The Philadelphia Phillies are fortunate enough to possess the only two Double-A hitters with more than 30 home runs so far in the 2016 season. Besides Rhys (pronounced “Reese”) Hoskins and Dylan Cozens (pronounced “Cousins”), no other hitter in the Eastern League has more than 20 home runs. No other hitter in all of Double-A has more than 24.
But minor-league hitters with immense power are not a new phenomenon, and a vast majority of them never amount to much, if anything, in the major leagues. But these two, in my opinion, are a different story.
Cozens and Hoskins, rated the No. 18 and 19 prospects in the Phillies system, respectively, at the beginning of the year, have both made strides in 2016 that should have them both quickly ascending. While they both boast similar slash lines in Double-A Reading this year (Cozens: .283/.367/.611 with 32 HR and a .328 ISO; Hoskins: .284/.362/.591 with 33 HR and a .307 ISO), I believe that one of the two is much more likely to be an above-average major-league player and perhaps even an All-Star.
Cozens, who has the less orthodox approach of the two, stands far away from the plate. He dares the pitcher to come inside, knowing that he has the arm length to cover any pitch that could potentially cross the outside of the plate. Essentially, any pitch thrown on the inner half to Cozens is akin to throwing a pitch down the middle to any other hitter.
Even less orthodox than his physical placement is the placement of his hands. Cozens, who stands very upright in the box, keeps his hands low and towards his back hip. This creates problems for him when he chases fastballs up in the zone, which he struggles to get his hands above. Since Cozens can’t to lay off of those pitches, this becomes especially problematic for the slugger. Additionally, his high leg kick leaves him frequently off balance and on his front foot, especially against offspeed pitches. With his freakish power, however, he can still drive the ball out of the park even when he’s fooled by and out in front of a pitch.
Cozens struggles to identify breaking pitches, leaving him even more susceptible to fastballs up and in. The upper, inner quadrant is easily the most glaring hole in his swing. That, coupled with his propensity to get out on his front foot and wave through offspeed pitches, has led to Cozens’ 29.3 K% in AA this year. Cozens does have a BB% of 11.8, which is encouraging, especially since it hadn’t topped 7.2 since Low-A in 2013. A lot of those walks, however, have been a result of Double-A pitchers not wanting to challenge the slugger. Needless to say, his approach will need to improve if he wants to compete against major league pitching.
Hoskins has a much better approach. His stance is more conventional, and his leg lift and stride are much shorter and controlled. With his back foot pointed slightly towards the pitcher, Hoskins lifts his front foot a few inches off the ground as the pitcher winds up and holds it there until he identifies the speed and location of the pitch, which he does well. When pitchers try to surprise him with changeups and breaking pitches in hitters’ counts, Hoskins is often ready to ambush. He stays balanced and doesn’t chase many unhittable pitches.
While most of Hoskins’ home runs are to the pull field, he doesn’t get too pull-happy, especially with pitches up in the zone. When he gets a fastball up and away, he’s not afraid to drive it to right field for a single. This explains Hoskins’ slightly lower ISO (.307 to Cozens’ .337). He is, however, susceptible to the fastball low and away, which he will try to pull.
Hoskins is able to differentiate between fastballs and offspeed pitches much better than Cozens. Hoskins will often check his swing on breaking pitches out of the zone, and he will stay back on changeups, even in hitters’ counts, and drive them. He doesn’t chase nearly as much as Cozens; his walk rate hasn’t been below 9.0% since Low-A (7.7%). Even more encouraging for Hoskins are his split stats. Most right-handed power hitters struggle against right-handed pitchers, but Hoskins’ split in 316 PA against RHP in 2016 is a robust .288/.365/.570 with 25 of his 33 home runs. Conversely, Cozens, a left-handed hitter, struggles mightily against LHP (.204/.286/.387 with 5 of his 31 HR).
While both hitters possess plus power, Cozens’ is elite and able to offset his below-average hit tool at times. The best metaphor for Cozens’ power is a flashy, new titanium driver: It is forgiving and doesn’t require perfect contact for a desirable result. Cozens doesn’t have to barrel up a ball to knock it out of the park, nor does he need to be balanced. He can be fooled by a breaking pitch and have a majority of his weight on his front foot and still easily clear the fence in right-center.
Hoskins, meanwhile, is a high-quality, old-fashioned persimmon three wood. He possesses above-average power, but needs to square up the ball in order to tap fully into it. But Hoskins’ power is more consistent and reliable, mostly due to his superior approach and hit tool.
