Jays From the Couch take a look at two intriguing Blue Jays prospects making their way with the Lansing Lugnuts.
The other day, the Lansing Lugnuts’ Twitter account posted a video of Chavez Young teaching Chad Spanberger how to celebrate a triple. After hitting his first triple with the Lugnuts on July 30th, Spanberger—Young’s new teammate following the Seung Hwan Oh deal with the Rockies—was a little too stoic for Young’s liking. Ever a supportive teammate, Young showed off his standard triple celebration, as well as those of a few other Lugnuts.
While Young and Spanberger are very different prospects—the former a toolsy outfielder in his age-20 season and the latter a big, tall, power-hitting first baseman in his age-22 season—they have both been quietly tearing up the Low-A level this season and represent intriguing potential in a deep Jays system. Importantly, as I’ll discuss in this post, it’s not just that they’re succeeding at Low-A, it’s that they are producing in terms of the stats that are most predictive of big-league success: strikeout rate (K%), isolated power (ISO) and batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
While Spanberger is new to the Jays system, Young has been viewed as an under-the-radar Jays prospect since his solid season at Rookie-ball last summer. JftC’s own Roy-Z has been talking up Young for at least a year now, while Future Blue Jays highlighted him as a potential breakout prospect this past winter.
Spanberger and Young compare very well to other Low-A batters this season
Let’s start with the topline numbers. Young, who’s spent the entire season with the Lugnuts, has produced a .288/.356/.437 slashline, good for a 128 wRC+ that ranks in the 83rd percentile among the 216 batters with 250+ PA at Low-A this season. Spanberger’s Low-A season has been split between the Ashville Tourists in the South Atlantic League (380 PA) and the Lugnuts in the Midwest League (30 PA). He’s produced a .316/.361/.573 slashline, good for a 159 wRC+ that ranks second-best at the level this season.
Research by Chris Mitchell (formerly of FanGraphs) found that, at the Low-A level, a batter’s K%, ISO, BABIP and age are most predictive of big-league success. Above Low-A, walk rate (BB%) becomes useful too. However, up to Low-A, there are enough pitchers with command issues that one can produce a giant walk rate by just not swinging the bat.
Beyond their strong wRC+, which indicates a high level of overall production, Young and Spanberger stand out in terms of K%, ISO and BABIP. Both have a better-than-average strikeout rate, with Young’s ranking in the 66th percentile and Spanberger’s ranking in the 62nd percentile. Spanberger generates tons of power (99th percentile), while Young has above-average pop of his own (63rd percentile). Both run a well above-average BABIP, with Young’s ranking in the 86th percentile and Spanberger’s ranking in the 80th percentile. While Spanberger is slightly older than the average Low-A player—53% of qualified batters are in their age-18 to age-21 season—Young is amongst the youngest, with only 17% of qualified batters in their age-18 or age-19 season.
In order to grade all Low-A batters in terms of their K%, ISO, BABIP and age, I opted to use a statistical technique known as z-scores. Z-scores are a way of taking a few different stats, converting them into standardized scores and then adding those scores together into a single overall score.
Among the 216 batters with 250+ PA at Low-A this season, Spanberger (eighth) and Young (14th) rank among the league leaders in this overall z-score. As described earlier, each has produced better-than-average marks in terms of all three key stats, captured in the table below by positive z-scores. While Young’s youth gives him a positive z-score for age, Spanberger’s relatively advanced age for the level knocks him back a touch—if we left out age and focused only on K%, ISO and BABIP, Spanberger’s overall z-score would rank third.
This specific methodology hasn’t been tested for its predictiveness, so take it with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, the methodology does suggest that, overall, these two Lugnuts rate well in terms of the stats that have been found to be highly predictive of big-league success.
A basic test of the methodology is whether it does better than a stat like wRC+ in focusing on well-rated prospects. Twelve of the prospects in the list above have received a 40 FV grade or better from FanGraphs, including Spanberger—three received 50 FV grades, one received a 55 and another received a 60. In comparison, only seven of the Top 15 in terms of wRC+ have 40 FV grades or better—two received 50 FV grades, while one received a 55—as that list includes players who are either a bit too old for the level or are over-reliant on walks.
Out of curiosity, I extended this test from just the Top 15 to the Top 100 in wRC+ and z-score sum. The Top 100 in z-score sum included 41 prospects rated 40 FV or better. The Top 100 in wRC+ included only 30 such prospects. This methodology is worth examining further.
Dealing with Asheville’s 297-foot right field fence
One important caveat comes to mind with respect to Spanberger: Asheville’s homer-friendly ballpark. A 2016 analysis of MiLB ballparks found McCormick Field to be the second-most homer-friendly park at the level. An even simpler piece of supporting evidence is Spanberger’s own home/away splits prior to his trade—he posted a .324 ISO at home and a .209 ISO away.
