Last week, I brought you a report on Sonny Gray, based on my viewing of one of his starts earlier this month. Today, I'd like to talk about what I witnessed from three other Sacramento players across that four-game series: outfielders Michael Choice, Jeremy Barfield, and Shane Peterson. Next week, I'll discuss the notable infield candidates I saw, because they seem to be a hot topic of debate in the A's community...and if I'm going to drive seven hours each way to see a four-game series, I'm definitely going to get three articles out of it.
Anyway, let's take a look at this trio of players and what they might bring to Oakland if they are ever called upon.
Let's start with Michael Choice, since he is easily the most highly-touted of the three players. Choice was, for those of you who don't know (here on AN, I would guess that's a small minority), Oakland's first-round pick in 2010, getting selected tenth overall.
At the time of his selection, Choice was talked up as--and I always hate this term, but I grudgingly admit it applies here--a classic Moneyball walks-and-power type. Some said he had the best power bat in the draft, and he was said to have an advanced approach as well. True to Moneyball form, he was a college player, too. Choice also came with the bonus of not being a defensively inept player--he's stayed in center field all the way up the chain (more on his defense in a bit).
The downside of Choice's skillset has always been strikeouts. This became immediately clear upon Choice's entry into pro ball in 2010, upon which he struck out 35.5% of the time in short-season ball--quite a jarring result from a supposedly polished college hitter. Of course, he slugged .627 anyway, but the strikeouts cast a bad omen.
In 2011, Choice hit well in the California League because...well, who doesn't? Well, some people don't, but the thin air of the circuit is well-suited to players who can punish mistakes, so Choice launched 30 homers in just 118 games. The strikeout rate was better (24.7%), but still poor, and while Choice walked some (11.3%), he wasn't exactly Jack Cust in that department. In 2012, Choice cut down on his strikeouts (21.9%) in Double-A, but with them went his walks (8.2%) and power (.423 SLG). He started off slow, got hot for a couple weeks in the summer, and then broke his hand, ending his season, leaving many uncertainties.
So that brings us to today, where Choice is hitting with renewed vigor in another hitter's league, the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Choice is batting .285/.393/.466 with career bests in both strikeout (18.7%) and walk (13.5%) rate. He's also launched nine homers. The 23-year-old's performance has led to some to call for his ascension to Oakland; certainly, he's not all that far from being ready (though I personally would like to see him get seasoning until September 1).
Okay, enough background--let's get to the scouting report. I am very happy to report that Choice looks every part the player we thought we were getting when we drafted him. He has legitimate plus power, brought about by a swing with a ton of leverage and good bat speed. Here, he's able to get on top of a Tyler Thornburg fastball up and in and drive it out of the park to left-center:
Nashville RHP Tyler Thornburg vs Sacramento CF Michael Choice, 5.11.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
But Choice isn't just a fastball hitter who is rendered helpless by anything that wiggles. For proof of that, check this out:
Nashville LHP Zach Kroenke vs Sacramento CF Michael Choice, 5.12.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
Clearly, Choice has the strength to hit the ball out of any ballpark. It's nice to have two examples right there of him crushing two different pitches in two different locations off of guys who both have pitched in the majors before.
He's not an over-the-fence-or-bust guy, though--Choice shows the ability to drive balls on the outer half back up the middle for base hits. Here's one example, with him turning around a nice K-Rod curve:
Nashville RHP Francisco Rodriguez vs Sacramento CF Michael Choice, 5.13.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
But what of the approach? Will Choice revert to his high-K ways when he consistently is matched up against the best pitchers in organized baseball?
This is my first year going to a lot of minor league games (though I've studied prospects and the minors for years now), and one thing that has really jumped out to me in going from armchair scouting to actual scouting is how little minor league hitter strikeout totals mean. Mind you, that's not to trivialize them--high strikeout totals are a red flag, and can have very serious consequences. However, there is a tendency to treat strikeout totals--or contact rate, which is essentially another way of saying "non-strikeout totals"--as being equal to the fabled "hit tool." They aren't, and that becomes quickly clear once you see five or so high-strikeout minor league hitters.
