A deep dive into the potential of Blue Jays prospect Ryan Noda

 

JFtC looks into the rather hefty numbers Blue Jays prospect, Ryan Noda has put up

 

 

 

 

Ryan Noda is one the most interesting prospects in the Blue Jays system. A 15th round draft pick in 2017 as a college senior, Noda has spent two seasons in the Blue Jays system. In both seasons—2017 with Advanced Rookie-level Bluefield and 2018 with Class A Lansing—Noda has stood out with his eye-popping hitting numbers.

 

In 2017, he posted the highest wRC+ (190) among all minor leaguers with 200+ plate appearances. While he fell to (a still-amazing) 38th in wRC+ (160) this past season, he was the only minor leaguer (min. 300 PA) to post a walk rate above 20%, an ISO above .200 and a BABIP above .300. The kid can hit.

 

The seeds of doubt

So, why isn’t he skyrocketing up top prospect lists? Well, he strikes out a bit more often than most, is a little old for his level and primarily plays first base, the lowest rung of the positional ladder. Nevertheless, I think there are good reasons to think that Noda has a shot of overcoming these issues and getting to the big leagues.

 

Let’s start by examining Noda’s high strikeout rate. Last season, at Class A, he struck out in 25.6% of his plate appearances. That actually sounds worse than it is, thanks to the rising strikeout rate at the level in recent seasons. From 2006 to 2015, the average strikeout rate at Class A hovered tightly around 20%, ranging only from 19.3% to 20.4%. It has increased each of the three seasons since, reaching 22.9% in 2018.

 

With more and more strikeouts at the level, Noda’s 2018 mark stands out less and less. From 2006 to 2015, a 25.6% strikeout rate would have ranked him anywhere from the 13th to the 21st percentile (among batters with 300+ PA). In 2016 and 2017, the mark would have put him in the 25th and 28th percentiles. But, in 2018, that mark ranks in the 37th percentile, a lot closer to “below-average” than to “very problematic”.

 

Here’s some more context. Since 2006, 779 batters have accumulated at least 300 PA at the Class A level in their age-22 season. Noda’s strikeout rate ranks in the 18th percentile among this group. However, when each batter’s strikeout rate is season-adjusted, Noda rises up to the 37th percentile (it is a coincidence that this ranking, like his rank among 2018 batters of any age, is also in the 37th percentile).

 

Clearly, his strikeout rate is higher than most, no matter how you look at it. However, it’s not that far out of line from current norms.

 

Another issue that could hold Noda back from getting to the majors is his defensive value. In 2018, he spent time at three positions—first base (515.2 innings), left field (241) and right field (211). In terms of FanGraphs positional adjustment, these are the three defensive positions with negative run value adjustments.

 

On the other hand, he seems quite competent at each of these three positions. Clay Davenport, my go-to source for MiLB defensive data, has him generating five fielding runs above average (FRAA) over the 106 games he has played as a 1B in the minors. Over a smaller sample, Noda has produced average-or-better marks at both corner outfield spots, as well. Prospects Live, an evaluator site that had Noda at #30 on their recently-published Jays top prospect list, noted that “he is a better athlete than he gets credit for and should be able to stick at a corner-outfield spot.” This will be very important a bit later on in this post.

 

The last key factor limiting optimism about Noda’s future is his age. Typically, promising prospects have risen further up the MiLB ladder than Class A by the end of their age-22 season. For example, there are 520 position player prospects on FanGraphs’ THE BOARD (final 2018 update). Only 163 of these are as old as Ryan Noda (about 22.6 years old). Of these, only 21 remain three seasons away from the majors (ETA of 2021 or 2022), including Noda. None of these prospects had future values of 50 (or higher).

 

Given these concerns about his age and level, I think there are two main things worth highlighting: the degree to which he stands out among age-22 batters at Class A and some comps that show that an MLB future is still very possible.

 

Noda is one of the very best age-22 batters in recent Class A history

As mentioned earlier, there have been 779 batters who cracked 300 PA at the Class A level in their age-22 season since 2006. The one knock on Noda’s hitting is that his strikeout rate (25.6%) was nine percent worse than average for his level last season. Noda’s season-adjusted K rate ranks in the 37th percentile among this group.

