hitters who can pull the Dustin Pedroia trick of putting the ball in play a lot while using a swing-from-the-heels stroke that maximizes his power output–a testament to his natural hand-eye coordination, pitch recognition, and bat-to-ball skills. That’s not to say Ravelo is at all primed to win an MVP award someday, but it’s a very useful trait to have nonetheless.
Of course, one of the main reasons Ravelo doesn’t project to have anything close to Pedroia’s career is positional–Pedroia is a quality defender at an up-the-middle spot, whereas Ravelo is now moored to the cold corner. Further, the White Sox brought in Jose Abreu to play first base at the sizeable commitment of six years (through Ravelo’s age-27 season) and $68 million earlier in the offseason, and career .271/.353/.456 hitter Andy Wilkins and .287/.377/.459 hitter Dan Black will open this year at Triple-A, providing additional competition in the organization. Behind Ravelo is 2012 supplemental pick Keon Barnum, who gets 7s and 8s put on his raw power and is just one level lower and eight months younger.
All of which means that Ravelo’s best chance at a future is moving back to his original position of third base. At 6’2″ and 210 pounds, he hasn’t really outgrown the position, his fielding percentages there in the past are far from unsalvageable, and he repeatedly displayed above-average athleticism and acumen for a first baseman during the 2013 season, suggesting that he could at least be playable if shifted back to the more difficult infield corner. He has soft hands and playable range and arm for third base, and he has enough speed to occasionally catch pitchers napping on the bases, going 11-for-14 in steals over the past two seasons.
So, while Ravelo’s statistical profile makes him look like a powerless first baseman, there’s a fairly large base of evidence to suggest that he may end up neither underpowered nor a first baseman. That’s not to say he’s a lock to hit 20 homers and play an adequate third base in the majors, but there’s definitely a higher likelihood of his becoming an offensive force and defensive non-liability than he’s given credit for. In the end, Ravelo’s ultimate fate does somewhat return to the fundamental nature of bat-first prospects–if they hit, they stay interesting (thus prompting either their organization or another one to try to find MLB playing time for them), and if they don’t, they fall off the radar quickly. Ravelo still has more to prove, but look for him to take a further step forward with his over-the-fence output this year with Double-A Birmingham as a 22-year-old, elevating him toward the upper ranks of first base prospects. He may never rank highly on prospect lists, but he’s a very interesting dark horse to hit somewhere in the .285/.350/.450 range, which would make him a very good third baseman and even a solid first sacker. Keep track of his progress as he tries to build on his 2013 breakout.
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.