The future is bright on the North side of Chicago. As Rany Jazayerli pointed out this week on Grantland, that future is especially bright in the batter’s box. With an absolute stud to build around, arguably the best bat in the minor leagues right now, a 24-year old short stop who has been worth over ten wins in his career so far, and seemingly every single middle infield prospect in the world, even the biggest curmudgeon on TV seems to be enthusiastic about the Cubs future. However, if this article were written a year ago today, there would be another name that Cubs fans would be screaming at me for leaving off, Mr. Junior Lake. While Lake was not the biggest prospect in the Cubs’ system, when he burst on to the scene last July, excitement was high. It took him only five games to tie a major league record, as no player has ever had more than the 12 hits he garnered through his first five games.
After six games, Lake had an article of his own on FanGraphs, (deservedly) espousing his hot start, while (prophetically) looking at a few red flags in Lake’s game (more on that later). In those six games he slashed .519/.536/.852 with a pair of home runs and three doubles. He even continued to hit well for the remainder of the season, finishing with a wRC+ of 110 and despite below average defense in the field, was still worth over a win to the Cubs for the 64 games in which he appeared. Coming into this season, Lake was a 23-year old with a decent upside who had Cubs’ fans excited for the future.
Cut to: August 13, 2014.
Lake has lost his regular spot in the lineup, and no one has deserved to lose their spot in the lineup more this season. Now Lake may bounce back to be a decent contributor for future iterations of the Cubs (again, more on that in a little bit), but his numbers this season are incredibly poor. Check out his ranks (these will all be from the bottom ranks, as in first really means the worst in the league) in these essential statistics in 2014:
|Stat||Lake in 2014||League Rank (min. 300 PAs)|
Being near the bottom of one of these statistics is hardly a death knell (check out the killer lineup that could be created with the lowest line-drive rates in the league), but if you’re at the bottom of the barrel across the board, it’s fair to say you’ve Schruted up your season in a big way.
So what has been the cause of Lake’s collapse at the plate? The answer is pretty simple. All that’s needed is a trip over to the plate discipline graphs on this very website. Once again using from the bottom ranks, check out some of Lake’s plate discipline statistics:
|Stat||Lake in 2014||League Rank (min. 300 PAs)|
As someone who is neither here nor there on the Cubs (aside from a long-term bet in which I have them making the playoffs before the Astros), I think it’s fair to look at this man who has somehow combined a Pablo Sandoval-esque lack of patience at the plate with a Chris Carter-esque lack of contact on those reckless swings, and simply say, “I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.”
That duo isn’t easy to pull off. Of the top thirty highest swing rates among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, only one other hitter (Mike Zunino) has a contact rate in the sixties, and Zunino’s swing rate is lower and his contact rate is higher than Lake’s. Not to mention that Zunino’s defense has actually made him worth two wins for the Mariners this season, while only George Springer has committed more errors in the outfield than Lake in 2014.
His performance against fastballs is described as, “an exceptionally aggressive approach at the plate (-0.19 c) with a disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss (30% whiff/swing),” against breaking pitches, “an exceptionally aggressive approach at the plate (-0.32 c) with a disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss (50% whiff/swing),” and against offspeed pitches, yeah, “an exceptionally aggressive approach at the plate (-0.65 c) with a disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss (55% whiff/swing).”
The man clearly needs a private lesson with Wade Boggs, although that might not even be enough. Interestingly enough, in his aforementioned piece on Lake last year, FanGraphs’ Bradley Woodrum spotted a couple of potential flaws that Lake would have to fix. Woodrum mentions Lake’s lack of plate discipline in the minor leagues, but he also touches on two other drawbacks to Lake’s game: his extremely “loud” swing, and his struggles with low sliders.
As far as the “loud” swing, scouting player’s swings is not my specialty, but his swing actually does seem a little toned down in 2014. Check out the gif used in last year’s FanGraphs piece showing Lake’s bat going crazy as the pitch comes in. Now here’s his toned down approach taken from the middle of this season. Well, toned down until he swings and misses, at least:
While his hands are still moving, they don’t seem to be doing so with the same reckless abandon as last year. That would seem to be a good sign, one that Lake is willing to tinker with his swing to get better results. As I said though, I am far from a scout, and would be curious to hear feedback on what others think about his swing.
In terms of his struggles with sliders, those have only been exasperated in 2014, as he has derived the fourth-lowest value against sliders this season, at -7.4 runs. And considering that that pitch value is a cumulative statistic and the three men in front of him all have more than 100 more plate appearances than Lake in 2014, it’s fair to say Lake has struggled as much as any hitter in baseball against the slider in 2014.
With Arismendy Alcantara having made a far smoother transition to the outfield (believe it or not, Lake was yet another middle infield prospect originally), and Jorge Soler/Kris Bryant due to be called up in the not-too-distant future, one has to wonder whether Lake’s shot at as a member of the Cubs is through with. The best option likely would have been to send him down to Triple-A about a month ago, as sitting on the bench in the major leagues will neither help his confidence, nor give him the chance to get in regular swings every day, and begin to tinker with his swing etc.
There is some evidence that Lake far prefers to play left field instead of center field, slashing .312/.333/.561 in his 44 games in left field, but this seems a little bit more noise than signal. However, given that the Cubs really have no motivation to win at this point, their best option may well be to put Chris Coghlan, their current left fielder and a useful piece for say the Oakland A’s, on waivers, and see what they have with Lake in left field for the remainder of the season. With a month and a half of season left, the Cubs could see if those splits really are statistically significant, and if they were, the Cubs could have yet another piece of their future lineup in place. And if not, there are plenty of reinforcements on the way.