Minor Matters: Breaking down hot starts

We are about two weeks into the minor league regular season, so let’s break down some of the most impressive starts among prospects in the upper minor leagues.

Lastings Milledge
New York Mets

Milledge was recently rated THT’s #15 prospect with the caveat that he “needs to draw more walks”. The 21-year-old center fielder is off to a very good start for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides:

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006     AAA      53     .396     .535     .623      1       9     12       8

The high batting average and all those extra base hits look good, but we already know he is capable of doing that. His 12 walks and 8 strikeouts are what really jump out at me. Milledge only walked 14 times in half a season with Double-A Binghamton last year, so this year’s performance suggests a significant improvement.

Milledge recognizes that he needs to draw more walks and says he is working on getting on base more often. He earned walks in fewer than 7% of his plate appearances last year, but he did walk in nearly 10% of his appearances in the Arizona Fall League last October. This year, he has earned unintentional walks in 15.7% of his plate appearances.
Things seemed to change about a week ago:

              AB   BA    OBP  BB/PA
First 8 Games  28  .321  .424   7.1%
Next  8 Games  25  .480  .649  24.3%

The first half looks like the old Lastings Milledge. The second half looks like a MLB-ready leadoff hitter. If he performs between those two levels of production the rest of the season, Mets fans should be very happy.

Can his recent high walk rate be explained by a couple of wild pitchers during their recent road trip? Probably not. Milledge’s teammates drew 20 walks during their first eight games and 19 walks during the next 8 games. It’s unlikely that Milledge will maintain such gaudy numbers for Norfolk throughout the season, but his performance to date does suggest real improvement in his ability to get on base. It’s still unclear if he will ever hit for much power, but he is already starting to look more like the Mets’ leadoff hitter for the 2007 season.

Hunter Pence
Houston Astros

Pence is on pace to hit over 40 home runs this year.

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006      AA      65     .354     .391     .723      5      12      4      11

What so special about five home runs? Pence has hit all of those home runs in the two most pitcher-friendly ballparks in the Texas League. He hit two home runs at Midland, TX, and three home runs at Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi, where the center field fence is more than 100 feet further away from home plate than the center field fence at places like Arkansas. He’ll have an even easier time hitting home runs at many other places around the league, so he could be one of the few ballplayers to fulfill those outlandish “on pace for” projections you always hear in April. Oh, and speaking of Arkansas …

Brandon Wood
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

One of the more interesting questions heading into this season was how Brandon Wood would follow-up a season in which he collected 100 extra base hits. He’s still showing plenty of power when he’s not swinging and missing:

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006      AA      66     .318     .370     .606      4      11      6      26

He’s playing in a hitter-friendly home park this year, so let’s take a peak at his home and away performances:

         AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
HOME      32     .375     .375     .625      2       4      0      13
AWAY      34     .265     .366     .588      2       7      6      13

So far so good. He’s striking out almost twice a game but he’s also hitting for power wherever he plays.

It’s far too early to read much into these kinds of splits, but this might help reassure Angels fans for now. Wood’s spectacular 2005 season was scrutinized because he was playing in such a hitter-friendly environment, so it will be worth paying attention to this kind of information as the season progresses.

There’s one other thing you should know about Wood’s performance this year: he has already made nine errors at shortstop. The Angels have a couple other shortstop prospects, so Wood’s struggles might inspire a position change this year.

Howie Kendrick
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Kendrick is putting together a nice career by swinging whenever possible and and putting the ball in play. He’s doing more of the same this year:

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006     AAA      66     .379     .397     .561      2       7      1      10

The average batting average for balls in play (BA/BIP) in the Pacific League is usually around .325, but Kendrick has a BA/BIP of about .463 this year. Let’s break this down by hit type:

               Batted Ball Types
          OF      IF      LD      GB
% BIP     37%      2%     12%     49%
  BA    .277    .000   1.000    .500

Kendrick is hitting a lot of ground balls, but that in itself isn’t too unusual. The fact that he is reaching base safely so often when hitting a ground ball is likely to change over the course of the season, however. His .500 BA/BIP for ground balls is far above a league average that is usually closer to .200. Readers of the The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006 already know that batters have some control over their balls in play and the resulting outcomes, but it’s unlikely that Kendrick will maintain this kind of success slapping ground balls to left field all season. Expect his batting average to drop very soon.

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