Sometimes in order to look ahead, you first need to look back.
Around this time last year, we took a deep dive into batted-ball data to try to identify 10 hitters poised for a breakout campaign -- an exercise that was largely successful and predicted the breakout campaigns of Top 100 Prospects Jeter Downs and Isan Diaz.
Now that the offseason is in full swing, it’s time to take another crack at forecasting future success.
Distinguishing types of contact in the Minor Leagues is far from a perfect science -- for example, some official scorers might label a line drive as a fly ball and vice versa. So, for the sake of consistency, we’ll mostly be looking at balls in play (BIP) that resulted in a line drive (LD), a fly ball (FB) or a combination of the two (FB+LD), for this article. Pop-ups are not factored into the fly-ball rates, and it’s important to keep in mind that these numbers represent raw data and have not been properly adjusted for league and/or park factors.
Brandon Marsh, OF (Angels’ No. 2): A back injury wiped out Marsh’s pro debut after the Angels took him in the second round of the 2016 Draft, but since then he’s been a model of consistency, making noticeable gains while ascending the system. In his first Double-A campaign this past season, the 22-year-old outfielder produced a .300/.383/.428 line with seven homers and 30 extra-base hits over 412 plate appearances in the Southern League. He was just as impressive in the Arizona Fall League after the season, flashing legitimate five-tool potential, while posting a .909 OPS with two homers (8 XBH) in 19 games.
Marsh’s strong 2019 campaign is interesting because he actually regressed in his batted-ball profile: his 49.9 percent FB+LD rate from ’18 dropped to 45.6, while his groundball rate correspondingly jumped to 53 percent. In this instance, however, Marsh’s regression also highlights room for improvement.
Marsh has long demonstrated an advanced approach and walked at an 11.4 percent clip -- he’s posted double-digit walk rates at every full-season stop during his career -- last season in the Southern League, where his 7 percent swinging strike rate was the circuit’s sixth-best mark among qualified hitters. He adeptly hits to all fields, too, generating hard contact from line to line from the left side of the plate, with game power that presently plays primarily to the opposite field. For context, he hit four of his seven regular-season home runs to the opposite field in 2019 after hitting seven of his 10 to either left or center field in ’18.
In the AFL, though, Marsh parked both of his dingers to right field. That display of pull-side power, which the 6-foot-4 outfielder shows plenty of during batting practice but has yet to apply it consistently in games, was a very encouraging sign, one that makes it increasingly easy to project Marsh as someone capable of hitting for both average and power at the highest level. With his natural hitting ability and mature approach already in place, Marsh is a strong candidate for a power spike in 2020.
Kristian Robinson, OF (D-backs’ No. 2/MLB No. 71): Signed for $2.5 million out of the Bahamas in July 2017, Robinson might have the highest ceiling of any teenage prospect in the Minors not named Wander Franco. A physical specimen -- he’s listed at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds -- as well as an impressive athlete, the 19-year-old outfielder has the kind of prodigious right-handed power that could one day make him one of MLB’s more revered sluggers. More important, Robinson already knows how to hit, with plate discipline and contact skills that belie his age and experience. That hitting ability makes Robinson’s power possible, and it’s also why scouts are so bullish on his realistic power ceiling.
Playing as an 18-year-old last season, Robinson recorded a modest FB+LD rate (44.1 percent) over 69 games between Class A Short Season Hillsboro and Class A Kane County. It didn’t affect Robinson’s production, though, as he still posted a .282/.368/.514 batting line with 14 homers, 51 RBIs and 17 steals across the two levels. That’s because there weren’t many hitters who made as much impactful FB+LD contact in 2019 as Robinson, whose .692 isolated power (ISO) on such contact ranked fourth among non-Triple-A Top 30 prospects (150 BIP min.).
Additionally, the fact that Robinson posted a higher groundball rate (48.6 percent) than FB+LD rate last season only underscores his room for improvement at the plate, and it’s scary to think about the type of power numbers he might put up with a FB+LD rate north of 50 percent.
Tyler Stephenson, C (Reds No. 7): By all measures, Stephenson, whom the Reds selected in the first round of the 2015 Draft, had a successful first year in Double-A. In addition to slashing .285/.372/.410 with six home runs across 383 plate appearances in the Southern League, he also walked at a 10.2 percent clip and trimmed his strikeout rate. His 8.2 percent swinging-strike rate, meanwhile, was 10th best among Southern League hitters (350 PA min.) Yet, Stephenson’s batted-ball profile suggests the 23-year-old backstop is only scratching the surface of his potential, especially as it relates to his power.
After producing a 55.8 percent FB+LD rate while hitting a career-high 11 homers in 2018, Stephenson, a hulking, 6-foot-4 right-handed hitter, improved his FB+LD rate to 59.9 percent in ’19, the fifth-best rate among non-Triple-A Top 30 Prospects (200 BIP min.). His LD rate improved for a third straight year, too, climbing up to 22.6 percent.
Basically, Stephenson’s batted-ball data highlights how he already possesses an advanced feel for the zone and for making hard contact. Tapping into the massive raw power that he showcased during both batting practice and games during this year’s Arizona Fall League will be the next step, and with a solid foundation as a hitter in place, it’s seemingly only a matter of time until Stephenson’s power emerges in earnest.
