The last couple of weeks, we’ve spotlighted some of the more prominent prospects in the Houston Astros’ organization. But what has made this organization so great since the start of its contention window in 2015 is finding diamonds in the rough to help its cause. Key contributors such as Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia, among others, were not known outside this organization the last few years, and they could have another on the horizon.
Guys like this are my favorite to profile, because I love putting the spotlight on those who might fly under the radar. So let’s get into this week’s analysis of Sugar Land Space Cowboys utility infielder David Hensley.
If you haven’t heard of Hensley, you probably wouldn’t be alone, as he was not a much-heralded prospect with some insane pedigree. The Astros drafted Hensley in the 26th round of the 2018 draft out of San Diego State, after a solid four-year career with the Aztecs. After a middling first couple of seasons, Hensley hit .357/.410/.486 his junior season and .317/.386/.421 his senior season to catch the eye of scouts.
Since making his pro debut in the Astros’ farm system, the 26-year-old has hit .266/.346/.399 in four minor league seasons, but has made marked improvement at each of his last three stops. After ending the 2019 season by hitting .327 with an .826 OPS in 28 games with High-A Fayetteville and a lost 2020 season due to COVID-19, he posted a .293 batting average with an .808 OPS at Double-A Corpus Christi last season.
This season in Sugar Land, Hensley has hit .291 with an .851 OPS in 44 games, and is showcasing several areas of improvement that has me thinking he can make some noise at the MLB level in fairly short order.
To get this out of the way, Hensley isn’t flashy – but for those who know me or have read this column before, it likely is not a surprise that I choose to spotlight someone whose contributions I feel might be underappreciated by the public at large. And there are several things to love about Hensley as we examine his breakout season to this point.
One of the first things that jumps out to me is the walk rate, which is a good first indicator as to a hitter’s plate discipline and ability – because you can’t have any sustained success without getting yourself good pitches to hit. And so far this season, Hensley’s 16.2 percent walk rate leads the Space Cowboys’ regulars. His discipline has long been a strength, with a career walk rate hovering around 10 percent entering the year, but he’s taken it to a new level this season.
Building from that, he’s hitting for more power this year than ever before. His Isolated Power – the difference between his batting average and slugging percentage – is .152, so far besting last year’s mark of .146. Now, that could potentially be due to Triple-A West’s launching pad of ballparks, as all three homers and 12 of his 15 extra-base hits have been on the road. Conversely, Constellation Field is where I have personally seen fly balls go to die, so it’s possible the games there could be simultaneously depressing his power a bit.
So let’s take a look at the batted ball rates, which can be a better indicator than raw results. Hensley’s ground ball rate is a bit worrisome at 53.4 percent, which could be problematic in MLB with the more consistent fielders. However, his 26.2 percent line drive rate this season is the highest mark of his pro career so far, so it looks as though he’s making a concerted effort to drive the ball more. Without publicly available batted ball data it’s hard to examine beyond that, but there are signs of marked improvement.
And here’s the thing – Hensley doesn’t have to be an amazing hitter to be a valuable asset to the Astros’ championship aspirations. Save for one season, former utilityman Marwin Gonzalez was never phenomenal, and it’s been the same story with Aledmys Diaz the last several seasons. Neither of them have been flashy, but made themselves valuable to the team in other ways such as positional flexibility, and both were or continue to be key cogs in the machine – which brings us to our last point.
During his time in the Astros organization, Hensley has made starts at five different positions. He has made at least 60 starts and played at least 500 innings at all four infield positions. And this is not a new revelation, either – he played seven different positions in four years of college ball at SDSU, including at least 20 starts at five different spots over the course of his career.
People rarely notice them, but every team needs someone like Gonzalez, Diaz and now potentially Hensley to spell the regulars throughout the course of a 162-game season so they're at full strength come playoff time. You don’t win championships without those guys, and Hensley could be next in line.
One thing I feel fairly certain about is that Hensley will make an impact for the Astros sooner rather than later. However, exactly when that happens is a little fuzzy. His ability to play multiple positions is an obvious boon to his chances as the Astros have shown time and again that the organization values positional flexibility. He could possibly get the call this season, though the presence of Diaz on the roster muddies the waters a bit.
However, Diaz becomes a free agent this offseason, and after that, the Astros will most definitely be in the market for a new utility infielder – and where better to look than internally? Especially if they want to potentially extend the contracts of players like Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker in the future, it’s best to start saving money now where you can.
So even if he does not get the call this season, I think Hensley could easily break Spring Training with the Astros next year and get the playing time he has so rightfully earned.
Is there a Space Cowboys player in particular you would like us to write about? Feel free to shoot me a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @LandanKuhlmann.