Both Cozens and Hoskins are large men. Hoskins, listed at 6’4” and 225, is relegated to a corner infield position, most likely 1B, where he is adequate albeit unspectacular. Cozens is listed at 6’6” and 235 and offers more both in the field and on the basepaths. Cozens is an average defender in RF, although he has appeared in CF seven times in his minor-league career. He’s deceptively fast for his size, as his 23 stolen bases in 2014 and 18 this year attest to.
While both players possess above-average power and are thriving in Double-A at relatively young ages (Hoskins is 23 and Cozens is 22), Hoskins has the superior hit tool and approach. Cozens offers more as a defender and a baserunner, but not enough to offset his high strikeout totals, and his power is only marginally superior to that of Hoskins. Hoskins’ power is more translatable to the big leagues, where he has the opportunity to eventually thrive. This may seem strangely optimistic, but I would not bet against him reaching his ceiling as an All-Star first baseman with 30+ home run power and a .260/.340/.500 slash line.
Just two starts into his Triple-A career, it’s clear why the Blue Jays gave Daniel Norris a $2M signing bonus when they drafted him in the second round of the 2011 draft out of Science Hill High School in Tennessee.
Further, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has hinted that Norris might be in the process of being prepared for a September call-up to join the bullpen, a strategy they recently employed with Aaron Sanchez, the club’s other top pitching prospect.
After struggling with command issues and forearm stiffness in 2013, Norris has worked with coaches in order to make tweaks in his motion to find more consistency with his mechanics and release point. Whereas the 6’2”, 180 pound lefty used to throw across his body, he now employs a high ¾’s release point, and the change has worked wonders.
At High-A Dunedin this season, Norris posted a 10.31 K/9 while limiting the number of free passes to just 2.44 per nine innings. In 66.1 innings, Norris didn’t allow a single home run while posting a FIP of 1.72.
In his eight starts with Double-A New Hampshire, Norris struggled a bit with his command, posting a 4.29 BB/9. But he did strike out more batters (12.36 K/9), and the Blue Jays decided he was ready for Triple-A.
Through two starts with the Buffalo Bisons, Norris has looked like a frontline starter. In 11.2 IP, he has struck out 23 batters while walking only one. He’s yielded just five hits and one run. His first Triple-A start was against a Durham lineup that featured Wil Myers, Nick Franklin, Wilson Betemit and Mike Fontenot. Norris had no problem, striking out 10 batters (including Myers) in 6 innings, walking just one while allowing two hits and zero runs.
Norris works with a full arsenal of pitches. His fastball sits at 93 mph and can touch 96 with good, late movement. His high release point allows him to pound the lower half of the strike zone, as his 43.3 career GB% indicates. He has enough velocity to pitch up in the zone when he wants to, and hitters at all levels of the minor leagues have consistently swung through the pitch.
He also works with a slider, which ranges from 83-87 mph while exhibiting sharp, late downward bite and sometimes some slurvy action. He uses the pitch as much against right-handed batters as he does against lefties, and hitters from both sides of the plate swing through it with frequency.
Norris’ biggest improvement this season has been the movement on his curve. While in the past the pitch showed a higher velocity and sweeping movement, he now throws it 72-81 mph with 11-7 break. He will often freeze hitters, especially lefties, when dropping the pitch into the strike zone with an effortless motion.
The changeup has also made improvements, although it still needs a little work if Norris is going to reach his potential as a No. 2 starter. He doesn’t throw it very often, and many times he misses too far down in the zone. When he throws it right, it exhibits late sinking movement, and hitters get out front and swing over the top.
Norris’ downfall could be his command, which sometimes disappears on him in the middle of starts. But he’s still just 21 and three years out of high school, and he’s made significant strides over the past year. As he climbs the ladder and eventually reaches the major leagues, where he will receive premium coaching, the likelihood of him finding consistent mechanics and maintaining them for seven innings at a time certainly increases.
I like Norris as a No. 2, mostly due to his impressive arsenal of average-to-above-average pitches and ability to retire both left- and right-handed batters consistently. Over 241.1 career innings in the minor leagues, Norris has posted a near identical FIP (3.04, 3.03) against lefties and righties, respectively. As long as he continues to control his mechanics and becomes more confident with the changeup, there’s no reason Norris can’t be a successful member of a fearsome Blue Jays rotation in 2015.
Thanks to sudden injuries to Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers were forced to scour their minor league affiliates’ rotations in order to find a replacement on short notice. Whether due to his rather fun name or the fact that he happened to line up to pitch on Wednesday, the Tigers selected Buck Farmer from Double-A to make the start against the Pirates.
