Cavan Biggio: The Blue Jays’ most improved prospect

 

JFtC takes a deep dive into the numbers behind Blue Jays’ most improved prospect, Caavan Biggio

 

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Cavan Biggio will never forget the summer of 2018. Previously considered a prospect with limited big-league potential—he didn’t crack either FanGraphs’ or MLB Pipeline’s top Blue Jays prospect lists until after this season began—Biggio’s power, ability to take a walk and increasing defensive versatility have put him firmly in everyone’s sights. Having jumped from unranked in the pre-season to ninth on the Pipeline list and 14th on the FanGraphs list, Biggio seems like the most deserving pick for most improved prospect. [Kevin Smith is a close second. He jumped from 25th to sixth on the Pipeline list and unranked to 15th on the FanGraphs list.]

 

Biggio’s success this season has been well-covered, so let’s just quickly recap things. Biggio’s impressive overall production at the plate (152 wRC+, 98th percentile across AA among batters with 250+ PA) has been driven primarily by immense power (.261 ISO, 98th percentile) and lots of walks (18% walk rate, 100th percentile). An average ability to turn balls in play into base hits has also helped—his .314 BABIP puts him in the 56th percentile. On the other hand, his key weakness is striking out a lot—his 26.3% strikeout rate puts him in the 20th percentile.

 

Biggio has made two key changes to his plate approach this season: “First, he lowered his hands in his pre-pitch set-up to keep his bat in the strike zone longer, and second, he added a loading mechanism that allows him to consistently transfer his weight into his swing at the right time.” These changes have resulted in increases in his fly ball (50.3% from 43.7% last year in High-A) and pull rates (51.2% from 44.2%), which have propelled his power surge (.261 ISO from .130).

 

His power isn’t cheap, either. A worthwhile discussion point for any left-handed power hitter playing out of New Hampshire’s stadium is the short porch in right field. Biggio’s 26 homers rank second at the Double-A level this season. However, those numbers aren’t simply down to park factors. For one thing, he’s hit more homers away from home than in New Hampshire (14 vs. 12).

 

Moreover, he hits them far. Using my eye, only three of his homers seem to be the direct result of a short right-field porch. Deduct those and his 23 remaining homers would still rank fourth at the level (98th percentile). Let’s say we made Biggio (and no other Double-A power hitter) play in Kaufmann Stadium this past season (illustrated by the diamond below). He still would have hit 19 out of the park, good for 15th best at the level this season (93rd percentile).

 

 

As a bonus to that production at the plate, Biggio has displayed some solid base running—his speed score (6.2 Spd) ranks in the 77th percentile, while his weighted stolen base runs (0.2 wSB) is average—and both solidity and versatility on defence—he’s been an above-average defender at second and an average defender at third.

 

With the details of his season out of the way, the two key things I’d like to focus on are Biggio’s offensive consistency and the career paths of some comparable players. The latter is intended less as a method of precise projection and more as a way of using illustrative examples to show various paths forward for hitters like Biggio.

 

Consistently generating walks and power has helped Biggio produce throughout the 2018 season

For the season, Biggio has produced eye-popping marks in terms of BB%, ISO and wRC+. However, those overall marks do not speak to how consistently he has produced walks and extra base-hits.

 

Let’s start with his walk rate. Below, I’ve plotted his 15-game rolling average over the course of 2018. It’s ranged from a(n incredibly high) low of 11.1% to 28.6%. For perspective, I’ve included what would currently be a 75th percentile walk rate for Double-A (10.9%). Biggio hasn’t produced a 15-game stretch where his walk rate fell below that level.

 

 

While his power hasn’t been as consistent as his walk rate, Biggio has kept his power outages short and rare. Case in point: Biggio’s 15-game rolling ISO has been above the 75th percentile level for…75% of the season. Heck, it’s been above the 95th percentile level (.243 ISO) for just more than half of the season. While he wasn’t able to maintain his breathtaking early-season power (.371 ISO over his first 40 games), he has produced elite power to finish the season (.274 ISO over his last 40 games) and even maintained slightly above-average power in between (.151 ISO).

