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Oakland A’s prospect watch: Hunter Hargrove emerging in Single-A

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The 25th-round draft pick is the latest sleeper to watch.

Tormund Giantsbane almost never strikes out.
Photo credit: Scott Schutz | Beloit Snappers

The MLB draft is difficult to predict. Players picked in the early rounds obviously have the best chance of panning out, but even for them the odds are against their success. On the other hand, sometimes a team will pull a gem out of the mid/late rounds, hitting a jackpot that no one saw coming.

The Oakland A’s have their share of sleeper success in recent years. James Naile is starting in Triple-A just a few years after being their 20th-round pick in 2015. In 2013 they nabbed Lou Trivino in the 11th round, and briefly got a big leaguer out of Jaycob Brugman in the 17th. Their 2012 class featured 20th-rounder Boog Powell and 32nd-rounder Ryan Dull, and that same year the Dodgers found Jharel Cotton in the 20th. Of the Oakland draftees who signed in 2011, the only ones to reach MLB have been Sonny Gray (1st), Blake Treinen (5th), and ... Chris Bostick (44th).

Along the way, hordes of other late-rounders have shown flashes in the minors before flaming out, but the point is these guys do make it often enough to be worth watching. That brings us to Hunter Hargrove, the A’s 25th-round selection last June. He’s not the only interesting name from the depths of the 2017 class, but he’s the hottest one right now.

The first thing to catch my eye about Hargrove was his plate discipline, which earned him a brief mention in our last update on the Single-A Beloit Snappers. In particular, he is simply not striking out — he’s fanned only 11 times in 146 plate appearances, and his 7.5% rate is by far the lowest out of all 118 full-time players in the 16-team Midwest League (league average is 23.3%). He also isn’t walking much, so an aggressive early-count approach could be part of the equation, but his 6.0% swinging-strike rate (5th-best in league) suggests that he also simply doesn’t whiff much. When he swings he almost always makes contact, which is a great way to not strike out.

All of that contact is paying off. Hargrove is maintaining a .333 average despite a completely reasonable .342 BABIP. He’s not getting lucky on his batted balls, he’s simply producing more batted balls and enjoying a normal amount of them falling for hits. He’s created his own luck by eliminating the part of the game where failure is guaranteed. He appears to be in complete control of the zone, with the keen ability to recognize which pitches to go after and which to lay off. That could bode well for his ability to adjust to tougher pitching as he climbs up the minor league system to higher levels.

On Saturday I joined Rick Tittle for his A’s pregame radio show on 95.7, and during our prospect talk the topic of Hargrove came up. We noted all the things he was doing well, like his high average and low K-rate, but lamented that he was a first baseman showing utterly zero power — not a complete dealbreaker, but a difficult skill set to ride all the way to MLB.

And then something happened. A couple hours after that radio segment, Hargrove absolutely exploded in a game against Burlington. He flied out in his first at-bat, but he finally hit his first homer of the year in the 4th inning. Then he doubled in the 5th. Then he homered again in the 7th. And again in the 9th. All told he went 4-for-5, with 14 total bases and seven RBI. His slugging percentage went up 90 points in one day.

Hargrove, 2018: .333/.379/.492, 140 wRC+, 3 HR, 6.8% BB, 7.5% Ks

Note: Stats don’t count Sunday’s game, which is already completed. Hargrove went 0-for-4 but didn’t strike out, and his average is still strong at .324. He also pitched for the second time this year, in Beloit’s blowout loss.

Normally, I would be wary of reading too much into one great day of production, just as I might write off one uncharacteristically bad outing by pitcher. But for what it’s worth, Hargrove didn’t just beat up on one struggling hurler. He hit his three dingers off of three different pitchers, none of whom have been homer-prone this year. For two of them it was the first long ball they’d allowed all year. They were also all right-handers, which means the righty-swinging Hargrove wasn’t merely mashing due to a platoon advantage. Two of the homers were to his pull side, and the other went opposite-field.

None of that changes the fact that it’ll take more than one excellent game to stay on the prospect radar, but it helps make that performance look slightly more real than it otherwise could. Hargrove was already showing almost everything you want at the plate, and now he’s taken the first step toward adding the final piece of the puzzle.

Of course, there’s one other way to escape the trappings of a low-power first baseman: Learn another position. Melissa Lockard of Oakland Clubhouse notes in a recent profile of Hargrove that he “played all over the field in high school and college,” and she gives him a Max Muncy comp as a 1B who substantially increased his positional versatility after turning pro (related reminder: Max Muncy is good now, for the Dodgers!). Said Hargrove, in that article:

“They value me as a first baseman right now but I’ve got some groundball work at third base,” he said. “Wherever they need me to play, I’m happy to play, as long as I’m in there getting to swing.”