Take, for example--and I realize I'm about to get way off track here, but bear with me--Texas' storied Low-A Hickory team, which features several top prospects who are striking out at uncomfortably high rates. I've seen that squad about a dozen times this year, and here's a very simple breakdown of why they're striking out so much:
Lewis Brinson (39.3%)--swing gets loopy on low pitches, struggles badly with breaking balls
Nick Williams (28.6%)--pulls off of outer-half breaking balls, swing has some length to it
Joey Gallo (37.4%)--very, very long swing, massive hole on the inner half of the plate
Jorge Alfaro (27.7%)--poor plate discipline, especially with respect to breaking pitches and inside fastballs
Jordan Akins (32.6%)--poor plate discipline, and bat doesn't stay in hitting zone very long
Nomar Mazara (29.2%)--struggles to put the ball in play, instead fouling off a lot of pitches, works very deep counts
Those are six fairly troubling strikeout rates, but there's six different reasons for why they're being compiled. Some guys have good swings but bad plate discipline, others have a good approach but a swing issues, each has weaknesses with certain pitches and/or locations, etc. Each weakness has a different "prescription" for fixing the problem, some more fixable than others, and each player may have physical or mental characteristics that make the required adjustments more or less likely to happen. Nomar Mazara, for example, has a good prognosis, because his swing and plate judgment are sound--he just gets into a lot of 2-2 and 3-2 counts before he even swings, and hasn't quite figured out how to do damage to good pitches other than fouling them off, and often eventually gets caught looking or swings through a borderline pitch after a series of foul balls. Jordan Akins is far more problematic because he has issues with both his swing and his approach.
A lot of the time, the key for a high-strikeout hitter to reduce his strikeouts lies less in improving the contact than it does in improving the plate judgment. Choice is quite emblematic of this. As you can see in the clips above, he's not afraid to swing hard. This occasionally backfires, as you can see here:
Nashville RHP Tyler Thornburg vs Sacramento CF Michael Choice, 5.11.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
But if that's the swing that's going to produce 30 homers annually, the best thing for Choice to do isn't to cut down on it to try to strike out less; the best thing for him to do is to swing at the pitches that he has a chance to do something with, and take everything else. And he usually is quite good at doing so. Here are a couple of examples:
Nashville RHP RJ Seidel vs Sacramento CF Michael Choice, 5.13.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
Nashville RHP Frankie De La Cruz vs Sacramento CF Michael Choice, 5.14.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
Overall, Choice has an excellent approach. He takes pitches he can't do anything with, and he swings with authority at mistakes. Keeping his strike zone small cuts down on his propensity to swing and miss, while of course enabling him to draw lots of walks. Further, it helps him work counts in his favor to get good pitches to hit.
The one negative I have to report about Choice is that he doesn't seem like a center fielder long-term. At 6'0" and 215 or 220 pounds, he doesn't have a traditional CF build, nor is he an exceptional runner. Further, he didn't get great breaks or reads on balls. That's not to say he's a butcher in the outfield--I think he could probably be a slightly above-average left fielder, and it's not hard to imagine Choice in left and Cespedes in center next year. I endorse Choice as a future middle-of-the-order force for the A's. I'd project his peak triple-slash numbers as something like .275/.360/.535.
It's quite a step down in prospect status to go from discussing Choice to discussing a guy who opened the season in Midland for the third straight year. Barfield never made Baseball America's top 30 A's prospects since being drafted in the eighth round in 2008, and is generally known for his Twitter/web presence and his excellent throwing arm more than any sort of interesting prospect exploits.
Barfield is an impressively sized human being, at 6'5" and 230 pounds or so, but prior to this year, he had slugged .420 or higher in a season exactly zero times, topping at .417 in the CAL in 2010. He's never had an out-and-out awful season--his worst average is .257, his lowest OBP is .318, and his most inferior SLG is .375--but on the stat sheet, he has just been consistently mediocre his whole career. Mediocrity, of course, does not breed excitement, nor does it breed big league careers for players limited to corner spots.
Given a third try at Midland this year and still just 24, Barfield finally came through with a hot month to open the season, hitting .242/.333/.515 with eight homers in 24 games--a third of the total he amassed in his previous 259 Double-A contests. That earned him a trip up to Sacramento, where he's hitting .241/.323/.463 with three more big flies in sixteen contests. He has a solid 31/22 K/BB ratio between the levels.
