Taylor Dugas, On-Base Machine

The 2014 Baseball America Prospect Handbook left outfielder Taylor Dugas off the Yankees’ Top 30 prospect list, and the New York system isn’t particularly well regarded, coming in 18th in BAs system rankings and 23rd in Baseball Prospectus’. It’s not hard to understand why he was omitted: Dugas turned 24 earlier this offseason and has yet to play in the upper minors. Across 172 games in three different levels in the low minors, he has a career .351 slugging percentage. The 5’8″, 170-pound lefty swinger certainly isn’t built to grow into a lot more power than that, either.

But those who consider Dugas an afterthought rather than a prospect are missing the boat.

If you didn’t do so at the beginning of the article, do yourself a favor and click Taylor Dugas‘ name and quickly familiarize himself with his statistics. You’ll note a few intriguing facts.

First off, Taylor Dugas walks a lot. After being drafted in the 8th round in 2012 as an Alabama senior and signed for a meager $10,000, he went out to the short-season New York-Penn League and worked a free pass in 18.5% of his plate appearances, almost walking once a game. He wasn’t able to maintain that rate in 2013, but he still put up a robust 13.2% mark with Low-A Charleston and increased that to 13.7% after a midseason promotion to High-A Tampa. He’s also already been plunked by 28 offerings in 172 career games, allowing him to post an absurd .427 on-base percentage for his career. It’s not trending downward, either–it was .426 with Tampa.

Second, Dugas entered pro ball as a high-contact hitter, but he’s gone from being just another low-minors tough out to the Marco Scutaro of the low minors. His strikeout rate has declined from 12.7% in short-season to 9.9% in Low-A to an absurdly low 6.4% in High-A, where he walked 32 times and struck out just 15 in 55 contests. That low strikeout rate allowed him to hit .321 in his High-A stint, despite being a relatively powerless player in a very pitcher-friendly environment.

While Dugas is indeed old for a prospect who has yet to see upper-minors hurlers, you certainly can’t blame him for that–he got a late start being a senior sign, and he’s done nothing but hit and walk since being drafted. Can he keep it up and make an impact at higher levels, though? In order to find that out, let’s check the tape:

This is a good place to start. Dugas sees nine pitches in this video. The first two are balls that he wisely lays off. The next two are pitches around the edges of the zone that get called strikes, but they’d be tough to do much with, and so in hitter’s counts, Dugas watches them as well. On 2-2, though, he gets another fastball near the inside corner and protects, fouling it off the other way. He then watches another ball to run up a full count, protects against another inside fastball by ripping it foul, inside-outs the next offering foul, and then finally gets a pitch to like and rips it into the gap.

That’s Dugas in a nutshell. He drives pitchers crazy, because he takes just about everything that’s out of the strike zone, he has the ability to get his bat to anything near the edges of the strike zone and foul it off, and he has the strength and feel for the barrel to rip line drives on mistakes. The result of that combination of skills is that his plate appearances go on and on and on, and yet he still finds his way to get a positive result–working his way on base–as much as almost any other player in the minor leagues. Here’s another example:

This one goes ten pitches, and it’s more of the same–three balls, one called strike, a whole lot of fouls, and in the end, a ball hit through the right side. He also shows the ability to take ball four rather than continuously spoiling two-strike pitches until he gets a meatball, as you can see here as he outduels top pitching prospect CJ Edwards:

What makes it all possible for Dugas, as one can see in the videos, is that he executes the small-ball game perfectly. He has a small strike zone and knows it extremely well, and while he does have a touch of strength, he doesn’t overswing. His swing is very quick to the ball and he does a nice job keeping the barrel in the zone and letting the ball travel in before he commits, allowing him to make contact with nearly everything and make hard contact with enough pitches to hit for a high average.

So, perhaps I’ve convinced you by this point that Taylor Dugas has a fighting chance to work some walks and avoid strikeouts all the way up to the major leagues. The question is, does he have any other value?

Obviously, with a career .058 Isolated Power and a body type that is ill-suited to a swing-for-the-fences approach, Dugas will likely never be pitched around for fear of the long ball. Still, though, there is some reason to be optimistic that he won’t get the bat knocked out of his hands higher up. First, the parks in both Charleston and Tampa are very pitcher-friendly environments, and it’s not as though any of the leagues Dugas has played in favor hitters. In college, he did show more ability to drive the ball–he was a .360/.461/.517 hitter for his career, with 67 doubles, 18 triples, and 14 homers in 241 contests. He even posted a .215 ISO with eight homers as a junior. Obviously, expecting him to return to that sort of power production is beyond foolish–his wood-bat track record is going to be far more predictive of his future power output than his work with aluminum–but he has just enough strength and swing loft that .100 ISO marks and 5-8 homer seasons aren’t out of the question, especially if he is wearing pinstripes upon his major league ascension. I see his potential power output as a clear notch above that of, say, Athletics outfield prospect Billy Burns, a similarly-sized player with a similar approach, having seen both players in 2013.

Of course, Burns, unlike Dugas, is routinely considered a prospect–he ranked as the Nationals #12 prospect according to BA before Washington dealt him to Oakland–and the difference largely lies with the other aspect of the game: speed. While Burns went 74-for-81 in steals in 2013, Dugas needed 28 attempts just to successfully swipe seventeen bags, including getting caught on half of his fourteen attempts in Tampa. He went 32-for-38 in steal attempts across his first two years of college, but then had consecutive 8-for-13 campaigns in his junior and senior years and went 5-for-7 in his first taste of pro ball in 2012. It’s not too hard for a team–real or fantasy–to roster and routinely deploy a relatively powerless outfielder if he hits, walks, and runs, but things get a little dicier if the third part of that equation is removed.

Happily, Dugas does have above-average raw speed on which to build, and there is some hope he could round into form as a 20-steal threat. If nothing else, he certainly projects to be standing on first base routinely. His speed serves him well in the outfield, where he’s a sound, instinctive player. Dugas has seen time at all three outfield positions in his minor league career, but it’s not because he can’t handle the middle pasture–he’s been moved around in deference to Jake Cave and Mason Williams.

Dugas clearly has limitations, but he also has some very apparent strengths and monitors watching as a deep sleeper who could contribute a high batting average and on-base percentage in the big leagues sooner than one might think. It’s not hard to draw comparisons between Dugas and current Yankee starting outfielder Brett Gardner, who himself hit just four homers in the minors from age 22 to 24. Gardner obviously projected as a more significant source of stolen bases–he swiped 58, 39, and 37 bags in those three seasons–but he also consistently struck out more than he walked. With the lefty-swinging presences of Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the Bronx for years to come, it would seem that Dugas is ill-suited to break through in New York, but stranger things have happened, and if he keeps this act up in 2014 in Double-A, many more observers inside and outside the game are likely to take notice (one of whom, if his season-long infatuation with similarly-styled Cardinals prospect Mike O’Neill is any indication, will be our own Carson Cistulli), making him prime trade bait. Dugas merits a close following as he takes on the test of the upper minors; his quietly effective game is the sort that could turn him into an effective major league outfielder before anyone notices he even exists. Keep him squarely on your radar.

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.

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Ben Suissa
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A Billy Beaner in the making