Although Farmer was a four-year college pitcher out of Georgia Tech, he hadn’t thrown a pitch above Single-A until August 1st of this year. This fact, coupled with his lack of pedigree as a prospect, would lead one to believe that Farmer’s MLB odds for the 2014 season weren’t looking particularly bright, let alone existent, a few short weeks ago.
As a 23-year-old in Single-A, Farmer did exactly what he would be expected to, posting 10.07 K/9 while walking only 2.08 batters per nine. He’s mostly a groundball pitcher, and the long ball (0.52 HR/9) hasn’t been a problem for the big right-hander.
The Tigers believed that Farmer is advanced enough to compete (for one start, at least) against major league hitters, and he proved himself worthy of the challenge. While his final line wasn’t necessarily pretty (5 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 4 K, 1 BB, 1 HR), he pitched much better than the numbers might indicate.
Farmer relied mostly on his fastball, a two-seamer that he threw 53% of the time. The pitch sat at 93 mph and topped out at 95 mph while exhibiting mild sink. He only got one whiff with the fastball, and four of the six hits he allowed came on the pitch. The two biggest hits of the game, an RBI double by Russell Martin and a two-run HR by Travis Snider, came on fastballs up in the zone. Farmer struggled to keep the pitch down in the zone, where it is most effective since it doesn’t garner whiffs.
His best pitch throughout the night was his changeup, which flashed plus at times. Farmer throws the changeup at various speeds, from 80-86 mph, and he used it as his main strikeout pitch, especially against left-handed batters. The pitch showed nice fading action, sinking more than his fastball did. He threw it from an identical motion, and most hitters were off balance when offering at the changeup. Both of his swinging strikeouts were a result of the changeup.
Farmer’s slider wasn’t particularly impressive, and he struggled to get right-handed batters to chase the pitch out of the zone. Varying in break and velocity (79-83 mph), the slider sometimes looked more like a curveball, often exhibiting far more vertical than horizontal movement. Yet he was able to throw it over the plate to steal strikes, and he mixed pitches well for the most part.
What really hurt Farmer was his (or, more likely, Alex Avila’s) stubbornness with the fastball. In the fourth inning, Farmer had retired the first batter before backing Pedro Alvarez — who he had struck out on three consecutive changeups in the third inning — into an 0-2 hole. Avila called for a fastball, which Farmer placed perfectly on the lower edge of the zone. Alvarez lined it into center field for a base hit, setting things up for Jordy Mercer and Travis Snider, who tripled and homered, respectively — both on fastballs. Farmer retired the next two batters using his slider.
Overall, Farmer was more than decent for a kid making only his third start above Single-A, not to mention his first big league start in the thick of a pennant race. He was confident enough to throw any pitch in any count, and he was in or around the zone for the most part. When he did miss, however, it was often up in the zone. That’s not going to work against MLB hitters, especially since he probably won’t get many whiffs with the fastball.
The slider needs more polish, but it looks to be an average pitch. His high strikeout rate won’t translate to the major leagues, unless he adds more bite to the slider in order to get right-handed batters to chase. But the changeup is a nice pitch and he throws hard enough, doesn’t hurt himself with walks, and gets enough ground balls to be a No. 4 starter in the big leagues, maybe even in 2015.
Madison Bumgarner has pitched like a top tier starter since he appeared on a big league mound in 2009. While his strikeout rate—8.46 career K/9—has always been above average, something has clicked with the big lefty this season, launching him into legitimate No. 1 starter territory. Through 13 starts this season, Bumgarner has a K/9 of 10.04, ranking third in the NL behind only Stephen Strasburg and Zack Greinke.
What’s most fascinating about Bumgarner is that he’s dominating hitters basically with two pitches, both of which—the fourseamer and the cutter—are high velocity pitches. PITCHf/x has Bumgarner throwing a fourseamer 41.19% of the time and a cutter—which FanGraphs lists as a slider—37.22% of the time. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the latter pitch as a cutter.
This season, the fourseamer has been especially effective for Bumgarner. Batters are swinging at the pitch at a higher rate (45%) than any previous season, and they are making contact with less frequency, as the 29.50% whiffs per swing shows. In 2013 batters whiffed at the pitch 26.69% of the time when swinging; between 2009-2012, the rate was never higher than 19.81%.
The cutter, of which the usage rate has dropped almost 2% since 2012, has seen similar results as the fourseamer. Hitters swing at the cutter 57.25% of the time and whiff with 24.33% of those swings.