 

On the other hand, his ability to take a walk and hit for power are (relatively) extraordinary. His walk rate (20.7%) was more than double the league average in 2018, putting his season-adjusted BB rate in the 99th percentile among players his age at his level. His ISO (.228) was 74% higher than the league average last season. On a seasonally-adjusted basis, his ISO ranks in the 97th percentile among this group.

 

Noda also showed solid contact skills, producing a BABIP (.328) that was 5% above average. His season-adjusted BABIP ranked in the 70th percentile among age-22 batters at Class A. Overall, Noda created 60% more offensive production than average in 2018 (160 wRC+), a 99th percentile mark. This kid can hit. While he strikes out more than most, that issue pales in comparison to his strengths (incredible walk rate, serous power and solid contact skills).

 

Finding Noda some player comps

So, while he’s a bit old for his level, he’s also one of the best age-22 batters the Class A level has seen over the last 13 seasons. The question, then, is: how have batters who hit as well as he did at his age/level progressed in subsequent seasons?

 

When using player comps in an analysis, I find that the best approach is not to overstate their value—comps are a useful illustration that can complement other forms of analysis, but they must not be confused for projections. It’s also important to be clear about your methodology, as there are many ways to go about finding comps. In Noda’s case, I’m simply interested to see if any players who performed like he did as an age-22 batter at Class A ended up bucking the conventional wisdom and making it to the big leagues.

 

In order to find a group of comparable players, I used the following criteria:

Batters whose walk rate was at least 50% above their season’s average

Noda stood out very positively in terms of his BB%, producing a mark 126% greater than average. In order to ensure that I didn’t disqualify virtually ever batter in the sample, I set the threshold a bit lower than Noda’s mark, but still quite high.

Batters whose strikeout rate was worse-than-average, but by no more than 20%

Noda’s K% was nine percent higher than the 2018 average—poor, but not terrible. As such, I wanted to focus on batters who also struck out a bit too often, but weren’t among their season’s worst.

Batters whose isolated power was at least 50% above their season’s average

Like his BB%, Noda’s ISO was among the level’s best in 2018. As such, I used the same threshold.

Batters whose batting average on balls in play was better-than-average, but by no more than 10%

Noda produced a BABIP that was 5% greater than the 2018 average—good, not great. As such, I focused on batters who were also slightly better-than-average, in terms of BABIP.

 

These criteria shrunk our sample from 779 batters to four: Ryan Noda, Jon Still, Sergio Pedroza and Khris Davis. There are pros and cons to using the criteria I did. The main con is that the resulting group only includes three comps. If I had used Mahalanobis comps, I could have made the list as long as I wanted. On the other hand, the main pro of this approach is that each comp had a pretty similar season to Noda across each of the four key dimensions. If I loosen the criteria a bit, the extra comps that result would be different from Noda in some meaningful way(s).

 

Khris Davis is the one name you’ve heard of from this group. Jays fans would be very, very happy if Noda’s career arc replicated Davis’ (11.4 fWAR in his first 5.5 MLB seasons). He was a seventh round pick in 2009, after his junior year in college—for an apples to apples comparison, Davis was drafted at 21 years and six months old, while Noda was drafted at 21 years and two months old.

 

Noda was started out a little more aggressively, spending his first pro season at the Advanced Rookie level. In contrast, Davis spent his debut season in the less-competitive Arizona Summer League, equivalent to the Gulf Coast League that fledgling Blue Jay prospects might play in. Both spent their entire age-22 season at the Class A level, producing similarly impressive performances—Davis produced a 13.9% BB rate, a 21.6% K rate, a .219 ISO, a .332 BABIP and a 148 wRC+.

 

For Davis, what followed was a path that Noda will be eager to reproduce. Davis started his age-23 season at High-A, where he struck out less often than he did the year before (18.9% K rate), propelling him to an even higher level of production (163 wRC+). That led to a promotion to Double-A in July, where he struggled in his first taste of the upper-minors (61 wRC+ over 136 PA).

 

Davis started his age-24 season back at Double-A, taking to it much, much better the second time around (218 wRC+ over 154 PA). Once again, he was promoted in July, this time to Triple-A. Unlike his first taste of Double-A, Davis took to Triple-A immediately (141 wRC+ over 140 PA). He then started his age-25 season at the same level, producing well enough (115 wRC+ over 281 PA) to earn a promotion to the MLB.

