At this point last season when he was promoted to Triple-A, catcher Korey Lee was viewed as the Houston Astros’ top positional prospect.
While his prospect ranking has since taken a hit with the emergence of other prospects plus recent draftees ascending, I think the 24-year-old still has a completely viable road to becoming a part of the Astros’ roster next season.
I spent a little bit of time on Lee last season at the time of his promotion, but I think it’s worth taking a deeper dive into what has transpired since his initial promotion to the highest level of the minor leagues.
Lee exploded his senior year at the University of California, when he hit .337 with a 1.034 OPS. The breakout season led to the Astros selecting him in the first round of the 2019 draft with the 32nd overall pick. He would then go on to hit .268 with a .730 OPS with short season Tri-City in the New York Pennsylvania League.
Following a lost 2020 season, Lee would hit .277 with a .778 OPS across three levels in 2021 including a late-season stop in Sugar Land. He also threw out 43 percent (23 of 53) attempted base stealers. In his first full season at the Triple-A level this year, Lee is currently slashing .240/.308/.482 with 22 home runs and 70 RBIs for the Space Cowboys while throwing out 23 percent (13 of 57) base stealers.
The play earned him a brief call-up to the Astros earlier this season, where the organization’s seventh-ranked prospect hit .140 with four RBIs.
The one tool that scouts have always been extremely high on with Lee is the arm, which was given a 70 grade at its most recent mid-season evaluation earlier this year. Most teams use a grade scale from 20-80, with 20 being well below average and 80 being elite. Among the skills evaluated are in-game power, arm strength, speed and so forth.
And even though he has only thrown out 23 percent of attempted base stealers so far in 2022, I would advise you to take that figure with a grain of salt. That’s for one simple reason – though it most often gets laid directly at their feet, and sometimes should be, a stolen base is not always the fault of the man behind the plate. Pitchers could be slower than average in releasing the pitch towards home plate. Or the pitch in question on the stolen base attempt could be a bounced breaking ball, which gives the catcher little-to-no chance of throwing the runner out despite still getting dinged for it.
All that is to say that Lee still remains one of the premiere defensive players in the Astros’ system, which given his position, is an extremely valuable asset.
Scouting reports have graded Lee’s hit and power tools to be average and slightly above average with a 40 grade and 55 grade, respectively. And Lee has certainly flashed that power tool this season in Sugar Land, with 22 homers and 42 total extra-base hits so far this season in just 93 games and slugging .482.
However, the overall hit tool has appeared to lag behind last season’s performance. With the power increase has also come an increase in the swing and miss, with a 27.8 percent strikeout rate this season in Sugar Land, by far the highest of Lee’s pro career. During his brief time in Houston, he struck out nine times in just 26 plate appearances. So it’s a real issue.
One of the biggest reasons for the increase appears to be that Lee has become much more pull happy this season, with nearly 50 percent of his batted balls going to the pull side according to Fangraphs. Now, it’s not a death knell to favor the pull side, many hitters do so. No, what stands out is that it’s such a stark contrast to his first full pro season in 2021, during which it never rose above 45 percent at any stop. He’s gone the opposite way just 23.3 percent of the time this season, according to Fangraphs, the lowest rate of his pro career. And though he’s increased the power, he has decreased his overall contact rate and has looked hapless at times against breaking balls and off-speed pitches.
Now, I’m not saying he should go completely back to the approach he had prior, because the Astros have an organization-wide philosophy of pulling the ball hard in the air more often. But at the same time, Lee’s previous approach worked well, and he doesn’t necessarily need huge power to be a valuable asset. So in essence, I think there could be a happy medium between last season’s tendencies and this season’s tendencies.
The emergence of Yainer Diaz had eaten a little bit into Lee’s playing time with Sugar Land prior to Diaz’s promotion earlier this month as rosters expanded. However, overall I don’t think that is as much of a hindrance to a potential spot on the Astros’ roster next season. Lee remains the superior defensive catcher of the two, which the Astros and most teams have shown to highly covet when it comes to the catcher position. Not to mention, Diaz could also spend some time at first base - where he has made 48 career minor league starts - despite the potential re-signing of Trey Mancini in place of Yuli Gurriel, who becomes a free agent this offseason.
So regardless of what happens the rest of this season, I would still expect to see Lee in strong competition to be the backup to Martin Maldonado to begin the 2023 campaign unless the dynamic drastically changes.