Thursday, October 08, 2009
Player Profile: Colby RasmusPosted by Mike Silver at 6:20am
Colby Rasmus gets to take home some brand-new hardware – with a side of public scrutiny and embarrassment. Hey, there’s a price for fame and stardom. Deal with it.
Ever since his electric 2007 campaign, fantasy owners have waited in earnest for Rasmus, their next five-category stud. Once expected to be a shoo-in for the top two rounds over the next eight years, Rasmus has since turned in consecutive underwhelming seasons. Though his rookie season was, for the most part, a positive experience, it was not what fantasy owners expected of him, nor was it in line with his pedigree or potential.
Rasmus was drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft, 28th overall, by the St. Louis Cardinals. Hailing from Russell County High in Seale, Ala., the 18-year-old premiered at rookie ball later that year, where he put up a nice .296/.362/.514 line in 240 plate appearances. The young lefty showed some pop (7 home runs), good speed (13 SB) and a tendency to take walks, drawing 21. He struggled with strikeouts, however, registering an alarming total of 73. Still, there was so much to like about him that this small imperfection could be overlooked, especially from an 18-year-old.
Rasmus was promoted to A-ball the following year, moving up to High-A by the end of 2006. Rasmus again showed promise with 16 homers in 558 plate appearances between the two levels. His triple-slash totals were positive, but a mixed bag. He was able to post a .310/.373/.512 share in 335 plate appearances at A-ball, but he struggled a bit in high-A, posting a .254/.351/.404 line in 223 PAs. Still, his plate discipline indicators improved, as his walk rate remained relatively stable (10.03 percent), while he simultaneously dropped his strikeout rate to 16.1 percent of his plate appearances (90 total K's). And, to impress future fantasy owners, Rasmus added 28 steals. Not too shabby.
Then came 2007.
Promoted to Double-A, Rasmus dominated the league and rocketed up the prospect charts, rising to fifth in the majors by the end of the season - and for good reason. The 20-year-old was able to post a .275/.381/.551 line, showing off his power with 29 homers while making tremendous strides in his approach, totaling 70 walks in 554 plate appearances (12.63 percent). Though his strikeout issues resurfaced to an extent, as he whiffed in 108 at-bats (19.4 percent), his swing was so good at such a young age that there was every reason to be ecstatic about his future. With 18 more steals thrown in for good measure, fantasy owners began to salivate, writing five-category star all over him. 20-20 seemed his floor; 30-30 with 100 RBIs was a legitimate possibility.
Then came 2008.
As Ted Williams liked to say, “Hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing in all of sports.” Though many sources concur with Baseball Prospectus’ TINSTAAPP theory (“There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect”), it may be more true that there is no such thing as a hitting prospect. Rasmus is a prime example.
After narrowly missing out on the major league roster, Rasmus got off to a terribly slow start in Triple-A, which dragged down his season totals to .251/.346/.396. His power disappeared, as he hit just 11 out of the park in 380 plate appearances. His strikeout rate remained relatively steady as he registered 72 punchouts (18.94 percent), as did his walk rate, with 49 free passes (12.89 percent). The steals were still there, too, as he nabbed 15 bags in 2008. However, with poor triple-slash line and missing power, Rasmus had suddenly lost his mojo, and with it, some of the shine off his prospect star.
Still, his track record, his defense and his No. 1 team prospect status were enough to get him the starting job in center for most of 2009.
In his first taste of the bigs in 2009, the 22 year-old Rasmus was able to post a respectable—but not great—line (.251/.307/.407), which looks somewhat better when taking into account his age, the small measure of power, and that he didn't embarrass himself as many other young center fielders did. However, after looking at Rasmus’ statistical indicators, two things stand out: First, there is nothing out of the ordinary about his peripherals that would suggest Rasmus played any better than his stat line. In short, he was the same below-average outfielder the numbers described. And second, he has a number of issues to work out at the plate if he is to become the hitter St. Louis expects him to be.
Translating what was said above, know this: Rasmus was not a good hitter last year. He didn't walk much, he struck out often, and didn't do much with the ball when he did make contact. However, he has a number of encouraging trends that give him a good base to work from.
The best place to start is with his batted ball data, so let's peruse these numbers. First, and perhaps most importantly, his line-drive rate was right around league average. This is a very good sign, as it means he’s driving the ball and is not overmatched by big-league pitching. His flyball data is particularly interesting, as well. Depending on whether you are a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty guy, this point might make or break your opinion of Colby Rasmus.
To begin, he had a less-than-ideal home-run-to-flyball rate of 9.4 percent. This, when coupled with his flyball tendencies, means that he will have trouble hitting for high averages with his current HR/FB ratio. As he gets older, however, he will add strength, meaning this rate should improve.
But, by how much you expect it to improve is the real question, as Rasmus possesses the second-most-important trait of a home run hitter: the ability to hit lots of fly balls (45.7 FB%). Most hitters hit slightly more ground balls than fly balls. Rasmus, on the other hand, hits far more fly balls than grounders, meaning that if he does add weight and strength, he could become quite the power threat. When a player can combine a flyball approach with a good HR/FB ratio, he will put up good home run numbers.