That Muncy comp encapsulates more than just defense. They’re also nearly identical in size (6’0, a little over 200 pounds), similarly beardy, and offer hitting profiles based primarily around shrewd plate discipline (though Muncy is more of the ultra-patient, high-BB, high-K variety). Muncy found success in MLB when he finally discovered his power stroke to tie the whole package together, and hopefully that’s what Hargrove began to do on Saturday.

There’s still a long way to go before Hargrove pans out. His journey has only just begun, and it will require more than just an occasional outburst like this one. But dang, we were waiting to see him show some power, and we sure got our wish.

Rest of lineup

I don’t have much to add on these guys, so I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves with just a couple notes at the bottom.

Note: Stats don’t include Sunday’s game, in which Beloit was shut out with only four hits (two by Meggs).

Armenteros, LF: .290/.375/.507, 145 wRC+, 4 HR, 12.5% BB, 28.8% Ks
McDonald, OF: .290/.363/.336, 100 wRC+, 0 HR, 10.1% BB, 18.9% Ks
Farrar, OF: .222/.265/.438, 88 wRC+, 5 HR, 5.2% BB, 18.7% Ks
Meggs, RF: .221/.295/.386, 87 wRC+, 3 HR, 9.5% BB, 27.6% Ks
Beck, CF: .270/.314/.345, 83 wRC+, 1 HR, 5.9% BB, 23.4% Ks
Allen, SS: .190/.256/.239, 41 wRC+, 0 HR, 8.3% BB, 23.7% Ks

Lazarito is still crushing, and despite his late start to the season he is thoroughly out-hitting Austin Beck. Mickey McDonald has fallen back down to Earth along with his BABIP, but he’s still got discipline and speed. Jack Meggs has also come back down from his hot streak, and Nick Allen continues to do nothing at the plate. Logan Farrar still leads the club in homers, but isn’t doing much else.

Those names are mostly from the 2017 draft class, other than Lazarito. Here are a couple more guys who have been in the system for a while but are finally showing signs of waking up. Trace Loehr was a high school draft pick in 2014 (6th round), and Lopez signed a hefty international bonus in 2013 and is still only 21 years old.

Loehr, 2B: .291/.378/.376, 116 wRC+, 1 HR, 11.9% BB, 17.3% Ks
Lopez, 3B: .246/.308/.369, 89 wRC+, 3 HR, 7.4% BB, 15.6% Ks

In the speed department, Loehr leads with 12 steals (albeit in 17 attempts). McDonald has eight without being caught, and Allen is 8-for-10.

Pitching

The Beloit pitchers I’m watching right now include three starters from last summer’s draft — Jared Poche’ (9th), Wyatt Marks (13th), and Bryce Conley (22nd) — as well as one reliever from the 2016 class (lefty Ty Damron, 15th).

Marks: 4.71 ERA, 42 ip, 62 Ks, 16 BB, 5 HR, 3.47 FIP
Conley: 4.91 ERA, 36⅔ ip, 39 Ks, 13 BB, 4 HR, 4.18 FIP
Poche’: 3.89 ERA, 39⅓ ip, 32 Ks, 17 BB, 4 HR, 4.73 FIP

Damron: 2.45 ERA, 18⅓ ip, 25 Ks, 9 BB, 1 HR, 3.28 FIP

That’s a 34.1% strikeout rate for Marks, or 13.3 K/9. He’s the clear standout on this staff so far. Mitchell Jordan (2016, 10th) joins Xavier Altamirano (2015, 27th) as Beloit repeaters who are pitching well this time around but need to move up the ladder in order to become truly interesting. Also, 21-year-old Jesus Zambrano is finally figuring out how to strike out batters.

Sunday’s games

Full slate of action.

Triple-A Nashville: 4:35 p.m., Kyle Friedrichs vs. Oklahoma City
Double-A Midland: 4:35 p.m., TBD vs. NW Arkansas
High-A Stockton: LIVE, Zack Erwin vs. Lancaster
Single-A Beloit: Lost 9-0, Ivan Andueza vs. Burlington

Friedrichs makes his first start in Triple-A, despite the fact that he was terrible in Double-A (7.93 ERA, 7.12 FIP). Nashville’s rotation is in a state of flux and they just sent another starter (Frankie Montas) up to Oakland for this afternoon, so for now I would interpret Friedrichs’ presence as a promotion based on convenience rather than pure merit (pure speculation). In Midland, Norge Ruiz appears to be on turn for the start but hasn’t yet been officially announced.

Link to box scores