Nick Decker, OF (Red Sox No. 11): A second-round pick in the 2018 Draft out of the New Jersey prep ranks, Decker signed with Boston for $1.25 million, but appeared in only two games during his pro debut before suffering a small fracture in his left wrist. Fully healthy in 2019, Decker showcased a blend of hitting ability and power potential in the Class A Short Season New York-Penn League, slashing .247/.328/.471 with six home runs and 21 extra-base hits across 53 games. And while he did strikeout 29.9 percent of the time, Decker’s swinging-strike rate checked in at a respectable 13.9 percent, and he also walked at a 10.7 percent clip.
On the surface, Decker’s numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page. But a deeper look at his batted-ball profile from the season suggests that the 20-year-old outfielder was one of the NYPL’s most impactful hitters. Specifically, Decker’s 60.5 percent FB+LD rate was tops in the circuit (50 BIP min.) and ranked ninth among all Top 30 prospects (50 BIP min.). Similarly, using the same criteria, Decker’s 31.6 percent groundball rate was one of the NYPL’s better marks and further highlights the left-handed hitter’s natural proclivity for driving the ball in the air -- a trait that’s universally coveted in today’s game.
Moises Gomez, OF (Rays No. 13): Gomez tends to get overlooked because he’s a high-risk prospect without Double-A experience in a Rays system that’s teeming with high-probability prospects. But he was arguably the Class A Midwest League’s top slugger in 2018, his first full season, when he led the circuit in extra-base hits (60), ranked second in slugging (.503) and fourth in home runs (19), then added another 16 homers (tied-fourth in Florida State League) and 44 XBH last year at Class A Advanced Charlotte.
The scouting supports the 21-year-old’s power numbers, too, as he’s already a physically strong (especially in his legs) right-handed hitter with explosive bat speed that enables him jump the yard to all fields, not to mention generate tape-measure homers to his pull side. But with that power comes a penchant for whiffing, and after ranking 12th in the Midwest League with 137 strikeouts in 2018, Gomez racked up 164 strikeouts last season to finish second in the Florida State League.
But it’s fair to question Gomez’s contact skills. For starters, Gomez has recorded an elite 57.8 percent FB+LD rate on 1,063 BIP since the start of the 2015 season. More recently, Gomez produced a 43.4 percent FB rate last season that was the highest among non-Triple-A Top 30 prospects (200 BIP min.), and his combined FB+LD rate of 59.5 percent tied for sixth within the same parameters.
Yet, with the amount of swing-and-miss in his game, Gomez has a wide range of potential developmental outcomes. It’s why the Rays felt comfortable not protecting Gomez on their 40-man roster and risked exposing him to this year's Rule 5 Draft, in which he went unselected. However, it could prove a wise move by the club if Gomez begins to put it together in 2020 and the club is able to protect him following the season.
J.J. Matijevic, 1B/OF (Astros’ No. 17): One of the more advanced college hitters available in the 2017 Draft, Matijevic lived up to that reputation in his first full season by slashing .277/.350/.538 with 22 homers across two levels. But a 50-game suspension for a second positive test for a drug of abuse interrupted the 24-year-old’s first Double-A campaign in 2019, and he ultimately produced a .251/.319/.441 line with 11 homers in 78 games across two levels.
But a look Matijevic’s batted-ball profile paints a different, more positive picture of his 2019 campaign. Specifically, the University of Arizona product posted a 31.5 percent LD rate that was the third-highest in the Minors and the best mark among all Top 30 prospects (200 BIP min.), and he recorded the seventh-highest hit rate (22.5 percent) in the Minors (200 BIP min.) on such contact. He also made significant gains against same-side pitching, posting a .798 OPS against southpaws that was a considerable improvement over the .549 OPS from his first full season.
And though it can be argued that Matijevic’s uptick in line-drive contact detracted both from his fly-ball rate, which dropped from 35.4 percent in 2018 to 26.0 percent in ’19, and his overall power output, it also suggests that the left-handed hitter is a mere adjustment away from rediscovering the pole-to-pole home-run stroke he showcased after being drafted.
Greg Deichmann, OF (A’s No. 17): Deichmann’s career began auspiciously with an eight-homer, .915 OPS showing in the New York-Penn League, but since then the A’s 2017 second-round pick has both struggled to produce and stay healthy. Deichmann’s first full season was marred by a wrist injury that eventually required surgery to repair a broken bone in his hand, then the 24-year-old missed nearly two months at Double-A Midland this past season with a strained right shoulder and ultimately batted just .219/.300/.375 with 11 homers in 80 games. Deichmann did, however, finish the regular season on a high note, posting an .819 OPS with four homers across his final 20 games, and then resuscitated his prospect stock in earnest by slugging an Arizona Fall League-leading nine homers in only 23 games.
There’s reason to believe that Deichmann’s Fall League showing was a more accurate representation of his potential than his performance in Double-A. While his Texas League numbers admittedly weren’t great, Deichmann did record a 28.1 percent LD rate that ranked as the 10th-highest in the Minors (200 BIP min.) and third among Top 30 prospects. His 58.2 percent FB+LD rate, meanwhile, was a marked improvement from 2018 (47.0 percent), and it shot up to 62.2 percent upon his return from injury.
Lastly, Deichmann, a left-handed hitter, is at his best when he’s getting extended and driving the ball to the opposite field. It was a point of focus for him down the stretch last year after a pull-happy start, and he went on to hit two of his final four regular-season homers to left field before going oppo with the bulk of his AFL homers. If he can stay healthy and maintain that same approach in 2020 -- and, ideally, trim some of the swing-and-miss (30.3 percent strikeout rate in ’19) from his game -- Deichmann could be ticketed for a breakout offensive performance.
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.