 

Davis hasn’t looked back, producing a 125 wRC+ across 5.5 big league seasons, the 37th best qualified mark in the majors over that time. What’s changed for him relative to his age-22 season at Class A? As you’d expect, as a major leaguer, he walks less often (8.5%), strikes out more often (26.6%) and doesn’t turn balls in play into base hits as often (.276 BABIP). However, he has maintained his power well—while he produced an ISO that was 58% better-than-average at Class A, his ISO has been 76% above-average as a major leaguer.

 

Jon Still outperformed Davis in each of the four key metrics during his age-22 season at the Class A level. A catcher, Still spent his MiLB career in the Red Sox system after being picked in the fourth round of the 2006 draft. After his strong performance at Class A, Still was promoted to High-A in August. He succeeded at the plate at this level too, posting a 136 wRC+ in August 2007 and a 124 wRC+ in 2008. Promoted to Double-A for his age-24 season, he posted a 97 wRC+ (565 PA).

 

And then, his baseball career was finished. For Still, the main issue appeared to be his fielding. While playing in Class A, Still produced -14 FRAA in only 38 games behind the plate. The next season, at High-A, he produced -13 FRAA in 66 games as a catcher. After his promotion to Double-A, he was moved to first base and continued to struggle, posting -8 FRAA in 45 games. He’s now an attorney, so I would imagine that his ability to earn a good income outside of baseball played a role in ending his playing career.

 

The third and final member of the group is Sergio Pedroza. Drafted in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Dodgers, Pedroza primarily played in the outfield corners. After his strong performance at Class A, Pedroza was promoted to High-A. However, he was soon traded to the Devil Rays. With the Devil Rays’ High-A affiliate, Pedroza produced very well at the end of his age-22 season (160 wRC+ over 124 PA).

 

He spent all of his age-23 season at High-A, again producing very well (148 wRC+ over 465 PA). He spent the entirety of his age-24 season at Double-A, where a sudden decrease in his power (.101 ISO) resulted in a sharp decrease in his offensive production (90 wRC+ over 342 PA). Released by the Rays, Pedroza spent two seasons producing 1.000+ OPS in Independent ball, before a failed comeback attempt with the Marlins in 2011-12.

 

Like Still, Pedroza’s biggest issue was his fielding. During his two great hitting seasons at Class A and High-A, he produced -22 FRAA over 158 games in the outfield corners. Hoping to keep his bat in the lineup, the Rays unsuccessfully tried to convert him into a catcher (-12 FRAA in only 12 games).

 

So far, Noda looks a lot more like Davis than Still or Pedroza

Davis, Still and Pedroza each produced incredible offensive performances in their age-22 season at Class A, with the latter two actually outdoing the eventual major leaguer. However, Davis was the only one of the bunch to avoid being a massive defensive liability, which helped him stay on the field and progress through the levels and into the majors. While Davis was a league-average left fielder (1 FRAA over 86 games in his age-22 season at Class A), Still (-15 FRAA over 46 games between catcher and first base) and Pedroza (-14 FRAA over 87 games at RF) each struggled immensely as fielders.

 

In contrast, while he wouldn’t be confused with a super-utility player, Noda has played first base and the outfield corners at a league-average level. Not being a defensive liability has helped him make over 800 plate appearances in the fifteen months after he was drafted.

 

Based on his performance thus far, there are good reasons to be hopeful about Noda’s future. Offensively, he has produced at an extremely high level in the lower minors, while also performing ably in the field. He even managed to steal 14 bases on 18 attempts (77.7%) last season.

 

Sure, his strikeout rate is high, but that’s an acceptable price for otherwise strong offensive production in the modern game. And, sure, he was a bit old for Class A, but there are a number of current MLB regulars that were at the Class A level in their age-22 season, including late bloomers like J.D. Martinez, Aaron Judge and Justin Turner.

 

2019 will be an important year for Ryan Noda. He has dominated Class A and is in line for a promotion to High-A Dunedin, where he will go up against better pitchers than he’s faced thus far. If he can keep walking a lot more often than most (if not more than the double the league average), keep his strikeout rate at just a little worse-than-average (if not average-or-better) and keep impacting the ball as well as he has, a future as a major leaguer will remain a possibility.

 

 

 

 

Featured Image Provided By C Stem- JFtC

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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.