For months, it’s seemed, the drumbeat for Vinnie Pasquantino’s promotion has been growing louder, rising in line with his .905 April OPS and his 1.197 May OPS. Finally, on Monday, the Royals traded veteran first baseman Carlos Santana to Seattle. Pasquantino, MLB Pipeline's No. 3 Royals prospect, received his long-overdue promotion.
It's not exactly difficult to understand why. Pasquantino hit .280/.372/.576 for Triple-A Omaha, crushing 18 homers (the third-most in Triple-A and by far the most in the Royals organization). He won the International League Player of the Month Award for May, and only three Triple-A players 25 or younger had an OPS higher than his .948. At the same time, the last-place Royals have struggled to hit; only three teams in the bigs have scored fewer runs. Their first base/DH combination owns baseball’s fourth-weakest slugging percentage. If you knew nothing more than this, you’d get why Kansas City fans were angsting for change.
As impressively, perhaps, he’s walked 37 times, while striking out 36 times. He’s one of just five hitters (minimum 150 at-bats) in Triple-A who have struck out less than they’ve walked, and none of the other four are slugging .500. Two of them aren’t even slugging .400. It’s a rare combination of plate command and power.
That, then, all makes sense enough. But it’s obviously not this season’s line that caught our eye before the 2022 campaign even began. It’s last season’s. We’re going to have to explain.
Take a brief journey with us, back to 2019. Just before Opening Day, the Yankees acquired little-known fourth outfielder Mike Tauchman from the Rockies in a deal few noticed. He then enjoyed a breakout .277/.361/.504 season that made everyone wonder what the Yankees had seen that Colorado did not.
Building off an impressive FanGraphs study that had identified Tauchman as a potential breakout candidate prior to his trade to New York, we tried to spin it forward and adapt a similar look to find 2020’s breakout candidates, focusing on players under 30 who had slugged at least .500 and had a walk rate of at least 80% of their strikeout rate, in at least 400 plate appearances in the high Minors, ideally those who weren't top prospects you knew already. Basically: what young players showed they could hit for power and command the strike zone?
As we explained at the time, only 11 players had done that in the previous decade. Almost all the ones who stayed healthy became productive big leaguers (Paul Goldschmidt, Mookie Betts, Rhys Hoskins, and Max Kepler among them), and the ones who didn't make it were mostly sidetracked by serious injuries.
For 2020, we pegged four under-the-radar names: Connor Joe, a well-traveled outfielder who just posted a 35-game on-base streak for the Rockies; Josh Rojas, who has been a league-average bat for Arizona the last two years; Trent Grisham, who did have a breakout 2020 and has been San Diego’s center fielder since; and Nate Lowe, who has a 122 OPS+ for Texas this year.
If not All Stars, all have found some amount of success in the Majors, and that’s what we’re looking for: some amount of success.
Emboldened by this junk stat that broke all the rules of not scouting the Minor League stat line, and realizing that the canceled 2020 season meant that we hadn’t looked back into this in several years, earlier this spring, we checked to see if anyone had qualified in 2021, this time allowing for the top three levels of the Minors.
Only two players did. One was Adley Rutschman, 2019’s top overall pick, and baseball’s consensus top prospect -- which, it should be noted, disqualifies him from the “under-the-radar” aspect of this.
The other was Vinnie Pasquantino.
Last year, Pasquantino showed an elite command of the strike zone, walking and whiffing an even 64 times, the fifth-best ratio in the affiliated Minors. He slugged .563, 12th-best. He did both of those things at the same time. He's doing it again this year. That .576 slugging is seventh-best in Triple-A, and third-best for players 25 and younger. As we noted, he’s walking as much as he whiffs.
Absolutely none of this guarantees success at the highest level, to be clear. Pasquantino is unlikely to add terribly much value on the bases or on defense, meaning he absolutely has to hit to survive, and facing the highest levels of pitching in Kauffman Stadium is a whole lot different from facing Columbus’ Adam Scott in Omaha, as he did in his final Triple-A plate appearance on Sunday. (He walked, of course.)
But for a Royals fanbase that has suffered through a year that has seemed to have the club further from contention, not closer, having a young player to dream on is about the best you can hope for right now. Pasquantino, at least from a statistical profile sort of way, is checking the right boxes. He had little left to prove at Triple-A. He's finally getting the chance to prove it in the Majors, now. It's time for the Italian Nightmare.