On the one hand, this could be an issue, as much of what makes Spanberger stand out is the power he’s shown this season. On the other hand, he has posted a .218 ISO away from home this season (playing for Asheville and Lansing), which is still quite solid. If that were his actual ISO, his power would still rank in the 94th percentile for Low-A.
For curiosity’s sake, let’s pretend that Spanberger’s overall ISO this season was .218. His ISO z-score would fall from 2.42 to 1.67, lowering his overall z-score from 3.08 to 2.32. In this case, while he’d fall from his current Top 10 ranking, he’d still have the 20th-highest overall z-score among qualified Low-A batters (91st percentile). Less impressive, sure, but still quite impressive.
They’ve both had strong seasons from a historical perspective
Spanberger and Young also stand out when compared to past Low-A batters of the same ages. From 2006 to 2017, 903 players saw at least 250 PA in their age-22 season at Low-A. Spanberger’s 2018 wRC+ would rank in the 96th percentile of that group. In terms of an overall z-score for K%, ISO and BABIP, Spanberger would rank in the 97th percentile among this group. [Replacing his actual ISO with his .218 away ISO would still leave him ranked in the 94th percentile.]
In Young’s case, the age comp requires a little explanation. He was born on July 8th, 1997 and one’s “baseball age” is whatever your age is on July 1st. So, while Young is in his age-20 season, he is one of the oldest prospects in this age group. Fortunately, regardless which age group he is compared to, Young comes out looking good.
From 2006 to 2017, 571 players cracked 250 PA in their age-20 season at Low-A. Young’s 2018 wRC+ would rank in the 82nd percentile among that group, while his K%/ISO/BABIP z-score would rank in the 88th percentile. In the same time frame, 600 players cracked the same PA threshold in their age-21 season at Low-A. Young’s current wRC+ would rank in the 80th percentile of this group, while his K%/ISO/BABIP z-score would rank in the 86th percentile.
They’ve both displayed very good base running skills
Shifting away from their skills at the plate, there are other positive things to note about these two teammates. While base running data is limited at the minors, FanGraphs still publishes Bill James‘ speed score (Spd), defined as “an average of Stolen Base Percentage, Frequency of Stolen Base Attempts, Percentage of Triples, and Runs Scored Percentage.” It’s a bit outdated now that we have Ultimate Base Running (UBR) for the majors, but it remains useful when examining minor-leaguers.
Among our original group of 216 players with 250+ PA at Low-A this season, Young ranks ninth with a speed score of 8.1. He attempts to steal often (38 times in 2018) and has been successful 71% of the time. Moreover, he’s hit seven triples and has scored 67 runs.
Arguably more impressive, relatively speaking, is the fact that the six foot-three, 235 pound Spanberger is posting a 7.0 speed score, which is tied for 24th at the level. Among first basemen, his speed score is tied for the lead. He has sneaky base-stealing skills, attempting 21 steals and succeeding 81% of the time. He’s hit four triples and has scored 68 runs.
Defensively, Spanberger has been decent, while Young has been phenomenal
Like base running data, fielding data is much less abundant at the minors than at the majors. Fortunately, Clay Davenport (co-founder of Baseball Prospectus) maintains a massive and publicly-available database that includes a fielding statistic. FanGraphs grades Spanberger’s field tool as a little bit below average (40 current/45 future). At this point in the season, he’s played 76 games at first base and has been worth one defensive run below average, which jibes well with his evaluations.
I wasn’t able to find any public grades of Young’s fielding skills, but he generally gets rave reviews. For instance, this past winter, Future Blue Jays noted that “Young has solid athleticism, outstanding range in CF, [and] a plus arm”. In a mid-season update, John Sickels from MinorLeagueBall.com said Young was “very good with the glove in center field”. This has been borne out in his performances in centre field this season. He has seen 44 games there and has generated 13 defensive runs above average, the second-best mark in the Midwest League.
Symbols of the system’s depth
These two young men have shown a great deal of talent this season, improving perceptions of their big-league potential. Young has displayed strength in all aspects of his game, striking out less often than most, producing high rates of base hits and extra-base hits, running very well and fielding a premium position with ease. Spanberger’s calling card is his power, but he’s also shown solid plate discipline and contact skills, runs as well as any big man and plays an average first base.
As the 2018 season winds down, there are a few things to focus on when examining their performances. With 25 games left in the season, Young will probably see his sample size of games at CF increase quite a bit, relatively speaking (he’s only played 44 games there at the Low-A level), so it’s important for him to build on his excellent defensive performances thus far. For Spanberger, a dip in his power numbers is to be expected, as Lansing’s ballpark is fairly homer neutral. However, maintaining his ISO well above .200 would go a long way to confirming that his power is legit.
My last post highlighted the quality of the Jays system, with its blend of high-level talent and depth. I think this post, indirectly at least, further highlights that system depth. These are both prospects that one can see making it to the big-leagues, yet each faces a great deal of internal competition, a fundamental part of any strong farm system.
*Featured Image Credit: W. Black
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.