A big reason for the diminished contact rate is the fact that Bumgarner is throwing his pitches in strike zone less often than in years past. His in-zone rate is just 39.63%, the only time in his career that it’s been under 40%. When hitters swing at pitches out of the strike zone—which they do 36.01% of the time, a career high—they whiff 37.7% of the time. When swinging at pitches in the zone, the whiff rate is 16.75—a rate that surpasses those in any of his previous seasons.
When Bumgarner gets hitters into two-strike counts, his approach stays the same for the most part. In those counts, he throws his fourseamer 41.41% of the time and his cutter 37.5% of the time, both numbers just slightly above the overall usage in any count. The one aspect that changes in two-strike counts is Bumgarner’s usage of his curveball. Overall, he throws the pitch 11.93% of the time. In two-strike counts, the usage rate jumps up to 17.5% and batters swing at it 55.84% of the time. The result is a 20.78% whiff rate, highest of all Bumgarners pitches in two-strike counts (16.23% fourseamer, 14.55% cutter).
Another aspect of Bumgarner’s dominance this year has been his ability to fight back and limit damage when behind in the count. His fourseamer and cutter have been the main reason for this. When behind in the count 1-0, Bumgarner has thrown the cutter 43.57% of the time and the fourseamer 35.71%. Here’s what happens with those pitches in 1-0 counts:
Between the two pitches, over half of the swings result in a foul ball. Add in the whiff rates and Bumgarner finds himself back in the drivers seat more often than not after falling behind.
What about the 1-0 counts that get to 2-0? More often than not—62.22% of the time—he throws the cutter while throwing the fourseamer 31.11% of the time. Here are the results:
Again, more often than not, Bumgarner is able to fight through being in an unfavorable count. Once he gets to 2-1, he continues to attack hitters with the fourseamer (35.71%) and the cutter (54.29%). Here’s what happens:
In addition to these numbers, Bumgarner’s current walk rate of 2.01 BB/9 further shows that he doesn’t often lose hitters when falling behind. Rather, he uses his fourseamer and cutter to get himself back into a favorable count and is thus putting hitters away at a career-high rate.
As a general rule, giving multi-year contracts to 38-year-old pitchers coming off major ankle injuries is not a good idea. Yet Brian Sabean and the San Francisco Giants did just that, inking Tim Hudson to a two-year, $23M contract this off-season, and thus far have come out smelling like roses.
While Hudson has been a reliable and at times masterful starter during his long career, he is en route to his best overall year since 2003. The data further suggests that he is pitching better now than he has at any other point.
Examining Hudson’s career statistics suggest that his current pace, while not completely sustainable, is not a mirage by any means. The one stat that jumps off the page is his BB/9, which is a paltry 0.77. Of course that rate is bound to rise, but it’s certainly reasonable to expect it to stay in the low 2s. Hudson’s career low BB/9 is 2.10, and he hasn’t had a rate above 2.91 since 2006.
This season, Hudson’s strikeout rate—5.63—is actually lower than his career rate of 6.05. But he has never been a strikeout pitcher; his highest K/9 (8.71) came in 1999, his rookie season, when he also walked 4.09 batters per nine. He hasn’t had a strikeout rate above 6.51 since 2001.
What Hudson is now doing better than he has at any time in his career is limiting baserunners and stranding those that do manage to reach. His miniscule 0.88 WHIP is far off from his career total of 1.22, but it’s by no means a complete anomaly. As recently as 2011, Hudson has had a WHIP as low as 1.14; in 2003 he posted a career best of 1.08. While his current rate is likely to regress closer to the mean, he has proven capable of keeping batters from reaching base at an impressive rate.
When the WHIP does rise, it will likely be a result of an increased BB/9 and BABIP. Against Hudson in 2014, hitters have a BABIP of .243, a number well below his career mark of .278. But Hudson has posted similar rates in the past. In 2010, a year in which he pitched 228.2 innings, he held opposing hitters to a .249 BABIP. He hasn’t allowed a BABIP above .300 in a full season since 1999, though he threw just 136.1 innings that year.
Further, Hudson has stranded 80.8% of his baserunners thus far in 2014, his highest rate since 2010 (81.2). His groundball rate—60.7%—is a big reason why, as is his refusal to allow home runs. His HR/9 is a measly 0.51, a number he’s only bettered twice in his career (0.38 in 2004, 0.40 in 2007). While pitching in the friendly confines of AT&T park has helped, his FIP- of 83 is relatively close to his career mark of 88. In 2007, pitching half his games at Turner Field, Hudson posted a FIP- of 77.