However, depending on how much juice you think Rasmus has in his bat, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. It’s good in that, if he adds the requisite strength, he'll club home runs at a high rate. On the other hand, it’s a bad thing if you don’t want to bet on a strength turnaround. Without the added power, his fly balls will land in the gloves of outfielders, not in the hands of fans. This will drag down his batting average and BABIP, like it did this season.
In the end, this is most likely a good trend, as you would reasonably expect a hitter to add power as he gets older. As long as no one tries to tinker with and level out his swing, Colby will continue hitting fly balls and add the power back to his game in the next few years.
Another encouraging trend among his batted ball data is the low frequency at which he hits pop-ups, 5.3 percent. Like Garrett Jones last week, a low pop-up rate means that Rasmus is not often late on fastballs, particularly inside ones. This means that pitchers will have a hard time throwing him inside, which is a big advantage. In addition, it doesn’t seem like Rasmus needs to worry about turning into the next Chris B. Young, whose career has been derailed by a rampant pop-up problem. A good hitter, Young’s batting averages were annihilated by these giveaway outs.
There is more to like about Rasmus, however, than just his batted ball data. His relative success against fastballs (-0.35 wFB/C) and change-ups (0.61 wCH/C) for a rookie show that he is able to adjust to different speeds, which will help him as his plate approach matures. He will need to refine his ability to hit curves (-1.72 wCB/C), as they eat him up. However, he still has time on his side to fix this flaw.
But there is reason for skepticism, particularly surrounding Rasmus’ plate discipline.
Though his ’07 and ’08 minor league walk and strikeout rates suggest that Rasmus was a patient hitter with a good knowledge of the strike zone, a different hitter emerged in 2009. While first exposure to the big league pitching will have a negative impact on any hitter’s strike zone judgment, Rasmus never seemed to have a grip on it from the get-go.
This is perhaps his biggest area of concern, as he seems to have left his patient approach behind in the minors, becoming somewhat of a free-swinger.
While his strikeout and walks rates are not poor (7.1 BB%, 20.0 K%), they are disappointing from the standpoint of what could have been. It would be nice to say that his underlying indicators suggest an improvement; in fact, his Swing%, Contact% and Zone% all place him right around this range.
His 50.1 Swing% is possibly the most disturbing of all, as any hitter who swings this often will never garner many free passes. In addition, his 78.6 percent Contact% shows that he is missing on pitches too often. The Contact% is fixable. However, if he can’t refine his swinging tendencies, his OBP outlook will be severely capped due to lack of walks and strikeouts.
Assuming pitchers continue to throw him in the zone at approximately the same rate as in '09 (50.9%), Rasmus would have to drop his swing percentage by a few points to see any real gains in his walk rate—and this kind of approach overhaul is not easy to do. Therefore, Rasmus’ best bet is to focus on improving his Contact%. If he can get into the low-80 percent range, we could be talking about him striking out once every six plate appearances instead of once every five. That would be a huge boost to his batting average.
But let's shift to a more exciting topic. After all, what made Rasmus so intriguing in the first place was all his steals. What happened to those?
This one is quite confusing. After Rasmus showed off his speed in the minors, the Cardinals seemingly put the breaks on his running, as he attempted just four steals on the season. This is a disturbing trend, though some batters just have down years in the speed department. His recurring heel problems probably contributed to the low totals, as it was affecting him in mid-June and cropped up again at least once more in late July. Put your money on the steals to return in 2010, as he still has the know-how and the speed to swipe bags from major league catchers. And don’t worry about his wheels. He played quite the center field last season, posting a +11.2 UZR/150. You can’t do that without speed, so don’t be too concerned. The numbers will be there next season.
Before the final conclusion arrives, it is worth noting that Rasmus displayed a very large platoon split this season, registering a useful .277/.332/.451 line against righties, against an abysmal .160/.219/.255 one versus lefties. Some hitters are able to cure their ails against lefties, but there is always the need to beware of those who don't. Imagine what kind of player Trot Nixon could have been had he not struggled so mightily against left-handers.
Overall, Rasmus is a raw player with some work to do at the plate. Still just 23 years old, the young outfielder has a lot of potential. However, it goes without saying that he could just as easily remain the hitter he is, much in the same way Jeremy Hermida has stagnated since his own Double-A breakout in 2005. It would hardly be the first time a hitter failed to live up to expectations.
In a perfect world, Colby Rasmus would become a perennial 25-25 anchor, with enough walks to post an OPS in the mid-.800s. However, this is not a perfect world, and Rasmus is far from a perfect hitter. In 2010, a .260-.270 average with 20+ home runs and 10-15 steals sounds about right. While the line is useful, it is below average for 12-team mixed leagues. His potential makes him a worthy gamble in the later rounds, but this batter just requires too much growth and has too large a platoon split to give him a sound endorsement.
Still, Rasmus remains a great prospect, one to keep a watchful eye on. And should you choose to own or track him next year, follow his contact rate and his HR/FB rate, in particular. Should either of these rates show substantial improvement, he will be an asset. After all, he’s still got all five tools.
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Returning from a brief hiatus, Mike is excited to be back at THT.
Mike's former writing homes include FireBrandAL.com and StatSpeak.net, while his content has appeared on Fangraphs.com, ESPN.com, and others. A lifelong Red Sox fan native to New York, Mike loves to blend baseball and statistical analysis.
Feel free to email him at mjasilver AT gmail DOT com.