It’s always cool as a fan to see someone from the area on the cusp of the big leagues. And I imagine it’s even better for the players getting to live out their dream.
This week’s profile is on Houston-area product and Space Cowboys outfielder Corey Julks, who was one of the Pacific Coast League’s hottest hitters in the month of May.
Julks is a Houston-area product through and through, born and raised in Friendswood where he attended Clear Brook High School before heading to the University of Houston. Three productive seasons with the Cougars, during which Julks hit .324 with a .905 OPS in 690 plate appearances, showed the Astros enough to draft the hometown product in the 8th round of the 2017 draft.
The 26-year-old outfielder has a .264/.346/.425 career line in five minor league seasons, which might not seem to pop off the page – but he’s got an .843 OPS since the start of last season, and has showed several signs of improvement. Houston’s No. 26 overall prospect has also been one of the PCL’s hottest hitters since May 1, with a .333/.378/.757 line and 12 homers in his last 27 games.
The Astros were partly drawn in by Julks’ plate discipline, and that has largely stayed true to that with a career 10 percent walk rate in pro ball, though it is a career-low 6.2 percent this season. And even if that holds, you don’t necessarily need to walk at a high rate to be successful, as proven by Jose Altuve’s career 7 percent rate. Plate and zone discipline is a little more than simply laying off pitches – it’s finding good pitches to hit and then doing damage, which raises our next point.
Julks never showed much power early on, with just 79 extra-base hits in 948 at bats from 2017-2019 and an Isolated Power figure never rising above .148. After the Astros sent him to an alternate training site in the midst of a slump with Double-A Corpus Christi last season, however, he made some swing adjustments that allowed him to tap into his power. Upon returning, Julks hit .297/.369/.545 with 12 homers over his last 49 games. He is currently hitting .270/.319/.541 with 13 homers in 48 games for Sugar Land so far this season.
Part of what’s happening is that Julks is simply hitting the ball in the air more. After never cracking 20 a 20 percent line drive rate in any of his first three pro seasons, Julks has rates of 27.3 percent and 24.3 percent the last two seasons – which is very much in line with the Astros’ (and MLB’s) trend of trying to get hitters to elevate the ball on a more regular basis.
But it’s not just about hitting in the air – it needs to be hit hard. And if recent evidence is any indication, Julks is doing just that. During a May 31 game against Albuquerque, four of his five batted balls were at least 99 MPH off the bat, with three of them topping 100 MPH – which could be a reason for the increased power numbers. The percentage of his fly balls that go for home runs has jumped to 28.9 percent, by far the highest of his pro career.
But before you say it’s a product of the hitter-friendly PCL, consider that seven of his 13 home runs and 13 of his 25 extra-base hits this season have come at home inside pitcher-friendly Constellation Field. So while the conditions do help in some cases, Julks’ power stroke appears to be very real.
The swing adjustments have given way to more strikeouts, as Julks’ 22.4 percent strikeout rate this year is the second-highest of his pro career. But it’s a manageable figure – and even Yordan Alvarez has some strikeout issues. That’s not to say Julks is another Alvarez, merely that it is possible in today’s game to be a productive hitter even with elevated strikeout rates. In fact, it appears to be a microcosm of a trend in the sport as a whole. So the Astros could have something here.
As good a problem it is for an organization to have a plethora of options at certain positions, the flip side is that it ultimately creates a logjam where players can get stuck wallowing in the minors simply because they’re blocked and have nowhere else to go. That is exactly the predicament Julks finds himself in as of this writing, as the Astros are extremely deep in the outfield with 10 of their top 30 prospects playing the position.
We already know that the Astros are committed to Kyle Tucker moving forward. And it certainly appears that one of Jake Meyers or Chas McCormick are going to get a shot as well – which really only leaves a roster spot or two available once Michael Brantley becomes a free agent. The general consensus from scouting reports and projections I’ve seen have Julks fitting best as a fourth outfielder type with solid power, defense, and speed. However, the Astros already have a proven defender – Jose Siri – in that role.
So I think this year’s trade deadline will say a lot about how the Astros view Julks as well as the aforementioned trio, as Julks appears to be the system’s most MLB-ready outfielder save for Pedro Leon. Fans saw a similar situation last season with outfielder Bryan De La Cruz, who was eventually traded to the Miami Marlins. If Julks does stick around and make an impact in Houston, it will most likely not be until 2023 at the earliest.
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