Those numbers portray a player who might be turning a corner, and that characterization is not incongruous with my viewing. Barfield, first off, is an impressive physical specimen--one look at him, regardless of the mediocre career slugging numbers, and you know he can hit a mistake a long way. As with Choice, I got the pleasure of seeing Barfield hit not one, but two homers off of Nashville pitching. First, here's him turning around a Donovan Hand (who also has pitched in the majors, by the way) breaking ball:
Nashville RHP Donovan Hand vs Sacramento RF Jeremy Barfield, 5.12.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
And here he takes Frankie De La Cruz out on a line shot:
Nashville RHP Frankie De La Cruz vs Sacramento RF Jeremy Barfield, 5.14.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
Like Choice, Barfield has a solid approach at the plate. He's more aggressive than Choice, particularly with regard to jumping on fastballs early in counts, but there's nothing wrong with that. As much as we like to worship the idea of "plate discipline" in a let's-all-walk-and-pile-up-.400-OBPs sense (and believe me, I am all for that), it's equally important to jump all over juicy offerings, particularly when you have an upright stance and a 6'5" body that leaves you a lot of strike zone to cover if you get down in 0-2 or 1-2 counts. Barfield isn't a hacker, but he swings at pretty much everything that's in the zone that isn't right on the edges. Clearly, the statistics the approach generates are quite favorable--he's never had an elevated strikeout rate despite his size and power profile, and his walk rate has gone from below-average to quite solid this season, holding up well so far in his first three weeks in Triple-A. See this plate appearance for a good example of his approach: he rips hard at the first-pitch fastball, but shows a discerning enough eye to battle back from 0-2 and walk:
Nashville LHP Zach Kroenke vs Sacramento RF Jeremy Barfield, 5.12.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
Defensively, Barfield has a good sense of how to play right field and has a big arm. If you're familiar with his Twitter presence, you might be asking "How fast exactly does a man who goes by @Baseclogger run?" The answer: His best home-to-first time was 4.45 seconds, which is by no means good, but also is not bottom-of-the-scale, Molina-grade speed. He's not graceful on the bases, but his good reads in right field allow him to make up for his lack of speed and cover a decent swath of territory.
Overall--and I couldn't have imagined myself saying this three weeks ago--Jeremy Barfield just might have enough skills to be somebody's starting right fielder someday. He's got a lot of power in his bat that's beginning to emerge and he has a sense of how to manage plate appearances in a way that maximizes his offensive output. Between his instincts and his arm, he's also closer to an asset than a liability as a corner outfield defender. I won't say I'm fully buying in--it's tough to put both feet on the bandwagon that's supported by 40 games as opposed to the one backed by over 400 contests--but I will say the possibility of Jeremy Barfield being quite useful to the Oakland Athletics--either as a major league player or as a valuable trade chip--may very much exist.
Unlike Choice and Barfield, Shane Peterson has played in the major leagues. He has a grand total of eight plate appearances in Oakland this year, which consisted of a single, a walk, three strikeouts, a groundout, a lineout, and a flyout. However, he is more notable for amassing back-to-back big seasons in the A's upper minors. Last season, he memorably hit .274/.441/.420 in Midland, only to turn on the jets and hit an unfathomable .389/.484/.618 after he was promoted to Sacramento. That triple-slash is so absurd, I have it memorized.
This year, Peterson's tapered off to a still-great .263/.399/.400 line, all while playing first base and all three outfield spots. He is now a career .311/.415/.491 Triple-A hitter in 128 games. Yeah, it's the PCL, but it's not like the thin air is what's making him draw five walks a week. There's an interesting player here.
There are some notable differences between Peterson and the aforementioned duo of Choice and Barfield, though. The most striking is his lack of physical presence. Peterson is listed at 6'0" 210, which sounds vaguely reasonable for a corner player, but he looks closer to 5'10" or 5'11" and something just south of 200 pounds. It's not exactly imposing.
That's not to say that Peterson has to be imposing to be good. He knows his limitations and doesn't try to do too much. He's not taking mammoth hacks at the ball, because he doesn't have the natural power to routinely hit home runs. Instead, he just watches balls and fouls off strikes endlessly:
Nashville RHP RJ Seidel vs Sacramento 1B Shane Peterson, 5.13.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
Nashville LHP Zach Kroenke vs Sacramento 1B Shane Peterson, 5.12.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
Nashville RHP Frankie De La Cruz vs Sacramento 1B Shane Peterson, 5.14.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
Nashville RHP Frankie De La Cruz vs Sacramento 1B Shane Peterson, 5.14.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)
You can see that there's enough strength and leverage in his swing that he can do a fair amount of damage when he connects, though he lacks the bigtime raw power of Choice or Barfield. Peterson has never hit more than ten home runs in a season (though he has 17 in 128 Triple-A games across partial seasons, if that means anything other than "the PCL is inflated!"), and he's not a guy who projects to add a ton of strength.
