When we cover the Arizona Fall League each year, my colleagues Jim Callis, Sam Dykstra and I divvy up the season. There’s often a passing of the proverbial baton in terms of information, the reporter leaving telling the one who is coming who they liked, who to watch out for, etc.
A year ago, I was heading to Arizona and Mr. Callis was leaving, one name he circled in red was Rockies shortstop prospect Ezequiel Tovar. Now, as is often the case, one of us got to see him do a whole lot of things really well, and one of us did not. Jim saw Tovar swing the bat very well and make a number of stellar defensive plays. I did see one home run off his bat, and the always-plus glove work, but not much else offensively. To that end, when we were working on top prospects for the league, Jim advocated for Tovar while I scratched my head and said, “Umm, he hit .189.”
As much as it pains me to say it publicly, Jim was right.
In all fairness, while I didn’t see Tovar shine as brightly, all of us saw at least glimpses of his promise. Given that he was one of the youngest players in the league at 20 years old, the fact that he held his own, final numbers or not, made all of us take note and recognize him as someone who could make a leap forward in 2022.
Tovar was coming off a solid 2021 season, his first in full-season ball, where he performed well enough with Single-A Fresno to get bumped up to High-A Spokane, though he wasn’t nearly as impactful offensively up a level. We wanted to see what he would do as this year started before considering him for the Top 100, and boy, did he not disappoint. When we added Tovar, on June 8, he had a .995 OPS at age 20 with Double-A Hartford, a notoriously hard place to hit. He certainly fared better on the road this year in the Eastern League (1.049 OPS), but his .800 OPS in Hartford helps show his bat is going to eventually play anywhere.
So, clearly, Tovar convinced us, and in early July when we updated the Top 100, the talented shortstop shot from No. 92 to No. 59. And while a groin injury shelved him at the end of June until just a week ago when he moved up to Triple-A for a handful of games, we felt his all-around tools were worthy of another leap in our August re-rank, this time up to No. 28, which put him on the Top 10 shortstops list as well.
Tovar seemed to shake the rust off during his five-game stay with Albuquerque, but it’s probably a safe bet to keep expectations in a realistic zone for his offensive output during the final two weeks of the big league season. He’s always been able to make contact, with a 17.7 percent strikeout rate in his Minor League career. But as is often the case with young hitters who have impressive bat-to-ball skills, that often meant Tovar would swing at just about anything. That certainly happened in High-A in 2021 and the AFL, where he had a combined 39/8 K/BB ratio.
Tovar has made some adjustments while adding strength to his frame. His K rate this year went up to a still-impressive 20.8 percent, but his walk rate more than doubled from 3.6 percent in 2021 to 8.4 percent this season. That helped him continue to get to his developing power a bit more and led to increases in just about every offensive category, from OPS (.796 to .927) to wRC+ (105 to 151).
And there’s the thing. Even if Tovar didn’t hit, or make these offensive gains, he still would have Major League value. Even if he doesn’t swing the bat that well down the stretch here, Rockies fans will get to see just how good of a defender he is at a premium position. Minor League fielding stats are tough, but the fact he made just eight errors in 69 total games at the upper levels, at his age, says a lot.
Tovar’s also not the kind of shortstop who is simply reliable. He has tremendous range and while he makes all of the routine plays, he also makes highlight-reel ones while often making the difficult play look easy. Add in one of the better infield arms in the Minors -- we gave him a 70 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale -- and he is the complete defensive package at short and will play there for a very long time.
So the offense is gravy. But it has the chance to be really, really good gravy. Let Tovar get his feet wet here at the end of the season, then hand him the starting job on Opening Day in 2023 and put him on any early National League Rookie of the Year lists to go along with mentioning him in any conversation about future Gold Glove Award winners.