 

 

Given his strong walk rate and ISO throughout the season, it’s unsurprising that his overall production has remained pretty consistent as well. [I’ve used wOBA instead of wRC+ in the graph below, as a wRC+ rolling average requires data that I don’t have. In contrast, a wOBA rolling average can be calculated for minor leaguers using FanGraphs’ game logs.] Like his ISO, Biggio has been able to keep his 15-game rolling wOBA above the 75th percentile level (.357) for about three-quarters of the season. He’s managed to keep it above the .400 mark for about 60% of the season.

 

 

So, while Biggio absolutely experienced a downturn from early-June to early-July, his excellent showing since then (19.3% BB%, .282 ISO and 166 wRC+ since July 3rd) should dispel any concerns that his 2018 numbers are inflated by a hot start.

 

Batters comparable to Biggio have struggled to make the big leagues, with one big exception

For starters, it’s worth having a quick look at how Biggio’s stats fit into recent history. 634 players in their age-23 season have cracked 250 PA at the Double-A level. While Biggio’s struggles with strikeouts are exceptional (11th percentile), his walk rate (99th percentile) and ISO (97th percentile) are even more peerless. Combined with his average BABIP (52nd percentile), Biggio has produced a wRC+ matched by very few at his age/level (96th percentile).

 

In looking for comps for Biggio, my focus was on batters who were in their age-23 season, like Biggio—relatively young for the level, but not that young compared to most top prospects. Moreover, they should have a monster ISO and BB%, a much worse-than-average K% and a roughly average BABIP.

 

I’ll be focusing on players in the FanGraphs MiLB dataset, which goes back to 2006. There are many ways to find comps. I ended up using the approach I did because using Mahalanobis comps—a method of finding players similar to some specific player (Biggio, in this case) by adding together the relative difference between that player and many others across some set of statistics—led me to players who were usually very close to Biggio in three stats, but not very close in the fourth. For example, Biggio’s second-closest Mahalanobis comp was Paul Goldschmidt, who kept a tidy 20.1% strikeout as a 23 year old playing in Double-A. Carlos Santana (15.5% strikeout rate) was his ninth-closest comp. In both cases, a low Mahalanobis distance was the result of extreme similarity in three of the four stats.

 

The main takeaway I got from this exercise was that Cavan Biggio’s 2018 performance is very unique, with fewer clear comps than most players likely have. This uniqueness is the obvious result of such extreme walk and power numbers—from 2006 to 2017, not a single 23 year old at Double-A produced a higher walk rate and a higher ISO than Biggio did. Only one 24 year old (Kila Ka’aihue) and one 26 year old (David Cook) have managed to pull off the feat over the last twelve seasons.

 

Given the rarity of Biggio’s walk rate— only 20 of the 3,392 Double-A batters (of any age) who have cracked 250 PA in a season since 2006 can boast a walk rate better than his 18% mark—I opted to include any 23 year old Double-A batter (min. 250 PA) with a walk rate that was at least 10% (which includes batters with a walk rate above the 65th percentile). I set 24.3% as the threshold for one’s strikeout rate (15th percentile) and .208 as the threshold for ISO (90th percentile). Finally, I wanted to avoid batters with an extremely low or high BABIP, so I included those between .287 and .333 (25th and 75th percentiles). These are each very arbitrary, but fairly justifiable thresholds, that reflect my stated goal of finding players with “a monster ISO and BB%, a much worse-than-average K% and a roughly average BABIP.”

 

The result is a group of seven batters. While comparable with Biggio on a granular level, his overall production is meaningfully higher than each of them. One, Christin Stewart, had his age-23 season at Double-A in 2017, so we can set him aside. For what it’s worth, he is currently a 45 hit/55 power prospect (Pipeline) who is finishing up a solid first season at Triple-A.