Peterson played first base in all four games I saw, though that's more out of convenience than necessity--he's overqualified for first base (and quite good there) and fits best defensively in the corner outfield spots. He has average speed and good savvy on the bases, but he lacks the raw athleticism to be anything more than a backup/contingency option in center field, a la Josh Reddick or former A's outfielder Travis Buck.
The problem is, Peterson doesn't really have the power to stand out at the corner spots. He's most likely blocked by Choice, Cespedes, and Reddick in the outfield long-term anyway, to say nothing of Seth Smith, Michael Taylor, Grant Green, Barfield, and even fellow OBP/walk maestro Conner Crumbliss contending for outfield time on future A's teams. First base is less crowded, but do we really want a first baseman who may hit single-digit home runs in a full season? That didn't work well with Daric Barton. And it's not just a case of Barton's struggles making me (and, likely, part of the fanbase) leery of installing another high-walk, high-D, low-power lefty swinger at first--it's just that players of that ilk in general almost never make for good first basemen. Casey Kotchman was largely a bust. So was James Loney (2013 and Rays magic notwithstanding). So was Barton. Lyle Overbay didn't have the career many projected. Go back before those guys, and you're back to Mark Grace and Doug Mientkiewicz in the late-90s/early 2000s. It's just damn tough to feel secure about your first base spot for the long term when you can't pencil in even a .400 slugging percentage. If we needed Peterson there for spot duty, would he embarrass himself? I don't think he would--I think he could hit something like .275/.350/.385, which isn't good for a first baseman (AL first sackers are hitting .267/.347/.456 this year), but doesn't exactly kill the lineup the way that Barton did at his worst.
So that leaves Peterson as a tweener--there's a position he hits well enough to play (center field) that he can't really play, and there are a bunch of positions he can play well (first, left, and right) that he doesn't hit well enough to be more than a stopgap platoon guy in.
But there just has to be some use for a guy who can get on base and isn't totally without punch or athleticism, isn't there? So here's a radical idea: if none of the positions Peterson's played seem to fit with his profile or the organization's needs, why don't we think way out of the box and try something that might kill two birds with one stone?
How about we see what Shane Peterson could do at second base? (EDIT: WOW. I could've sworn he throws right-handed. Forget this, then. I'll leave the remainder of the post up just for giggles though. So much for doing thorough research)
An outfield-to-second conversion isn't without precedent. Skip Schumaker was moved to second base in the 2009 preseason--until that point, he had exactly six games of infield experience in an eight-year pro career; he has since started 396 games at the position in the big leagues. Kelly Johnson was a shortstop for his first four pro seasons, but then moved to left field in 2004; he reached the major leagues as a left fielder in 2005 before missing almost all of 2006. Upon his return, he was converted to second base and has been a starter at the keystone in the big leagues every year since.
Mind you, I'm not saying Peterson playing second is a foolproof, fantastic idea. I've never seen him take a ground ball at second; he may never have taken one in his life. He may not be cut out for it at all. But the Kelly Johnsons and Dan Ugglas of the world aren't exactly bursting with more athleticism than Peterson, and if he's playable at the position defensively, his on-base ability would make him a valuable asset there. His bat seems perfectly tailored to fulfilling the offensive demands of the second base position, so if his glove comes anything close to doing the same, he could be a significant upgrade on what Eric Sogard is providing in the platoon second base role (and I say that as someone who doesn't mind Sogard's presence in the A's lineup; more on that next week)--after all, he is hitting .287/.438/.459 against righties this year despite the downturn in his numbers from 2012's outburst. With the A's organization searching for long-term middle infield answers, giving Peterson a 50-game look at the spot in Sacramento this year, working with him extensively in the fall and the spring, and seeing if it takes before Opening Day 2014 seems worth a shot, at least in my crazy out-of-the-box abstract world. The organization has corner depth to spare anyway, and if a need opened up at one of his "natural" positions, he could always move back there.
It's just a thought. Probably a crazy thought. But an idea to consider, nonetheless.