So how is Hudson doing it? Besides the absurdly low walk rate, what has made him so effective this year?
Thus far, he is throwing his split/changeup and cutter with more frequency than his career rates from 1999-2013. His split/change—which he throws 14.60% of the time—has been especially effective this season, garnering a whiff/swing rate of 36.84. Before this season, the pitch amassed a whiff/swing rate of 27.94. His cutter, while getting slightly less whiffs this season (16.67%) than in years past (17.12% from 1999-2013), is forcing more ground balls (11.26 compared to 9.05).
Hudson’s curveball has also been a more valuable weapon this season than it has been in the past. While he’s throwing it at a rate that is almost identical to his career line, it gets him more whiffs (17.19%) than any of his other pitches besides the split/change (20.14). Before, batters whiffed at Hudson’s curve just 11.74% of the time.
When batters do put the ball in play, they aren’t hitting it very hard. Hudson’s LD% of 15.9 is the second lowest number he’s posted in his career, and a decent chunk below of his career mark of 18.0. In 2010, he had a career best 13.6%. This has resulted in Hudson throwing strikes at a higher rate than he ever has in his career. In 2014, 68.2% of the pitches he has thrown have been strikes, compared to a career rate of 63.7%.
As amazing as Hudson has been through 10 starts this season, the data suggests that, for the most part, his rates are legitimate and sustainable. Besides the infinitesimal walk rate, which translates to a low WHIP, and improved whiff rates on two of his pitches, Hudson isn’t doing anything that he hasn’t proven able to do in the past.
I’ll confess that I was once a firm believer in Aaron Hicks, and that I’d be remiss to cast him off after just 442 plate appearances in the major leagues. But the numbers don’t lie: he has been terrible in those plate appearances, sporting a .285 wOBA while amassing a -1.0 WAR.
Thus, I can understand why the switch-hitting center fielder would be a little reluctant to swing the bat. When he does, bad things usually happen. But a career Swing% of 38.7 is not going to work for a player of Hicks’ ilk. For perspective, Tim Lincecum’s career Swing% is 42.5. Yes, Tim Lincecum swings the bat more often than Aaron Hicks.
But what about drawing walks? Hicks certainly does that, and at an impressive rate (17.8% in 2014) to boot. Thanks to this increased number (which was just 7.7% in 2013), Hicks is getting on base at a respectable clip of .336, which aligns fairly well with his minor league career (.376).
While drawing walks is obviously a valuable trait, especially for someone who stole 32 bases as recently as 2012 in Double-A, Hicks is going to have to start swinging the bat at some point if he wants to have an extended major league career.
What’s most troubling about Hicks’ swing rates isn’t necessarily the low overall percentage; rather, it’s his penchant for taking pitches that are in the zone. This season, Hicks’ Z-Swing% is just 54.6, well short of the league average of 64.6. Further, 17 of Hicks’ 33 strikeouts this season have been looking. With a Z-Contact% of 88.6 and an overall Contact% of 80.2, this is unacceptable.
What happens when Hicks does actually swing the bat? Well, it’s admittedly not particularly pretty. He has a career LD% of 16.3, which puts him well below this year’s league average of 20.0. Almost half (48.1%) of his batted balls are hit on the ground, and the remaining 35.6% hit in the air.
But it’s fair to surmise that if Hicks would swing at more pitches in the zone, his LD% would see an increase, which would in turn increase his BABIP, which is just .247 in his career. Heck, even if he swung at more pitches out of the zone he’d probably see an increase in both of these numbers.
Looking at how pitchers are attacking Hicks gives further insight as to why his LD% is so low. This year, Hicks is seeing fastballs 54.4% percent of the time, compared to the league average of 57.6. Not a huge difference, but enough to suggest that pitchers feel more confident attacking him with offspeed and breaking pitches. Hicks is seeing 12.3% curveballs and 18.1% changeups, well above the league average of 9.8 and 10.4, respectively.
Ironically, Hicks’ LD per BIP against offspeed pitches is an astounding 28.57 this season, compared to rates of 19.57 against hard pitches and 11.11 against breaking pitches. Since 72.5% of the pitches that Hicks has seen this year have been either fastballs or changeups, it’s baffling that he remains so reluctant at the plate.
This data suggests that, while Hicks may never reach the expectations set when dubbed a top prospect, he can at least be a useful if not above average player for the Twins if he would just swing the bat more.