 

 

Five of the remaining players weren’t able to make much of an impact at the MLB level. Cody Johnson, Koby Clemens and Mickey Hall each got a step away from the majors, but neither maintained their impressive power numbers nor get their strikeout problem under control. Dusty Ryan had a cup of coffee with the Tigers, but similarly saw his power tail off and his strikeout numbers worsen. Drew Robinson (still only 26 years old) is in the midst of his big league opportunity, but has also struggled with both keeping up his power and limiting the strikeouts.

 

These batters are illustrative of the pessimism that continues to surround Cavan Biggio. Batters like him have to accomplish a few different feats in order to translate their brand of Double-A success at the plate into the majors. They must maintain a great deal of their power, in spite of the increased pitching difficulty. Ditto for their walk rate. They also need to avoid allowing their BABIP to plummet. Most of all, they need to avoid any increases in their strikeout rate. Batters with a strikeout rate north of 25% and an average (or worse) BABIP only stick in the big leagues with exceptional power numbers—2018 examples include guys like Joey Gallo, Teoscar Hernandez and Kyle Schwarber.

 

The main source of optimism for Biggio is Matt Chapman. In 2016, as a 23 year old, Chapman lit up Double-A with an impressive amount of production at the plate (141 wRC+) powered by…well, power (.276 ISO). Like Biggio, he had a middling BABIP (.293), an above-average walk rate (11.7%) and an elevated strikeout rate (29.2%). In their first go at Double-A, both in their age-23 season, Biggio out-produced Chapman in terms of BB%, K% and BABIP. With an only slightly lower ISO, Biggio has been able to manage the superior wRC+ as well.

 

Following his 2016 performance, Chapman was given a 40 hit grade and 55 power grade by MLB Pipeline. Biggio currently boasts the same 55 power grade, but a 50 hit grade, perhaps a reflection of the higher BABIP and BB% marks he posted at a comparable age/level to Chapman.

 

After putting up similar numbers at Triple-A, Chapman was promoted to the big leagues in June of 2017. Thus far, Chapman’s MLB career has been a tale of two seasons. Importantly, even the lesser of the two (2017) represents a hopeful outcome for Biggio.

 

Last season, Chapman produced a BABIP, BB% and K% that were each very similar to his Double-A marks. While his ISO (.238) was down from Double-A, it was more than sufficient enough to power him to an above-average level of hitting production (108 wRC+). Blue Jays fans would be very happy with this kind of big league performance from Biggio.

 

This season, Chapman has established himself as one of baseball’s premier hitters. Among qualified batters, he ranks ninth in wRC+ (146). Key to his improvements over last season is getting his strikeout rate under control (22.9% from 28.2%) and producing a higher BABIP (.338 from .290). Given his massively improved xBABIP (.334 from .285), it’s safe to assume that his BABIP gains are real. This kind of performance represents something like a best-case scenario for Biggio.

 

Ultimately, only time will tell how Biggio fares in the majors. No amount of statistical analysis or scouting evaluations can predict that with any certainty. There were two main points I wanted to make here. One, Biggio has produced fairly consistently this year. His first five weeks were certainly his best, but he’s performed well throughout.

 

Two, while it is fair to be cautious about the long-term potential of a prospect who strikes out as much as Biggio does, there are clear reasons for optimism. He is finishing one of the best seasons in recent history by a 23 year old Double-A batter, with his 152 wRC+ ranking in the 96th percentile. Moreover, Matt Chapman performed similarly to (but slightly worse than) Biggio at the same age/level and has produced one good and one excellent big league season in the two years since.

 

After conquering Double-A, Biggio is destined to start 2019 at AAA Buffalo, where he will look to build on his gains from 2018. I’m excited to see him face the heightened challenge and get closer to his goal of playing in the big leagues.

 

 

 

 

*Featured Image via C Stem- JFtC

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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.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

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.